‘Mickey Mouse History’ @ HES 2009

This generous, albeit unoriginal, assessment met my presentation at the 2009 HES meetings. It came from a prominent member of our profession. We share a profession. We don’t share a craft. We work on similar subjects and materials but we make of them different artifacts. After laborious cutting, assembling, and tinkering, I get an argument on how ideas co-produce society and culture, some of my colleagues conclude on the rightness of economic interpretation.

My folly?
My folly?

Politeness does not come with seniority and there is no reason why it should. Tenure is after all full dominion over self. However, lack of seminar manners towards an initiate, like me, seems to contradict the rhetoric of “nurturing” young scholars. It may be that contributions of the young are welcomed provided they remain within the fold of the old. It would be a strange reversal of the world if the established had to listen, or even consider, the arguments of the junior staff.

Despite my bitterness, and after all has been said, “Mickey Mouse” is not a bad label for someone trying to make sense of popular culture and economics’ part in it. And, I do have big ears…

13 thoughts on “‘Mickey Mouse History’ @ HES 2009

  1. On the other hand, a senior tenured HES-er commented on the paper thusly:

    “Tiago Mata’s paper provides still another take on these kinds of issues. Though I have not done as he asked with this draft paper by burning it after reading, it has nevertheless impressed itself indelibly upon me. Mata operates with precisely the vision that I think Maas can develop in his own discussion. He argues that “narratives are performed in stable communities of authorship and readership. Read and re-read in these communities, the texts stabilize into genres and themes.” (3) The use of stable communities together with “read and re-read” suggests to me that these communities have stable though shifting identities over time as do the texts around which the communities self organize. Mata’s discussion of the five artifacts is designed to show how they, and the overlapping communities of readers in what Stanley Fish calls interpretive communities, shape meanings and in turn are shaped themselves as they create ways of talking about, picturing, and interacting with these artifacts. All of these artifacts construct a figure of the economist in the modern period. The different communities construct and reconstruct economists out of these artifacts in reliable and predictable ways, even as they differ from one another. Mata concludes by noting that he was “reporting the interpretation of the readers of these narratives and making sense of them by selecting themes and showing divergences.” (12) His last set of remarks concerns how “anxieties about the economists’ role in shaping contemporary society mirror anxieties about the role of history in society” (13) The moves in the communities that are involved in response to these anxieties, the readings that the readers perform, all need to be engaged. He himself urges that we explore history as poetics and as theatre. He urges historians of economics to read Hayden White on history and discourse. Reading history as stories provides new frameworks for thinking about, for example, Milton Friedman’s monetarism. He asks us to think of performing Adam Smith. Indeed I have performed Keynes’ General Theory in teaching that text for nearly forty years, where performing suggests something much deeper than changing my opinion of the essential properties of interest and money, and the aggregate supply function.

    I conclude then by calling your attention to this set of papers as engaging a new historiography, one whose future effect cannot be predicted at present. I hope however that ten years from now people in this audience will be able to say “Yes, I was there at that session.” “

    1. Dear Roy,

      thanks for posting your comments! They give a better idea of what the issues are about then my own cryptic post, or even my presentation!

  2. Hmm… anything posted at 5am, as this post was, should probably be treated carefully, but then again, I sense some bitterness, the question is; is it fully deserved?

    You stand accused (?) of ‘mickey mouse’ history, but no-one questioned ‘micro histories’ as presented in other sessions, so what gives… You say the older generation has a duty to nurture the young, but this was not a young scholar session – far from it – it was almost a manifesto call for re-thinking how the history of economics (or social science?) is done. Surely if someone is going challenge your work it will be done with passion – and it would be done a little roughly in such a session, peer-to-peer. If you are challenging the traditional view you should be ready for serious criticism, and not argue that you worked hard or that people should go easy on you. Quite the contrary I would suggest.

    This criticism does raise two points which might be worth thinking about. Who is the intended audience for this work if not the scholars in the history of economic thought? (or do they not ‘get it’? – in which case the exposition needs to be clarified). Secondly, what does it add to their/our understanding of the material in the field and the field itself, or is it a self-contained argument for a self-contained audience? In which case it could reasonably be called mickey mouse…

    You said ‘jump in’ – so here goes, even at 2am and possibly as a devil’s advocate…

    1. 5 am where? I think i posted this on Central time in a motel close to Blackwell, OK, just over the border from Kansas.

      I am fine with the saying that “if you can’t take the heat don’t step into the kitchen”. I have avoided this particular historiographical cook out, but it seems i have finally something to say so I will take the heat.

      My bitterness is that things got said in my back, mumbled in corridors, told as a joke. You might not qualify me as a young scholar in the administrative sense, my first HES was 2002, but I am an assistant professor on a term contract. I feel junior. Getting senior people say things like this about me, is not a good omen for my grant and job applications. If the criticism is done peer-to-peer, I can respond. I can argue against it or with it. But if it is done this way, I can’t even name the person.

  3. The post was time-stamped 5am, but that might just be a time-zone thing.

    Yes, having people say bad things about you behind your back is never nice, but the opposite is always lovely – the bottom line is, who cares?
    You have 20 minutes to convince someone to read your paper and get your point across, if that fails people will question your work regardless of what that work is.

