Joan Wallach Scott


On her book On the Judgment of History

Cover Interview of June 02, 2021


I hope readers will find it interesting to think about the much-repeated references to the judgment of history, where they come from, what they imply. The book is a critical exploration of why and how we use that idea, what its history is (it’s an eighteenth-century secular version of the idea of God’s judgment at the End of Times), what its limits are for understanding the work not only of historians (we make very different judgments depending on our perspectives and the questions we ask) but also of history itself—that body of material that recounts the lived lives and the contests and conflicts with and about power in which human actors engage.

I think it’s important for non-specialists, non-historians to think with me about what history does and doesn’t do for our understanding of the past and the present. History is never only a true story about the past. That’s not to say it’s fiction or “alternative facts”, but that it presents real facts in the service of an interpretation. The interpretation may be a moral judgment, but it is never THE judgment; it may be a political judgment, explicitly or implicitly taking sides with the people whose lives and actions are being recounted. It may rest on imaginative reconstructions of pasts in the absence of complete archives, as in some very compelling studies, especially of slavery and black lives in subsequent periods. It may seek to call into question current common-sense beliefs in the relationships of past and present, stories told, for example, of the unrelenting progress of racial or gender relations in the United States and elsewhere.

Right now, we are witnessing an extraordinary attack on this kind of history in France, where the Minister of Education and the President are calling critical histories of race and colonialism a subversion of the unity of the nation. These politicians are threatening to close down programs devoted to these histories on the grounds not only that they are subversive, but that they are not objective science and instead said to be political ideology. In fact, these programs of critical studies of race are often based on hard data that confirm real inequalities of access to jobs, education, housing, and the like. It is the government representatives who are driven by political motives, in this case sheer calculation about what will win popular support away from the far-Right party in the upcoming presidential election.

All of this is to say that history is not only an account of past contests for recognition and power, but also that the writing of history is itself an engagement with those very contests in the present.