You can call it scandalous; you can call it Mickey Mouse; you can even call it fried chicken, if you want. But the session titled “From History of Economics to Histories about Economics” at the last HES meeting in Denver was just a thrilling experience. Let me explain in a few words what its purpose was. The last few years have witnessed the development of a literature about the history of economics outside of our field. Historians of science, economic historians and journalists (among others) have begun to write about the same issues we are (supposed to be) interested in and most of the time, they do not quote historians of economics. How did it happen? It is very simple, actually, and could be summed up in Stanley Fish’s terms: 1) Do your job, 2) Don’t try to do someone else’s job, 3) Don’t let anyone else do your job. Historians of economics have tried to act as economists, using the past to build alternative economic models or criticizing mainstream economics on its own terms. By doing so, they have created a “What If” History of Economics, one that builds parallel stories that can be understood only within the community, but offers virtually no insight on its recent developments, its status as a science or its cultural influence. On the other hand, you have another kind of accounts, such as Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. They provide a more caricatural view of the economist as a torturer, mass-murderer and conspirator. Historians of economics may find them shocking (that’s the word, indeed), misinformed, misleading and dangerous, but those accounts have a significant appeal beyond our small community, and by refusing to address them in some ways, considering them as popular rubbish, we choose to remain in self-referentiality.
During this session, Loïc Charles, Harro Maas and Tiago Mata presented a perspective on the future developments of our field, not by restating previous positions, but by looking at possible new ways of doing the history of economics. Looking at recent developments in other fields such as history of science, economic history and political science, Loïc observed that non-disciplinary histories of economics are currently being written, offering a new intellectual space of trade between these various communities. Harro, by resorting to the metaphor of the historian as a curator, showed that we can build new narratives on the history of economics if we try to go beyond the text, arranging economics as a series of objects. For someone like me who studies the place of visual representation in economics, this metaphor has a strong appeal. I look at the large amount of visual materials I collected over the years (books, digital pictures and scans) and realize I use them in a very conservative way in comparison to the vast possibilities that are open if I think of them as pieces of art which would have to be curated in an exhibition. Would it provide a different kind of history? Last but not least, Tiago used Fish’s concept of interpretive communities to construct a picture of the public imagination of economics in recent works, without distinction between works intended for an audience of specialists and those intended for a larger audience. In Tiago’s account, indeed, there is no “audience” understood as this abstract mass of people out there, there are only anonymous individuals, internet users and bloggers, all contributing to create some understanding of economics.
I would not assert that these papers are perfect. They were intended for discussion rather than for immediate publication and I should say that the presentation itself seemed to me better than the actual papers. The presentation, actually, was quite spectacular. It had a kind of restrained violence toward the audience – the violence became less retrained during Tiago’s presentation when spectators were exposed to Klein’s striking rhetorics by way of graphic images – and the tension was palpable. In the same way art history has gradually given way to visual studies and visual culture, these papers may be viewed as an attempt to get rid of the “old” history of economics and to replace it by “economics studies” or “economic culture”. This is not a mere question of wording, it is a deeper transformation of our field. The skepticism of many attendants, explicit or implicit, makes sense.