Fellow UCLA History PhD and current JD student at Yale Law School, Twitter enthusiast Josh Stein, has recently posted a note over at the Legal History Blog, and the piece definitely merits attention here. Josh welcomed me to the department at UCLA when I got started as a student of Ruth Bloch and later Michael Meranze, so he will always have my personal gratitude and professional admiration, and that is despite the fact that we would spend the next few years arguing from very different intellectual backgrounds and concerns.
In his article, Historians Before the Bench: Friends of the Court, Foes of Originalism, Josh critiques a tendency of historians writing amicus briefs in recent US Supreme Court Cases to accept the originalist and conservative premise of the normative weight of the past. As an alternative to the understandable desire to offer historical critique in the face of what many historians take to be dangerously reactionary judicial philosophy and politics, Josh outlines three interrelated approaches legal historians might take: destabilization, fidelity (something very close to constitutional redemption as outlined by Jack Balkin), and what historian Peter Hoffer calls a “special master approach,” or narrowly focused expert testimony on specific historical questions as opposed to broad, ideological advocacy.
Josh takes the historical profession to speak with one voice and to share a consensus that its special expertise, or “mastery,” is in the art of historicizing, or destabilizing the only-apparently authoritative narratives in which scholars of other disciplines and the public continue to constitute themselves as jurists, philosophers, theorists, or citizens. If this is true, I think it is unfortunate. It seems to me that if Josh is right that we are in an “opportune” moment to rethink how historians interact with the court, it is equally an opportune moment to think what it means to be doing history in the first place. This project, it seems to me, would fruitfully start by extending the historical awareness of context, complexity, and plurality to the conditions of our own intellectual practice. Historians take it for granted that destabilization is an unmitigated good and that the authority of the discipline rests on precisely their special mastery and license to render the past complex and therefore only understandable and relatable with the help of professional historians.
This mode of practice has come under tough (and indeed, historical) criticism recently from Christopher Tomlins and Kunal Parker. Despite these criticisms, I continue to identify with (among other things) a contextualist approach to legal and political thought, and I take the work of Pocock on Gibbon and history, of Tully and Brett on empire, and of Geuss on politics and philosophy to be evidence of the continued efficacy of that kind of work. But the promises of contextualism, broadly defined, rest on the willingness of historians to extend such awareness to themselves, and to accept the fact that there are multiple roads to the past and a plurality of ways of responding to the presence of the past in the present. The failure to attend to the conditions of intellectual practice on the part of historians is ironic, perhaps, but it is also deeply problematic. Historical practice that is defined by its practitioners as the sole domain of constituted professional expertise is one that is by definition and with increasing intensity not even remotely civic.
Against the bureaucratic faith in the special knowledge-production of the expert and their office, I want to rescue a Jeffersonian and radical common-law awareness of use and transformation. A substantively democratic constitutionalism would require a faith not in the ultimate redemption of the text of the US Constitution itself so much as an appreciation for the potentially redemptive work of people and peoples working on the material of their civic inheritance. To participate in history is to make transformative use of the stuff of historical representation, and from this perspective, the task of the historian might be less to destabilize authoritative narratives than to render their constituent components open to thought and action, to consideration and to use. I take this to be roughly in the spirit of S. Levinson’s work and to be looking for a protestant reformation in jurisprudence and history both- one particularly oriented around recovering the priesthood of all believers, or the responsibility for legal and political judgment of all citizens. This is also basically, even if softly, Marxist- it is to insist that we attend to the at once subjective and objective quality of the sensuous, material, and revolutionary domain of practice.
“Facts are but the Play-things of lawyers,- Tops and Hoops, forever a-spin… Alas, the Historian may indulge no such idle Rotating, History is not Chronology, for that is left to lawyers- nor is it Remembrance, for Remembrance belongs to the People. History can as little pretend to the Veracity of the one, as claim the Power of the other, - her Practitioners, to survive, must soon learn the arts of the quidnunc, spy, and Taproom Wit,- that there may ever continue more than one life-line back into a Past we risk, each Day, losing our forebears in forever,- not a Chain of single Links, for one broken Link could lose us All,- rather, a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into a the Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common.”
- Thomas Pynchon, Mason and Dixon, p. 349