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The Rashomon Posture January 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.

Recently, I have been advocating a deeper consideration of the importance of maintaining “chronological problematics” in history—in short, the idea that important historiographical topics are revealed and consolidated by arranging them in a coherent and sequential order.  I have taken chronological problematics to be confronted by a predominance of “epistemological problematics” wherein what is necessary is to theorize categories of epistemological practices (observing, communicating, representing, etc.) and then researching and presenting different historical approaches to these practices, creating a “gallery of practices”.

Today, I would like to consider the idea that the relationship between the gallery of practices and any sort of problematics is purely implicit.  Being implicit, there is no sense of historiographical responsibility to resolving problematics.  In place of this commitment is what I like to call the “Rashomon posture” (Christopher prefers “Ghost Dog”).

Would you believe a history written by Toshiro Mifune?

Would you believe a history written by Toshiro Mifune?

In Rashomon (see the Kurusawa film trailer here), conflicting, self-interested perspectives in a murder trial present no possibility of reconciliation, leading those who hear of the trial into despair about the possibility of truth and the human capacity for goodness.  For examples of the Rashomon posture on history of science blogs, or at least a nod toward it, see Michael Gordin’s Hump-Day History post on Dmitrii Mendeleev; or Michael Robinson’s post “The Smudgy Window of History”, especially the last paragraph; or History of Economics Playground where we can replace Rashomon with Lawrence Durrell.

The idea behind the Rashomon posture is to sanction a vision of historiographical responsibility wherein study can be layered on top of other studies, each espousing a different perspective on the past, none of them advocating a set explanation of events.  It is, essentially, a defense mechanism against possible accusations that the author is reifying ideas about the past into a definitive vision that should not be questioned.  It uses any or all of the following resources to justify itself:

  1. The inevitable subjectivity of the historian’s own interests in looking at the past.
  2. The poverty (or overwhelming wealth) of the historical record.
  3. The inevitable intervention of the interests of the creators and preservers of the historical record.
  4. The minuscule contingency of the past, and thus the impossibility of encapsulating its dynamics in a final set of principles.

The worth of the Rashomon posture is that it advocates a free play of “suggestions” for possibly fruitful perspectives.  Because these suggestions are not definitive, they cannot in good sport be heavily criticized. The Rashomon posture suggests that responsibility for interpreting the contradictions between perspectives resides with the audience, or possible future research, not the suggesting historian who humbly but valiantly struggles against the profound difficulties of 1-4.

The presentation of a new perspective often takes the form of representing a neglected historical constituency, a neglected disciplinary methodology, or both.  Thus people in literary studies can contribute an understanding of the “scientific public”.  Art historians can analyze methods of scientific representation.  Feminist scholars can contribute an understanding of women contributors to science, or the science of women.  Sociologists can contribute an understanding of the normative structures of scientific institutions.  We can highlight the relationship between “science” and laboratory assistants, artists, medical patients, journalists, and on and on.

Worthy projects all.

But these are worthy projects that require reconciliation into a coherent-if-complex picture.  It is not sufficient to layer perspectives and assume that the historiography will somehow automatically be advanced by the effort, and it is not true (nor do I believe it is genuinely believed to be true) that we live in a Rashomon-like world where perspectives cannot be reconciled.

History has “grains” that can be identified by continuities in ideas held by distinct self-identified constituencies, as embodied in their rhetoric and practices.  Querying the historical record about these ideas across these constituencies results in an incoherent response from the record.  The Rashomon posture advocates an interpretation of this incoherence as an indicator of the “contingency” of the past.  The summation of these ideas (as collected in the gallery of practices) represents different manifestations of the idea subject to different historical contingencies and contexts.

I make a more radical and difficult proposal.  If a query of the historical record produces unrelated or only loosely related manifestations of the idea, the query is not valid.  The “idea” cannot be said to have existed.  The historian is forced to redefine the query, or the constituency being queried.  The accumulation of manifestations does not produce new knowledge about the idea, meaning when we go to tell the history of an idea, we need to be exceedingly cautious when we select what actually constituted an idea.

