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The Sublime Image: History-Writing and the Cult of Invisibility, Pt. 2 March 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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As these things are wont to do, this post has ballooned on me, so it will end up being 3 or 4 shorter parts.

The power and appeal of the cult of invisibility is in the fact that its central insights are more-or-less correct.  How the past is viewed and not viewed is powerfully impacted by the way in which the (often-tacit) ideas are structured, which determine what we imagine the past looked like and why it unfolded in the way that it did.

Furthermore, because we correctly suppose that “culture” is central to why events unfold in one way and not another, it is should not be too surprising that the ideas we use to analyze the past often turn out to be closely related to the past and present cultural ideas that govern how people behaved and behave in politics and in society more generally.  This almost insidious intertwining of analytical and cultural ideas means that historians must constantly exercise a strong critical faculty in our efforts to interpret the historical record.

Thus, in opening a critique of the cult of invisibility, I am not criticizing critical history itself.  If anything, I would complain that — important exceptions aside — historians’ present critical standards are much lower than they were between, let’s say, 1965 and 1990.

I want to try and be very clear about why I regard the critical aspect of the history-writing of that period as superior.  I don’t want to evoke a golden age of historiography that existed before the heathens came.  Nor do I want to glorify a revolution against an old guard.  I do want to include in my praise the full variety of often-hostile historiographical slants that prevailed in that timespan: “classical” history, the history of ideas, Annales School and economic history, Marxist history, post-Marxist history, and so on.

Now, I am not interested in praising this variety of schools simply for the sake of their diversity, or because they created a provocative, fermentative intellectual environment.  (There is something to be said for that, but provocation on its own is not a virtue.)  Further, I wouldn’t say the history-writing of those schools was really all that satisfactory.  The best history-writing of today is much better than the histories produced by those various schools, mainly because it has successfully digested their various competing insights into finer craftsmanship, if not a well-articulated methodology, while avoiding the past-and-present tendency to ask questions one thinks one already knows the answers to.

What I do want to praise about older generations of historiography is this: the key proponents of those approaches tended to think deeply about the tools they used, and had a clear notion of what they hoped to accomplish with them in both the short and long run.  They seemed to have a sense of what “historical understanding” was, and what their methodology had to do with bringing it about.

That, I would argue, is not the case with the cult of invisibility, which mistakes insights for methodology, and critical awareness for historical understanding.

The aim of history-writing under the professional project of the cult is to produce what we might call “sublime images” or “portraits”.  (I know, the word “sublime” doesn’t really work, but I like it because it reflects the deeply aesthetic way in which works of history-writing are commonly judged.)  A sublime image is a work that can be successfully defended against criticisms that it exhibits a critical unawareness — not simply an ignorance — of invisible aspects of the history it reports.  Its sublimity resides in its ability to make apparent all the hidden interests and ideologies, all the discord, contingency, and materiality that inhabits the world.

I would argue that the whole institutional structure we inhabit of PhD programs, journal articles, seminar talks, and conference presentations is presently geared not toward arriving through mutual effort at an improved, integrated understanding of the past.  Our almost criminal neglect of creating and maintaining professional-level guides and reference materials should be evidence enough of that.

Instead, this structure’s aim is to foster a community — a club, almost — which aids its members in the creation of their own sublime portraits.  Within this community, it is desirable that works produced have factual integrity.  But the real premium is on their sublimity.  Nine times out of ten, when the community exercises a critical faculty on its own members, it is to judge to what degree works live up to the standard of the sublime image by successfully making invisible things visible (or, perhaps, to suggest how they err by exhibiting invisible things that don’t actually exist).  Disputes about finer, specific points of history are less common, and are poorly publicized.

I believe this heavy emphasis on the creation of sublime portaits reflects deeply ingrained, generally tacit, and deeply flawed ideas about how the enterprises of history-writing and historiography-building are supposed to relate to each other.

As I described in Pt. 1, in the cult of invisibility history is imagined to be unknown or misinterpreted or insufficiently interpreted, because there exist prejudicial ideas or ideologies which conceal it.  Historians can diagnose these ideas and ideologies by deploying critical insights, which are formulated in specific response to the inadequacy of some visible body of ideas.  Now, it is these same critical insights, which provide historians with their ability to produce sublime portraits, and which are illustrated in their portraits.  Ipso facto, by creating sublime portraits historians remove the barriers of prejudice that prevent the historical record from being seen.

This is all well and good.  But, crucially, it is not regarded as essential that further steps be taken to document the record, and to reconcile and synthesize various intersecting studies of that record so as to build up what I would consider to be historical understanding.  Rather, sublime images are taken to produce historical understanding automatically by virtue of the employment of the critical insights that inform their creation.  It is possible for pockets of historical understanding to develop under this system, but they do so in highly inefficient and tenuous ways, where it is likely that for every gain in understanding made somewhere, a loss of understanding occurs somewhere else.

Further, because there is no master list of what sorts of things are presently deemed visible, most works are written in the style of the cult of invisibility, without actually producing new forms of visibility.  This leads to a situation where we start to get an endless repetition of sublime portraits, which differ in their historical particulars, but where the arguments are all structured by one of a rather limited number of insights.  Writings on subjects that are centuries and oceans apart can seem, at the level of argument, very similar.  (I like to refer to this as the Mad-Libs model of historiography.)

This situation basically describes the widely-lamented tendency toward “fragmentation”, “overspecialization”, “microhistory”, or an overemphasis on case studies.  I would argue that it is misleading to think of this situation as some sort of analogue to the specialization and deep professionalism that one finds in the sciences.  It is connected to what we believe makes a work of history-writing “good” and “significant”.

In Pt. 3, we will take more of a satirical turn as I discuss possible ways in which this method of proceeding can seem all very sensible.

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