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The Repetitious Image: History-Writing and the Cult of Invisibility, Pt. 3 March 13, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.

I argued in Pt. 1 of this series that historians routinely formulate research projects, and present their findings in such a way that it stresses their work’s ability to overcome intellectual or ideological prejudices that systematically prevent aspects of the past from being seen or, at least, properly understood; this is the “cult of invisibility”.

In Pt. 2, I argued that the goal of historians’ writing seems to be to produce a “sublime image” — a product that in its scope and form reflects the critical insights, which allow historians to reveal invisible aspects of the past.  Unfortunately, these writings do not easily cohere into an integrated and cumulative “understanding” of the past.

These works are typically written in a style apparently designed to introduce a critical insight permitting previously invisible aspects of the past to be seen, not to capitalize on these insights.  Most of the time, the critical insights deployed do not claim to be particularly original.  The result is the accumulation of generally competent studies with repetitive argumentative structures, which treat varied, but ultimately fragmented subject matter.

I tend to think the persistence of this style of work and presentation is mainly habit and tradition, deriving from the period in the ’70s and early ’80s when various post-Marxist critiques were fairly novel to historians.  But recent work lacks the programmatic clarity of that era — for both better and worse.  However, this post presents a few fairly satirical guesses as to why we might tell ourselves working in this way makes sense today.

(1) The honorable travails of empiricism.  There is a potentially infinite amount of historical record to which existing critical insights can be novelly applied, so you might as well just hack away at it using what are taken to be the best, most methodologically “mature” tools available.  Despite the fact that studies do not tend to “link up” with each other very well, it may be assumed that most work is, in fact, humbly contributing patches to a Grand Quilt of History that is being assembled in some heavenly sewing circle that gathers together all the separate studies that are being done, and which will be revealed unto all on a final Day of Judgment when the sublimity of the image on each patch shall reap its due reward, and all Whigs will be cast into the fire.

Less satirically, I believe that viewed from the inside it is possible to suppose that, even without taking steps to ensure the accumulation of historical knowledge, the empirical project of history-writing is healthy because gains are being made in the pockets of historiography that one inhabits.  I would suggest that such observations have some merit, but that they also deceive, because they do not pay due respect to the “problem of the all-consuming archive”.

(2) Don’t worry, a larger critical project is proceeding apace (what, for history of science, I sometimes refer to as the “socio-epistemic imperative”).  Somewhere, Senior Figures in, or just outside, our profession are assembling a deep critical theory or portrait interlinking anthropological concepts, epistemology, and the dynamics of history, which also serves for the historian masses as a kind of Insight Factory.  Every so often we receive from this Factory an Insight, which hints at what the pieces of this grand puzzle are.  This Insight usually takes the form of a call for papers centered around an interdisciplinary theme describable in one or two words:

The role of ‘hats’ in history is not well studied.  This conference, which may result in an edited volume, aims to work toward an understanding of the importance of hats in a variety of different periods and locations.  We define the term “hat” broadly, and it could be taken to mean bonnets, helmets, or even hoods.

Dutifully, we find appearances of hats in our studies, so that we can make our contribution to the deep theory or portrait, while at the same time illuminating this important invisible aspect of the historical record.  (Also, if the “headgear turn” is forthcoming, I call dibs on the academic accolades.)

(3) The humanities are not sciences (similar to what I’ve called the “gallery of practices”).  The historical record is massive and disordered, so screw it: there is no theory or general picture we are working on.  Really, we are more like artists of non-fiction who aspire to assemble thought-provoking images together in various thematic combinations, like they do in galleries of modern art.

Actually, if there really is a rationale underlying what we do, this option is almost certainly the closest to it.  But it is also sort of hard to justify as “scholarship” rather than, say, “rational entertainment”.  Fortunately, we have evolved strategies to make thought-provocation resemble scholarly progress.

(A) History is a time-consuming business.  Narratives of historiographical progress can be built out of the historiography, provided one does not demand too much progress from them.  The framing of the latest Isis Focus section on “instruments” is exemplary.  Measuring (somewhat arbitrarily) from 1985’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump, it has taken twenty-six years to move from a promising new interest in instruments to a promising new interest in broken instruments.  The section never gives any sense that this arc of progress might not be totally reasonable.

There are ways to alleviate the vertigo looking at the historiographical record can induce.  First, you can simply deny that anything of present historiographical interest happened before the mid-1980s, save maybe for the efforts of a few inspirational authors (for us historians of science, that would be maybe Bachelard, Kuhn, Bloor, and, sharing with the rest of the history profession, Foucault).

But even the 1980s are starting to look disturbingly distant.  You can, therefore, also cite more recent works when older works would do.  The intro to the Focus section could cite a positively ancient historiography on things like astrolabes, telescopes, and chromatic aberration if it wanted to date historians’ interest in “instruments”.  But that was a Whiggish dark age when the interest was in instruments as antiquities and as elements of narratives of scientific progress — not the invisible culture of instruments, which is really what we mean.

But not only that, the section does not even date a more modern interest in instruments to Harry Collins’ 1975 1974 paper on the sociology of the experimenter’s regress, to 1985’s Leviathan and the Air Pump which made landmark historiographical use of said regress, or even 1989’s Uses of Experiment volume.  Instead, the starting point is slated as the 1994 Osiris (which, of course, if you look at it, sports its own timeline of interest in the subject matter).  But really it wasn’t until 2003 — in this very century! — when we could at last “refer to the ‘current vogue’ for instruments.”  Fortunately, it is now time to “reengage” with this neglected topic. So, I’m sure we’ll have a handle on it any day now.

(B) Perpetual revolution.  As the slipping timeline of interest in instruments suggests, in history you do not achieve an insight, and then make use of it so much as you achieve an insight, and then persuade others of it.  This means that a particular critical insight into history-writing might genuinely originate at some point in time.  But then it has to work its way into the historiography so that it can become properly programmatic.  It may or may not then have to gain acceptance throughout the historian community.  However, because of the professional project of history-writing discussed in Pt. 1, which situates professional history in contrast to an official or received history, that insight can also exist in tension with non-professional historians, or even journalists or the general public.

Of course, groups such as journalists or the general public perpetually fail to absorb professional historians’ critical insights.  It should be taken as a great victory that some, in fact, do.  But, in reality, the failures of broader audiences simply creates an ongoing justification for continuing to rehearse and, ostensibly, elaborate on the original insight.  Thus, in the history of science, we have the thrill of the 1990s “science wars” — which probably should have been regarded as a thin rehash of much better conversations taking place between, say, 1975 and 1983.

By this point in the perpetual revolution, though, historians have ceased to talk substantively with each other, to establish what they do and do not collectively “know” and what insights they all fully accept, because of the importance of the critical conversation they imagine themselves to be having with more general audiences.

In fact, the supposed importance of this imaginary conversation may be taken as a justification for humanistic inquiry in general.  Thus over decades methodological insight devolves into something more like evangelism, even though actual acts of evangelism, i.e., public engagement, may not actually take place.  In fact, one is likely to see more and more calls for an evangelism that we really should be undertaking, but are not.

(Note, this is not an argument against engagement; merely a warning that the imperative of engagement with broader audiences can — thought it need not — displace other scholarly norms at the core of professional identity.)



1. William Burns - March 14, 2012

‘Measuring (somewhat arbitrarily) from 1985′s Leviathan and the Air-Pump, it has taken twenty-six years to move from a promising new interest in instruments to a promising new interest in broken instruments.’ – This is a great turn of phrase, Will, and had me in stitches for a good part of the day!

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