The Program of CHS

Critical Historical Studies is an interdisciplinary journal devoted to innovative critical and historical reflections on politics, culture, economy, and social life. Over the past few decades, much of the critical thinking in the humanities and social sciences has focused broadly speaking on questions of identity – on inequities structured by gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and post-coloniality – and has utilized the tools of the cultural or linguistic turns as its privileged analytic lens. An earlier style of critical work, largely grounded in Marxist analysis of class inequities, has dwindled proportionally. We certainly recognize the enormous political, moral, and analytical gains achieved by the cultural and linguistic turns. Yet it seems increasingly clear that the problems besetting the contemporary world cannot be grasped adequately without renewed attention to the political economic questions that have been out of favor among critical intellectuals during the past few decades. Critical Historical Studies aims to foster an innovative approach to historical transformations, one that is influenced by Marx and the Frankfurt School but that remains in open and vigorous dialogue with other critical currents.

 

In the very period during which the humanities and social sciences have been caught up in the linguistic and cultural turns – that is, since the 1970s – world capitalism has undergone profound and irreversible transformations. The current crisis of the world economy has only accentuated the challenges already posed by, for example, the rapid advance of economic globalization, the epochal shift from manufacturing to services in the wealthiest countries, the radical speeding up of information flows, the global upsurge of migration, the dizzying ascent of previously impoverished Asian economies, the commodification of ever more aspects of social life, the global ascendancy of neoliberal economic doctrines, the declining influence of organized labor, and the growing world ecological crisis, including global climate change, massive die-offs of species, and dwindling supplies of fresh water. These transformations have had multiple effects on contemporary social relations, politics, culture, and intellectual life. In the face of such challenges, we believe that the social sciences and humanities urgently need to reintroduce the question of capitalism, its transformations, and the manifold effects of these transformations into their inquiries.

 

The many challenges evident in the present constitute the immediate stimulus for reintroducing the question of capitalism into critical research in the social-sciences and humanities. But the problem of capitalism is also an intrinsically historical problem. The rise of capitalism as humanity’s dominant socio-economic framework is a continuing and ever-changing historical process and capitalism’s peculiar dynamic of restless creative destruction has imparted a specific rhythm and shape to modern history. Different eras of capitalist history are interwoven with the flourishings and declines of different cultural forms, social movements, and political struggles. To grasp the influence of capitalist structures and trends on the present requires a rich sense of historical processes, historical constraints, and historical possibilities. Critical Historical Studies will be a forum for nurturing this necessary historical consciousness.

 

The goal of the journal is to explore systematically the complex connections between cultural, political, and social change on the one hand and historical transformations of the socio-economic contexts in which these changes take place on the other. The specific analytical perspective we wish to bring to this exploration can be clarified by explicating our journal’s title: Critical Historical Studies. We do so in reverse order, beginning with the last and least complex term of the title and moving on toward the first and most complex term.

 

Studies. We use the term “historical studies” rather than “history” for a straight-forward reason: because we believe that the most valuable critical historical research and reflection is currently being written not only by historians, but also by anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, geographers, political scientists, art historians, and literary scholars. The term “historical studies” signals that we intend to publish cutting-edge historical work without regard to the disciplinary affiliation of its authors. The plural and rather open term “studies” also signals that we intend to publish a wide variety of types of articles; not only monographic research articles but also theoretical reflections, literary analyses, polemics, essay reviews, and so forth. We will publish a wide range of high quality studies that we feel advance critical historical knowledge.

 

Historical. “Historical” implies a concern with the past. We are indeed interested in knowledge of human experience in the past, including the past of both the pre-modern and the modern world. We intend to publish studies of any period in the long human career. But we also believe that studies dealing mainly with contemporary problems count as historical if they place present issues in historical context – by seeking out their historical precedents or conditions of possibility, by indicating what it is about the present historical conjuncture that gives rise to the problem or that points toward a solution – or, for that matter, by speculating about how the present state of affairs points toward some historical future. In other words, we intend by the word “historical” that all problems, including contemporary problems, be understood as part of a temporal sequence of evolving forms. To be sure, work on past times has certain advantages over work on the present – it can, for example, look at relatively long temporal sequences and can be more certain about the outcomes of the processes being studied. Moreover, an investigator working on past societies is likely to have greater historical distance on the subject of inquiry: the past is “a foreign country” that challenges our implicit assumptions about how the world works and thereby loosens the hold of such assumptions about the present as well. But it is also true that – as Croce put it – all history is contemporary history. Indeed, in our view, to be truly “historical,” work on past eras should be informed by critical reflection about why such work is worth carrying out in the present.

 

Critical. But what is “critical reflection”? Critique in a Kantian sense implies a philosophical perspective aimed at a reasoned clarification of the meanings and implications of doctrines, judgments, practices, and institutions. Our usage borrows in particular from the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt School, which aimed to evaluate institutions, ideas, and practices according to their implications for the possibility of human emancipation – building above all on their specific readings of Marx, as leavened by Kant and Hegel. Critical history, therefore, is in the first instance history that is based on a moral and political standpoint in the present, on a reasoned dissatisfaction of some sort with life as it is currently lived and an attempt to reflect on that dissatisfaction by means of historical investigation, either directly or by implication.

 

Given that our present, like that of the critical theorists, is shaped by the institutional and cultural forms of capitalism, critique must among other things take into account the specific forms of domination characteristic of capitalism – from various kinds of direct economic exploitation to the general commodification of social and cultural life. But if critical history as we understand it is necessarily based on moral concerns, it is definitely not a moralistic history: it does not set up the historian as a sovereign moral judge of the past and the present. Rather, we follow the critical theorists in insisting on the necessity of deep historical reflexivity. A critical historical scholar, when wrestling with a historical problem, should always ask herself not only “Why does this problem interest me?” or “Why does its solution seem important to me?” but also “How am I and my own moral judgments implicated in the problem I study?” or “What is it in the current historical situation that makes me capable of seeing this as a problem at all?” or “What are the political, discursive, economic, social, or cultural conditions in the current phase of social development that pose this as a problem to me but that made it seem non-problematic or differently problematic to investigators working in a previous period?” Critical historical scholarship, in other words, implies a historical critique of the conditions of possibility for the inquirer to engage in the inquiry at hand. Critical historical study implies at once a bold willingness to seek out and challenge sources of social domination and a modest recognition that our own ability to engage in critique is both produced and limited by the particular concatenation of social forces that act upon us in the present.

 

The Editors