May the force (of history) be with you

I’ll admit it, sometimes I’m a sucker for the kind of pop culture hot takes that are sucking up an increasing amount of social media oxygen. These have taken a particularly intense turn with the impending release of the new Star Wars movie, which has sent writers and editors scurrying into the click mines. As political scientists Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel Nexon noted in their excellent piece on the relationship between pop culture and political science, “It’s as if a thousand editors cried out for clickbait, and no one had the courage to silence them.” Hear hear.

Jackson and Nexon make a series of thoughtful and important points in the article, but the most important is that many of the writers opining about the relationship between fictional worlds and contemporary politics  simply transpose a fictional world onto our own in order to reveal some ambiguous, tenuous “lesson” about our daily lives. As the authors note, “if you’re going to use a fictional universe to make an argument, you have to adhere to the basic rules of that universe. Not everyone does.”

For the authors, this failure to account for context and the fictional texts themselves means we lose the ability to read or watch them for their actual messages about politics and society. At the same time, directionless analysis that looks for lessons about politics from Emperor Palpatine (but seriously, who thinks this is a good idea?) also makes for bad interpretations of our own world. The fictional can approximate the real world, but it remains only an approximation, one that works according to the story that scribes and filmmakers want to tell. Search elsewhere for answers, you must.

But for all of the problematic constructs that Jackson and Nexon correctly document and dismantle, they are missing one important word: Anachronism. In very brief, anachronism is the act of applying one environment, context, or set of ideas to another time and place — or a galaxy far, far away — where these concepts do not necessarily apply or have the same meaning.

I have no doubt at all that the authors know and take the concept to heart. After all, what they described and critiqued in their article is anachronism in every sense. So why does the word matter? For me, the importance of the word lies in what its absence illustrates about some fundamental differences between political science and historical analysis.

I do not want to put too fine a disciplinary point on this issue, since people are not their academic disciplines, and vice-versa. Many, many political scientists appreciate and stress the value of context, deep experiences of places and people acquired through study and fieldwork, and the avoidance of choosing frameworks that overgeneralize in the quest to make larger points about political order.

However, the field itself does not place the same emphasis on avoiding anachronism as History does, and that matters. Historians are not always saints in the avoidance of anachronism, but it is widely considered a “sin” in the field, one of the worst you can commit. Historians at every level of study from high school to graduate training are inculcated in the horrors of anachronism. When I begin a class I explain the concept to my students and talk about it at length with them so that they can keep it in mind throughout the term.

Sometimes this emphasis can go too far, where historians overcontextualize or avoid frameworks for fear of omitting important details, as the historian and sociologist William Sewell wrote in The Logics of History. But the focus on avoiding anachronism  is also a key analytical strength of History. It forces students and practitioners alike to ask difficult questions about their sources, weigh incomplete and uneven information in light of what we know, what we think we know, and what we do not know, and also take note of the ways in which our experiences and perspectives can both inform and occlude our perspectives on the past and present.

This fine-grained attention is crucial both for historical and contemporary analysis, where one can only understand how things change over time with a careful understanding of different contexts at all levels of a study. And maybe, just maybe, it will cool the ardor of hot take warriors before they opine blithely on destroying far-away worlds in the name of page views.

Updates, reflections, and a few new articles

This post will be part personal update, part promotional entry, and part reflection on the past few years and resurrecting a dormant blog. When I started al-Wasat with my good friend Aaron Zelin, we intended it to be a chance to explore at length some of the niche issues that interested us. In that time, many of these issues have become less niche, while we’ve also both moved on to some different but related things.

When I went back to school in the fall of 2013 to pursue a PhD in African History, I consciously took a step back from the kind of policy-related writing I’d done in the past. I’ve stayed active (too active) on Twitter, but while I’ve continued to occasionally write articles and short essays, much of my attention has been focused on my academic work. Now I’ve finished coursework, passed my language qualifications, and begun the process of applying for research fellowships and reading for my comprehensive exams in the spring. While this is a busy time, it’s also a good one for me to reflect a bit on the relationship between academic work and more contemporary research.

In my time in academia I’ve found that while many people are more open to engagement with the world outside, even though the stereotype of the Ivory Tower academic is only partly true at best. Many people instead already do engage extensively with non-academic subjects and themes, and others want to do the same but are not quite sure how. For historians in particular, it can be challenging to relate research into the past to contemporary life. It can also be difficult to find time for this work when academic programs and job markets do not generally reward things like blog posts, articles, and media appearances.

This is changing rapidly, and there are already fantastic examples of scholars doing deeply researched, rigorous work about the past and present that remain connected to the contemporary world in interesting and new ways, whether at Jadaliyya, Alex Thurston’s Sahel Blog, Malika Rahal’s Textures du Temps, or elsewhere. These blogs and the people who run them have helped inspire my own commentary and writing for years, and will continue to do so.

Along those lines, I’m going to take more time in the coming months and years to write publicly again about the issues and parts of the world that interest me the most, namely North and West Africa. My goal is to stay engaged in current debates while also using my historical research and training in different ways. In doing so, I want to explore not just the connections between the past and the present but also how historical methods can inform analysis.

Those kinds of reflections and the personal connections to events far away were part of a piece I co-wrote with Prof. Gregory Mann for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog on the recent attacks in Paris and Bamako. In that piece and another for Al Jazeera America, I emphasized the Malian context for the Bamako attacks and Mali’s eroding security environment. And in a wide-ranging conversation with Karl Morand for his excellent Middle East Week podcast, I talked about the history of jihadist mobilization in the Sahara and Sahel and the impact of France’s 2013 intervention in Mali, the resonance and explanations for this violence beyond a local framework, how people talk about politics and violence in Africa, and how I view the role of historical methodologies in understanding current affairs. I will continue to explore these and related ideas in some upcoming writing about Mali as well as Algeria and Morocco for different publications.

In the meantime, I’ll use this space to do some less formal writing, to flesh out ideas, and to continue the kind of dialogue I’d like to see take place about the concepts, issues, and places that are important to me. Stay tuned.