I went to a spatial humanities workshop last summer at the National Humanities Center. The best thing about the three-week seminar was the opportunity to spend time thinking and talking with artists, political scientists, philosophers, literary theorists, language experts and, of course, my fellow historians.
We were chatting after the seminar one evening and the awesomely intelligent Liz Corsun said something that hit me hard. I am paraphrasing here, but it was essentially this, "Isn't it funny that once women, working class people & queer people and people of color finally became established and influential within the academy, all of a sudden there was no such thing as truth anymore? As soon as the marginalized could claim authority through information and evidence, suddenly there were no more 'facts,' just texts with varying claims to fact?"*
And here we've been, thinking postmodernism and poststructuralism lend themselves to enacting liberatory possibilities. Multivocality and multiplicity should bend, ultimately, to more nuanced, inclusive, democratic representations of experience and of history, right? Forget that "hegemonic narrative." Let's have alternatives! Following folklorist Henry Glassie's observation that
countermemories are often the "resort of people who feel removed from
power, the imagination’s parallel to armed resistance," it's been common to applaud the prism, the fragment, the partial. We liked the non-totalizing, we embraced the variabilty of variousness.
In the past few months, and certainly since the inauguration of Donald Trump, we have been privvy to the slide of facts. Facts have been portrayed as simply a matter of interpretation. This means, in a sense, there are no facts.
I think of my dissertation supervisor David Glassberg's scrawling handwriting on my draft chapters back in grad school. I'd try to attribute causality to processes. I'd apply a "mood" to my historical actors and claim that people did things because of "culture." David would write, in the tradition of one of his own mentors, "Culture doesn't stand on its hind legs and bark." Culture doesn't act. People act.
Or, as another mentor, Eric Schneider liked to say, "Things actually happened. People said stuff. People did stuff. It matters." Facts, anyone? Everything is actually not just a representation. Representation is not all.
I am not saying that we shouldn't interrogate data, that we should accept information at face value. Many things are intepreted and the variousness of interpretation is often important and necessary. Perspective matters.
A world with no facts is a world for sale to the highest bidder. Yup. That pretty much sums up where we're at. Seeing Dan Rather get hammered by President Trump as a liar really does break something in me. Dan Rather has spent his life trying to find out what happened. Like, what actually happened. I know, as an academic and a humanist, that I am more than surplus to requirements in this era. That's not really anything new. But a free press is considered a necessary condition of democracy. Facts need to matter.
*Upon research, other feminist scholars have had this thought, too. Gerda Lerner, for one.