Critique and the History of the Future
Building upon recent attempts to take stock of critical turns in historical research, as documented in the June 2012 issue of American Historical Review, especially Gary Wilder’s contribution, this panel will ask “What is the role of social and cultural critique in the writing of modern history?” The criticism of sources and the criticism of existing historiography on the basis of empirical fact and logic have long been central to the work of a historian. Less agreed upon is the role of the historian as the critic of social and cultural life in the past or of the present on the basis of the past. Arguably, however, even the most empiricist historians make tacit use of normative ways of understanding the world. yet these frames of reference are not openly discussed.
This panel will suggest that a critical approach to the writing of history should start with such a discussion of its implicit assumptions. This panel proposes to ponder one question that most historians steer clear of, namely whether it is possible to critique the past and point to socially-, culturally-, and historically-constituted human potentialities for a better world that are denied or left unfulfilled. The three historians presented here argue that it is. Taken together, these three presentations broaden the promising discussion initiated by Manu Goswami and others in the December 2012 issue of American Historical Review forum on "histories of the future." Their research is quite distinct from one another, but they share a sense that such an “immanent” critique is possible, even necessary. Thomas Dodman will discuss the role of critique in the burgeoning field of the history of emotions. Mark Loeffler will offer his thoughts on how he uses critique to grasp the assumptions in discourses on finance capital between the 1870s and 1940s in Britain and Germany. Parker Everett will explore using a critical approach to draw out the sense of possibility and of limits in the discourse on urban planning in Greater Berlin before and after the first World War.
This roundtable will include short presentations by historians on the way that they marshal empirical detail, historiography, and theoretical argument to criticize the prevailing historiographies, but also to criticize and examine what was and could have been and what is and what could be. These historians present their criticism on the basis of potentialities immanent to the society and culture they studies; each regards the writing of history not just as a question of making the historical record accurate, but of bringing to light the possibility of a different and better future. There will be a brief comment and then an open ended discussion on the role of social and cultural critique in the writing of history.