“Observation”, I would argue, is an example of a research interest.  Crucially, it is not a topic that can be historicized.  While the term “observation” and different modes of observation can be said to have existed, I would argue that there has not been a coherent “idea” of observation.  Therefore the mere accumulation of “perspectives” on observation in a gallery of practice can generate no new knowledge about, say, the “17th-century idea of observation”: it is an incoherent query.  It is the historian’s responsibility to isolate and taxonomize rhetoric and practices concerning observation and to identify specific constituencies employing them.  Only once this is done can the history of ideas be recounted, and, crucially, their consequences evaluated.  There must be a consolidation of gains, which requires the use of a problematic.  (See also Peter Galison’s “problem 7 and 8” on “locality and globality” from Isis last year, which I think is a related critique).

Studying the past according to a research interest, and collecting galleries (or Foucauldian “archaeologies”) is legitimate and useful.  However, using the Rashomon posture to curtail inquiry at that point—just where the responsibility of the professional historian to reconcile the historical data through revised conceptualizations of the past becomes most useful—is not legitimate.  Attributing the inherent incoherence of non-existent ideas to the contingency and complexity of contexts surrounding an incoherent “idea” without mapping those contexts is not legitimate.  It is incumbent upon historians to go beyond pointing out and accumulating examples of the non-fixity of ideas and the difficulties of the historical record, and to develop complex and nuanced explanations for changes through history.

Insofar as the Rashomon posture excuses (or in some cases even celebrates) the failure to provide complex chronological accounts, it must go.



1. Michael Robinson - January 26, 2009

“Studying the past according to a research interest, and collecting galleries (or Foucauldian “archaeologies”) is legitimate and useful. However, using the Rashomon posture to curtail inquiry at that point—just where the responsibility of the professional historian to reconcile the historical data through revised conceptualizations of the past becomes most useful—is not legitimate.”

Will, I take your point here… in principle. Indeed, some “Rashamon posture” scholars seem happy to say -“now that I’ve problematized this question, I’m going to go outside and have a cigarette” especially in cultural studies. But in practice, there is a lot of synthesis going on. For example, the Midwife’s Tale, inspiration for the last paragraph of my post, loops the study of Ballard back to the historiography of medicine. Ulrich is eager to show how this new approach to the material (inspired by shifts in late 20th c thinking) correct and bring clarity to earlier historiographical views of colonial medicine.

I guess my point is this: we don’t know where we’ll be as a culture 30 years from now, so we don’t know what kinds of inspiration, culture, etc we will find percolating through future historiography. If there are accretive elements to the historiographic corpus, they are not predictable ones. Nor do we know which trends will linger, which will fade: is this idea U2 or Vanilla Ice?

2. Will Thomas - January 26, 2009

You’re on board the train, Michael, and have anticipated future posts! The relationship between historicization and problematization is sitting half-finished in the queue (and was originally supposed to precede this post), and the general increase in quality and sophistication in localized historiographies (such as the “industries”) where scholars are many and the material is reasonably bounded is going to be an issue we want to come back to.

The midwife microhistory is not too bad a case-in-point. It’s unquestionably useful because it adds an entirely new health-related practice to the agenda of things that need to be researched. And, if I’m not mistaken, this book is something of a classic for helping create a localized historiography of midwifery. So it represents an infinite multiplication in historiographical knowledge on the subject.

But now future entries must beware diminishing returns. Let’s say I pick up an Isis next year, and it has a case history of some friction between local doctors and midwives in 1890s Nebraska. It’s impeccably researched, it’s a lovely addition to the gallery of practices, but it doesn’t tell me much that I don’t already know, i.e. midwives existed and were not a credited part of the medical profession, and that fact could cause problems.

Maybe it has some things that are interesting to the localized historiography of midwifery. Maybe it helpfully suggests some things (though of course cannot generalize) about women, medicine, and the American midwest circa 1900, but whatever differences there are between these midwives and Ballard can only be incidental to the central knowledge we have already accumulated about the idea of midwifery in America.

What is needed is research, theorization, and agreement about the most important longstanding changes in midwifery in America between 1700 and 1900; and hopefully this would be a book. And then hopefully this would, in turn, be distilled and incorporated in some fluid way into a History of American Medical Practice, which would become a must-read for historians of science everywhere, and we could safely leave Ulrich behind.

