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The Consolidation of Gains December 8, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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This post looks at the possibility and benefits of historiographical balance, and how that balance can best be achieved.  I suggest that the “consolidation of historiographical gains” is central to this idea.

When Christopher discussed the “hierarchy of needs” he suggested that scholarly works deploy rather than describe previous literature, and that the resultant failure to describe represents an act of intellectual “atavism” (a topic I hope he’ll find time to address here further once his master’s thesis work allows).  However, in our behind-the-scenes conversations, we’ve come to agree that the progression of historiography is not necessarily a story of degradation.  Rather, historical works have a responsibility to the historiography to consolidate its gains and to add to those gains.

By consolidation, I mean the retention of pertinent facts and arguments, the leaving behind of details, and the use of references to indicate the existence of those details.  The consolidation of gains is necessary, simply because the weight of primary material and the proliferation of secondary material has changed the nature of scholarship.  The “omnivorous scholar”—the master of “the literature” and certified practitioner of its exegesis—has mostly disappeared.  However, it should remain impermissible to leave behind the collected gains of the Era of the Omnivores as well those produced by more recent scholarship, even though earlier concerns for the progression of arguments may seem orthogonal and largely irrelevant to more recent concern with describing practices.

The consolidation of gains is necessary for the production of “coherent” history.  In my post on chronological versus epistemological (or sociological) problematics, I pointed out that chronologies have a richer potential for problematics, that rather than simply seeking more epistemological “stuff” to describe, contextualize, and collect, chronologies offer more opportunities for the reconciliation of perspectives.  In chronologies the retention of details matters for the maintenance of the coherence of narratives.  The transcendence of description—moving beyond what Simon Schaffer, channeling Joseph Priestley, called “fiction”—into chronological explanation, and the resolution of problematics into coherence allows for what Schaffer referred to as “experimental” (or what Priestley called “true”) histories, where discovering the unexpected—what Harry Collins refers to as “counter-commonsensical” results—becomes possible.  This suggests the possibility of a progressive historiography.

Consolidating gains can act as a sort of “traffic signal”: it allows historiography to progress continually and  evenly by suggesting problematic areas.  Consolidation recognizes what should already be established, and by establishing a vanguard it helps disqualify historiographical evangelism (the quixotic quest to reform popular history, for instance) as a worthwhile scholarly pursuit.  For similar reasons, it helps prevent ornamental “pile on”: the perpetual need to demonstrate a point over and over again (as in the overproduction of case studies geared toward demonstrating the link between 19th-century field science and Imperialism).

Conversely, consolidation can also help point out areas where very little work has been done.  By producing coherent narratives, it becomes easier to identify things that have not been seen in the scholarship of one historical period, but that do exist in another.  This allows historians either to identify that thing in the lacking scholarship, or, failing to find it, to ask “where did this come from (or go)?”  It signals where empirical research is necessary.  On a more mundane level, this sort of practice would also help link the concerns of scholars of different eras, and to do so in the most productive ways.

The failure to consolidate gains can result in a number of possible historiographical maladies.  The imbalancing of historiography does not, in and of itself, constitute a malady.  A malady is, rather, the production and historiographical retention of claims that would be problematized by unaddressed existing facts or claims—a permanent unbalancing between old and new historiography.  For example, the relative lack of attention to 18th-century natural philosophy is simply a lamentable present historiographical imbalance.  However, the claim by a historian of the 19th or 20th  century that Enlightenment science can be characterized by reference to a belief in knowable a priori truths and the cult of rationality is a historiographical malady: a detailed (or, really, cursory) knowledge of the historiography will permit no such blanket claim.  Similarly, David Edgerton’s piece on the historiographical creation of (and attack on) the “linear model” of R&D is a must-read assault on another persistent historiographical malady (it is #41 here).

The rise of historiographical maladies suggests that if historiography is not recognized explicitly through consolidation, implicit historiography rises to take its place.  An implicit historiography often takes the form of a straw man—it constitutes an assumed body of general knowledge, “what is believed” for which it is easy to provide a “corrective”, to “fill in the much needed gap” (as Peter Galison likes to say), or to otherwise make a positive contribution.  As new works begin to situate themselves around the implicit historiography, older insights may be lost to the archives, and their significance for recent accounts forgotten.  This, I believe, is an operative definition of historiographical atavism.

The consolidation of gains can be achieved by writing works that actively seek out explanatory problematics rather than cleverly dodge them (“this case study is not necessarily representative”, “this is a work of archaeology of a discourse rather than a genealogy of ideas”, etc.—note these things are not to be avoided altogether, but should be used more sparingly than they perhaps are).  We might also make better use of historiographical technologies.  Canons could be proposed and argued over.  Edited volumes might more frequently try to resemble collaborations.  The general history of science and textbook market might be made more competitive.  We might start seeing more review articles.

All of this might depend on the consolidation of gains being better recognized not only as a non-extraneous pursuit, but as an essential scholarly imperative.

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