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The Revealed Image: History-Writing and the Cult of Invisibility, Pt. 1 February 26, 2012

Posted 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:

  1. choices in selecting research projects, and defining their boundaries
  2. choices of research methods used in these projects
  3. the sense of what is important about the project, or what argument will be made concerning it
  4. the craft of presentation
  5. 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.



1. beckyfh - February 26, 2012

Interesting post, Will, that provokes a few thoughts. At the top, I’m wondering whether your sense that we historians reject methodology as much as you suggest. While we would tend not to see a single methodology in history (or, indeed, science) we do all have to consider our approach to some degree in order to write grant proposals that ask for a description of methodology, or to teach, or, indeed, to introduce articles. But perhaps this is done with too little reflection?

I think a lot if your diagnosis is correct, and is often the obvious way to proceed in a world where so much has already been written, but fashions have changed, allowing for new approaches, topics etc to be explored. The idea that historians should find *something* to uncover or reveal seems rather obvious. What else should we be doing?

I also think you stress on ideologies is specific to certain fields of history. Historians of, say, working class life or domestic history, may be more interested in considering practices and material culture in their own right – although the choice of those fields, of course, plays into the idea of revealing hidden histories.

I’m not quite sure I’ve followed you on the idea of considering the past proceeding harmoniously or pathologically – do you mean in particular places/periods or particular competing ideologies within one time? (Sorry if I’m being dense on this – it’s rather early on a Sunday!).

2. Will Thomas - February 26, 2012

Hi Becky, thanks for the comment.

I think historians tend to be a bit cagey about methodology. There definitely is a sense that there is some methodology, but I don’t really gather that its various branches have been well-developed. How do you locate and assemble continuities and discontinuities in the historical record? How do you define the limitations of your claims with respect to period and constituency? How do you determine when you have arrived at a satisfactory description of historical ideas? I’ve not seen much reflection on these sorts of issues, and I gather that historians are not very eager to be pinned down on them. But one does have a sense that historians are eager to defend methodology insofar as it relates to overcoming overly obvious interpretations of the integrity of sources, the stated versus interested intents of historical rapporteurs, and so on.

More on your second paragraph in Pt. 2, but I would emphasize finding some way to reconcile empiricism with interpretation. Much has been written, yes, but there is a lot that remains unknown — in our field, for example, lots and lots of nitty gritty science. This means less emphasis on revelation (explaining why we don’t know more) and more on documentation (knowing more). Now, it’s clearly undesirable to dive in and document every single scientific investigation individually. But I feel it is less necessary to produce studies indicating some path “toward” a historical understanding, without doing much to make sure we actually arrive, and more necessary to figure out some way of coming to terms with the breadth of material that exists, without descending into rote compilation or facile cliometrics. It’s a huge challenge, and I’m not sure who to look to for leadership on that.

Very good point on your third paragraph. In the history of science, studying things like material culture often are done to elucidate the negotiation of museum exhibits, or to emphasize ideas about who can be trusted in assembling data (for example). However, I can see that that would not necessarily be the case in the areas you mention. And, of course, people who work in museums like you and your colleagues need to be recognized for their work in keeping track of things like material culture, at least partially for its own sake.

On the final point, I don’t think there’s any density involved on your part — it’s not a well-articulated point. Though analogies can be drawn in other fields of history, in our own field I think things like overcertainty in scientific results, and controversies about the practices, content, and implications of scientific knowledge tend to be regarded as a kind of pathological (yet perhaps also inevitable) product of an “ideology of science”. This ideology provides false images of how science is supposed to work, which permit this overcertainty to remain undiagnosed, or for controversies to be maybe more severe than they otherwise would be. I describe our perception of this as being a pathological unfolding of history, because it is often claimed that by providing a more mature, or “correct” image is supposed to have some sort of palliative effect on how these things continue to unfold in our own time.

3. Allan Olley - February 27, 2012

First, I would think having no philosophy or methodology would be part of a definition of science, rather than a point of differentiation for historians of science. ;-)

On the point that: “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.” I’m not sure I see the distinction between error/insufficiency and corruption, surely the pedantic part of our character just equates technical error and insufficiency with corruption. So I’m not sure this stands in as much need of explanation as you suggest. Although, I don’t deny your explanation has some force.

