Is it time?

More random thoughts about the wikileaks cablegate

Of course, there are all these discussions about the consequences of such disclosure for international relations, its influence on American and worldwide public opinions.

But what about the consequences on scholarly historical work?

Two random links to begin with:

“Why Wikileaks is bad for scholars “, by international politics Fletcher School professor Daniel Drezner

US embassy cables: a banquet of secrets in The Guardian , by essayist/ public intellectual/ journalist (?) Timothy Garton Ash

Any other reactions by scholars/ public intellectuals you’re aware of?

Is the forced “declassification” of such recent historical material, at such a huge scale, a blessing or a curse for international relations scientists and for historians?

Are they/we “equipped” intellectually to deal with such material, to analyze its context, its subtext, its “truthfulness” ? To make sense of it? To tell a story out of it? What does the material reflect: the course of history, actions, opinion, prejudices, decisions, other? How distinct/close   is/should be  the work of a scholar as compared with the work of these journalists at the NYT, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, who are trying to sort out these millions words, cut through it, report it, make sense of it to the reader? Is it their very short horizon? Does it mean it will necessary take the historian a 1/5/10 years immersion into the material to tell the story behind such and such cable? Is it at all possible? What will the exploitation of these cables say about the possibility to write contemporary history? Or if that material is unimportant/ unexploitable/ secondary/ flawed/ biased, why and how is it so?

Does any precedent exist in history/ history of science/ history of culture/ history of economic something? I mean, is there any instance you know in which the unanticipated early disclosure of some historical material have forced historians/ analysts/ journalists/ story tellers  to reconsider/ rewrite their stories?

Do historians/ scholarly archivists in relation to historians have any duty in the face of such flow of material (setting aside questions regarding the legality of the disclosure) : do they have to sort the material, provide finding aid, reference it?

And if these are not the right/ meaningful questions to filter what is currently happening, what else?


8 thoughts on “Is it time?

  1. The language/lingo/expression/communication police called/faxed/emailed to say/state/admonish that your use/deployment/reliance on forward slash/tilted bar// has beaten/surpassed/exceeded all previous known records in the history of mankind/social history/written history.

    1. Dear language police, you’re absolutely right, I am guilty. But you see, I haven’t blogged in a year, in part because I write posts, then wait until I revise them and improve my style, and they eventually never get published. As some friend who have been urging me to go back blogging say, a blog is not an academic journal, you do not need a finished product.

      And this is what my first and random thoughts on a subject often look like: the ideas are not settled, and neither is the langage in which to express them.

      There is another nice thing with blogs, by the way: no one forces you to finish reading a post that you think is badly written. So, maybe go read something more stylish elsewhere?

    2. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, one of the best readers of science I know, uses a lot of these slash. For nominalists like ourselves, they can be quite useful, indeed.
      However, on Wikileaks and the History/Sociology/Philosophy of Science/Economics/Techniques, I have no opinion. Or, to say it in a different way, I am not interested. We learn that the American do not like the Iranian, that our president is considered bad-tempered by diplomats … the contrary would have been more surprising!
      Having to find a convincing narrative amidst an overload of informations: is it not what we try to do in our papers? The conclusion is to avoid incommensurate fetichism over the archival materials. What you think you have discovered in the archives, that for instance X hated Y or that X was the nastiest economist of the period, might be something that was quite well-known in the profession and does not need to be overemphasized.

  2. Yann:

    I’m not talking about a bunch of petty anecdotes about such and such public and often controversial figures, or about a series of figures, reports, information about some critical situations we already knew about (nuclear Iran or else). That this is how most journalists are willing to portray the cables released on wikileaks is indeed of no interest for me, if not for suggesting that what we retain from the day to day history we are immersed in may be first and foremost a set of anecdotes, and this may be a lesson to remember.

