The flatness of historians, or, the contextual fetish

Has anyone noticed a curious flatness among many who profess to be historians? It is often linked in with particularly virulent expressions of disciplinary chauvinism, but you get it as:

a. An aversion to theoretical concerns, or if they do appear, the proponent treats them like the best thing since the invention of the wheel.

b. The contextual fetish. Everything can be explained by context – someone’s ideas, their changes of position, contradiction, type of breakfast, how long they wear their underwear … Apart from the simple points that contexts are somewhat tricky to access and that texts transcend their contexts in all manner of ways, the contextual fetish functions like an interpretive straightjacket, preventing you from asking the really interesting questions.

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7 thoughts on “The flatness of historians, or, the contextual fetish

  1. Whatever, Roland, you are taking historians out of context. You know which context I am talking about, the one that I pick, between this time frame and that time frame, and this country, rather than the town she was born in.

    🙂

      1. Although, saying that, ‘putting things in context’ is a necessary yet not sufficient part of doing good historiography. Or, as Geoffrey de Ste. Croix sez, “there are very great virtues in the traditional approach of the historian, the essence of which – the insistence on recognising the specificity/ of the historical situation in any given period (and even area) – must not be abandoned, or even compromised, when it is combined with a sociological approach” (Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, 34).

  2. I know I am super late in seeing this post, but as an adjunct history prof who loves critical theory, I say yes to the above…

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