Friday, September 10, 2010

But is it History?

Heather Cox Richardson

James Bridle has just constructed a twelve-volume history of the Iraq War. But this is no common history. It is a record of every edit made to the Wikipedia entry on the war from December 2004 to November 2009. The 12,000 changes take up 7,000 pages.

Bridle, a British writer and editor, is best known for his observations about books and technology. He produced these volumes to illustrate that history is not fact, but rather a process. History, he claims, is less important than “historiography,” which he redefines as the process by which humans come to understand an event. According to Bridle, culture is argument, dissent, and gradual codification of a narrative that may or may not be correct.

By illuminating every single voice in the history of a particular moment, Bridle wants readers to see how that process works. His goal, he concludes, is “to challenge absolutist narratives of the past, and thus, those of the present and our future.”

This set of volumes strikes me as a fascinating document for future scholars of the Iraq War, who will be able to watch ideas about the war change over time.

But it can not replace scholarly history.

Bridle’s claim that the process of cultural construction of understanding is more important than what actually happens illustrates a dangerous trend in our interpretation of human society. It forces the insights of deconstruction to carry far more weight than they are strong enough to bear.

The deconstruction movement was invaluable for historians, teaching us to question the biases inherent in narratives. But the fact that all narratives are biased is no reason to discard the idea that it is possible to come close to a factual account of historical events.

To argue otherwise is to claim that the comment of one Wikipedia user—“Saddam Hussein was a dickhead”—is as important as Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech before the United Nations Security Council advocating military force against the Iraq regime.

If these two voices are equally valuable in the history of the war, it’s hard not to argue that each lone voice is equally valuable in current affairs. This is the ultimate in deconstructionism—that a lifetime spent studying the Middle East is no more valuable for devising foreign policy than a gut sense; that an understanding of the rules of Congress is less important than a knee-jerk demonization of a political opponent; that actual facts can be discarded in favor of comfortable fiction.

The work of constructing fictional worlds belongs to novelists, and it is a rich world where each facet of human relations can be probed and prodded all the way to the extremes of behavior. But historians study the way real human societies work. To do that, while we must always try to look at all the different voices we can discern in the muddle that is our evidence, we must also try our best to find the actual facts that drive historical change.


Larry Cebula said...

I blogged about this here:

I think you are using the wrong metrics for this. The history here is not the individual entries it is the process of the entries changing over time, the ebb and flow of the interpretation of the war as events and ideologies developed.

That is the promise, anyway. The reality is that he printed off a bunch of Wikipedia entries and bound them.

hcr said...

I get that the change over time is fascinating. What I don't buy is that the process of cultural understanding is more important than the historian's search for "truth" (recognizing that there is no such absolute thing).

The idea of relativity is important, but that it should entirely replaced narrative seems to me dangerous. Not all perspectives are created equal. There is such a thing as fact, and if we don't honor that, we lost any sense of community.

Your blog comment about Brindle essentially printing out Wikipedia and making it a book is hilarious, by the way. I do think it counts as art....

Joel said...

I think there are two basic parts to studying history.

First, you determine what happened. For example, there was an invasion of Iraq by the U.S. There were claims that the regime had WMD, etc. There seems to be evidence, largely from British cabinet records, that the U.S. knew that there were certainly no nuclear weapons in Iraq and probably not any operational chemical weapon stockpiles.

The second part of doing history involves arguing about the meaning of the gathered facts.

To me, both parts of the process are really interesting. I love uncovering the facts and constructing a narrative AND I love figuring out what it all means, how it relates to various historiographies, and so on.

This Wikipedia project is fascinating, but to me it isn't the history of the Iraq war or maybe even of opinions about that war. It strikes me as being more the history of the web and the intersection of web use, politics, and public opinion.


hcr said...

I'm with you. But isn't Brindle saying that even facts are culturally constructed? I get his point. If a majority of Americans believes that Iraq was behind 9/11-- even though that's been thoroughly debunked-- doesn't it become a "fact"? It certainly is present on the web, and will equally certainly be in future books about the war.

My problem is that I believe historians-- and journalists, and politicians, and editors-- need to fight against such cultural revisionism rather than accepting it-- or even celebrating it-- as the way things should be. If we don't, there's no way we can draw conclusions about the way societies actually work, because our theories will be based on fiction.

The concept of absolute cultural constructionism, of course, also gives free rein to present-day observers to present their own "facts" without contradiction, but that's a different problem....