«Edited by Mladen Popović LEIDEN • BOSTON © 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV CONTENTS List of Figures and Tables Preface List of Contributors The Jewish ...»
Equally difficult is Carr’s view that only what is important and enduring from a given age is worthy of historical investigation. Agreeing with Jacob Burckhardt that history is “the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another,”42 he does away with chance events, for what happened as a result of chance cannot by definition be worth
studying as a reflection of major social forces:
Just as from the infinite ocean of facts the historian selects those which are significant for his purpose, so from the multiplicity of sequences of cause and effect he extracts those, and only those, which are historically significant; and the standard of historical significance is his ability to fit them into his pattern of rational explanation and interpretation.
Other sequences of cause and effect have to be rejected as accidental, not because the relation between cause and effect is different, but because the sequence itself is irrelevant. The historian can do nothing with it; it is not amenable to rational interpretation, and has no meaning either for the past or the present. It is true that Cleopatra’s nose, or Bajazet’s gout, or Alexander’s monkey-bite, or Lenin’s death, or Robinson’s cigarettesmoking,43 had results. But it makes no sense as a general proposition to say that generals lose battles because they are infatuated with beautiful queens, or that wars occur because kings keep pet monkeys, or that people get run over and killed on the roads because they smoke cigarettes.44 Carr’s ultimate criterion is, then, that history should produce general statements or laws about how things work. He offers an anecdote. In a northern English industrial town in 1850 “a vendor of gingerbread, as the result of some petty dispute, was deliberately kicked to death by an angry mob.” He asks: Is this a fact of history? In his view it cannot be so, by itself, though it may yet become such (more than a century after the event) if historians can show why it is important for some larger Carr, What is History? 55.
Carr had used this fictional figure to illustrate chance: a man who walked out of his home to buy cigarettes is struck by a car.
Carr, What is History? 98–105 (104–5). Emphasis added.
synthesis of social forces in nineteenth-century England. Failing that, it must “relapse into the limbo of unhistorical facts about the past.”45 Paradoxical here is the conservative framework offered for an avowedly progressive-Marxist view of history. Where would these criteria leave the pioneering historians who have pressed uncomfortable questions about the lost voices of the past—of women, slaves, and children, who could never have been spokesmen for their ages?
The notion that ages have representative voices fits with speculative approaches such as Hegel’s or Oswald Spengler’s, but is hard to sustain in our time. Again, how should we undertake to study Cestius’ failed expedition, which owed so much to individual circumstances, his defeat perhaps to chance, under such a priori constraints delimiting what is historical? Carr’s fourteen-volume History of Soviet Russia met forceful criticism on just this point.46 Just before Carr gave his lectures, Braudel published the essay that gave currency to the now-standard distinction between traditional history of events (l’histoire événementielle) and the social historian’s concern with the long span (de la longue durée). He too argued the importance of studying social factors and movements as a corrective to any exclusive focus on events and particular moments. But Braudel recognized the dialectical relationship between these two: the general and the particular or even unique.47 And Bloch, co-founder of the Annaliste school that Braudel had come to lead, had insisted against
the purely sociological history of Émile Durkheim, which was influential at his time:
The word [history] places no a priori prohibitions in the path of inquiry, which may turn at will toward either the individual or the social, toward momentary convulsions or the most lasting developments. It comprises in itself no credo; it commits us, according to its original meaning, to nothing more than ‘inquiry.’48 Ibid., 12–13.
E. H. Carr, A History of Soviet Russia (14 vols.; London: Macmillan, 1950–1978).
E.g., Hugh Trevor-Roper forcefully objected to Carr’s “ruthless dismissal” of all those who did not succeed in history’s ongoing progression: see R. J. Evans, In Defence of History (London: Granta, 1997), 224–33 (227–28).
F. Braudel, “Histoire et science sociale: La longue durée,” Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations 13 (1958): 725–53. Translated in Stern, The Varieties of History, 404–29. For the dialectic, see 406–8, 417–19.
Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 17.
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Note incidentally Carr’s recurring appeal to a vast range of existing facts from which the historian may select, and his proposal that “history means interpretation” of those selected facts.49 We return to facts below.
A very different conception of history is associated with the name of Hayden White (1928–), in a series of studies beginning in the 1970s, though many others have followed similar paths.50 The label “postmodernist” is often too vague to be useful, but since White has accepted it we may use it for convenience.51 This approach takes to a logical end the “linguistic turn” in the humanities from about the 1960s: the recognition that everything we think and say exists in linguistic constructions, that there is no neutral or factual language. Many real problems of perception and representation arise from such reflecting. But if we assume that history is the construction of narratives about the past, we might quickly conclude that all histories indivisibly mix realitycorrespondence with literary construction, and that all histories are therefore more or less on the same plane with respect to objectivity.
The histories considered best by particular groups will be those written by authors with social standing and power in their constituencies, who thereby control the discourse concerning the past. Because White draws such close connections between fiction and historical narrative, and a quasi-technical language of literary formalism pervades his work, it is easy to understand him as equating the writing of history and the production of fiction. In his later writings he has rejected this charge, Carr, What is History? 23–24.
An efficient way to meet a gallery of postmodern theorists of history is to read R. J. Evans’ engagement with them (and others) throughout his In Defence of History.
