Friday, August 16, 2019

History Blah Blah

My theory is a theory against theory—although I am well aware of the painful irony of the fact that a profoundly theoretical book is needed for the rejection of theory.
— Frank Ankersmit as cited by Hadfield, p. 218.[1]

It’s been said that human beings are storytellers. But more to the point, we are story dwellers. We live inside stories passed down from earlier generations, and it is of these that much of human culture consists. It is perhaps as true among people who are not especially literate, as it is among those literate people who give not one fig about the conscious pursuit of historical truths. They are all victims. We all are. We should wake up to what we keep doing to ourselves, even as with feigned innocence we complain about what is happening to us, as we descend into opioid addictions of our own doing. What pain? Pain you say?

Our historical curiosity has its own rules and its own justifications that have little to do with romanticism and progressivism. It doesn’t care so much for historical restoration — the past doesn’t have to ‘come back alive’ for us or prove its profitability. And it shouldn’t force the past to serve as a measuring stick against our own times, always coming out to our advantage. In other words, we do not need to keep serving up histories that bear the heavy footprint of modernism.

So who are we, and who do we think we represent, when we try to write history? It’s been said that different occupations take different trajectories over the course of a lifetime.[2] Basketball players reach their peaks early on, and soon must think about other ways to occupy their many declining years. No need to mention professional boxers. But one occupation is practically unique in the sense that, at least until one or more of those diseases that used to be called senility takes over, its practitioners peak out at an age somewhere in their 50’s. Just consider how many dates, names, facts and impressions might have to be jumbled in your head before you would be able to say with any sense of finality something about, I don’t know, um... Patronage of ballet in New York City during the Great Depression.

Suppose you were required to explain to an audience of reasonably informed people why it was that the North American ballet companies emerged precisely during a time of severe economic crisis. Most of us would not know where to start, but a historian who has done the background studies into the economic, social, cultural and educational conditions, a historian at least virtually familiar with the physical layout of the city and its major institutions, etc., would likely have something pointed to say. I can’t be sure, since I know and care very little about ballet or about the history of New York City, being not especially fond of the former and fairly indifferent about the latter, except when I find myself there.

Still I am getting on in years, and although I’m not satisfied that I’ve made any progress worth remarking, I have to admit to myself that this is probably as good as I’ll ever get at the kind of history I’ve been working on. And, this being an important point, I have not been working on the history of American ballet, so I wonder why you would come to me with this kind of question. Why did you ask me, anyway?

I said what I just said because I want to convince you, as if you needed this convincing, that if you have an arcane historical question, you shouldn’t pop it to the person who just happened to get ticketed to the seat across from you on the weekend train out of Boston. No, you should ask a historian, and not just any historian either. Take the trouble to find a historian who does history in the specific area, time period and subject. It doesn’t especially matter what theories of history that historian may be favoring; what does matter is how familiar she is with the sources.* 
(*I hesitate to suggest it, but I’m trying to be honest with you. You’ll probably want to take the answer you receive to yet another historian of the same specific area, time period and subject for a second opinion.)

Of course the guy on the train looks alright, is likable enough, and seems quite sure of himself. But there are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t trust him. If lifelong historians make mistakes, which they do of course, then how much more so amateurs? Ordinary people tend to commit various fallacies that historians are more likely to see through. One is the "great founder" idea. According to this the founder of a religion, philosophical movement, artistic trend, factory, school or whatever has the creative powers of an omniscient deity, knowing ahead of time about the future courses the created thing will take. Most people fail to notice that the founder-ship role is most often retrospectively awarded by people with strong stakes in the very thing that was supposedly founded. Experienced historians nowadays are unlikely to trust the explanatory power of founding moments. Instead they will find the actual (and generally multiple) sources of human institutions in larger socio-cultural forces outside the control of their reputed ‘founders’ and look more carefully at the lives of their earlier and latter followers. Give credit where credit is due.

There are other common fallacies in the failure to recognize implications of the well-known fact that history is written by winners. This is one among many reasons that you have to be critical of your sources in ways that inexperienced historians often are not. You have to constantly ask yourself which voices are missing. Triumphalist historians, and there are many such burrowing within our nation states, hardly ever state clearly, “Warning! What you are about to read would have been contradicted by our opponents, the losers, if we hadn't tossed their words on the bonfire so they would never be heard from again.” Perhaps the federal governments could recommend adding such warning labels in the future, now that our coffee cups warn us in very large letters that coffee can, despite all contrary possibilities, be hot. Now what will we go on to do with that knowledge? Why this need to have our needs met?

A brief apology, since I haven’t blogged much this year, the reason being that I've been working too hard on an introduction to a history book I’ve been translating for most of this decade. What you see here is a result of one basic yet harsh principle of literary self-editing called “Kill your darlings!” That means... If it’s just spinning wheels, grandstanding, or spouting blah blah, and doesn't help your plot, be merciful to your readers and mercilessly put it down, even if you lavished a lot of love and care on it. Especially if you did. I offer one of the larger scraps that fell on the editing room floor, dished up with a little added seasoning. If you don’t enjoy it it won’t matter much, and if you feel a little cheated I’ll understand.

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Here’s some of the things U.S. citizens know, or don’t know, about Washington. Let’s see, who among the founders of things is seen as fallible or having human foibles?

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  • The photos, the one up front entitled Artifice and the one closer to the end called Nature, were taken in Paris about a month ago.

[1] Andrew Hadfield, “History / Historiography,” Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, vol. 15 (2007), pp. 217-239, at p. 218.

[2] Arthur C. Brooks, “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” The Atlantic (July 2019). I don't want you to think I recommend reading anything as well written and depressing as this is — the writer even goes so far as to recommend Buddhist-style corpse meditations, with a hat tip to Tibetan bar-do ideas — but if you must, go ahead and look here. I cannot guarantee free access, only wish you good luck. Soon Tibeto-logic may be the only thing you get for free on the entire worldwide web. The Wheel of (Fabulous Personal) Fortune people are planning a total WWW takeover in the very near future, and we really must be doing our best to resist.

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A final bite of cut verbiage:  For some what they take to be historical actuality has to be shrink-wrapped by the texts. This can be carried out to such absurd degrees that nothing is permitted to exist in the world that is not supported directly by a text (or on rare occasions artifact). To master the text is to master history. Because texts are intelligible the past is knowable.

There is another way of conceiving texts, to see them as sources of signs that there was life out in the world as well as inside the writer at the time of their inscribing. Taking texts as divination devices allowing access to occasional illuminating signs of life allows us to think about the world back then as a much bigger and much less controllable place. It's a space of many possibilities beyond those we can directly see in any text.

The doing of history itself can be for historians an object of awe and wonder, something that can overpower us, render our usual ways of making sense senseless. In certain moments it can be awakening in that way, not allowing itself to be kept in its place, let alone serving as personal assistant to our present needs and desires.


In order for a part of the past to be touched by the present instant, there must be no continuity between them.”*

*Michael Taussig tells us he was shocked when he read these words of Walter Benjamin. See Taussig's essay “Unpacking my Library: An Experiment in the Technique of Awakening,” in Critical Inquiry, vol. 46 (2020), pp. 421-435. I, too, am shocked.

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