September 29, 2003

On Ellipses and Theses and Archives

I’m gratified that Ralph Luker responded so positively to my modest critique of his June 2003 remarks about Christine Heyrman’s 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 Heyrman’s 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 Luker’s reading of Heyrman’s racial demography is one such issue. This is one of the good and bad sides of specialization in historical writing: it doesn’t 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 practice generally.

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 I’ve ever ellipsized something to make it more favorable to my analytic slant. I don’t think so, but it’s possible. I suspect that almost any historian has to wonder, and wonder all the more the longer they’ve been writing and the more they’ve 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 that’s going to lead you either to the work of interpretation and argument, or it’s 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 don’t 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. It’s not merely that this is, as Peter Novick put it, “that noble dream” denied. It’s 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 it’s 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 guild’s 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 person’s 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 we’re 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 archive’s 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, isn’t 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.