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Reflections on Dignity and Critical History

This is a presentation I gave last month, basically a thinkpiece I wrote to, uh, think - just trying to roll the rock up the hill for another day. I'm not committed to and don't necessarily stand by any of the content, especially because the discussion afterward was very thought provoking, I just toss this here in case it interesting anyone and because I think it's good to think out loud. Reflections on Dignity and Critical History


Hi everyone, it’s nice to be speaking with you today, thank for your being here. I thought I would take toda as an opportunity to explore some issues that have been in the back of my mind for a long time but which I’ve only never really gotten into in a serious way, names issues of dignity and history. I’m inclined to say that for a lot of historians, we’re animated by concerns over dignity, broadly construed, and I’m further inclined to say that this is more of a matter of a gut-level sensibility and sensitivity that we tend to have than it’s something we can clearly articulate at a theoretical level. That may sound like a criticism of our field but I think it’s actually a strength, a point I return to below. I want to also say very directly, I’m a little intimidated to be doing this as this all feels above my paygrade, and that I’m not promising to solve or conclude anything. In writing this essay I’m trying to push my own thinking forward on issues I care about and which I wish I was clearer on. I hope it’s of interest to you all but again I’m not planning to tie anything up here. At best I think I achieve what is I hope a higher quality degree of productive confusion.


To get started, I thought I’d tell you a little about my own work, to get a little more concrete. I wrote a book called Injury Impoversished, which is a history of employee injury law in the early twentieth century United States. In the book I argue that employment in the past was very, very dangerous, that the harms that happened in employment then and now should be understood as unjust and morally outrageous, and that responses to employee injury from law and business were and still are inadequate. In the first half of the book, I go through how that general set of social issues led to a re-organization of employee injury law, namely the creation of workers’ compensation laws. I argue that while those laws did make some improvements, they had serious shortcomings. Specifically, those laws valued the injuries of different people unequally - women, racialized minorities, and disabled people tended to get (and still tend to get) less money for their injuries because those people all tended (and still tend) to get paid less money in their jobs. Furthermore, all of the human meaning of injury was left unaddressed. In the second half of the book, I examine how in the aftermath of compensation laws, businesses responded to incentives built into these laws by intensifying employment discrimination against disabled people. Since finishing the book I’ve also written some essays about how capitalism is inherently a disabling society and that disabilty as a social status is inherent a category of oppression, and about how capitalism inherently generates injury and death.


As part of this, I’ve claimed that we should think of disability, class, and capitalism as categories analogous to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc. It’s common in some circles to talk about race, gender, sexuality, class, and disability, as similar categories and specifically categories of identity and diversity. That has some beneficial uses. There are also some beneficial uses to talking about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disability, class, and captialism, as being similar categories, and specifically categories of harmful social structures. A society that includes racism, sexism, and similar social structures is a society that harms people, because racism and sexism are harmful, and we generally agree that these social structures should be eliminated. Class, disability, and capitalism are also harmful and should also be eliminated.


In my work on these issues I’ve tended to tack back and forth between, on the one hand, relatively abstract claims about fundamental social organization and somewhat less abstract analysis of how institutions interact - patterns in the labor market, competition between large corporations, effects of law and policy on employment practices, etc - and, on the other hand, fairly detailed accounts of specific individuals harmed by the social and institutional patterns I analyze. My hopes are that the latter individualized accounts make the former more abstract accounts feel more urgent, and that the more generalized material makes the individual stories seem like examples of social patterns, rather than exceptions.


I want to start to tack back toward dignity as a category, via what I hope is a useful comparison and not just a detour. I’m a big fan of everything I’ve read by EP Thompson and I consider myself something of a Thompsonian. Thompson is probably most famous for his Making of the English Working Class and his essay on the moral economy of the crowd in England. Thompson was also considered himself a socialist humanist, which he saw as a version of marxism, and within socialist circles he wrote polemically against other versions of marxism. In his academic work, he wrote against what he saw as a reductive tendency among some economic and social historians to treat people as basically just stomachs and wallets who responded mechanically to hunger and incentives. He wrote against a similar reductive tendency among his fellow marxists. Thompson thought that these reductive visions of people were condescending and, I think, failed to appreciate people’s dignity. He wrote against these reductive views by emphasizing the agency and intelligence of ordinary working class people, especially as expressed through collective action and vernacular culture. His emphasis on working class agency and culture was, I think, a vehicle for pushing back against ways of conceptualizing people that didn’t appreciate people’s dignity. My own work is not history from below in Thompson’s sense, but in my view the social and institutional patterns I examine exemplify a similarly reductive understanding of people and a similar tendency to trample on people’s dignity.