I have an idea that the history of medicine is a bit better at consolidating its gains than other areas, so maybe there’s something like this out there already, but the point of the example is that these kinds of consolidations need to be continuous and up-front-and-center in our profession. God help us if all we get are disjointed edited volumes with accumulated perspectives.

Anyway, all this is just an example to work out what I mean. I had no problems with your post, except your appeal to some grand subjectivity in history that separates us from the scientists to explain rises and falls in research interests. The addition of midwifery to the history of medical practices strikes me as a perfectly objective thing to do, even if the initial motivations for undertaking the research were “modern”.

3. Michael Robinson - January 27, 2009

I will admit to you, I wrestle with the question of objective vs subjective narrative. I like the ideas of the grand narrative, although, I think I like them mostly because they appeal to me as a writer. I am impressed with the enormous marshaling of evidence, imposition of structure, patience and creativity, etc. Philosophically speaking, I lean more towards the subjective end of the spectrum – not quite Strong Programme stuff, but somewhere in the middle. I do tend to think of history as art-form, if only because arts (like sciences) adhere to certain rules of form and then express themselves truthfully within those forms. Most of the historians I know are extraordinarily earnest about treating artifacts with respect, paying attention to context, examining their own assumptions etc. Yet at the same time, we leap to the challenge of creating something new (even when we have no idea how our subjects might support this newness, whatever it turns out to be). Still, it’s hard not to acknowledge directionality in history, progress of some sorts, so I waver and weave. I guess that makes me somewhat agnostic when it comes to history of science. How wishy-washy!

4. Will Thomas - January 27, 2009

It’s definitely worth talking these positions out, and there are a lot of interwoven ones here. I think much of the point of this post (and there will surely be revised rehashes), is that historians have a tendency to be a bit too respectful to artifacts, refusing to incorporate them into broad narratives. The irony is that this refusal (I think) is intended to demonstrate responsibility via restraint and allowing the audience some interpretive freedom, but is actually quite irresponsible because it leads to a sort of historiographical chaos concerning even the general outlines of the big picture.

On the big picture, grand narratives are generally not useful in my book. My rule of thumb is that you’re going to need about 10-15 different narratives to do a reasonably good job of explaining every 30-50 years worth of history of science, and that these should be known by every historian (I am nowhere near this goal, myself). Localized historiographies, of course, require far more exacting detail. Piecemeal historical studies can be most progressive by identifying and working to modify one of these narratives. This is kind of what I have in mind by coherent-if-complex historiography based on a chronological problematic.

5. Michael Robinson - January 27, 2009

Will, do you think the very subjective “it’s all indeterminate and complex” scholarship is really leaving it up to the audience? I always got the sense that there was a kind of rigidity in the conclusions of the cultural studies, po-mo critiques. In other words, they had their minds made up: “it’s indeterminate, period. You’d have been luck finding clear-cut cause and effects in the Heisenbergian atom.”

6. Will Thomas - January 27, 2009

This is a problem I’ve been thinking a lot about, and talking with Christopher about on our lunch break. I’m increasingly convinced that looking to the whole “po-mo/cultural studies” influence on the profession is sort of a red herring, simply because I don’t think many people ever really subscribed to it in the first place, and vanishingly few do now. Rather, po-mo, the Strong Programme, Ginzburg, Latour, Foucault, Shapin, Daston, David Noble’s history of the failures of “objective history”, etc., have simply become “licenses” to write a certain style of history that is locally correct, but builds toward no larger picture, except for a reinforcement of a few “points” we need to make about the character of knowledge–it is locally contingent, it is negotiated, etc.

In radical cases, contingency and “negotiatedness” have been used to throw doubt on all knowledge claims—which is why it is instinctual to think we are afflicted by a persistent and untenable radical position. But I’m coming to think that stuff’s only the foam on the historiographical beer. The critique of radicals serves to draw criticism away from those scholars who hold a more “moderate” stance, but still use contingency and negotiatedness (or whatever) to interest other scholars in their work rather than any inherent significance of the material being presented.

