The Historovox Complex

I’ve got a new gig at New York Magazine, where I’ll be a regular contributor, writing on politics and other matters. Here, in my first post, I tackle “the Historovox” (my wife Laura came up with the phrase), that complex of journalism and academic research that we increasingly see at places like VoxFiveThirtyEight, and elsewhere. Long story, short: while I firmly believe in academics writing for the public sphere, there are better and worse ways to do it.

Here are some excerpts:

There’s a bad synergy at work in the Historovox — as I call this complex of scholars and journalists — between the short-termism of the news cycle and the longue durée-ism of the academy. Short-term interests and partisan concerns still drive reporting and commentary. But where the day’s news once would have been narrated as a series of events, the Historovox brings together those events in a pseudo-academic frame that treats them as symptoms of deeper patterns and long-term developments. Unconstrained by the protocols of academe or journalism, but drawing on the authority of the first for the sake of the second, the Historovox skims histories of the New Deal or rifles through abstracts of meta-analysis found in JSTOR to push whatever the latest line happens to be.

When academic knowledge is on tap for the media, the result is not a fusion of the best of academia and the best of journalism but the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, we get the whiplash of superficial commentary: For two years, America was on the verge of authoritarianism; now it’s not. On the other hand, we get the determinism that haunts so much academic knowledge. When the contingencies of a day’s news cycle are overlaid with the laws of social science or whatever ancient formation is trending in the precincts of academic historiography, the political world can come to seem more static than it is. Toss in the partisan agendas of the media and academia, and the effects are as dizzying as they are deadening: a news cycle that’s said to reflect the universal laws of the political universe where the laws of the political universe change with every news cycle.

The job of the scholar is not to offer her expertise to fit the needs of the pundit class. It’s to call those needs into question, not to provide different answers to the same questions but to raise the questions that aren’t being asked.

Everyone knows and cites Orwell’s famous adage: “To see what is front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Less cited is what follows: “One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.” To see what’s right in front of one’s nose doesn’t mean seeing without ideology. It means keeping track of how we think and have thought about things, being mindful of what was once on the table and what has disappeared from view. It means avoiding the gods of the present.

The job of the scholar, in other words, is to resist the tyranny of the now. That requires something different than knowledge of the past; indeed, historians have proven all too useful to the Historovox, which is constantly looking for academic warrants to say what its denizens always and already believe. No, the job of the scholar is to recall and retrieve what the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin described as “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present.” The task is not to provide useful knowledge to the present; it is to insist on, to keep a record of, the most seemingly useless counter-knowledge from the past — for the sake of an as-yet-to-be imagined future.

The whole thing is here.


  1. WLGR February 20, 2019 at 3:46 pm | #

    Along with Benjamin, you probably could have plopped in any random paragraph from Adorno’s classic short essay “Resignation” and it would have been relevant in some way.

  2. Chris Morlock February 21, 2019 at 4:53 am | #

    You lost me when you referred to Vox as journalism.

  3. Billikin February 25, 2019 at 11:24 am | #

    Pardon my iggerance, but who says that the US is not on the verge of authoritarianism (in the psychological sense) and that it was so for only two years? Have we forgotten the KKK? Have we forgotten McCarthyism? Have we forgotten Milgram? Have we forgotten the Stanford Prison Experiment? We don’t have to forget the Southern Strategy, we are living in it.

  4. WLGR February 26, 2019 at 11:13 am | #

    I see comments on the CT thread are closed, but I just noticed this particularly pertinent series of Tweets from Nils Gilman about the question of “relevance” and “irrelevance” in modern historical scholarship.

    They [Hal Brands and Francis Gavin, in this article] observe that contemporary “historians tended to shun constructive engagement with policymakers in favor of a more confrontational approach premised on ‘speaking truth to power.’” I think this is right, but it sort of dances around the issue.

    Here’s the skinny: most current US historians don’t think the preponderance of the historical evidence supports the powers-that-be’s preferred master narrative about a benign American hegemony & democracy-friendliness abroad, or for “win-win” capitalist uplift at home.

    Given that historians don’t find that the evidence supports the Establishment’s just-so stories, they’re not telling such stories. That’s what folks with a vested interested in having such stories told mean when they lament the lack of “relevance” of what historians are producing

    In fact, pace Hal & Frank, *plenty* of historians are “in the public square” these days — more than at any time since the 1960s, I’d argue. But they’re not entering that square to tell stories that incumbent elites (and those who support or wish to join them) want to hear.

    I think Gilman and Corey are both neglecting an important aspect of the issue by ignoring the historians who do maintain prominent positions in the public square precisely by telling the simplistic short-termist stories incumbent elites want to hear, people like Niall Ferguson or Timothy Snyder, for example. What Gilman and Corey should point out is that such people’s sycophantic mode of “engagement,” and the layers of intellectual dishonesty their pundit interlocutors demand, progressively undermines their credibility within the academic fields they purport to represent — for example, Ferguson’s inability to land even a pro forma academic post in the history department at Stanford after he left his Harvard professorship to take his current underwhelming gig at the Hoover Institution. The nadir of this tendency can be seen in a discipline like anthropology, where most of the scholarly research consensus of the past half century or more is all but unthinkable in the public square (see the brainworm-inducing popular discourse around “tribalism”), and where arguably the two most widely-cited “relevant” popular academics (Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker) have no scholarly background or credibility within the field whatsoever.

    Assuming this really is a qualitative shift from a previous era when someone like Richard Hofstadter could be a preeminent force in both scholarly and popular discourses simultaneously, the question then is whether this shift is driven by higher standards within scholarship (perhaps via the absorption of ’60s radicals into the academy), lower standards in the public arena (perhaps via the Internet-fueled quickening of the news cycle and undermining of journalistic institutions), or a bit of both.

Leave a Reply