What do historians study? Do we study historical events and past societies through analysis of extant artefacts? Or do we study dead people by looking at their stuff? Tim Hitchcock argues that we do the latter:
In recent years I find myself using the terms Stuff and Dead People in talks and titles more and more. And as a historian I find myself conceptualising my work as being about Stuff inherited from Dead People. Both expressions just sound right. … They form an attempt to de-centre the language of historical and social science authority that underpins the professional claims of academic historians as a whole. By refusing to use the categories and languages of authority we inherited, I am self-consciously rejecting the systems that underpin the professional academic practise of history.
It’s worth reading the whole post, if only for his astute remarks about Kissinger’s questionable place amongst the living, but I want to emphasize an overlapping issue: jargon-busting.
In my reading, Tim is, amongst other things, arguing that historians should think critically about the strange dialects adopted by our scholarly tribes. Rather than relying on traditional technical labels or snazzy new terms borrowed from other fields, we should try to find alternatives.
More importantly, to my mind, his specific suggestions are not latinate neologisms invented to bemuse colleagues and confuse students (e.g. Derrida’s différance). They are deliberately common English words: the sort of words that can be found both in the KJB and in a 21st-century pub chatter. This has at least two key advantages over the Derridean approach.
First, as Tim implies, using words that seem blunt or imprecise can force us to think differently about what it is we are actually trying to label. ‘Stuff’ is much less specific than ‘text’, ‘image’, ‘object’ or ‘landscape’, but that is exactly the point: we don’t study each of those things in isolation any more. I can see how this technique might be useful in my own research. Whilst investigating the economic situation in the 1690s, I’ve come to the conclusion these were simply ‘hard times’. This phrase neatly includes all of the economic problems of this decade – increasing fiscal demands, war-time trade disruption, liquidity crisis, food price inflation, etc. – and, at the same time, reminds us that many people experienced these problems as a general calamity, not as separate challenges to be dealt with independently.
Second, using words like these has the advantage of making us much more understandable. ‘Dead people’ is a phrase that makes sense to everyone, whereas terms such as ‘historical actors’ or ‘active historical agents’ are not quite as obvious. Historians seem to be less intoxicated by technical jargon than many of our fellow academics.1 Nonetheless, there is still plenty of needlessly abstract, obscure vocabulary that could be profitably chucked. Replacing some of our quasi-scientific jargon words with more ‘vulgar’ alternatives would make it much easier to have the sort of fruitful conversations with non-academics that we all claim to want.
These two potential benefits – challenging outdated thinking habits and opening up scholarly discussions – seem to me to be reason enough consider how you might be able to do this in your own work. Perhaps the study of ‘dead people’s stuff’ won’t catch on, but it’s a great excuse to think hard about the words we use.
1 One need only dip into a typical book of literary criticism or sociology to realise that it would have been much more difficult for Sokal to persuade a historical journal to publish his balderdash than it was for him to convince Social Text.