September 29, 2003
On Ellipses and Theses and Archives
that Ralph Luker responded so positively
to my modest critique of his
June 2003 remarks about Christine
Heyrmans Southern Cross. I think the only subject where we
have a persistent disagreement rather than a consonant conversation is on his
linkage of Heyrman to Bellesiles,which still seems really problematic to me
in the context of a focused criticism of Heyrmans scholarship. The linkage
might make sense in a profile of Bellesiles himself, if one was interested in
uncovering the specific and general genesis of his practices as a historian,
but in a detailed critique of a specific work of scholarship by Heyrman, it
seems besides the point.
There are also
points at stake in the conversation where I would freely concede that the detailed
issues at stake are well outside my own competency, no matter how promiscuously
I might stick my nose into such discussion. The specifics of Lukers reading
of Heyrmans racial demography is one such issue. This is one of the good
and bad sides of specialization in historical writing: it doesnt take
very long before you come to a point where there really are only five or ten
or fifteen people with sufficient specific erudition to assess a specific claim.
Which is of course
one of the major reasons that the historical profession as a whole finds itself
facing the ethical issues that have dogged it of late. There are tens of thousands,
perhaps hundreds of thousands, of archives of historical material in the world,
each of them containing within their collections the material to sustain one,
two, five, ten, a hundred, a thousand monographs. Some of these archives are
open to everyone; some are open to qualified researchers; some are open only
to one or two people who have gained special permission to look at what lies
within. Some were open in the past but are now effectively closed. Some, if
you count oral history or informal interviews, are effectively individual archives.
When you come to
know an archive, you often begin to see that other researchers who have used
it sometimes seem to have read or quoted the documents in ways that seem odd
to you. Or you see that people have used ellipses to make a quotation that supports
an argument when a fuller reading tends to support some other analysis. This
is a good deal of what Luker is concerned about with Heyrman and in historical
He is right to
be concerned, certainly. I think the kinds of practices that worry him are widespread
in historical (and general scholarly) writing. To be honest, I have been nervously
thinking a bit about whether Ive ever ellipsized something to make it
more favorable to my analytic slant. I dont think so, but its possible.
I suspect that almost any historian has to wonder, and wonder all the more the
longer theyve been writing and the more theyve written.
On the other hand,
I think the reason why this kind of practice is widespread goes deeper than
sloppiness or error or even what is sometimes glossed simply as bias.
Some of it has to do with the unruliness of archives and documents and the truth
of the past itself, and of the inadquacy of contemporary historical thought,
especially in its most specialized forms, for dealing with that unruliness.
Some of it has to do with the reward structure that academic history has constructed,
and the expectations that we carry when we go into archives for the first time.
We are taught now
to privilege argument and interpretation, to have a position. I teach my students
that when I teach expository writing, and the commandment still holds when it
comes to writing and reading academic monographs. The purpose of analytic writing,
it seems to me, is to play what Gerald Graff calls the persuasion game,
to answer the question so what? The purely descriptive monograph
is not especially admired or honored, and with some reason. There are infinite
number of events, institutions, societies and practices in the past to be described.
You cannot explain why you find yourself working with any particular subset
of that infinity without an answer to the question so what?, and
thats going to lead you either to the work of interpretation and argument,
or its going to lead to you announce the rule of whimsy and romantic self-indulgence,
that you are writing about a particular topic because you feel like doing so.
I actually dont think it would be a bad thing if a few people took the
latter road, but mostly scholars will choose the former, and rightfully so.
We can safely leave Ranke where many of us have found him, in the bargain-basement bin of turgid 19th Century German thinkers. We need not pretend that we come to the archives a blank slate, prepared to have the past write its truth through us. Its not merely that this is, as Peter Novick put it, that noble dream denied. Its not a noble dream at all. There are no final truths in human history. There is a reason that American high school students graduate hating history, and its because of dead hand of Rankean positivism weighs upon them. They come to college thinking that the goal of historical study is to boil down conflicting accounts about past events and come up with a single unblemished account of what really happened.
What a horrible,
deadening, unreal way to think about the historical enterprise. How loathsome
it would be if we were professionally confined to it.