“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.” The thing is the kind of people who fully endorse that kind of thought (plenty of historians are going to ultimately be more old fashioned or non-committal) are also going to reject simple interpretations of their position. While some are I attempting the position you describe when they say that, my sense from conversation with people who say things like that is many are more concerned with some kind of flight from dogmatism and simple truth statement, but not what you are saying (or how I naturally interpret such statements). I can’t say more than that because I can only really tell what people don’t mean by such statements, what they do mean remains somewhat obscure to me (and possibly to them). Of course this non-position position probably does not

“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.” I find there is an interesting movement among some historians of science to be politically active explicitly as part of their scholarly program. I’m not sure how they characterize their program as such but I think rather than worrying about a true history they view history as part of the strategy in achieving political and moral ends (which is perhaps an attempt to get back to a different kind of Marxist history?). I have no idea whether an explicit admission of this kind of partiality is any less unstable than the implicit.

Anyway I find your theory of the invisible thing at work in history interesting and a plausible account of the practice of history. I think a lot of the issues you point at resonate with tensions that appear explicitly in the literature. Worries about excessive anti-whigism, worries about the lack of Big History in history of science, worries about what audiences history of science is for and so on.

Anyway interesting stuff to think about, thanks.

4. Will Thomas - February 27, 2012

Allan, thanks for a fine set of nicely pointed comments. I’m a little surprised that people like you and Becky have followed my various points in this post, since it’s so vague and hand-waving, and not really well-illustrated.

On error versus corruption, I think we have to draw the distinction at whether we take the errors to matter. I don’t think anyone is rushing out, out of sheer pedantry, to correct it if someone got, say, the year Newton went to Cambridge wrong. That would be like not knowing who won the 1952 World Series. However, other errors, like repeating clichés about Newton and Galileo seem less forgivable. And this, I think, is because those clichés are rooted in certain stories about Science, and what was supposed to have been accomplished in the establishment of it. Historians are apt to view the persistence of these clichés as a corrupting force that gives active succour to views of science they would like to upend.

We historians should assert our expertise, but we should probably be more sensitive to the fact that outsiders are apt to be taken aback by the above attitude, since they are more apt to view historical inaccuracy at this level as more akin to knowing about the ’52 World Series. To them, these historical clichés probably just make a point about science that they feel needs expressing. It may not be the most advanced understanding of science or its history, but that’s just the way public discourse works, in my mind.

The point about post-Marxism should be taken as a “soft” argument about the nature of an attitude with roots in a harder program of post-Marxism articulated in the ’70s and early ’80s. It’s really a reference back to a thread I last addressed last April. For historians of science, the point about uncovering ideologies mainly relates either to the weak association of science with various piecemeal social and political ideologies, or, just as likely, to an independent “ideology of science” that informs scientific work itself: be it something like technologies of trustworthy data rapportage, or Daston and Galison’s “epistemic virtues”.

Whatever this ideology is, it would be invisible beneath some standard story promoted by a sort of party-line Ideology of Science we are apparently struggling to get beyond. I think this “soft” position pretty well corresponds to your observation of a” flight from dogmatism and simple truth statement”. Long after a hard-line, highly explicit post-Marxism has left our circles, I would argue that the basic post-Marxist instinct to foster awareness of, and maturity with respect to invisible components of scientific work, or its relationship to broader contexts has become a kind of “baked-in” feature of our work. I recently finished a review of a book by a scholar who I would never consider postmodern or post-Marxist or whatever, but who nevertheless relied heavily on the trope.

Similarly, I don’t want the “political” project of historians to be read too strictly either. For historians of science, the project is probably vaguely left-ish, but often contains elements of a conservative critiques of expert planning. Much more importantly, its politics is really to advance a very particular view of science, and to combat another very particular view of science. This politics is a professional ideology, not unlike the ideology of journalism that Jay Rosen has described, which privileges savvy, and looks down upon naive belief in official narratives. In our case, its success is deemed elemental to a society that can benefit from science, without succumbing to dangerous stories about it that can lead to its political dominance, or, for that matter, its intellectual stagnation.

5. Matthew Wright - February 29, 2012

Thanks for your thoughtful and provocative insights. I think you’re basically right in terms of the ‘invisibility’ of a working philosophy of history. This has certainly been the case in New Zealand and the lack of conscious debate over ways and approaches has led to some remarkable distortions of interpretation. Indeed, in some cases I have seen quite overt selectivity of evidence in quite one-sided efforts to pursue arguments driven not by a philosophy of investigation, but by contemporary pressures to conform to particular ideologies. The main thrust of local academic history over the past 30 years – ‘revisionism’ – has been particularly problematic in this regard, and I have devoted arguments in several of my books to refuting some of what can only be regarded as the more Pythonesque outcomes of the academic intellectualisation of New Zealand’s past, driven to logical – but absurd – conclusions.

