So a few weeks ago, I sent off to a particular academic press a proposal for an edited volume on lynching in the state of Arkansas, making the argument that, because there exists so little secondary literature specific to the study of mob violence in the state, such a volume would fill an important historiographic hole. While the proposal was received, in general, rather positively, an outside reviewer of said proposal complained that filling a historiographic hole was not reason enough for the production of such a volume—there needed to be a fundamental argument, some new perspective that the book tries to advance.
Certainly, we’ve all been trained to think in terms of “thesis statement,” that history is not simply the presentation of fact but rather the production of a coherent narrative that exists within the framework of verifiable occurrences. History is interpretation. As true as that is, I’ve come to an awareness here recently of the power of simply stating what happened. In his introduction to Genocide: A Reader (2014), Jens Meierhenrich called for call the equivalent of the sort of “bench research” that is the foundation of the natural sciences, “research undertaken with the sole objective of increasing understanding of fundamental aspects of genocidal dynamics” without any broader policy considerations—a dire need in a field established “on the borderline between moral indignation and academic inquiry,” leading to a condition whereby many “advocate for solutions to the problem on the back of partial or incomplete understanding of the phenomenon.” Regarding racial violence in the United States, we, too, often proceed with a partial understanding of the phenomenon and a readiness to indulge in theoretical speculation on the basis of a handful of cases; the secondary literature on lynching, much of it quite excellent, is rife with attempts to tackle the “meaning” of lynching, as if we can discuss the essence of an act the definition of which is regularly (and rightly) debated, an act that lies on a continuum with other forms of violence, both vigilante and statal.
But it is in interpretation, not in “simple” bench research, by which one makes a name for oneself in the field of history. Historians still speak of the “Woodward Thesis” of C. Vann Woodward, and scholars hope to fashion their own unique views that, with luck, might prove influential on later generations of historians. It’s all such a memetic competition—to use Richard Dawkins’s term for a unit of cultural transmission, the meme, comparable to the gene. If genes are selfish, seeking their own survival in a world of fierce competition, then so might we imagine memes, all aspiring toward some kind of dominance in the memetic pool of our shared culture, or in the various subcultures we regularly inhabit (academic, ecclesiastical, sexual, etc.). For historians, something like the “Woodward Thesis” proves an ideal meme, the like of which they all hope to produce on their own and see widely accepted someday. The raw material, all the facts and figures that are the background stuff of historical research—not so much. Such facts are like the amino acids of which the unique genes are composed. As important as they are, the unit of transmission remains the gene, not the smaller bit. Focus upon the latter, and you will not see your lineage live long and prosper.
Here’s the thing about bench research. Everything else depends upon it. Historians can only employ the facts at hand, after all. And as I have discovered in my career helping to develop an online encyclopedia of state and local history, there is a real need, even a hunger, for that basic information, for the non-radical history of a town or the non-innovative summation of a particular law. Sure, we don’t break new ground, but new ground is regularly broken because of what we provide. And think, further, of all the work that goes into genealogical databases or the digitizing of correspondence or the indexing of newspapers. At this basic level, no, we’re not creating those sorts of memes that will go out and conquer the world. What we’re doing is stirring the primordial soup from which everything will take shape. What we’re doing is providing all the building blocks needed to allow the advancement of scholarship.
Stir the pot and watch it bubble. The life that emerges will perhaps never know that you were here, but that’s fine. Your creation lives not just in a particular meme, but in all of them.