Now, I don’t mean to compare myself to Thompson in terms of caliber of thinker. I just mention Thompson because I think he exemplifies one approach to history writing animated by a stronly felt sense of dignity - showing the capacities of ordinary people. That’s important and it’s good that people continue to write history in this way, we need people to keep doing so. I think work like mine takes a different approach to history writing animated by that same sensibility, in that it means writing critically about social and institutional processes that treat people in ways that fall short of human dignity. I’m inclined to say that reading a lot of and writing the former, history from below kind of work makes people cultivate a sensibility for or a sensitivity to the dignity of people as something of a positive, lived reality. I’m inclined to say that scholarship like mine involves a sensibility for and sensitivity to practices that trespass upon or fall short of people’s dignity. I think both of them involve asking ‘why does this behavior make sense in context?’


In a previous draft of this essay, one that failed to be honest - which is not at all to imply this draft succeeds - I had a long section trying to parse out how to make sense of some writing by Iris Marion Young, a thinker who is new to me. Very briefly, insofar as I understand it, Young wrote in her book Justice and the Politics of Difference that critical theorists like herself reflect upon the claims that social movements make, try to clarify and systematize those claims, try to articulate what those claims mean for philosophical understandings of politics and justice, and try to analyze the social contexts that generate injustice. I think historians do some of that. Part of why that previous draft failed is that it seems to patently obvious that theorists and historians do different things but a lot of what Young says about critical theory applies to what historians do, and I got lost trying to make sense of all that.


Tentatively, I’m inclined to say that theorists like Young generally spend less time examining and explaining social context than historians do, but more importantly, theorists seem to spend more time on explicit notions of justice and injustice or dignity and indignity and on trying to formulate and clarify such notions. Historians, meanwhile, seem to spend more time on implicit or intuitive or gut level understandings of things like dignity and indignity. Now, I should say, I’m very aware that intellectual and cultural historians spend time on explicit understandings of these concepts among other people, but my sense is that such historians still don’t tend to spend as much time for themselves pinning down their own theoretical understandings of these ideas. To put it another way, I’m inclined to say that critical theorists tend to be concerned with ways of articulating these concepts and using that articulation to guide their own theoretical inquiry, while historians tend to be, as I put it before animated by these concerns without needing to articulate them explicitly.


