Sunday, March 20, 2011

How Many Jewish Historians Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

How many Jewish Historians does it take to change a light bulb (or even to insert one in the first place)? Well, as with everything in Judaism, it is subject to a Talmudic style debate.

Heinrich Graetz: As the light bulb both suffers, by having an electric current pumped through it, and thinks, by lighting up, it is without question a uniquely Jewish symbol and should be placed within our Jewish Studies department where it will stand as a mark of Judaism's intrinsic rationality in contrast to the superstition and intolerance of Christians, who for some reason get the majority of the light bulbs. Since our kind civilized German gentile neighbors are unlikely to give us many light bulbs they will have to be rationed out. Historians of Kabbalah and Hasidism will not be receiving light bulbs in the hope that everyone will forget that they even exist, allowing the rest of us to avoid embarrassment at inter-departmental meetings.

Salo W. Baron: I object to this lachrymose narrative. Light bulbs have always been an intrinsic part of their surrounding socio-economic structures. And if you object to the lack of suffering being inflicted on light bulbs I will make you read my eighteen volume social and religious history of light bulbs.

Jacob Katz: I second Baron. To show how Jews and gentiles might peacefully interact let us bring in one of the Hispanic workers to symbolize the shabbos goy and insert the light bulb in our department.

Gershom Scholem: Graetz how dare you associate light bulbs with Jewish rationalism when it is clear that light bulbs really symbolize the light of Ein Sof and the spiritual anarchism of Kabbalah in its struggle against the rigid legalism of the rabbis. Having fled Germany just in time to not get slaughtered by your civilized gentile neighbors, I know longer care if they think we are rational civilized people so I will vote to hand out light bulbs not only to kabbalists and hasidim, but also give Sabbatai Sevi and Jacob Frank chairs with tenure.

Yitzchak Baer: As another German who fled just in time, I second Scholem. Graetz, your rational light bulbs cannot be considered truly Jewish. They are really members of an Averroist sect only pretending to shine for our department. The moment the budget cuts come in, these light bulbs will gladly agree to shine for the Christian theology department rather than be burned at the garbage dump. Of course if the light bulbs agree to be tortured by the Spanish Inquisition that will prove that they are part of the greater Jewish light bulbhood.

Leo Strauss: My dear Baer, this secret Averroism of light bulbs is part of what makes them so intrinsically Jewish just like Maimonides. Of course light bulbs shine with both an exoteric and a secret esoteric light. I look forward to studying under these new light bulbs so they can shine all sorts of esoteric messages onto the texts I am reading, messages that the masses (you fellow members of the department) could never hope to understand.

Benzion Netanyahu: Baer, those traitorous assimilationist light bulbs; even if they were to be tortured by the Spanish Inquisition it would not make them Jewish. Clearly this is all a conspiracy hatched by racial anti-Semites from the medieval department, who are lying about how these light bulbs are still Jewish in order to get fresh light bulbs untainted by use in a Jewish Studies department. We can only applaud the gentiles for destroying assimilationist light bulbs. This will serve as a sign to all Jewish light bulbs to go to Israel. That is unless they find it too socialist, at which point they are free to seek employment in a Jewish Studies department in the States, as long as they promise to raise English speaking future Israeli right-wing prime ministers.

This post was inspired by a piece that was circulated through my department list serve, written by David Leeson at Laurentian University.

Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?

A: There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one’: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative historians have concluded that the light never needed changing in the first place, and have praised political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for bringing back the old bulb. Clearly, much additional research remains to be done.

Matthew Lavine at Mississippi State responded:

Dear Dr. Leeson,

We regret that we cannot accept your historian joke in its present form.... However, a panel of anonymous reviewers (well, anonymous to YOU, anyway) have reviewed it and made dozens of mutually contradictory suggestions for its... improvement. Please consider them carefully, except for the ones made by a man we all consider to be a dangerous crackpot but who is the only one who actually returns comments in a timely fashion.

1. This joke is unnecessarily narrow. Why not consider other sources of light? The sun lights department offices; so too do lights that aren't bulbs (e.g. fluorescents). These are rarely "changed" and never by historians. Consider moving beyond your internalist approach.

2. The joke is funny, but fails to demonstrate familiarity with the most important works on the topic. I would go so far as to say that Leeson's omission is either an unprofessional snub, or reveals troubling lacunae in his basic knowledge of the field. The works in question are Brown (1988), Brown (1992), Brown (1994a), Brown (1994b), Brown and Smith (1999), Brown (2001), Brown et al (2003), and Brown (2006).

3. Inestimably excellent and scarcely in need of revision. I have only two minor suggestions: instead of a joke, make it a haiku, and instead of light bulbs, make the subject daffodils.

4. This is a promising start, but the joke fails to address important aspects of the topic, like (a) the standard Whig answer of "one," current through the 1950s; (b) the rejection of this "Great Man" approach by the subsequent generation of social historians; (c) the approach favored by women's historians; (d) postmodernism's critique of the light bulb as discursive object which obscured the contributions of subaltern actors, and (e) the neoconservative reaction to the above. When these are included, the joke should work, but it's unacceptable in its present form.

5. I cannot find any serious fault with this joke. Leeson is fully qualified to make it, and has done so carefully and thoroughly. The joke is funny and of comparable quality to jokes found in peer journals. I score it 3/10 and recommend rejection.

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