I actually studied the philosophy of history post-grad under Peter Munz, himself a student of Karl Popper (noting here Popper’s input into the philosophy of science). That set me up for my own career in New Zealand general social historical analysis which has led, I say with some embarrassment, to my being one of two New Zealand historians publicly labelled ‘post-post Colonial’. Both myself and Prof. Paul Moon dispute the shibboleths of the late twentieth century ‘revision’ of New Zealand’s history. I have a conscious philosophical approach – relativism, mainly – which I deliberately explain in my books. Quite specifically because I think it is important for readers to know the basis of the analysis.

Thanks again for a great post!

Matthew Wright FRHistS

6. Michael Bycroft - March 1, 2012

Thanks for this interesting post, and I’m looking forward to the follow-up. At this stage I only have a small request: in that follow-up, could you distinguish between history as the past and history as the set of written accounts of the past? The distinction wouldn’t usually bother me, but in this post it meant I couldn’t properly follow phrases like “which ideas and ideologies we want to drive history” and “the prospect of exerting a salubrious force on politics, and thus history.” Thanks!

7. Will Thomas - March 1, 2012

Thanks for the comments, Matthew and Michael.

Michael: will do. For the rest of this series, “history” means the past, while “history-writing” or “the history discipline” will denote the act of “doing” history. In both the specific cases you cite here, “history” actually means something like “the process of how history unfolds”, so maybe “events” is the better word to use here.

8. Michael Robinson - March 7, 2012

Hi Will, I agree with your invisibility argument broadly stated, but I wonder, what does it obtain? That is, how does the idea of historians seeking “the invisible” differ from what, I think, we all hope to produce in our scholarship, that is, the new? Something that has yet to be uncovered — either in the way of documents or interpretations? As for the unveiling of false ideologies as the object of our desire, yes this is probably true some of the time….but how much of the time? And, as Becky points out, for whom? I can think of a number of counter-examples to the idea of historians as eager ideology-busters: not just in material culture but in the academic sub-fields of public history and local history, arenas where there are often good relations between different stripes of historians and where the mood is more like a bean supper than the “tension or battle” you describe. Even within the history of exploration, which does attract academic and non-academic historians, relations between the groups are more positive and productive than your portrayal here. I think this gets to the heart of what makes me uncomfortable about this post: I don’t know which historians you are talking about, what kind of projects they are doing, or what kind of methods they are applying. As much as you tell Becky that “historians are not very eager to be pinned down” and that they tend to be cagey about methods, I think the same might be said of your post to some degree. So who are the cultists? What are their projects? Let’s get — as you say — away from the “abstract historiographical theorizing” and into the ditches!

9. Will Thomas - March 7, 2012

Hey, man, I’ve been in the ditches, believe you me. The abstract theorizing is an attempt to figure out sound ideas for making sure the stuff that goes on in the ditches is as productive as it can be.

In this case, I think the key thing in the point I am trying to make is that it describes the origins or implications of a style of writing, less than it may lived experience. So, in the case of “ideology”, I want to emphasize the importance of reading the term broadly. It’s not just like capitalist, like communist (like lots of things you’ve heard about — sorry, couldn’t help the Pixies reference.) Your work, for example, tends to concentrate on what we might call the “ideology of exploration”.

“Busting” need not be involved — but establishing awareness of these ideologies as enabling and structuring forces is a constant feature. As I suggested in my reply to Allan, I think we can trace the roots of this style to a more hard-line Marxist and post-Marxist attitude toward ideology, but I think it has evolved, “softened” if you will, since the c1980 period. But its softness need not imply that the style is any less potent in making sure accounts of history are produced in very particular ways.

Similarly, for relations between historical groups, we need not suppose actual hostility to recognize that the professional style stands in a stylistic tension with, say, a more celebratory or antiquarian non-professional approach. I have to imagine that this is especially pertinent in the history of exploration.

Anyway, compressing historiographical critique to a post or even multiple posts is naturally going to be somewhat unfair. However, I do think it is important to try and fly a flag for an alternative point of view. Back when I was at Harvard, talk of “schools” in the history of science was kind of frowned upon, I think because we were supposed to be beyond such pettiness. But, when I was doing a talk up at Leeds, I had a conversation with someone in which we agreed it would actually be nice if people identified themselves with schools a bit more, because it would put their methodological predilections on their sleeves.

