Introducing History of the Present
History of the Present is a journal devoted to history as a critical endeavor. Its aim is twofold: to create a space in which scholars can reflect on the role history plays in establishing categories of contemporary debate by making them appear inevitable, natural, or culturally necessary; and to publish work that calls into question certainties about the relationship between past and present that are taken for granted by the majority of practicing historians. We seek to encourage the critical examination of history's influence on politics and the politics of the discipline of history itself. No history journal currently published has devoted itself specifically to fostering this work and providing a dedicated forum for it. Indeed, at a moment when history, and the social sciences more generally, seems preoccupied with the fantasy of retrieving pre-critical empirical knowledge, a journal committed to history as a form of critique seems more necessary than ever. It is in the rigorous, theoretically-informed writing of history, based mainly on evidence from archives, texts, and other sources, rather than writing about "history" from an abstract philosophical or historiographical perspective, that our contributors will offer readers an alternative to approaches that predominate in existing journals.
The journal's objective is to provide an intellectual space for historical scholarship that is explicitly political and theoretical, but not in the usual sense of those words. The point is to link the present to the past not as its inevitable outcome, but as the contingent product of changes in relationships of power and in the ideas through which such relationships are conceived. We are less interested in articles that concentrate on the affairs of governments or politicians—wherein power is so often a given—than in those that analyze the operations of power through a more finely-grained conceptual frame. We seek neither work that approaches power from a position of simple moralism, as a denunciation of past injustices or as an exposure of the ways the powerful have oppressed or victimized their "others." Nor will we look for work that seeks to right the balance of past mistreatment, showing, for example, that those thought to be without power—women or homosexuals or colonial subjects or workers—indeed had agency. Rather, we will look for articles that analyze power relationships in their complexity: how are they established and justified? How has history been used to legitimize or challenge them?
Our position is that the categories that historians use in a common sense way often contribute to the solidification of relationships of power. By founding a journal dedicated to work that critically examines these categories, by providing a new space in which their history becomes visible, we expect to open a lively conversation among our contributors and readers about what is—and has been—at stake in their different and varied usages. So in this first issue Andrew Zimmerman explores the concept of the primitive as it was deployed in art and economics to secure the German colonial project of the nineteenth century, and Brian Connolly reads antebellum discourses of incest to reveal the anxieties that attended the emergence of the liberal individual subject in the United States. In "Carnival Balls and Penal Codes," Judith Surkis shows how the differential treatment of men and women in policing crimes of "indecency" in early nineteenth-century France was linked to political theories of abstract individualism, while Paul Friedland's essay offers agenealogy of the discourse ofhumane slaughter which hassurfaced in recent conversations about the ethics of eating animals. Each essay speaks in a different way to the critical examination of limits, our inaugural theme, and which signals our commitment to scholarship that thinks not only about how rules, norms, boundaries, and borders are established, but also about how they are exceeded, contested, transgressed, and transformed.
A journal that takes this approach inevitably challenges the discipline of history's standards for what constitutes experience and evidence, as well as what counts as history's acceptable analytic frames (progress, dialectical change, determinations of the present by the past). We are particularly interested in publishing work that pushes these traditional boundaries of acceptability. We think, moreover, that a journal that cuts against the grain of established disciplinary norms will contribute both to history and theory. In this, we are inspired in part by a French journal published between 1975 and 1985, Les Révoltes Logiques. Its object was to marry philosophy and history through archival work that disrupted "the false testimony of linear history" and challenged contemporary certainties and prevailing political categories of analysis. Although inspired by Les Révoltes Logiques, History of the Present is not an attempt to resurrect that journal. For one thing, the historical moments of its founding and ours are very different: Les Révoltes Logiques was launched in the aftermath of 1968 in France; our journal, based in the United States, comes at a moment of backlash against the theoretical turns of the late twentieth century; but also at a moment that demands more engaged forms of critical thinking. It speaks to a need we are acutely aware of among ourselves and our colleagues: to provide a critical space for historians and other scholars who think theoretically about and through the past.
We take seriously the influence of poststructuralism, but History of the Present is not a poststructuralist or postmodern journal. It does not aim to push a particular theoretical line. Articles, of course, may be informed by Derridean or Foucauldian or psychoanalytic or Marxist theory, but only as any of those theories contribute to the writing of history as critique. If it is explicitly theorized, we welcome all sorts of history—social, cultural, economic, political, intellectual—as well as history produced by scholars working in other disciplines. To the extent that what matters in the contemporary world is often secured through reference to the past, we agree with Michel Foucault that history is a potentially productive space for fostering critical thinking. As he put it, "The game is to try to detect those things which have not yet been talked about, those things that, at the present time, introduce, show, give some more or less vague indications of the fragility of our system of thought, in our way of reflecting, in our practices."
Thinking critically through and about history often relies on provocations from other disciplines and from theorists who don't directly address questions in historical terms. For that reason we have a section in the journal called "Interventions" that will publish pieces on topics of current concern, such as Wendy Brown's article on the neoliberal university in this issue. We will also publish responses to highly visible interventions published elsewhere—in this issue Özlem Aslan and Zeynep Gambetti's critique of Nancy Fraser's reading of recent feminist history—as well as short topical essays on theory, culture, politics, and whatever else seems relevant to our thinking.
When we announced the birth of the journal, we learned we were not the first to use the name History of the Present. In 1985, a newsletter at UC Berkeley announced the creation of a network of individuals working in the wake of Foucault. In London, in 1989, following the Berkeley model, another HOP network was established that lasted for about ten years; it spawned a Canadian branch as well. These efforts—more strictly Foucauldian than we aim to be—are not part of our own intellectual genealogy, which is more diverse and eclectic and which will take critical history in directions that exceed the constraints imposed by even the most open-ended theories. They do testify, however, as does this journal, to the need for a space for a history that is unlimited in its critical aspirations and in its willingness to turn the boundaries of the present into new frontiers for the future.