Publication Date

April 1, 1998

Editor's Note: The essay that follows was first published in the new journal Rethinking History 1:3 (December 1997). We reprint it here (with the permission of Routledge, the journal's publisher) because it poses several provocative questions that are of interest to Perspectives readers.

Why don't you write an autobiographical editorial?" The words are spoken by Alun Munslow, U.K. editor for Rethinking History. It is early May and we are sitting in the offices of Routledge on New Fetter Lane in London. The idea of an autobiographical editorial appeals to me. Shreds of autobiography have crept into my last two books, Mirror in the Shrine, an experimental narrative detailing the lives of three American sojourners in 19th-century Japan, and Visions of the Past, a book of essays on historical films. Some critics have been, predictably, upset by this intrusion of a subjective element into scholarship. Others have ignored the experimental elements of the books and have simply reviewed the contents as if the form of a narrative or an essay were wholly irrelevant to its meaning. Still others, it must be admitted, have noticed something new was going on and have attempted to come to grips with my efforts to write the past in a different way.

Autobiography in the guise of the Historian in the Text was the subject of much debate at the workshop/conference that grew out of Mirror in the Shrine. The sometimes odd and uncomprehending reception of the book had moved me to write an essay for Perspectives (December 1992) entitled “Experiments in Writing the Past: Is Anybody Interested?” At least 75 people were. Their positive responses to the essay, along with the efforts of post-docs Moshe Sluhovsky and Bryant Simon and historian Alice Wexler, and the support of the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences at Cal Tech, resulted in “Narrating Histories: A Workshop.” On April 8-9, 1994, some 35 of us came together not to read papers at each other but to discuss experiments in writing history that we had circulated before the meeting. Topics ranged from the streets of Brooklyn to the life of a medieval German heretic, from passenger pigeons to William Lloyd Garrison to an archaeological inscription dating from the early Roman Empire.

Much of the second day of the workshop centered around the topic of reflexivity. Can historians use the dreaded "I" word in the text, and what does it signify when they do so? Perhaps this became a focus because, at this workshop, but also, I think, in a more general way, reflexivity is the easiest (and most common?) of rhetorical innovations available to a historian. In a sense, it only makes overt what by now we can no longer ignore: someone is writing this work about the past and this someone exists in a context of time, place, gender, class, and ethnicity, all of which no doubt inflect the history being told. But reflexivity was not the only unusual strategy at the workshop. The conference also gave us history as lists, history as archive, history as painting, history as video, history as memoir, history as play, history as confession, history that incorporated its own time of production, and history from multiple perspectives. What it did not give us-except for an introductory overview and summation by Alan Megill, who had been invited to undertake this difficult task-was history as theory.

The people who attended the "Narrating Histories" workshop came there not as theorists but as writers. They were scholars who felt constricted by traditional, discipline-sanctioned modes of telling the past, historians whose desires were to create a past with new and innovative strategies, a past more suitable to a contemporary sensibility. No doubt this desire was in part a response to the same cultural imperatives (need I name them?) that in recent decades have led to so much theorizing and retheorizing of our relationship to the past and to the discourse we call history. But however aware they might be of developments in the philosophy of history, the participants in the workshop were less interested in theory than praxis. They were for the most part people who saw themselves as writers and saw history as an art that needed to be revived.

The experiments that marked Mirror in the Shrine had grown out of the same sense of constriction, the same intuitive impulse that there was something to be gained by creating a new past on the page. Initially I had written some 200 pages of my japan book in the same third-person, traditional style I had used in previous narratives. This time the form did not seem to work. At least it did not satisfy my desire to get close to my characters, to see the world through their eyes; it did not allow me to express in a way that seemed either adequate and apposite the varied personal experiences and encounters that had—for this was my theme—changed Westerners with a palpable sense of cultural superiority into early cultural relativists, able to accept as admirable Japanese beliefs and practices that had initially seemed strange and uncivilized. Putting aside what I had written, I began a search for a new method, a search that would amount to a series of experiments in writing that lasted for two years, experiments meant to create a stronger, more interesting, more truthful way of presenting my material. The style, the form, the way of writing that eventually emerged included more than the reflexive. Though as well documented as anything I had written (the empiricist lives!), the book at once narrated the past and acknowledged the limitations of its own narration. Among techniques, it utilized the following: the second person (direct address to the reader and, sometimes, to the historical characters); the first person (not of the author but of his subjects); a character named “the biographer,” who occasionally enters the pages to complain about the problems involved in creating this book; and an occasional fancy shift of time or space within a single sentence, a flash back or forward or sideways of the kind Latin American novelists undertake with such ease.

