Interrogating the Project of Military History

December 18, 2003 - Had lunch yesterday with Maurice Stevens of the Department of Comparative Studies. It so happened that the impetus to meet Maurice stemmed from Michael Hames Garcia's visit of last week, but that scarcely needed to be the case. Common courtesy and ordinary curiosity should have sufficed: Maurice has an office right next to mine. Our doors are a foot apart, for crying out loud.

Maurice has a PhD in the History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz. That fact alone makes him "PC" as hell. You just can't do "history of consciousness" without resort to postmodernism, because it is a core assumption of the field that the elements of consciousness, especially identity, are discursively produced. For the moment, you don't have to know what that means. I mean, after all, not knowing what something means has never been a bar to making fun of it and feeling threatened by it.

Among military historians, there's a stereotype that Maurice's work would have an overt political agenda, that he would assume that I, as a military historian, would have an overt political agenda (or even worse, a set of blissfully unexamined political assumptions), and that his response to an invitation to lunch would either be a) to turn me down; or b) to have lunch merely in order to bait me. Option 3--that he would accept because he was a decent human being--is ordinarily not considered. It would threaten too much the idea that They are out to get Us.

Nor does Maurice have an overt political agenda. That's still the exception rather than the rule among scholars in his field (if an enterprise that works across intellectual boundaries can be called a field). But somewhere along the line, Maurice just got impatient with activist politics. His political activism is nowadays confined to the classroom. It consists of showing students in great detail how something as intimate as their own identity has actually been taught to them, bit by bit, over a lifetime--and how they therefore possess the ability to become their own teachers, to actively shape their own identities.

If Maurice eschews an overt political agenda, he does have a book topic (The Past Imperfect: Traumatic History and the American Imaginary), a partner, and two children--one of whom needed a trip to the doctor that day, which limited the time we had. Even so, we had a discussion of the race/war project that was very useful to me, as well as another on the lynching site Without Sanctuary. We wound up deciding to meet from time to time to discuss a book we'd read in common. Given his interest in the impact of trauma upon identity and mine on interrogating the symbolic meanings of atrocity, we elected to start with Orlando Patterson's Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries.

Continue to next entry

Return to Main Page.