History and Historians

Structures, Agency, and a Bleg


Or, An Apprentice Scholar’s (narcissistic) Lament

Ran across this the other day, and thought it worth “commonplacing”:

Ultimately, I hoped to show that we should not think of “agency” and “structure” as rivals, or even as being mutually exclusive. As I state in the last paragraph of the book, “The constraints and structures of any particular period are, however, often the creation of a previous generation’s political agents. In the short term, politics is, in fact, a world of constraints, but to agents willing to wait for effects that may not emerge for decades, the world is full of opportunity.” Agents have to operate in a world of structures. But if they have a long time horizon, they can create new structures, which will then act to constrain the next generation of agents. And so on.

~Steven Teles, “Response,” Crooked Timber, 1 May 2009, describing one of the themes of his book The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law (PUP, 2008).

Teles makes an interesting point here, but not a new one. Antithesis (agents’ program) has followed Thesis (old constraints/structures) resulting in Synthesis (new constraints/structures) since the Greeks. He deviates from Marx in giving agents…er, agency. But the basic idea is very, very old.

(Additionally — as several of other of the respondants at the Crooked Timber seminar on his book have noted — the permanence of the specific change that he describes is still very much in question; conservative legal “structures” that have evolved may not last long).

But I come not to praise Teles, nor to bury him. I bring him up because I’ve been thinking about how the political progression he outlines offers a good model for doing political/cultural history* of the sort I’m after — and thus, how it might apply to my own work (that was a brief vacation from academic narcissism, eh?).

As I see it, his model implies (at least) three questions: who, what, and how.

Who are the agents? What are the structures (pre- and post-)? And how did the agents cause the change (i.e. what is the process)? I would add one more, too — left out of his model because his subject already seems important — so what?

Bumping along in my research, these questions are ever-present, similar in their pugnacious tenacity to the lingering funk that abides in back seat area of my car, courtesy of its previous owner. They remind me that they were here first, and won’t leave until well after my time with this project (the car? in this metaphor?) is done.

It’s probably more of a comment on the state of my diss. than anything else that they are all, as yet, unanswered. I’m still trying to figure out who the agents are (the China traders? Politicians? Journalists/editors/other shapers of opinion?), what the structures are (the American economy? Foreign policy? Domestic politics?), and without those, I can’t identify what the change was, nevermind the how that change happened.

It’s like putting together a puzzle all at once. A really stupid, long, possibly unmarketable puzzle.

Put another way, I am, like Daniel Faraday, trying to differentiate the variables from the constants. And unfortunately, there’s not regression I can run that will make it pop out, brilliant and blatantly obvious to all with eyes to see.

Yes, yes, life is hard, I know, I know. Find some cream…

However, I expect that all of these things will only come together in the writing process. This is the magical thinking part of graduate school — that it is through thinking out the ideas on the page that pieces will form, and then be concrete enough to manipulate into different chains of argument. A bit opposite of how we (ok, I) usually think of language, at least in my vulgar post-structuralist moments — as clarifying rather than amorphous and obfuscating.

But enough about me, here’s the bleg: who are your agents? What are your structures? How did you figure out who (or what) to look at? And when did you realize that they did something?

And for those non-historians out there (there are some of you, I hope?): is it the same for you, when you’re thinking things out? How about for you novelists? Lawyers? Acrobats?

*By “political/cultural” I suppose I mean trying to track the ways in which changes in culture affect politics, rather like how Teles describes how the creation of a conservative legal culture changed how the politics of the judiciary changed. Awkward, I know, but “politics,” while maintaining a capacious meaning in many academic uses, doesn’t read that way outside the Journal of American History.

Image cite: Ben on Holiday, “Narcis fields near Hillegom,” Flickr, CC License

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