Joan Wallach Scott


On her book On the Judgment of History

Cover Interview of June 02, 2021

A close-up

If a reader happened upon the book in a bookstore, I’d hope they would read the first pages of the introduction, which explains why I came to do the book; and then perhaps the chapter on the reparations movement, which speaks to our present in critical and, I like to think, insightful ways. In that chapter I focus on the writing on the subject of reparations by the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. He makes the case for reparations less as specific financial repayment of a debt long owed, and rather as something he calls “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal (…). Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.” Here history is a critical rewriting of the past; a form of accounting for past wrongs. The anthropologist David Scott calls for a “moral and reparatory history”, by which he means what Coates does: a history that recognizes as untenable, the progressive narrative of American democracy, replacing it with a more complicated, uneven story in which time and place have multiple valences.

Reading that third chapter illustrates my own preoccupation, developed more fully in the epilogue, about what it means to write “critical history”. That history asks us to examine the categories of analysis we use to think about the past, to ask what interpretive and political ends they might serve, and to explore how present concerns influence what we make of past events. Where does the idea come from that history should constitute a coherent, linear narrative, a singular story of national development? What are the other ways of writing that history, for example as a story of proposals and plans offered but rejected that political units consist of small communal associations instead of large, centralized nation-states? What kinds of argument were made on either side? How did one view prevail over the other and, in the process, erase the losing position from visibility for the future? Maybe we should add the epilogue to the list of readings for a browser to at least glance at. The introduction and epilogue provide a theoretical frame for the three substantive historical chapters.