Perhaps because this week's readings addressed interdisciplinarity (especially Butler's piece on critique and dissent), it stuck me that my own personal approach to troublemaking in my field involves bringing other disciplines into my historical work. I've found theories on race, gender, and sexuality to be essential to my work; not only do theories on the subaltern, for example, help me understand British imperialism, but they also help me ask better questions of all my sources. Literary criticism and the myriad lit classes I took as an undergrad have been especially important to me since I am interested in discourse; learning to do a close reading of a text has turned out to be one of the most crucial skills I use, and it was a skill that I largely learned outside of history classes.
I think that all of us in this class would agree that asking new questions and bringing new perspectives to history is a good thing (although the broader historical community is still far from convinced on this point, unfortunately). But there is a place where I am still a bit hesitant to make trouble in my discipline. I really like to think about metaphor, to make bold, controversial statements, to provoke questions and generally rile things up; but is there a point at which troubling history becomes dishonest? Do I have a responsibility to the historical subjects I study to present their history in ways they would agree with, or even in ways that they would understand?
To give a concrete example, I was in a class last semester with a professor who was very much of the Old School (I should note that the umn history department in general is a pretty progressive department with strong roots in social and gender history). When one of the kids in the class suggested that white settlers had "dehumanized" American Indians, the professor told us that it was unfair to use a term that people in the past wouldn't understand to describe their behavior/viewpoints. To do so, he said, was to "bang the past on the head."
Leaving aside for a moment whether or not mid-19th century Americans would have understood the idea of dehumanization (my personalview is that a country that could legislate that African Americans counted as 3/5 of a person would certainly understand the concept), is it really unfair to bring modern theory/terminology to bear on the past? I reacted very strongly to this idea. A woman in 1865 would not have recognized the term "marital rape," for example, but I really believe that she would have understood the inherent wrongness of such a violation, even if she didn't have the language to express it. And while a historical subject might not have understood his sexual behaviors to be "queer", is it irresponsible for me to ask how his behaviors fit into a broader queer cultural, or to place his experiences on a continuum describing the development of a queer identity?
Because my troubling relies on relatively new ways of thinking (about gender, race, etc.), I'm going to run into this problem again and again. As long as I don't intentionally falsify my sources, are there any ethical limits on what I can do with the past?