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.

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