    What I’m talking about is a set of 250,000 documents, including multipages memos related to American diplomacy from 1966 to 2010 (by comparison, the Robert Solow papers at Duke University is 52 linear feets and 40 000 items, the Milton Friedman papers are 94 linear feet, and yes, I’m aware of the multiple limits of such comparison) It provides a partial yet at the same time detailed and somewhat comprehensive (in the sense that wer have a “body” of archives) view of IR, government decision making, etc. in that period. And the possibility that it may contain important information for the historian in two respect is worth considering. These cables may contain info as to what such and such diplomats and the US gov knew/ wasn’t aware of, precision on some important events, decisions etc.. Most important, the body of cables studied together may convey a unique view of US officials worldview in the postwar with a focus on the late 2000s, of the way decisions were taken, may highlight which characteristics of such and such country they focus on, which kind of information is lacking or is reported by ground diplomats and was completely overlooked in final decisions, what kind of networks/ media/ power structure were involved etc. etc. etc. I guess what I was expecting was more some historiographical references on how historians handled the Cuba missile crisis (and how and why it became a case study in decision making in crisis situation), or at least some kind of wild fantasies on what we would do if through the unlikely intervention of a technology hazard, we would be able to access the 2010 emails of, say, all the members of the department of economics at Chicago/ MIT/ Harvard/ or all the members of the AEA or of the chief economists or the IMF or else (after spending five minutes laughingabout who’s the nastiest, the greediest, the most deceived) , rather than a straightforward dismissal of my questions.

    As an aside, on this notion of “archive fetichism”…. We’ve all be into the archives here, we’ve all been disappointed at what we found in the correspondence between some two big guns in our narratives, we’ve all been in that situation of finding nothing of what we were aiming for/ expecting, we’ve all learned that meaningful stories certainly don’t emerge from archive work, we all systematically go back to the relevant published articles/ books/research pieces, and at the same time none of us would dismiss archival work as a priori useless/ secondary/anecdotal if we know of some material related to our research interests, and we’ve all seen a a seemingly unimportant contextual detail randomly found in some pieces we couldn’t make sense of suddenly becoming the last piece of the puzzle or a compelling illustration of a point we want to make, months or years later after our initial archive research. In short, we all got this sense that archives are important but not central, or not central but important. No? So, cannot we move on from this “how much/ how important” discussion to sharing about ‘how to use it better”

  3. Béatrice:

    Tha fact I am saying I am not particularly interested in this wikileaks issue does not mean I am dismissing your questions all together!

    I am not saying either that relevant stories cannot emerge from the archives. What I am saying is that I have doubts that there exists something as an “archive shock” in the sense that there exists a “supply shock” in economics. What your post suggests, in my opinion, is that there exists a different timeline for journalists, on one hand, and for historians, on the other hand. I think that this illustrates how large is the gap between what historians can say and the way the same issue can be treated in newspapers, history textbooks (in schools) and so on. I don’t think I agree for instance with what Daniel Drezner says in the column your post links to. Let me take the example of the Cuba missile crisis because you refer to it. What is the canonical story? If I remember well from what I’ve been told in high school, the idea is that in the end no one struck the other because of the ‘balance of terror’. Indeed, it is possible that this account does not hold under historians’ scrutiny, that the various ramifications are extremely complex and involved a lot of diplomatic discussions which have been detailed in many accounts by specialists. However, this is still the same story that is told in all (French, at least) high school textbooks.
    Another example that comes to mind is Loic’s paper on the Tableau économique. Loic showed convincingly that the common view of the Tableau as an early inquiry in general equilibrium theory and as an early instance of a circular flow diagram is false. However, it is still the way it is depicted in the New Palgrave and, I believe, in many HET textbooks written for economists. What theses examples illustrate is that the interests in these issues by different communities are not situated on the same level and in the same time line.
    If a new source of archives is discovered, I think that interested people will be drawn in priority to what is already in their framework. For instance, my main interest in the Samuelson archives is related to the making of his McGraw-Hill textbook and his use of visual representation, while Clement will want to know whether it contains correspondences with eminent biologists, while Phil Mirowski will try to see whether it contains materials relating MIT with the military complex, while Wade Hands will want to study what is related to psychology and the theory of demand, and so on … All this might lead to a lot of new published works but new topics of research will only emerge, I believe, after some years and this new historiography will be incorporated in HET textbooks in a quarter century (if we’re lucky!). For this reason, in the wikileaks case, I think that what the journalists are drawing from it right now is just some random noise that will be quickly forgotten and will not prevent social scientists and historians to work. Of course, I can understand that in the meantime, historians will be going crazy by what they will consider as something that deprives them from their authority, but it in the end, all this is going to be washed up. The relative impermeability between different communities is in this respect rather fortunate, I believe.

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