    I am not going to bother patting you on the back about your past accomplishments – read your own CV for that – so come on man, bad omens, good omens, all that matters is good scholarship.

    And here Yann’s impassioned defense of the session is doing a lot better than your reply. Yann is answering the question ‘what can this add to our understanding of the field’ – or more specificly, ‘this is what has been done wrong so far’, (assuming everyone agrees with Yann on this) but the question remains: Who is this for? what is the point?

    I’ll repeat: Is it a self-contained argument for a self-contained audience? In which case it could reasonably be called mickey mouse, or is there a bigger point to be made, and if so, should you just go ahead and (keep) do(ing) it, instead of talking about how it could be done?

    1. I think you are anchoring this too much in terms of presentation. I will get back to the issue of audience in a post in a few days, I want to do something visual of it.

      Yann and I are trying to discuss this in a context that may be foreign to you, about the historiographical divides that are particularly sharp in France among this community of historians of economics, and that you might have seen popping up in early part of Avi’s address, addressed to Roy (also Marcuzzo’s paper in the new Rotterdam journal). It is not just what slides I had or if I wore a bow tie or not (that was just fun, and to capture attention) but the kind of questions I was asking, and the kind of materials I was using that upset some people. For them I am debasing the history of economics by introducing these foreign elements (Klein, documentaries, journalists) and straying away from the dignified task of discussing the science and improving on it. All things I really don’t care much about. It is for that reason, that they call it Mickey Mouse.

    2. The bow tie, the audio-visuals are apiece with the more substantial message that was conveyed by the session and rightfully underlined by Yann: we are fed up with the idea that high theory is the only game in town. We want to consider economics as a cultural item. In this regard, the Mickey-Mouse bit is right to the point, for who better than Mickey can embody the idea of popular culture?
      On the other hand, I agree with Benjamin that it is not a matter of old and young, and I would rather put the dividing line between conservative and reforming history of economics. I – I would not dare speaking for the others – believe no more in history of economics as economics as a reasonable and meaningful way to work and represent my work in term of audience and I am trying with others to find new ways to provide meaning to work on the history of economics and to make it meaningful to larger audiences. My sentiment is that micro-histories lead to micro and shrinking audiences, there is no future in it for our discipline (and for the younger generation).

  4. This may not be a young vs old issue, nor a conservative vs progressive historians one, but even the young rather conservative and “let’s do it rather than talk about it” historian I am is worried about how such willingness to practice “history of economic practices” differently and to adress new audience, may be received, encouraged or opposed by the “powerful” ones in our profession. Basically, those who choose to publish us or not, those who give or retain money, those who judge the “scientific value” of our work and consequently hire or promote us. Journals and scholarly articles are the major means by which our scientific credentials are assessed and more and more so. Words, sheets of papers, a sole media the various ventures presented at the HES and elsewhere (watch Tiago’s presentation) cannot be reduce to.

    How would the editing of a DVD presenting, comparing and contrasting the “Free to Choose” Friedman TV show and Galbraith’s “The Age of Uncertainty” while those eminent members of the profession discussing the handling of Friedman’s private and public archives a few months after his death don’t even understand the question “and how do you plan to promote the audio-video part of it? Through online archive or other?” How can one expect the time devoted as scientific adviser in the making of a great public film on the live of Gunnar and Alva Myrdal to be valued, what can I hope from a HES session devoted to discussing the script of the film and wondering to what extent historical accuracy should be sacrificed to the benefit of the public’s understanding of the message ? And more modestly and immediately, is there any point in substantiating a microhistorial project on the Ford Foundation with an analysis of a LIFE photo coverage and an interview of the photographer when editors are so reluctant to publish pictures within scholarly papers (less so in history of science and maybe history, but no revolution under way for the moment, it seems).

    And Loic, I think you get it all wrong on microhistories. Writing histories more micro that had hitherto been done in HET might provide a mean to impart to historians and extra-academic audience the sense in which science, political and power struggles, media, etc. Are intimately related, in just the same way as middle age microhistory have conveyed an idea of the close relationships between science, power and religious beliefs.

  5. I am jumping back into a field that I care passionately about, but engaged in a sort self-imposed excile from for the past several years. I returned to HES this year mainly out of respect to Larry Moss and a request that I present a short tribute to him at a session. But I have long standing friendships in the field and I was anxious to reconnect.

    I was totally engaged by the meetings, and mainly because (a) the number of young scholars, (b) the diversity of institutions and places represented, and (c) the interesting work being done by the younger scholars. I realized how much I missed.

    During my excile, I was engaged almost exclusively in doing economics — serving as a PI on several large projects devoted to transition economics, deveolopment economics, and reconstruction economics. Applied political economy. Though I also during this time continued to write obligatory essays on the history and methodology of economics. But I have not produced a work in the history of economics in a while.