When we scholars write, we address these points (the “epistemic imperative”) because we feel it is what makes our studies interesting to a larger audience. It is the variety of contexts (the “gallery of practices”) that supposedly keeps it fresh. “Knowledge is negotiated…. but…. this time in China!” Yet, ultimately, it doesn’t change anyone’s view of the overarching fabric of history, because the content of the specific case study is not claimed to have a substantial significance. It is simply a portrait of scientific life (yet another microhistory, essentially). “Moderates” leave it implicit that other scholars, or future scholars, or someone, will ultimately be able to integrate the humble case study in the larger network of case studies. That’s the theory we’re working with, anyway.

What this really is is a sensibility of writing, which we’re trying to convert into an explicit rationale in order to show its historiographical consequences. While we readily acknowledge that good work occurs all the time, and that synthesis does occur, our concern is that past understanding is being lost at a faster rate than we are gaining it simply on account of a failure to engage with established pictures.

7. Michael Robinson - January 28, 2009

Yes, I get tired of the cookie cutter application of broader ideas: let’s see how empire plays itself out in the history of volleyball! Indeed, my book was an attempt to write a history of exploration where the forces of empire were NOT in the foreground. At the time I was quite proud of myself for doing this – dodging a few slings and arrows from peer reviewers along the way. Now I see that I had my own preoccupations that date my project to a particular historiographical moment in time (i.e popular ideas of science and theories of manliness).There is no escape!

Your response raises more questions for me (real questions, not just rhetorical ones) first, should the ultimate goal of history be synthesis? There is a whole school of local history (not at all po-mo, Foucaultian, etc) which is rigorous about providing broader context but luxuriates in local cause and effects and sees it as an end in and of itself, not the case study of anything else. If this is somehow subordinate to larger scale, more synthetic projects, where to we draw the line? What scale of history is best? To go back to the history as art metaphor, we would never grade landscapes as inherently superior to still lifes or trompe d’oeils. They are different genres, even though the smaller-scale works could be seen as subsets of the landscapes.

On the other hand, I find myself a big admirer of biological anthropology, largely because it manages to integrate information from so many disparate fields and sub-disciplines, ultimately to the benefit of a common goal (or at least an overlapping set of goals). In order to work on human migrations 100,000-10,000 BCE, one has to be up on comparative linguistics, archeology, paleo-botany, and biometric dating. I sometimes wish that historians had to operate in these kind of interdisciplinary cross-currents. (Indeed, my blog is an attempt to create some cross-currents of my own, to get pushed around a bit by people who disagree with my approaches to exploration).

Sorry for the long post!

8. Will Thomas - January 28, 2009

No apologies necessary at all, Michael. The conversation has heated up very nicely (and the post is getting lots of hits!) You raise an excellent issue of historiographical balance that we have not considered yet, which is the place of the luxurious history. The vision I paint can sound a little Communistic, where all studies have to feed back into this big historiographic machine. The reason I’m eager to promote the vision is because from my perspective the machine seems to have broken down somewhere around 1994 and has not been running the same since.

There is still room for the exploratory, the elegant, even the useless history in my world. What is necessary is to find some way of sorting out how responsibility for maintaining the historiography can best be allocated and fulfilled. (Wow, this is in danger of turning into a rehash of Bernal vs. Polanyi, with me as Bernal…. scary!)

9. Michael Robinson - January 28, 2009

I think I’m getting a better picture of your goals after reading these responses: there is a world of possible history projects, but within this world, there is still a place for the broadly synthetic historiographic narrative, a narrative that seems to blown apart in the past 15 years. Is that a fair assessment?

10. Will Thomas - January 28, 2009

Yes, I think so. I would just emphasize that the synthetic narrative is not overarching, but if you pick it up in the 1500s, you should be able to follow the pieces through to the present. History is not simply a matter of giving “face time” to all categories of possible participants.

In many ways this boils down to “too many case studies, not enough prosopography!” “we need textbooks!” “books need better introductions!” but I think the imperatives become more programmatic, and less like petulant expressions of personal preferences, if we try to understand why we have the habits we do, why we feel comfortable with them, what we risk losing, and why other approaches to historiography have merit, but cannot be carried by individual scholars.

11. Will Thomas - January 28, 2009

An aside: even the spam robots seem to take advantage of the Rashomon posture! This comment (with a link to “financial services”) ended up in the filter:

“I like your insight into this subject. This movie does well to show how biased we are as subjective beings. nice post thanks!”

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