In creating Mirror in the Shrine I was working in a vacuum. There were no models for what I wanted to do, and even good friends in the profession had difficulty looking me directly in the eye after reading chapters. Trained as a dragnet historian (just the facts, ma’am), last forced to confront questions of historiography as a first-term graduate student some two decades before, how could I know that my efforts could be seen as a response to a 1965 essay I had not yet read: Hayder White’s “The Burden of History”? Perhaps best remembered for its depiction of historians as shifty folks who, if questioned by scientists, claim that history is an art, and if questioned by artists, claim it is a science, the article argued that in any case history was at best a combination of outdated 19th-century science and art. When historians speak of the “art” of history, White pointed out, “they seem to have in mind a conception of art that would admit little more than the 19th-century novel as a paradigm.” As “artists” they do not identify with the art of their own time—”action painters, kinetic sculptors, existentialist novelists, imagist poets, or nouvelle vague cinematographers.” No, by “art,” historians seem to mean the novels of Scott and Thackeray, for they have not yet even absorbed the literary forms of the early part of this century. Historians wholly “eschew the techniques of literary representation which Joyce, Yeats, and Ibsen have contributed to modern culture. There have been no significant attempts at surrealistic, expressionistic, or existentialist historiography . . . .” (White 1978: 42-43).

Three decades after they were written, those words still stand as a challenge to historical writing—few have yet answered the call to write history that incorporates the techniques or strategies of 20th-century literature; to write history meant to engage the diverse literary sensibilities of our time. In the mid-80s when I read them, those words showed me I was not alone. They provided a sense of liberation, of vindication, of hope: at least somebody out there was prepared to understand, perhaps even to argue for the necessity of those aspects of my nearly completed manuscript that could seem strange—even to me. My point is simple. As a practicing historian it was exhilarating to encounter theoretical justifications for my own intuitive experiments with narrative. So splendid that White's words launched me enthusiastically into exploring the wide-ranging world of theory (historical, cultural, postmodern, feminist), a bourne from which some travelers never return.

Let me linger on this point: the split in the academic world between historical theory and practice. This issue lies at the heart not just of my personal projects or of this editorial, but of this very journal. The initial editorial board meeting of Rethinking History at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York in early January 1997 (a meeting I did not attend) debated the subtitle-should it be “The Journal of Theory and Practice” or “The Journal of Theory in Practice.” The decision in favor of the former recognizes what seems to me the actual state of affairs of the profession: the lack of mutual understanding and meaningful engagement between those who write about people, movements, moments, and events of the past, and those (theorists) who write about the texts that others have written about people, movements, moments, and events of the past. Theorists often deny this split on the grounds that all history is a text, and hence they are writing history, too—as indeed they are. But those who define themselves as writers will argue that there is a real difference between textualized people, movements, moments, and events and textualized texts. These writers of history (such as those who attended “Narrating Histories”) do not see how the work of theorists in any way applies to their own projects. In an odd way theorists (who find writers of history to be woefully naive about the epistemology underlying the works they produce) suffer from a similar lack of connection to their findings. At least they don’t seem to take their own theorizing seriously enough to learn from it; often their work points in the direction of the kinds of innovative texts they do not dare to produce.

As an (admittedly extreme) example let me cite recent notions of so-called postmodern history that seem wholly oblivious to this creature's obvious differences from postmodernism in the other fields. In a sense, postmodernism is a struggle against history, a denial of the narratives, findings, and truth claims of traditional history. Yet among postmodern theorists there has been a desire for and a considerable amount of talk about a new kind of past. What kind? To indulge in a postmodern technique, here is a pastiche, taken from the writings of some theorists, that describes the kind of history they admire: history that problematizes the entire notion of historical knowledge. That foregrounds the usually concealed attitude of historians toward their material. That reeks with provisionality and undecidability, partisanship, and even overt politics … That engages pulse and intellect simultaneously …. That breaks down the convention of historical time … and substitutes a new convention of temporality … rhythmic time. That aims not at integration, synthesis, and totality. That is content with historical scraps. That is not the reconstruction of what has happened to us in the various phases of our lives, but a continuous playing with the memory of this. That is expressed not in coherent stories but in fragments and collage (Hutcheon, 1988: 89, 74; Ermarth, 1992: 12, 41, 14, 8; Ankersmit, 1989: 149-51).