I was surprised to learn that Leeds thought of themselves as having a particular tradition or school, and I know for a fact that we at Imperial definitely think of ourselves as proceeding in a peculiar way (even if we haven’t properly articulated or institutionalized it). I’ve heard stories about how at Cambridge HPS, the philosophers used to go to someone’s house and have wine, while the historians used to get beer in the pub. This sort of thing is bad if it gets too hostile, but I think it’s actually really healthy if it doesn’t.

These days I see a lot of critical comment about ideas external to our profession, and how historians need to make themselves more relevant. On the blogs, for example, Darin Hayton and Becky Higgitt regularly express this point of view. On the other hand, I hear very little about how we can improve our craft, very little suggestion that we maybe aren’t doing as well as we might be inside our own house. Personally, I think we are very complacent, and I want to make sure that EWP helps people feel comfortable with themselves if they happen to get this impression too. Also, I know I’m much better at articulating my concerns now than I was when I began four years ago, and it’s important to articulate these things well, otherwise you just end up lashing out at red herrings like “postmodernism” or “laziness”.

10. Michael Robinson - March 7, 2012

I know that you’ve done a lot of work in the ditches, Will. The ACAP array is an impressive piece of work. I just think that a few examples here: case studies, anecdotes, titles, etc. would help advance your argument because concepts like ideology and method connote a lot of things and are easy to misunderstand, even within the disciplinary confines of HoS or STS (as your response clarifying ideology points out perhaps). I admit to an interest to ideologies of exploration (as I think you intend it), and that one of the goals of my work is to render these ideas “visible.”

Still, it is also one of my goals (particularly on my blog) to show 1) how soupy these different ideologies are, and also 2) how they apply to me — inflect my writing, my interests, my emotional pull towards exploration as a field. The view from my tower is not always clear. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard of studying exploration, or perhaps it is the case in some HoS subfields more than others. Or perhaps I’m simply an outlier. I’m not trying to get all Po-Mo on you, rather than to say that I am humbled at times by my own tilts and prejudices (when I find them or they are pointed out to me) and therefore would never characterize my non-academic peers in the field as “exerting a deeper, corrupting influence on public thinking.” Again, I only point this out to say that some concrete references would help me get a handle on your broader argument.

11. Will Thomas - March 7, 2012

Michael, thanks once again for your willingness to engage — it’s been awhile since we’ve had it out over these issues!

Sorry I misunderstood your “ditches” point — I didn’t realize you meant within the scope of this particular argument, I thought you meant in general. I was in a jokey mood this morning, which, as always, comes across poorly in print. (Further, not everyone reading this knows that I know you, in which case, I probably just came off as an ass!)

I’d also say that the soupiness of ideology is itself an invisible aspect of history that historians would try and reveal. In this case, the ideology would be one that demands that ideologies be monolithic (post-post-Marxism?) The big point is the centrality of concern with interpretive prejudices in historians’ writing, whatever the inadequacy of the word “ideology” to describe those prejudices.

It is certainly the case that not every point is going to ring true in the case of every historian, much as it doesn’t with your interaction with non-professional historians of exploration, since you regard these prejudices as at least as much of an issue in your own writing as in non-professionals’.

At the same time, I think the criticism of non-professional history and history in the public sphere is a major part of why this mode of writing perseveres in professional history, and so is worth mentioning in this context. To put it another way, I’d rather capture all aspects of the “problem”, than make certain that every aspect of the critique applies to every case to which the critique might be applied.

To turn it around on me, I would say that the points of criticism in my articles and forthcoming book address professional historians rather than some external or “official” history. Nevertheless, I would say the critique in this post applies to the critique in my publications, because that published critique is directed against a set of interpretive prejudices, and so fits the general form. ACAP is the only thing I’ve done that I view as trying to escape wholesale from that way of doing business. It’s the raw materials necessary for a broader, but also more synthetic historiography of physics, which would help unite both professional history and things like physicists’ reminiscences under a single umbrella.

But I think I’d rather leave this as an abstract ideal-type argument, which might serve as a critical resource, rather than try and work out to which authors or corners of the historiography it is particularly applicable.

Also, no, no worries on my end about you going po-mo. As I say, I think that po-mo, or SSK, or whatever else one might be instinctually inclined to talk about in these situations, is really beside the point of figuring out what characterizes where we’re at today.

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