As I said at the beginning, I think historians are generally better at working with gut level or intuitive understandings of ideas like dignity and indignity than we are at formulating thse concepts explicitly ourselves, and as I said I think this is actually a strength of our field. I now want to explain why. My friend Nicole Pepperrell, who started as a historian then became a philosopher, once said to me something like the following. Historians doing history perform an important, vibrant, and complex activity, or collection of activities, and they’re good at it. Let’s call that “first order activities.” Historians are not nearly as good at expressing the value of their first order activities or presenting their techniques in a clearly and systematic way at a meta-level. Let’s call that “second order activities.” History as a field is better at its first order activities than it is at its second order activities. I want to be very clear here: that’s not a criticism of historians, it’s actually a positive thing. Sure, historians could spend more time systemazing and formalizing our field, and that would mean we’d get a little better at second order activity, but that would mean less time actually doing history, which is the important part. Furthermore, the field’s first order activities resist second order description in part because the our first order activities are rich and complex, and our field is dynamic and still developing. To be a little arrogant here, being synthesis-resistant is a mark of a lively, living intellectual process. That’s all to say that I think historians, at least a certain approach to history, tends to be good at a kind of sensitivity to dignity and indignity and that sensitivity guides our inquiry as researchers and the kinds of writing we try do drawing from our research findings. To get back to what I said above about EP Thompson for a moment, I think the history from below kind of work cultivates a kind of respect for certain people, what I called positive dignity, while I hope the work I try to do cultivates empathy with certain people and outrage over their social fate - and insofar as the work cultivates empathy, that outrage hopefully feels like it’s about our shared social fate. Critical theorists can certainly do this as well, but I’m inclined to say that history as a narrative field tends to do better at cultivating this respect and outrage as something felt, rather than a commitment at the level of explicit principles. To my mind a benefit of interactions between critical theorists and historians of the kind I’ve been talking about - let’s say critical historians, maybe? - is that perhaps the combination of strongly felt gut-level feelings of respect and outrage plus agreement at the level of abstract principled commitments is more powerful than either alone. Iris Marion Young once wrote that a critical theorist begins with “heeding a call,” specifically “claims upon some people by others,” a call on others “to ‘be just’.” It seems to me that a sense of “heeding a call” at its best, as a lived reality, tends to work on both levels of principles and felt commitments. I’m going to stop in a moment. Before I do, [number of] final remarks. First, I’m of two minds about why historians can benefit from reflections via critical theory. I’m inclined to say that reading such work can help change our gut level intuitions, and spread them to others perhaps, which then inform us going back into our historical research differently animated by those changed gut level commitments. At the same time, I’m not sure if that actually happens though - I’m not sure where gut level commitments come from, plus I’m also strongly committed to the view that work historians do - and for that matter novelists, musicians, artists, and forms of collective action - can change gut level commitments without having to pass through theorists. All of that said, I think that encounter with theorists can help historians compress and summarize our claims a little more in ways that might help them travel, so to speak, and help us claim resources and relevance from the institutions that employ us, to articulate why people who aren’t reading our work would benefit from doing so, and what the takeaway points of our work are. Second, and I’m aware I’ve not gotten into this at all here really, I think narrative specifically is a key part of the power of history to do what it does. I’m sorry I didn’t get into that in more detail. Third, in light of what I’ve said here, I wonder if it might be of use to try to brainstorm some settings for critical historians to read critical theorists’ work, and vice versa, and after such to spend some time together discussing. After such, I’d be very interested in hearing from a theorists’ perspective what they get from reading history. At the risk of being impolite, I think they don’t read much of it, though we historians also don’t read a lot of theory either. Anyway, my point is that kindred spirits in different fields might benefit from something like what I said. Unfortunately given the current state of society and its likely future trajectory our concerns over dignity and its denial will stay pressing for the forseeable future. Okay. Well, as promised at the outset, the best I could aim for was productive confusion. I feel like I’ve supplied the confusion, hopefully via the discussion afterward it can become productive. Thanks for your time. * The failed draft: first bit - Let me start by telling you a little about my book, Injury Impoverished. It’s about workplace injury law and disability in the early twentieth century United States. One aspect of the book focuses on how within the context of the early twentieth century economy workers compensation laws created incentives for businesses to practice employment discrimination against disabled people. Another aspect of the book is about how law and businesses responded to really awful workplace injuries in what I think is a morally attenuated way - institutional behavior fell short of what people deserved at a time when people were especially intensely vulnerable. There’s a kind of duality in the book. On the one hand, there’s institutional analyses, done in a way which focuses particularly on arguing for the presence of path dependencies: when these conditions are in place, a certain kind of result is fairly predictable, with the results specifically being harms. On the other hand, there’s a kind of ethical lingering, by which I mean really slowing down and trying to unpack those harms in all their multi-facetedness, and to also force the reader to take a look at them for a sustained time rather than move on quickly. That second aspect of my book came in response to me reading and writing about terrible injuries - people being burnt, crushes, skin and hair torn off, trapped in machinery for extended periods of time - and also reading legal and corporate procedures for responding to those injuries where the procedures were often a little boring. I found it kind of jarring to have these awful human tragedies be dealt with through these boring procedures. That such terrible events were made dull was very striking to me. I began to feel like one thing law and business policies were doing was making horrible violence palatable, they were doing a kind of laundering, so to speak. I didn’t want my book to discuss injury in that way, but instead wanted it to make people see these boring institutional processes as themselves rooted in, or as forms of organizing, terrible violence. After examining processes of law laundering violence, in writing up the research in the book I decided I wanted people to come away from the book suspecting that there’s generally blood behind the