Thursday, February 05, 2004

Fraudulent Outlines

As one can read in any book on historiography, the practice of history is all about selection. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to specify the universe from which the sample is drawn—Everything that happened? Everything that happened plus everything somebody ever imagined? Everything for which there is evidence? Everything for which there is documentation? Everything interesting to college professors? Middle class Americans? Human beings? Mammals? Vertebrates? Eukaryotes? Under the circumstances, a meaningful estimate of the proportion between sample and population is out of the question. The best we can do is to compare a one degree of ignorance with another, for example, scholarly consensus and popular understanding. In effect, Eviatar Zerubavel’s recent book, Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past, does just that.

Zerubavel offers a formal analysis of popular concepts of history as reflected in holidays, public commemorations, political rhetoric, and the like. Brief and very clear, the book is much simpler than the earlier efforts of Hayden White, whose analyses, focusing on serious historians, are based on the figures of classical rhetoric. You just don’t need to invoke metonomy and chiasmus to discuss the way Serbians think about Kosovo or Americans about Columbus. Indeed, what Zerubavel conveys most forcibly is the incredible poverty of popular notions of history. That’s not news, of course, but it is the calling of a sociologist to underline the obvious, especially when the obvious is so important. There are all sorts of consequences to the fact that people inhabit a cartoon.

Incidentally, I think that Zerubavel’s take on historical consciousness goes a bit too far. Nominalism behooves a sociologist, but historical periodizations are not quite as arbitrary as he suggests—there may not be such a thing as the Essence of the Medieval that was supplanted in 1453 by the Essence of the Renaissance but the fuzziness or irregularity of conceptual borders is not a very good argument against making distinctions. Just as there are better and worse measures of central tendency in statistics, there are better and worse ways of cutting up the continuum of time. Speaking of the short 20th Century (1914-1991), for example, makes a lot more sense than talking about the years 1900-2000 as a unit. And one can use historical categories without reifying them or relying on a single scheme. There is something to be said for the old scholastic notion of formal distinctions made according to the thing.

I’m also a bit skeptical about going too far with the notion, made famous by Hobsbawm and promoted by Zerubavel, that national identity is largely a figment of publicity. It seems to me that the matter is actually quite complex because some ethnicities, however they originally came into being, have in some cases become formidably rooted in custom and mental reflex. The French aren’t French just because somebody says they are, and the proof of that is the considerable degree to which Italians really are Italians because somebody says they are. On the other hand, I quite agree with Zerubavel that the whole notion of national origins, indeed of all sorts of historical origins, is fundamentally arbitrary because what makes an event a beginning is not its special power but the fact that we don’t know or have chosen to forget what came before it. Even in the Bible version, people were living in Palestine before Abraham’s arrival. No title search is ever going to clear the deed to that property.

Zerabavel writes about very general historical concepts such as rise, decline, continuity, discontinuity, identity, origin, and dynasty and their tyranny over historical thinking. These days I’m rather more interested in more substantive, moral, dramaturgical, and ethological concepts that determine what will be included in the selection that defines history as such. I note, for example, the difficulty historians have to this day in integrating natural events like epidemics or climate change into historical narratives. History is not the same genre as tragedy, but unmerited or random misfortune apparently doesn’t belong in either. To make a history requires more than fraudulent outlines. I gather the German historian Reinhart Koselleck has developed a historiography along these lines, but I haven’t read any of his work yet.

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