One small problem plagues such notions of history: it is virtually impossible to find works that carry out most, even part, of such a program. Theorists try. They name categories such as the Annales school and the New Cultural History. They point to studies that highlight the past experiences of the formerly excluded: women, ethnic minorities, gays, subalterns, regional and colonial peoples, and the many rather than ruling elites-in short, to groups that are part of the vast new areas of study opened up by the new social history, as well as by feminist, ethnic, and postcolonial historians. They cite specific works of history-to be precise, they cite three particular works that are named in virtually all discussions of postmodern history: Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, and Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. But however important the fields and genres (and they are enormously important) and however significant the books (and these are three major works), none of them goes very far toward fulfilling the notions of postmodern history that theorists have elaborated. In their (re)presentation of the past, in the formal properties of their writing, the genres and works do not stray far from very traditional notions of realistic narrative, logical explanation, linear argument, traditional cause and effect. None uses pastiche or collage. None creates a world that includes new notions of temporality, such as rhythmic time. None problematizes (his or her own) major assertions. None presents a world comprised of scraps. When these books foreground the politics of the author, they do so in the preface—where historians have always felt free to bare their souls and ideologies. Certainly in their formal properties, none of these works of history has anything in common with the postmodernism exhibited in other fields of endeavor. They provide none of the dash, the humor, the mixing of genres, the pastiche, the collage, the odd juxtapositions, the temporal jumps, the wacky illogic of the architecture, theater, or literature we label postmodern.

Questions of form aside, the state of theorizing history is currently flourishing. So much current theorizing do we have that it can indeed be daunting to think of all the possible discourses—gender, ethnicity, class, queer, subaltern, postcolonial—one should by all rights take into account before setting pen to paper to describe the past. In a sense, the thinking historian is now in the position of the centipede, unable to move as s/he (it?) wonders over which foot to put forward first. By contrast the practice of new ways of writing history is a barely discernible blip on the radar screen of the academic world; one would not need all the fingers of both hands to number the historical works that in recent years have indulged in any experiment with form. Among those I have encountered (and I assume others exist), let me point to the following:

Greg Dening's Mr. Bligh's Bad Language not only gives equal voice to Tahitian and European in their South Sea encounter, but exemplifies a case for history as a performative art. David Farber’s Chicago ’68 portrays the upheavals surrounding that year’s Democratic convention from three distinctly clashing points of view. James Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro retells stories that provide a variety of perspectives on that famed 1930s rape case against a group of African American youths without ever insisting that a single one of the versions is the Truth. Elinor Langer’s Josephine Herbst has the author wrestling in the first person with the shifting meaning of novelist Herbst’s1ife, not simply during her subject’s days but also for the period during which the biography itself is being researched and composed. Grell Marcus’s Lipstick Traces leads from an attempt to understand the punk group Sex Pistols to an excavation of the “secret history” of the 20th century, a story of art and revolution shaped not by a linear chronology but by “ricochet and surprise.” Richard Price’s Alabi's World creates a past in four distinct voices—including one from an oral tradition that blends “fact” and “fantasy”—that contest the telling of the history of the run away slave colonies of Guiana in the 17th century. Simon Schama’s The Many Deaths of General Wolfe is a history framed by a fictional moment and that uses a shifting temporal sense that portrays the past as not linear but circular. Alice Wexler’s Mapping Fate has personal history and medical history jostling against and reinforcing each other in a story that shows how the experience of a hereditary disease can lead to action in the present that will alter the future.

Why have so few scholars attempted innovations in the way we write history? Why have so few historians followed the call (it must surely at times have been powerful to many among us) of modernist or postmodernist writing? No doubt one could think of many reasons, but two of the very best were given at the "Narrating Histories" workshop: lack of outlets in which to publish works that experiment with historical narrative or argument; and the worry over whether one could get tenure by producing unusual or offbeat works of history.

My own reason for becoming part of Rethinking History is twofold: the desire to help create a forum in which theorists and writers of history will have a place to meet, read, react to, and learn from each other’s works; and the hope that this journal will become that missing venue where historians, young and old, can try out something new, can indulge in experiments in writing, experiments that expand the voices in which the historian can speak, that bring us into new relationships with the traces of the past, that answer the challenge posed by Hayden White three decades ago. The pages of Rethinking History are open to all sorts of new historical writing: we await Expressionist, Surrealist, Dada, Process, Postmodern, or other kinds of histories whose name or form has not yet been conceived. We believe that the writing of history can be an art, and that innovation in any art calls for boldness, audacity, and the courage to try things that can seem strange, even to the author.

These need not, indeed I hope these will not, simply be experiments in narrative. Theorists too are encouraged to write their arguments in new and experimental ways. For example, Walter Benjamin has been, deservedly, a darling of theorists in recent years, and his theses on history are much admired and quoted. But are they ever emulated? Would it not be consonant, not to mention fruitful and interesting, if those writing about Benjamin actually composed works that incorporated his notions about history—texts made up of fragments, scraps, poetic visions, snapshots, and flashing moments of insight in response to dangers in our lives? The same applies to those who write so admiringly about Bakhtin—might they create works of criticism and/or history that actually utilize the multiple voices they find so intriguing and suggestive? Or those who call for postmodern history—is it too much to ask that their own texts indulge in play, wacky humor, crosscutting, juxtaposition? All this is only to suggest that our minds and pages in Rethinking History are, insofar as we can tell, open to the new. You can see that at the very least we have reached the point at which an editor can indulge in autobiography and pass it off as a scholarly argument.


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