the unmasterable pastSwimming harder, and getting farther out to sea.
I'm studying history, and realizing -- a little more every day -- just how many serious gaps there are in my knowledge. And I'm seeing how badly these gaps impair my ability to understand the history that I'm studying. The problem is that I don't think the problem can be solved by studying more of whatever it is that I'm most directly studying; the problem of understanding American foreign policy, for example, can't just be answered by reading a big pile of books about American foreign policy, which I tend to think is the standard approach.
To understand nineteenth-century U.S. foreign policy, I would think that it would be necessary to understand the stories that nineteenth-century foreign policymakers told themselves about their world. Those stories came from the Bible, from ancient history, from the Italian Renaissance, from the Scottish Enlightenment, from English legal and political tradition, from the emerging social sciences...
Well, I mean, come on. (Economic theory! Forgot to include economic theory.)
And I haven't even started to talk about the problem of the other part of foreign policy: the history of the people on the other end. Can a British historian understand the Opium Wars without understanding Chinese history? Can an Americanist understand the War of 1898 without knowing the histories of Spain, Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines? Can we understand American chattel slavery without understanding African politics, culture, and economy (or European legacies of servitude)?
And then there's the theory problem -- and let's just go ahead and acknowledge this still-unread list of books on subaltern theory still sitting on my desk. One day I will read these fucking books, excuse my language. (And then onto the equally baffling world systems theory.)
So how do we ever get there? Does everyone else have a deep understanding of all this, and the joke's on me? Why do I feel like I know less and less as I study more and more? Is there a point at which I'll begin to catch up? J.G.A. Pocock aside, does anyone claim to know it all? (Can we find that person and yell rude things at him?)
It does seem to me that so much of the facile "social control" history that so....many...historians are doing is an attempt to evade the difficulty of historical understanding; whatever the question is, the answer is that "the elites" were deploying the hegemonic instrument of language and symbols to advance their economic interests and consolidate their power, thank you goodnight. In a single theoretical stroke, we manage to render ideology, religion, and heritage irrelevant. And reduce history to a cartoon, but at least it's easy.
I do hereby sing the Coldplay song:
Nobody said it was easy/
No one ever said it would be so hard/
Oh take me back to the start.
ADDED LATER: Let me just toss in here the observation that grad school seems to be uniquely designed to prevent students from learning any of this. The need to work as a TA and get teaching experience on the c.v., the need to check off boxes on the to-do list and keep advancing through the program, the luscious temptation of glorious student committees...
And if you have any time left, hey, read a book.