I read a wonderful article by the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recently, and two things transpired: I took heart from it, and then wondered if I should have. Though a great deal of the article is extraordinarily inspiring, I took heart in particular from Schlesinger’s own discussion of his Age of Jackson, in which he states his ‘agenda’, or what he was trying to do by writing this history: to show that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, under attack from conservative quarters as ‘un-American’, was on the contrary rooted in a long, illustrious and deeply ‘American’ tradition dating all the way back to the era of Jacksonian democracy. As a proponent of the New Deal himself, Schlesinger was charmingly candid, and humble, about his vested interests in giving historical weight to his claims. He wanted history to show something for him. In using the past to deflect the criticisms of the present, he lent credence to his own position and still managed to write what was, according to relatively trustworthy sources, marvellous history.
I took heart from this — and should I? I, too, arguably have an ‘agenda’; I am trying to do something by writing my thesis: I am trying to write beyond races and nations, in places where these categories have become utterly calcified, and come to be, over time, fortified by religions and politics. I’m writing and researching from a conviction — perhaps even a wish — that there are, and were, other ways a society can be, and that e.g. the right-wing political dominance, the racial categories that cleave Malaysian society today are in every way historically contingent. I’m interested in showing this contingency, in historicizing the communal society that is today so conceptually unassailable, and I particularly want history to show this.
Perhaps such a flagrant agenda is dangerous, too potentially myopic, too one-sided. But in recognition of this, Schlesinger is endearingly humble: he wrote, entirely without guile, that in the years since his writing the Age of Jackson, Sean Wiletz has come along and written the book that he, Schlesinger, “should have” written: one that filled in his omissions, balanced out his picture of the age of Jackson. Is that not what historiography and scholarship is about? — peer-reviewed checks and balances? Perhaps recognition of one’s own agendas allows — demands — self-review, and so I suppose the most important thing is to check myself wherever and as often as possible. In spite of myself, and perhaps in Schlesinger’s spirit, I suppose write in the conviction that history matters. Whether my convictions — these or any of the above — ought to inform the history that I write is something I’m still figuring out.