I was noticing the cheap jabs the folks at Crooked Timber have been taking at gimmicky, over-modest (or, alternately, un-modest), irrelevant histories that forsake archival research for theory. Or whatever. The problem (as I read it) seems to be that young historians are “getting away with” empirically underwhelming work and padding their books with faddish theoretical trends. Or whatever. Oh, and their book titles are predictable. Or whatever.
It’s hard to argue with this sort of piece, considering that no one is naming names, but considering the realities of [and the epistemological PROBLEMS involved with] working in the archives, I think that theory is good for us as a profession.
I’ve been working on backing up this statement for a week now but it’s FINALS. So we’ll all have to wait. Anyway.
This post at Early Modern Notes discusses researchers’ tendencies to compare archival war stories. I’m reminded of Carolyn Steedman’s Dust, where she talks about “archive fever” as a pathogen, the process of being cramped and frustrated and surrounded by decaying old stuff. My favorite part is when she talks about how so often, there isn’t anything, really, in the archives. Manuscript repositories are a crapshoot; nineteenth-century archives are foreign and weird. Twentieth-century archives are filled with irrelevant records, built on models that mirror the structures of the corporate bodies that they document — bureaucratic, top-heavy. The thing that strikes me about twentieth-century archives is how difficult it can be to find the document that explains WHY any body made the decision it did — there is, rather, too much of the how and when and where.
So, if historians are interested in these why questions, we often have to resort to “theory,” that is, ways of thinking about how agency is encoded in larger patterns and trends, why decisions become inevitable and natural, and how to think about contingency when the archives don’t provide dissenting voices.
Short version: archives are boring, thinking is awesome.
Or! We complain about working in the archives because working in the archives often sucks.