Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Lines Masquerading as Volumes

Young historians attack the archives armed with hypotheses, which, though it is probably the best way to get your degree, has a signal disadvantage. It isn’t just that the people in the past weren’t doing their damnedest to give birth to the present. Their preoccupations don’t normally have much overlap with ours. An historian expecting to find Philip II obsessing about the rights of the unborn is like the gnat that asked Alice what insects she rejoiced in back home. Or, to reverse the temporality, imagine a time-traveling imperial chancellor asking W about his stand on the Investiture Controversy. Whole eras doubtless have more bandwidth than individual human beings, but the agenda is necessarily extremely narrow since in the absence of radical selectiveness, disagreement would be as impossible as consensus in the vast, deserted forest of the possible. It follows that to actually encounter the past, it is first of all necessary to become familiar with its hobbyhorses and that requires a certain amount of aimless rambling in the sources, not a very popular activity in our rapid age.

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