For some of their arguments see, e.g., K. Jenkins, Re-thinking History (London: Routledge, 1991); idem, ed., The Postmodern History Reader (London: Routledge, 1997);
A. Munslow, Deconstructing History (London: Routledge, 1997).
White’s important works include Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973)—especially the introduction; Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); and The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987). For a sympathetic recent appraisal, beginning with a new essay by White himself, see K. Korhonen, ed., Tropes for the Past: Hayden White and the History / Literature Debate (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006). White’s treatment of history as narrative may be driven by his early focus on the great nineteenth-century historians who took stands in favour of history as narrative against contemporary demands for a “scientific” approach: Thomas Babington Macaulay, Thomas Carlyle, Jules Michelet, and George Macaulay Trevelyan. But it continues with his essay in the 2006 volume, reflecting on Primo Levi’s narrative, Survival in Auschwitz, in relation to history.
© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV what is history? 177
but mainly by distinguishing fiction from literature while maintaining the bond between the latter and history.52 Certainly he has tapped a rich ancient vein. In Josephus’ day history was indeed a branch of literature, written and judged chiefly on rhetorical and moral grounds.53 History as grand, moralizing narrative remained a fixture in the West, or became one again, under the anticlerical, philosophically speculative, Romantic, and positivist impulses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But it is doubtful whether most working historians today see their main task as the construction of narratives. I do not, for the reasons given below. White’s reflections on historians’ lack of attention to their language and rhetoric sometimes hit the mark, but his harsh critique of their naive search for given facts, insensitivity to irony or to the messiness and lack of causality in real life, antipathy to literature, and assumption of its own linguistic neutrality, and above all his reduction of history to narrative, seem to many historians too schematic (concerning the field) and unconnected with their actual work.54 If they have largely ignored his arguments, it is because they do not find them helpful for their daily labours.
We can readily agree that there is no such thing as neutral language, and that we all write with a rhetoric of some kind, and yet still imagine that we regularly communicate ideas with sufficient overlap of language to be understood—not objectively, but understood nonetheless.
Further, if history is not essentially narrative or discourse, as postmodernists tend to assume,55 and its open inquiry and argumentation are not merely rhetorical tropes, but an expressed mode of reasoning, then much of the rest of White’s analysis (e.g., of conventions for analyzing emplotment, argument, ideology, and trope, each with four possible structures) would seem beside the point.
H. White, “Historical Discourse and Literary Writing,” in Tropes for the Past (ed.
Cf. Woodman, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography.
E.g., A. Momigliano, “The Rhetoric of History and the History of Rhetoric: On Hayden White’s Tropes,” in Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook, Vol. 3. (ed. E. S. Shaffer; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 259–68; C. Ginsburg, “Checking the Evidence: the Judge and the Historian,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1991): 79–92; Evans, In Defence of History, 100–102, 124–26.
See also Jenkins, Re-thinking History, 6–7: “history is one of a series of discourses about the world”; “history is a discourse about, but categorically different from, the past.”
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I turn to the conception of history that I find most productive for studying such event complexes as the Judaean-Roman war.
We begin with the obvious proposition that history has to do with the past. In what I have caricatured as the high-school view, which is widely assumed in popular culture, history simply is the past. A slightly more sophisticated version imagines that different interest groups compete in claiming the correct version of this past, or history.
But as soon as we consider the relationship between history and the lived past we must make several qualifications. First, history concerns itself with the human past; other avenues to the past (astronomy, zoology, biology, geology) are not history.56 Is history, then, the human past? If so, we are in a predicament because what gives the past its name is that, like the future, it does not now exist. Since history does exist, in the activity and debates and products of those who work in History departments, it cannot be the past. Everything turns, then, on the question, “Where do we find history?” As soon as we recognize that history is not the past itself, and that we find it only in the minds and literary expressions of historians, we realize that history must be something like the study of, or thinking about, the human past.
How, then, can we encounter the human past? People have claimed to know the past in at least four ways: through divine revelation, through the memory of personal experience, through the heritage handed down from previous generations (tradition), and by means of systematic investigation. The first three of these, though they are different from each other, after a generation or two, fuse in the single category of tradition. Moses might have claimed to know what happened at creation by revelation, as Josephus implies (C. Ap. 1.37), but
once he passed that story on to Joshua, it was no longer revelation:
to Joshua and all successors it was something handed down, a tradition. Josephus understands the need to prove, though his means could never be up to the task, the reliability of that tradition (C. Ap. 1.30–41;
cf. paradosis at 1.39). Our grandparents personally experienced many things, but once they told our parents, who then related the stories to us, those memories became familial traditions.
Tradition has been with humans as long as we have been able to communicate, parent to child, and in some forms it may be found with other animals. It comes unbidden, with seniors ready to impart Cf. Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 19–20.
a legacy to children as soon as latter attain consciousness. Far from being undesirable, tradition fulfills necessary socializing functions.
Our families, communities, voluntary associations, religious denominations, and legal and political institutions all preserve elements of the past that will acculturate new members of the group and inculcate its values. We are schooled by parents, teachers, political leaders, and preachers in the defining moments of our past. Tradition abstracts moments from the past that embody key features of our group identity, providing exempla for us to follow and avoid, and reminding us of what it really means to belong to this group.