At the same time,
we need to come to the archives humbly dedicated to intellectual transformation,
as acolytes prepared to undergo an alchemy, open to discovery and curiosity
and persuasion. Because it is equally bad to enter the archives knowing exactly
what we deem we must find: this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no single
truth, but there are true accounts and false ones, and interpretations that
lie in the balance in between.
Here is the first
danger of the ellipse, and Luker and others are right to remain watchful against
it. Knowing that we come into the archives charged with the need to find an
interpretation, an argument, a slant, a position, we can grow desperate to find
it, and without a strong professional inhibition against ways of reading that
produce precisely what we need to find, we can grow desperate and canny. The
pressures of initial publication for junior academics are especially frightening
in this regard, not in the least because some of the most interesting, richly
developed interpretations of history come only with a magisterial command over
a wide body of fact and historiography. The temptation of small, mean dishonesties
opens wide all the time with the need to have a marketable, sexy "take"
on a subject. Freedom from positivism is not freedom from reason.
The danger is more
subtle than that most of the time. I firmly believe that the linguistic
turn and postmodern theory have left us technically more proficient as
historians even if we utterly reject (as I largely do) the intellectual premises
or outlook of most postmodernist thought. The range of evidentiary material
that historians have learned to look for and think about has widened a thousandfold
in the past two decades. The skill that we bring to reading any single document
has been massively enriched by the guilds professional encounters with
literary criticism and anthropology. We now have disciplined, substantial strategies
for recognizing that a single sentence in a document can contain within it many
meanings and even many authors.
The burden that this proficiency imposes on historians is substantial. With every single text in an archive now opened up to a hugely expanded set of possible readings, and the total range of evidence that can meaningfully inform historical scholarship much larger, we come to a troubling crossroads.
If peer review
means checking the factual content of another persons work, there are
very few people competent to check any given example of scholarship. In a few
cases, no one is competent save the author himself, unless were asking
about the cogency or usefulness of their interpretation.
The richness we
have discovered in the archive leaves us gasping for ways to represent it all
fairly. I found myself for my first book, Lifebuoy Men, recognizing that
consumption, commodities, exchange and material culture were discussed frequently
across the entire span of the records kept in the National Archives of Zimbabwe,
even though none of those topics were prominent subject headings under which
records were organized. I began to realize we have let that archives organizational
headings actually construct our research agendas, that you get a radically different
sense of what the archive contains when you read widely across its total span.
It wasn't just my understanding of the topics I was most concerned with that
changed, but slowly, my entire sense of what colonialism was and how it was
shaped began to shift.
In that sense,
any single document from it is an ellipse, an intolerable leaving out of a larger
truth. Any single complete passage from any one document is an ellipse of sorts,
too, whether festooned by three dots in a row or not.
Suppose I am interested
in what colonial native commissioners in Rhodesia had to say about
the affairs of African communities. Those officials have left behind a rich
documentary record of official correspondence, memoranda and often memoirs or
journals as well. The problem is that their official correspondence often is
concerned with the trivial, banal business of administration, and their memoirs
are often vastly more concerned with hunting big-game than with the African
subjects the officials governed. If I just extract what I am interested in,
and ignore hunting and the daily business of administration, isnt that
an ellipse of sort? What would be the alternative? Every work of history would
be like Borges encyclopedia, doomed to contain the totality of the past
for fear of omitting any part of it. Or it would be a history bound to never
be anything more than what the literate within history represented it to be
at the time: a history of modern Zimbabwe told as a series of lawn bowling scores
and white supremacist speeches.
The answer in the end has to come down to trust. Trust in ourselves to do the right thing, and to know the ordinary, heuristic ellipse from the dishonest one, to bow to the necessary truth without becoming obssessed by the impossible pursuit of a perfected one. Trust in our colleagues to do the right thing until they prove beyond a doubt that they have done otherwise. Trust that some ellipses are simple and others complex, and trust that two people can open the same yellowing pages, see something divergent within and yet neither be in breach of a professional covenant. But trust is not merely given once and forgotten: it is renewed through mutual scrutiny, through the reliable fulfillment of responsibility, through the deepening of respect. Maybe this is where historians are falling down on the job some, where the silences and fractured conversations of academic life exact a heavy price, where the burdens of professionalism and careerism have fallen most heavily. Maybe we all ought to be talking more about own ellipses, and what is covered over by the dots that stitch together our more tattered collective practices.