clean letters of the law. I will say, most of this worked for me at a gut level - it was far less a matter of a clear plan as a writer than it was that I had strongly felt impulses that I struggled to articulate or even to fully consciously register. These gut level intellectual intuitions manifested in my writing above all as a kind of dissatisfaction when I felt like my book was getting too bloodless to be appropriate to its bloody subject matter. [I had thought of getting into Robert Cover's essay Violence and the Word plus some reflections on intellectual intuitions and how they operate in doing historical scholarship for mea , I didn't get round to that!] second bit - I thought I would use my presentation today to attempt to think what are for me new thoughts, on matters I care a lot about, in ways that frankly feel a bit above my paygrade. Much of what I do in my presentation is attempt to make explicit things that have been in the back of my mind for a long time, primarily in the form of under-examined intellectual intutions and gut level impulses. I attempt to do so in part by via some work by the philosopher Iris Marion Young, which is outside my training as a historian. I’m unsure of the result, at the least I hope I’ve generated some productive confusion. In the first part of my remarks I present some of how Iris Marion Young described critical theory in her book Justice and the Politics of Difference, descriptions which I suggest apply to at least some historical scholarship as well - including, I hope, my own. In the second part I turn to a discussion of dignity and historical inquiry. [I think the bit at the top was mostly my attempt at that second bit but I no longer remember too clearly] Iris Marion Young once wrote that a critical theorist begins with “heeding a call,” specifically “claims upon some people by others,” a call on others “to ‘be just’.” Such calls are always made from a position “situated in concrete social and political practices.” For Young, then, critical theorists need to conceptualize social actors as situated, in the sense of being robustly of their time, place, and social location, because that situatedness is important to the ways actors make claims on or pleas for justice. The requirement to be sensitive to situatedness means that a critical theorist “cannot avoid social and political description and explanation.” If we understand all calls for justice as situated in a context, then that means we can only adequately understand and respond to those calls if we have some degree of understanding of the context they are situated within. Put more briefly, a critical theorist must be highly sensitive to context. For Young, critical theorists begin from someone else’s expression “of suffering or dis­tress” or from “feeling distress oneself,” and specifically distress over injustice. The critical theorists response to that distress is animated by “yearning that is an expression of freedom: it does not have to be this way, it could be otherwise.” One of the goods that critical theorists can accomplish is to change the questions people do and do not ask “about what occurs in a society and why, who benefits and who is harmed, will not be asked” and make people (specifically other theorists) less “liable to reaffirm and reify the given social reality.” This means critical theorists expand people’s imagination, “transforming the experience of what is into a projec­tion of what could be” and so “free[ing] thought to form ideals and norms.” Young’s own efforts were animated by the convictions “that basic equality in life situation for all persons is a moral value; that there are deep injustices in our society that can be rectified only by basic institutional changes; that [multiple] groups [in society] are oppressed; [and] that structures of domination wrongfully pervade our society.” With the above in mind, the tasks Young set for herself were “clarifying the meaning of concepts and issues, describing and explaining social relations, and articu­lating and defending ideals and principles.” This include “express[ing] rigorously and reflectively some of the claims about justice and injustice” present among movements of the oppressed and marginalized as well as exploring the “meaning and implications” of those claims. I like the theory that I’ve read that fits Young’s descriptions (I hasten to add that I’m a historian so I read theory as a dabbler at best). The reason I go on so much here about Young’s descriptions of critical theory, though, aren’t about theory at all. Rather, I think what she wrote applies to a certain kind of history as well - let’s call it critical history. In saying that I don’t at all mean to conflate critical theory and critical history - the two are clearly distinct genres or types of inquiry, as is clear from even a cursory familiarity with each. Nor would I want either to become less itself and more the other, as the two are complimentary in their differences, it seems to me. This feels tremendously unsatisfying, but I’m inclined to say theorists who fit Young’s decription do their work in relation and in the modes of work typical of philosophers and political theorists. Meanwhile historians who fit Young’s description do their work in a historinaly way, in relation to historians. The conventions of each field matter greatly, and yet the critical aspirations and purposes - this is an ugly term, I apologize, but let’s call it the criticality of the inquiry - does not seem to be rooted in the disciplinarity of the critical scholar. Perhaps theorists spend more time “articu­lating and defending ideals and principles” and historians more time “describing and explaining social relations” but the general activities, at the level of abstraction at which Young mentioned them, don’t seem specific to either theory or history. Critical theorists criticize theoretically; critical historians criticize historically. I think the descriptions Young laid out above are, at least to a significant extent, about critical theory’s criticalicy, not its theory-ness, and these descriptions apply as well to critical history’s criticality. I worry I’ve gone down something of a rabbit hole here. If that’s any of your perception as well, I can only apologize! I want to now turn more directly to dignity, disability, and history. I’m inclined first to say that the kind of historical scholarship regarding dignity that our panel is interested in tends to be critical scholarship. Dignity in this work is not an achieved state but a gap. Dignity isn’t a minimum condition that we as historians note the accomplishment of, but rather is a something we write about the absence or denial of. Our real interest, then, I think, is in indignity. One of our aims is to understand where indignities come from, and another is convey but even more so to provoke some level of indignation over the denial of dignity. We want point out a wrong, so to speak, and understand the social conditions that create the wrong, and to some extent anyway convey a feeling of wrongness that makes it more than just an abstract matter of right and wrong but also an injustice that is in an important sense felt. As an aside, I keep saying ‘we’, I don’t mean to be arrogant and speak in the royal we, but under the circumstances it seems to me like it would be more arrogant if I spoke only in the first person. I do think of myself as doing critical history in the sense I’ve been talking about, but I also think I am far from the only one, I think there are many of us doing this kind of work, albeit in very, very many different ways I would not want to flatten out. But in any case, I was talking about making injustice felt.

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