    I was struck by the number of young scholars doing high quality work in the HISTORY, but I am concerned that not much effort is being made to assess the quality of the ECONOMICS. Different scholars write for different purposes, and the HES should be a broad enough intellectual tent to permit both styles of economics being done. In fact, from my “reading” of the meetings, I’d say that the best and the brightest of the young scholars are doing the HISTORY (and cultural studies), and not the ECONOMICS — so in this sense Roy has won the “debate”. If you go into the discussion list archives of HES you can see that I was one of the people on the opposite side of Roy invoking the ideas of my teacher Kenneth Boulding.

    But I am completely intrigued by the work in HISTORY, I just think it is a very hard sell to ECONOMISTS. Why would a leading economic thinker — say anyone from Shleifer to Greif — care about this work? Yet we know that both of those guys care about ideas from older generations of economists to help revise the way they think about doing contemporary economics. In other words, as is the case in our profession (ECONOMICS that is), engagement means you want your work to be read, taken seriously, and if lucky for your work to become an input into the production process of another scholar in the field.

    The work in HISTORY of economics is largely irrelevant to ECONOIMCS, though it could be very important for cultural studies, history of ideas, and literary criticism. But then shouldn’t we expect that those who practice this craft to be trained in those disciplines rather than economics as a home of disciplinary training?

    My major professor in graduate school was Don Lavoie. Don obtained the rank of full professor in the economics department at GMU, actually ahead of the normal academic schedule. His major work Rivalry and Central Planning, was published in the Cambridge Series. Don wrote in history of thought and refereed in the field. But Don eventually left economics, and became a professor in the Cultural Studies program. Why? Because of the methodological straightjacket he found in economics. And that was at GMU. I was teaching at NYU at the time, and I often argued with Don about his decision. What are you talking about “methodological straightjacket” at GMU, try NYU on for a change I would say. Don just told me I was missing the point. And I was. I understand what he was talking about from his perspective and what is expected from an “economic argument”. Don wanted to address broader questions — ultimately in fact questions similar to what Tiago is doing in this project, and his point about audience. Unfortunately, Don’s life was cut short. Virgil Storr was his last student (though technically I ended up chairing Virgil’s dissertation due to Don’s illness). Virgil also works on the border of cultural studies and economics, though his work is more applied than that of Tiago’s.

    Anyway, I think the discipline has received an interesting shot in the arm from these sort of works. I remember still the absolute sense of intellectual awe I experienced watching Robert Leonad present the draft of his paper that was eventually published in Isis. He was demonstrating in thorough detail an argument that Arjo Klamer and Don had repeatedly made to me throughout graduate school — that economics could not be studied apart from a broader intellectual culture that had in fact produced it. And Tiago is on to something important with the way he is grabbing the modern intellectual culture.

    But I remained concerned that in this work, what is lost is ECONOMICS argument and the assessment of the various truth claims made by different economists. Do demand curves slope down or not? And what are the implications? Who has the right argument about the impact of fical stimulus? So many of the debates we have now, were debated before — think of Say’s law, and Say’s letters with Malthus.

    Shouldn’t individuals in the field have something to say about that? And even further than that, shouldn’t there be a possibility that older ideas might not have been defeated, but just forgotten and if remembered might possess transformative properties on current practice? Think of the history of Public Choice, or of New Institutional Econonmics, or Evolutionary Economics?

    Anyway, I apologize for going on so long. But I just wanted to make it clear that even those of us who have asked questions about the new historiography of economics like me, respect the intellectual path it is on, and would like to encourage this sort of work and see more of it, but would also like to see more work in the field along traditional lines as well, and in my particular case would like to see some sort of blending as I would argue we have seen in the best work in political theory.

  6. To Beatrice: I think you misinterpreted my use of the word ‘microhistories’, I was thinking of stuff like ‘Sraffa’s interpretation of Ricardo value theory: was he right after all?’. More generally, if one wants to define itself as an historian, one should be aware that the kind of history you get in the general history journal is actually much broader than the kind of stuff we (I mean I and the guys on this blog – the only exception being probably Tiago) do. The form of our articles are much closer to history of ideas and history of science stuff.
    To Peter: Let me be a bit polemical here. The kind of work that struck you as interesting and historical is not actually the majority even in the younger generation. If you went for example at the annual ESHET conference this year of the year before, it was indeed almost invisible. Even at this year’s HES, they were a lot of much more traditional stuff. However, the fact that you were sensible to the history stuff probably means that these papers and presentations were better (at least in terms of impact on their audience) than the more traditional ones. All in all, a very encouraging comment, thanks Pete.

    1. Tangential point here on Loïc’s clarification of “microhistory”. It would be really helpful to start developing a critical taxonomy of historiography. On microhistory, I traditionally associate this with Ginzburg and the close reading of the archive, which is then so often linked to a larger epistemic issue: “The Construction of Concept X” in which the close archival reading shows how messy and contested the history of Concept X is.

      On the other hand “Sraffa’s interpretation of Ricardo…” I take to be more in the line of the traditional history of philosophy: “Hume’s reading of Locke and response to Leibniz’s theory of….”. I think of this as “commentary on the canon”. Here Quentin Skinner’s criticism of anachronism had a major role in divorcing historical arguments from our current ideas, rendering questions like “was he right after all?” problematic, if not impossible to answer.

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