Thursday, May 27, 2010

Limits of History, Limits of Historians

Randall Stephens

Timothy Chester has an interesting review of Sarah Blackwell's life of Montaigne--How to Live--in the TLS (May 7, 2010). Reading Chester's appraisal, I came across one of Montaigne's signature critiques. He took aim at historians, who, he thought, often made things up or misread evidence. It got me thinking about other judgments. Book reviews in history journals often point out the logical inconsistencies, over generalizations, silences, or glaring absences in a historian's work. "Historian X should really have looked at evidence Y." Here are a few such critiques, starting with that of the French Renaissance man of letters.

Michel de Montaigne, "Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions," in The Complete Works of Montaigne, ed., Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958.), 239.

They choose one general characteristic, and go and arrange and interpret all a man's actions to fit their picture; and if they cannot twist them enough, they go and set them down to dissimulation. Augustus has escaped them; for there is in this man throughout the course of his life such an obvious, abrupt, continual variety of actions that even the boldest judges have had to let him go, intact and unsolved. Nothing is harder for me than to believe in men's consistency, nothing easier than to believe in their inconsistency.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, "Provincializing Europe: Postcoloniality and the Critique of History," Cultural Studies 6:3 (October 1992): 337.

In the academic discourse of history--that is, "history" as a discourse produced at the institutional site of the university "Europe" remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories, including the ones we call "Indian," "Chinese," "Kenyan," etc. There is a peculiar way in which all these other histories tend to become variations on a master narrative that could be called "the history of Europe." In this sense, "Indian" history itself is in a position of subalternity; one can only articulate subaltern subject-positions in the name of history. That Europe works as a silent referent in historical knowledge itself becomes obvious in a highly ordinary way.

Jesse Lemisch, Jack Tar vs. John Bull: The Role of New York's Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution (Garland, 1997), 159.

If maritime history, amateur and professional, has largely ignored the seaman, this is only part of a larger pattern in the writing of American history: neglect of the lower classes. We live, it is said, in an affluent, mobile society, we are all middle class, and it has always been so, more or less: thus the biases with which we view the contemporary scene have been reflected in our view of the past, and the existence of a lower class has been denied, or, when its actions forced some recognition, it has been contended that it acted as the tool of more prominent citizens.

See also this previous post: "I am almost coming to the conclusion that all histories are bad"

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