Polemics and Explanatory Power in Arguments and Archives

Depending on which event we choose as the starting point, the Internet and its associated technologies have been around for approximately forty to fifty years. Given that we are still in the Internet epoch’s early stages, it is not surprising that with the severity of the consequences we witness angst, questioning, and debate as the flying debris and dust storms take their time to settle (if they ever will settle). When combined with the Internet’s socio-economic consequences, digital technologies have rightly unsettled higher education and in some respects provoked an identity crisis. For those who see disturbances and identity crises as a setback, the inclination understandably arises to fight for the primacy of older traditions. For those who question many of the assumptions of both the role of the university in the past and in the present or who simply see the causal relationships between the activities of the academy and social inequities and harms, the new technologies present opportunities for re-inventing higher learning along the lines that more closely align with the best values of the human being as a species. It would thus seem to be a reasonable and arguably healthy outcome for higher education to experience an increase in the level of polemical discourse and scholarship especially during a time of social upheaval.

Without sufficient polemic debate, currents of thought turn into stagnant doldrums. Polemic discourse in the best case scenario reflects commitment, concerns, and the notion that there is something at stake. On the other hand, too much polemic discourse results in debate that loses sight of larger issues and questions. (One wonders if the failure of professors and researchers in higher education to organize to create one big union that can take power back from administrators and non-academic interests is not to some extent a reflection of the adverse consequences of polemics). The impact of new technologies on research and scholarship present opportunities to polemically interrogate the role of the archive and archival work.

To some extent Cameron Blevins’ plea for “argument-driven” scholarship might appear to be a call to revive an older orthodoxy, which at the risk of exaggeration sees the university as safe haven where experts, having dedicated the bulk of their productive lives to specialized topics, fight out their battles in journals that maintain the cycles of thesis assertions, claims, defenses, disputations, and refutations. Both Jessica Marie Johnson and Marlene L. Daut propose important programs for archival work that could be interpreted as “argument-driven” scholarship depending on how we understand what we mean by “argument”. Their polemics raise the issue of which arguments are the most valuable to make and which arguments lead higher education down the path to its irrelevancy or still worse its active and passive roles in abetting systems of genocide, oppression, and exploitation.

It would seem that the “newness” of information technologies masks the fact that similar questions and debates about the archive and archival work have been part of intellectual and academic labor for centuries. One example that comes to mind is the critique of archival interpretation in the seventh chapter of The Making of the English Working Class, in which the  historian E.P. Thompson takes his colleague, fellow historian Sir John Clapham, to task for fallaciously arguing that workers were not affected by the enclosures that pushed them into immiseration and the cruelties of the urban factory systems. Thompson published his book in 1963, six years before the delivery of information over the first interconnected computers at UCLA and Stanford University and twenty-six years before Tim Berners Lee designed the protocol and language for interconnecting electronic documents. Thompson writes:

Throughout this painstaking investigation, the great empiricist eschews all generalisations except for one–the pursuit of the mythical “average”. In his discussion of agriculture we encounter the “average farm”, the “average small-holding”, the “average” ratio of labourers to employers–notions which often obscure more than they reveal, since they are arrived at by lumping together evidence from Welsh mountains and Norfolk corn-lands which Clapham himself has been at pains to distinguish. We go on to encounter “the average cottager an area affected by enclosure” the “average” loss to rural earnings from industrial by-employments, the gross earning of “that rather vague figure, the average English (with Welsh) labourer”, and so on. We have already seen that this “averaging” can give us very odd results: the 60% of the labourers who, in 1830, were in low-wage counties which fell below the “average” line.

Now what is being averaged? The first part of this statement might be of some value if it could be shown that in the same villages where cottage gardens were lost potato patches come in (although we should also examine relative rents). But the second part, which has already passed into comfortable tradition, is not an example of averaging but of statistical dilution. We are being invited to dilute the figure for those parts of Britain where enclosure did take place with those where it did not, divide the sum of this weak solution by the number of counties, and come up with an “average” loss in well-being “due to enclosures”. But this is nonsense. One may not take an average of unlike quantities; nor may one divide quantities by counties to arrive at an average of value. This is what Clapham had done.

What he was really doing, of course, was to offer a tentative value judgement as to that elusive quality, “well-being”, in the period of maximum enclosure. But to do this, very many more factors–cultural as well as material–should have been brought to bear upon the judgement. Since the judgement springs like an oak out of such a thicket of circumstantial detail–and since it is itself disguised as an “average”–it is easily mistake as a statement of fact (Thompson 214-15).

Questions about the accurate meaning of the archive and the effective use of the archive to advance claims have been a part of academic work long before the Internet arrived. Public archival work has also been a part of the landscape for a significantly long time as is evidenced by the more than 10,000 historical societies in the US alone. Argument-driven digital scholarship is surfacing more and more as can be seen by the debates surrounding the online digital essay The 1619 Project (2019). In this case, an older generation of historians were inspired to dispute claims that the struggle for the independence of the British colonies in North America represented significantly enough an effort to protect the institution of slavery. To some extent it is up to argument-driven scholars to engage with claims conveyed through digital technologies. As more and more scholars become internet literate, new digital spaces along with older journals will serve as forums for debate. In the meantime, archival scholars are taking advantage of the capabilities new technologies offer in facilitating the wider and more open dissemination of historical information.

In support of Blevins’ argument, it is the explanatory power of argument-driven historical research and writing that perhaps offers the most important contribution to higher education, culture, and society. Much of the continuing injustices and social ills can be traced to institutions that have roots in events and developments many centuries ago. If we look only to the current moment for explanations we are likely to miss the deeper regimes that enforce the patterns shaping and determining the world we live in. Explanatory power derives from both careful and critical arguments, balanced polemics, and careful and critical publication of digitally reproduced primary sources.

Works Cited

Project, The 1619. 2019. “The 1619 Project” in The New York Times. New York: The New York Times Company.

Thompson, E.P. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books.