The Revealed Image: History-Writing and the Cult of Invisibility, Pt. 1 February 26, 2012Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
I’ve tried to swear off abstract historiographical theorizing in favor of somewhat more specific projects like my “tactile history” series, but old habits die hard. This post is basically an attempt to pull together some persistent themes from this blog for my own benefit, but it may be of use to others.
Although there exists a certain amount of “philosophy of history,” in my experience it is generally now accepted that history-writing has no set philosophy or methodology. (That would make it a “science”, and boo on that). Philosophers will be apt to tell you that where practitioners, e.g. historians, follow no explicit methodology, they are probably following one implicitly. The validity of such a notion for history shows through in professional historians’ zeal for methodological reflection (if not actual philosophizing), and in a pronounced peevishness toward the methodological failures of non-professional writings on history. The philosophers will probably also go on to say implicit methodologies may well not conform to ones that practitioners would approve of if they were faced with an explicit articulation of it. Hence the need for philosophers.
So, what methodology do historians implicitly follow? After much reflection on this blog, I’ve come to describe it as a “cult of invisibility”. I use the term “cult” here half-facetiously. I don’t really mean to connote a kind of nefarious and secretive conspiracy. However, I believe historians do by and large abide by a set of doctrines, which carry a strong moral resonance. Further, these doctrines characterize historians’ special ability to “see” invisible things.
We can understand this cult of invisibility to exhibit itself on at least five interrelated levels:
- choices in selecting research projects, and defining their boundaries
- choices of research methods used in these projects
- the sense of what is important about the project, or what argument will be made concerning it
- the craft of presentation
- criticisms deployed against other historians
I assert that historians generally choose topics to investigate, not simply because they haven’t been adequately addressed (though this is still sometimes a desideratum), but because they are, in a sense, “invisible”. There is supposed to be something that has actively prevented the topic from being previously seen, at least in the way it is being addressed in the project at hand.
The significance of the topic chosen is not generally judged in terms of its significance in history, but rather because it is supposed to be representative of some broader class of invisible historical things. Successfully undertaking the project might provide a methodological fulcrum by which other, similarly invisible topics can be made visible.
Furthermore, investigating the topic may well reveal the ideological mechanism by which the topic was rendered invisible in the first place. In fact, it would not be off the mark to say that such ideologies are the true subject of investigation. This, I would suggest, is what most journal editors have in mind when they judge whether articles are of “broad interest”. I’m pretty sure it’s not the ostensible subject matter of the articles, which is typically very narrow.
This sense of historiographical significance implicitly divides the historical record into “visible” and “invisible” components. Crucially, there is no actual list or “map” of which things in the past are already visible. Rather, visibility is defined according to what it is supposed some prevailing intellectual prejudice would preferentially render visible, leaving the remainder of the record invisible. The objective of history-writing is not to “fill in” the invisible bits of the record through systematic labor, but to “diagnose” the prejudices that prevent the invisible bits from being seen.
Most non-historians are deemed unable to see the invisible component of the historical record, because 1) these prevailing prejudices are deemed responsible for the preservation, summarization, and communication of the historical record, and 2) non-historians have not cultivated the special habits of mind necessary for identifying, and seeing around the prejudices and historical processes that are responsible for whatever ideas about the past they may have inherited.
This division of the historical record creates a set of implicit dichotomies that run through the literature. Political and social history is divided into dominant and marginalized components. The history of ideas is similarly divided into a component of official, dominant, or explicit ideas (intellectual history, history of philosophy, institutional history, political history…), and a component of unofficial, or implicit ideas (marginalized or tacit discourses, underlying ideologies, the standards defining intellectual, political, or cultural legitimacy…). Note: however much historians may claim to study “practices” or “material culture” or “visual culture”, they almost certainly really intend to study a history of tacit ideas through an examination of practices or material objects.
Methodologies of historical research can be similarly divided. Material found in an archive is regarded as invisible, and thus almost automatically of interest. In the archive, the contents of official or explicit ideas are “contested” and “negotiated”. On the other hand, in published writings ideas are finalized, and considered ready for public consumption. Published writings may, of course, be examined by professional historians, but it is frowned upon if they are the sole object of investigation: the author is almost certainly unaware of some invisible history beneath or around them.
Ultimately, historians do not believe that one or the other side of these divides is a transcendentally more legitimate subject for research and historical understanding than the other. However, there is a clear professional premium placed on analyzing the side characterized by its implicitness and invisibility. In the end, the dichotomy running through the historical record comprises an official or public component, and a professional or revisionist component. The objective for the professional is to breach the constraints that confine the official or public component, by intensively studying and publishing on the professional (i.e., tacit, archival, etc.) component. Thus value is assigned to works that serve this purpose; works that do not serve this purpose have a neutral or even negative value. A high premium may be placed on works that address professional concerns, but that are palatable to the public, because such works would be deemed particularly cogent to the professional project.
The importance of the tension or battle that surrounds this professional-public divide cannot be sufficiently stressed. Because of it, works are automatically divided according to whether they contribute to the overarching professional project, or whether they work against that project. Although historians routinely rely on the empirical work of institutional historians (in the case of historians of science, generally scientist-historians), historians are apt criticize these works, and compose their own works in such a way that it diagnoses errors or insufficiencies in these works as the product of the same underlying prejudices that render aspects of the historical record invisible.
This battle takes on added significance, because what sorts of images of the past the public consumes — and thus the functioning of the public mind itself — is regarded as at stake. Histories written in an unprofessional mode are taken not simply to transmit error or insufficiency, but to exert a deeper, corrupting influence on public thinking. (For historians of science, improper history of science as regarded as indicative of a corrupting, but largely invisible idea about what science is, and how it works in society.)
This question is taken to be particularly crucial, because historians (and many others) have an unacknowledged tendency to regard the past as proceeding either harmoniously or pathologically. I believe we can trace this notion to the Marxist argument that ideologies distracts people from the material, class-centered realities driving the dialectics of history. In the transition to post-Marxist historiography, the idea of a fundamental reality in history is abandoned — all history is driven by one ideology or another. Now, the objective of history-writing is to reveal images of invisible history so as to raise awareness of invisible ideas and ideologies driving history, buoying some actors, while rendering others less visible. One cannot eliminate ideologies, but raised awareness of them would then permit a reasoned choice to be made between which ideas and ideologies we want to drive history.
However, in this post-Marxist project, the idea tends to be retained from Marxist thought that invisible ideas are responsible for mentalities that produce or sustain specifically pathological polities or societies. Of course, this notion of pathological history tends to return us to the Marxist idea of a “true” history, which modern historians would rightly view as teleological or Whiggish. But, I believe the prospect of exerting a salubrious force on politics, and thus history, allows the sanction against this vision to be routinely, but tacitly violated.
In Pt. 2, I’ll look at some of the historiographical problems created by the cult of invisibility, and why diagnostic efforts like this post contribute to rather than resolve these problems, along with a few thoughts about the way out of this paradox.