Historians and irony, Part I

We historians have a long, intense, up-and-down relationship with irony, the kind that merits an “it’s complicated” tag. We argue with irony, shout, try going our own separate way– but the final break never comes, and eventually we and irony always wind up back in bed together. Like all stormy relationships, it’s worth some serious thought.  (Note for extra reading:  like pretty much any other historian who discusses irony, I’ve been hugely influenced by the great historian/critic Hayden White— when you have the time, check out his writing.)

Now, historians’ irony doesn’t quite track our standard contemporary uses of the word. It’s not about cliché hipsters saying things they don’t really mean, or about unexpected juxtapositions, like running into your ex at an awkward moment.

No, we historians go for the heavy-hitting version, as developed by the Ancient Greeks and exemplified by their ironist-in-chief Oedpius Rex. In the Greek play, you’ll remember, he’s a respected authority figure hot on the trail of a vicious killer– only to discover that he himself did the terrible deed, plus some other terrible deeds nobody even imagined. Like most of the Greek tragic stars, he thinks he’s in charge but really he’s clueless.

You can see how that kind of irony appeals to historians. After all, we spend a lot of our time studying people who misjudged their command of events– and anyway, we know the long-term story, how events played out after the instigators died. Most of the leaders who got Europe into World War I thought it would last a few weeks and benefit their countries. By 1918 four of the big player-states had been obliterated, and the ricochet damage was only beginning– Stalin, Hitler, the Great Depression, the atomic bomb, and a whole trail of other bad news can all be traced back to 1914.

That’s why our relationship to irony never makes it all the way to the divorce court. It’s basic to what we do.

But there are other sides to the relationship, and that’s where the shouting starts. We historians don’t just confront people’s ignorance of long-term consequences. There’s also the possibility they don’t understand what they’re doing while they’re doing it. That possibility takes lots of forms, and we encounter them in daily life as well as in the history books. There’s the psychological version, as when we explain tough-guy behavior (whether by a seventeenth-century king or twenty-first-century racists) in terms of childhood trauma or crises of masculinity. There’s the financial self-interest version, as when we believe political leaders subconsciously tailor their policies to their career needs.

And then there are the vast impersonal forces versions, what we might call ultra-irony, where historians see individuals as powerless against big processes of social change. That’s how the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy described the Napoleonic wars, and how the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville described the advance of democracy— efforts to stop it just helped speed it up. Marxist and semi-Marxist historians have seen something similar in the great western revolutions. Those fighting tyrannical kings in 1640, 1776, and 1789 didn’t think they were helping establish global capitalism– many hated the whole idea of capitalism– but their policies had that effect all the same.

You can see why historians have such a fraught, high-voltage relationship with ultra-irony interpretations like these. On the one hand, sure– we all know that many social forces are bigger than we are; we laugh at those who try to stop new technologies or restore Victorian sex habits; we know we’re born into socio-cultural systems and can’t just opt out of them.

On the other hand, historical practice rests on evidence, documentation– and where do we find some president or union leader telling us he did it all because his childhood sucked? How do we document vast impersonal forces? Ironic interpretations require pushy readings of the documents– speculation, going beyond what the evidence tells us, inserting our own interpretive frameworks. Nothing makes us historians more jumpy.

There’s a deeper problem as well: interpretations like these diminish human dignity, by telling us that people in the past didn’t know what they were doing or even what they wanted to do. If we accept these interpretations, we deny agency to historical actors, belittle their ideas, dreams, and efforts, mock their honesty and intelligence. We dehumanize history– the human actors are the pawns, the vast impersonal forces run the game.

Those are serious criticisms, and they’ve been around since the nineteenth century.

But the interesting thing is, their persuasive force rises and falls over time. You’ll have a whole generation of historians who find ultra-irony persuasive and helpful; it feels right, and it seems to open up exciting new research questions. Then the tide shifts, and historians become more concerned with agency. They listen closely to historical actors’ own views of who they were and what they were doing.

By and large, the mid-twentieth century fell into Phase 1 of this cycle– it was a time when historians saw irony everywhere and paid lots of attention to big impersonal forces. Marxism was riding high, but so also were the other -isms: Freud-influenced historians saw unconscious drives pushing people to act as they did; Weberians saw the experience of modernization behind political and religious movements. “Underlying causes” were big, and we viewed participants’ own accounts with suspicion– we assumed they didn’t understand their own motives or circumstances.

But that changed in the 1970s, and for the past thirty years we’ve been deep in Phase 2, the no-irony phase. We’re concerned with taking historical actors seriously and with avoiding what a great Marxist historian called “the enormous condescension of posterity.” We believe in “agency”– meaning, from the top to the bottom of the social scale, people can help shape their own destinies.

What does it all mean? I have a few thoughts, but I’ll wait until the next post to lay them out– stay tuned!