“History” as an excuse to stop thinking

by zunguzungu

A few days ago, I was mildly irritated by something that I think is interesting for slightly more important reasons. In an essay that sings the praises of Julia Child, Tom Philpott wrote that “I suspect that through most of history, cooking was generally something to be avoided.”

A perfectly fine, if dubious, bit of speculation, because he began with the phrase “I suspect.” However, when Ezra Klein quoted him, the suspicion was replaced with broad historical assertion: “[T]hrough most of history, cooking was generally something to be avoided—an activity people strived to be able to pay (or force) someone else to do.”

Now this is not a mis-quote, exactly, but it does say something different than what Philpott originally intended. What disappears in this bit of lazy linking is the fact that the underlying argument appears to be an unsupported generalization about all of humanity everywhere always, one which vanishes beneath that wonderful rhetorical black box “History.” Why does our brain turn off at that word?

As AndrewMC pointed out this morning,

“History’s kind of interesting that way. People believe that it’s not like math or chemistry, where there is usually a concrete answer, and where a deep understanding of the subject requires years and years of specialized training. As we all know from talking to Civil War buffs, amateur historians can be well-versed in their subject. But more importantly, the general public thinks that specialized study in history isn’t necessary. And public figures encourage this. It’s just names and dates, right? All you need to do is read a book about the American Revolution, and you’ll know everything you need to. Or, best of all, “it’s just your opinion, your interpretation.””

I suspect that the notion that humanity always and forever hates cooking is probably bogus. There’s a “drudgery of housework” story being told there that assumes its own universality, but because it has absolutely no reason to be so in a universal sense, we should be looking at the reasons why it tends to be true in particular senses (why cooking is drudgery at particular times and places, for example). That’s what history is. My opinion is just as much a speculation (albeit an educated one) as Klein’s and Philpott’s, of course, but that’s the point: there is something in the rhetorical move of “history says” that allows this fact, this uncertainty (or rather, perhaps, this interest in identifying contingency), to disappear from view.  And it’s a move that anyone can do; anyone can just point to “history” to justify their position, and the deed is done.

I was flipping around in the The Feminine Mystique last night (having picked up a free copy at the Albany library give-away bin) and was struck, in this regard, by her argument that the drudgery of housework was a 20th century problem, that the real dilemma for modern women wasn’t how to liberate themselves from their historical burden but rather this very notion (the “mystique”) itself: the idea that being a modern housewife was already a liberation (through modern appliances and so forth) was a means of transforming what it meant to be a housewife in all sorts of devastating ways, and a problem for which (because it is already conceived as a liberation) made it the problem with no name.

I suspect that “cooking” is being mis-historicized in the same sort of way as housework was there: instead of looking at how “cooking” came to be conceptualized and constructed in the last century as an unpleasant task, and thinking of the formation of this practice as a break from how it was conceptualized before that, the practice gets treated as if it had always been exactly like that and the last fifty or a hundred years become the signifier of the entirety of the past. Such history” means, in practice, the last century, a quite myopic conception of human existence.