Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Gordon Wood and the writing of history

Recently there has been some controversy over the work of historian Gordon Wood, one of the more famous of Bernard Bailyn’s students. Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution won a Pulitzer and his Creation of the American Republic exercised an important role in shaping our understandings of the Founding Fathers. A recent post over at The Junto blog, and a follow-up post ("Arguing about Gordon Wood") by the Chair of the History Department at Messiah College, John Fea, will give you some sense of where things stand amongst professional historians in relation to Wood’s achievements as a whole.

But what I want to think about instead of the controversy itself, since I’m not competent to speak to that question directly, is the way in which performing the “historiographical operation” has both a political and an ethical dimension. The “historiographical operation” is a phrase I’m borrowing from Michel de Certeau (The Writing of History) for the practice which sustains the writing of history. It consists, in Paul Ricouer’s powerful summation (Memory, History, Forgetting), of the documentary phase, the explanation/understanding phase, and the reception phase. Or, in other words, the practices by which (1) an historian consults various kinds of traces of the past, very often texts deposited in archives, to which she then (2) puts various questions in the attempt to understand and explain some aspect of that past, and which is subsequently (3) expressed in a critical narrative eventually read by both a professional and public community.

In sum, historians today generally write histories as narratives which contain arguments and explanations about the past. History writing is therefore like other forms of writing in being figurative – the writing of history draws upon the features of written discourse more generally, such as literary tropes and techniques, to convey its meaning. As Ricoeur has very persuasively argued, historical narratives “stand for” the past. According to Ricoeur, the function of historiography, however analytical, is to figure our understanding of the past through a selection of and critical inquiry into the traces of the past, which themselves, in some fashion, “stand for” the past. The very selection of such traces, be they texts, artifacts, paintings, or what have you, and the questions posed to them, immediately brings otherwise mute objects into the world of discourse. To ask a question of a trace is to have first selected that trace which is itself already a part of the historian’s orientation. Historians are, like everyone else, individual members of particular societies with specific social roles, expectations, and conventions. Historians are also members of various communities which, to an important degree, govern the traces they select for study, the questions they pose to traces of the past, and the figurative-discursive modes in which they tell their stories. What, then, constitutes a better or worse explanation or understanding of the past?

Part of the controversy surrounding Wood’s work has been that his writing has privileged certain kinds of traces, select sets of actors in the past, and this has given the impression that these particular traces and actors adequately “stand for” the past in toto. Criticism of Wood’s work can be based on a rejection of his selection of traces, the questions he poses to such traces, and his mode of presentation. In other words, it is not simply the arguments Wood makes, but the very presuppositions of his narrative that are being questioned. Since Wood’s first book was published in 1969 historians have been looking in ever-greater detail at the social, cultural, imperial, and gender history of colonial America, sometimes with an eye to restoring the sense in which the American Revolution was an event whose occurrence cannot be understood, let alone represented, without the addition of these “newer” kinds of traces, actors, and figurative plots. In an earlier post here at In media res I very briefly highlighted the sense in which Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles was precisely this kind of “newer” story – it looks not at the American patriots, but at the American loyalists, i.e. instead of the “winners”, it looks at the “losers” of history, including white men and women, Native Americans, and blacks. Furthermore, Jasanoff’s story is one which lays the accent upon the contingency of historical decision-making, and then uses that contingency to show how a significant minority of American colonists’ choice to remain loyal to Britain transformed both Britain and its empire.

 Contrasting the kind of history written by Wood with that of Jasanoff in the context of a reflection on the historiographical operation leads me to a basic question: when an historian takes a certain perspective on the past, and writes a narrative in terms of that perspective, are we to understand that the given historian fully endorses the narrative of which she is the narrator? There are historians who study the apologists for slavery, for instance, who are clearly not in the least bit interested in condoning their subject of study, at least on the question of slavery. Yet it remains true that a greater number of narratives about the past, told about different subjects, from various kinds and perhaps hitherto neglected traces of the past, and related in different narrative modes, has greatly enriched our understanding of the past and our explanations of how the past continues to exercise itself in the present. It is now impossible to sustain an argument for a vision of history in which the victors alone and their great deeds deserve to be remembered in posterity.

If a particular historian does not, in writing a narrative supposed to be in some way representative of the past, wish to give the impression that such a representation is the only such possible representation, how should we respond to its narrative-representational claim, as both historians and citizens? Criticism of someone like Wood can come from several directions, including through an examination of the traces he selected, the actors he decides to include, and the plot of his story. But is there not a sense in which an overemphasis on one author continues to fetishize the book and authorial intent? Yes and no. In a context which continues to privilege a rather narrow range of stories there may be serious cause for concern about someone like Wood’s work – though I am not here saying here that this is necessarily the case. What I mean is simply this: are we not, as historians and citizens, members of communities in which we bestow meaning on a text through the practices by which we read them? Is it not important to recall that when we read the work of an historian such as Wood, we do not have to consider his argument the last word on the subject, or as the sole voice in a monologue? To revert back to de Certeau’s framework, the reception of an historical work is not necessarily univocal – are there not ways of reading even a conventional or perhaps “outdated” historical work such that its intentions may be ignored for very good critical, political and ethical reasons?