disorderly & skeptical thoughts

warning: long post

my favourite ever radio show, This American Life, recently ran an episode on a fairly momentous event in 1973: the year when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially revised its definition of homosexuality as a psychiatric illness. It’s things like this that prod me into reminding myself what history really — I mean really, on a day-to-day basis — means. Homosexuality before 1973 was so vilified that you could be fired and deposited in rehabilitative mental clinics for being gay. The reigning ideological atmosphere (“discourse”!) on homosexuality at the time meant that even gay people were themselves convinced they were indeed mentally ill, and actively sought psychiatric treatment from shrinks who vacillated between wondering if it was a kind of insanity or, apropos Freud, some unfortunate legacy of an over-mothered childhood. At any rate: truly unnatural & requiring treatment immediately.

All this has substantially changed today, partly because some of those shrinks were themselves gay, and started to question things & become discontent. As the story goes, they became part of a historical sequence that involved gay rights activism (angry, feather-decked homosexual protesters storming conference meetings), political machination (members of the APA cunningly replacing conservatives with their own younger & more liberal brethren), academic wrangling (the conservatives in a face-off with the liberals), and chance encounters (a young closet army cadet who stumbles into the right gay party) — all this led to the moment of redefinition.

So the story has it all — agency, contingency, discourse, causation, historical change. Historical change, especially. Because we don’t fire homosexuals today; we certainly don’t label them pathological; and in general are far, far more disposed towards toleration than, say, diagnosis. There are two questions for me here: one professional and one personal, so to speak. Firstly, is this historical change progress? and secondly, given that I study history & see examples of momentous historical change like this all the time, why do I have so little intrinsic faith in personal agency?

On progress

on one hand I think: of course it is progress. See how silly the APA psychiatrists in 1970 were: their woefully misguided theories on the pathological nature of homosexuality were all (all!) based on tests performed on groups of gay people who were already undergoing treatment for their “condition”. The findings were, naturally, severely weighted. We now know better. See how people in the profession don’t say things like this anymore:

(conservative psychiatrist, on finding out that the APA had passed the new definition of homosexuality) I said, holy ****! They’re changing the rules! If there’s anything you couldn’t change in this world [it] would be the relationship between a male and a female. They go together! They go together through all of evolution, right up to the animal kingdom, right up to Man! And now they’re saying, it’s just as natural to mate with the same sex as it is to mate with the opposite sex. What will psychiatry think, what will medicine think, what will pediatrics think, th-they’ll think we’ve gone insane!
From This American Life

Gay rights have thus come a long way, and undeniably for the better. It’s a good thing that, even if sentiments such as the above are still being uttered, they are now far more contested than a hundred, even fifty years ago. Certainly they are no longer professionally permissible. This is a sign of a discourse in transition, I think.

But on a wider scale, I am, as I have said before, skeptical about modernity and by inference progress. Eugenics, social darwinism and communism seemed like progressive ideas. I wonder about our ability to see & critically assess the “discourse” that we are in. I wonder, had I been a psychiatrist in 1970, whether I would have known any better; I wonder what I think I know today that fledgling historians thirty years down the road will blockquote on their blogs and laugh at. What’s in question here, too, is my fraught relationship with truth & knowledge, but perhaps that is a question for other times.

On agency

on one hand I think: of course agency is possible. Change clearly does happen in history & people do make it happen. Why, then, do I constantly doubt that anything I do will change anything, make any sort of difference? — when, as a historian, I have had more access to examples of people affecting the course of history than most?

But I’ve begun to see that my sense of personal agency is actually tempered, rather than enhanced, by my sense of history. When you study historical subjects, you cannot avoid remembering that you are a historical subject yourself. But you are also, simultaneously, a historian. When I look into the past, my privileged vantage point enables me to see that a particular action — say, storming an academic conference wearing feather boas and hooting madly — subsequently became significant in the sequence of events that led to 1973. And I realized that as a historical subject I desire this agency; but — and here is the problem — as a historian, I also want to be immediately cognizant of its historical import. As a subject lodged within time, I am ahistorical, bereft of perspective; but as a historian, I reside in and depend on perspective. This tension is, I’ve recently realized, what makes me skeptical of agency. If I take action, I want immediately to be able to see — and not only to see, but to know — that my action is significant. This is, of course, impossible. And so no action is taken. Paralysis ensues & I retreat into my books & the past, where significance is discernible and things are somewhat more knowable than the untranspired future.

This is, I now realize, why I have never e.g. bothered with attending demonstrations & protests — except as a detached observer. It’s why I’m always piqued & intrigued when I meet historians who are also activists — there are, I have found, gratifyingly many, which means that they have all either come to terms with this problem of agency, or never encountered it at all. IS IT JUST ME? am I just freakishly inert?

I have lots more thoughts on history that arose out of this TAL episode: particularly on the rather pat, though highly effective, construction of a historical narrative for general public consumption — but perhaps later, or never. For now, I’ll simply note a recent & amusing discovery that I am, allegedly, a “major nerd”, which is all fine with me, as long as I get to continue to salivate over 18th c. books etc.


4 responses to “disorderly & skeptical thoughts

  • herstory07

    FINALLY! Another history freak! (YEY!) I’m working my way up the historian ladder myself. What’s your “specialty?”

  • The Necromancer

    Happened upon your site surfing the aether. Have to say I like the deep reflection about method and all…A nice summation of the historian’s dilemma (and cosmology). The sense of the longue duree that many history types internalize is something of a commonplace. And yet many of them manage(d) to exercise agency without ending up pathologically presentist…

  • Gavin Robinson

    So much interesting stuff here I’m going to have to think about it some more before I say anything, but in the meantime have a look at this.

  • Nonpartisan

    The problem with leadership — and as historians I think we are all leaders in some sense, both as experts and as teachers — is that the more you worry about your own historical significance, the less significant you become both to the present and the future. Ronald Reagan learned that (or perhaps the rest of us learned it about him) when he failed to accomplish anything of much significance during the final two years of his presidency — he was so worried about his “legacy” that he was afraid to do anything that might risk it.

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