the Backcountry

Ed White
The Backcountry and the City: Colonization and Conflict in Early America

White teaches English at the Univ. of Florida. His title recalls Raymond Williams, which White says he turned to in the early stages of thinking about this project. The central question of this book is, “What was the role of an urban public sphere in a largely rural society?” (xi) More generally, White asks, “what did it mean to focus on urban literate culture,” when explaining social movements in a largely rural society? (xii) The question is actually more compelling for American history, White suggests, than Williams’ made it for British. While English literary traditions reflected an ancient agrarian heritage, “for early America...the literary production, from the sermons and tracts all the way to the earliest newspapers and novels, is predominantly urban.”

The literary element of this question, ironically, is what interests me, because the history is outside my (current, orals-induced) range of interest. It allows White to “rethink conventional periodization,” and ask “From a backcountry perspective, what had actually changed with the American Revolution?” (xii) I’m not sure it’s relevant for me at this point that White’s ideas regarding “
structural analysis from below” come from Gramsci’s prison notebooks; but I loved his succinct summary of social history as “statistics, averages, and representatives.” (xiv, xv)

“Getting out of the city and into the country,” White says, “requires more than simply hitting the road, particularly if the roads are laid out by the urban planners.” (1) Urban writers, even contemporary ones who are demonstrably sympathetic, have been too quickly accepted as spokesmen for the rural. “Set against the well-documented and articulate culture of the urban seaports,” White says, the early American “backcountry lolls like a massive negation, a cultural nonbeing.” (2) While this probably overstates the silence of rural people in the archives, it calls attention to a perception shared by many historians. It’s easier to ruralize urban writers, “as in Vernon Parrington’s insistence upon Ben Franklin’s commitment to ‘agrarian democracy,’” than it is to find the letters, diaries, or local newspaper editorials of actual agrarian democrats. (3)

The most interesting part of White’s argument, for my present purposes, is his discussion of the “republican synthesis” of Bailyn, Wood, and Pocock. White says their “insistence upon a cohesive, unified, republican discourse...hinged on the synthesizers’ [both the republicans’ and the historians’] own distinction between random ideas and ideological systems.” (6, 7) And the synthesis focused attention on the [republican] synthesizers rather than on the ideas they massaged into an ideological system. White contrasts this with the stress he says Progressive historians and their heirs placed on both “
horizontal social division between classes and competing groups, and a vertical, discursive division between public expression and private intention.” (6) Historians’ “refusal to reduce revolutionary language to some hidden subtext,” White implies, can lead them not only to the unrealistic claim that there was a single, monolithic, republican ideology, but it also focuses on the product and hides the process that created it. (7) The ongoing, often contested nature of that process, White says, can be seen in the verbs (“formulate...articulate...mobilize...systematize”) used to describe the founders’ activities. (8)

The question that remains is, how much of the republican “achievement” was based on the founders’ success in improving on “diffuse and rudimentary lines of thought,” and how much did it involve marshaling and redeploying well-defined ideas in order to “retard the thrust of the Revolution with the rhetoric of the Revolution”? (quoting Gordon Wood,
Creation of the American Republic, 9) “The synthesis,” White concludes, “is an idealized federalism, and like the federalists the synthesizers...betray a deep theoretical hostility for that which cannot be easily synthesized...[and] realize that an important part of the battle for order is simply to keep insisting that order exists.” (10) Setting aside the historiographical name-calling, it’s easy to see how a set of ideas or especially actions that were not “easily synthesized,” could fall out of the story and be forgotten. White believes the ongoing series of peripheral battles (Indian Wars, regulations, rebellions, and especially Paxton’s Riot) are evidence of an ongoing social contest between urban elites and a variety of others whose contribution to America’s republican achievement has been forgotten.

White proposes to find evidence of the less-well-documented concerns of rural people, women, natives and others in “the vernacular terminology of practical ensembles.” (17) “Yeoman petitions,” he says, “are not simply expressions of a dominant republicanism...they instead mark a particular meeting of dispersed farmers trying to organize themselves in relation to an administrative body and a perceived threat.” (17-18) “Practical ensembles,” White says, “were the localities within which these battles were waged.” (18) While this may seem like another case of literary critics coming a generation late to the new social history party (White mentions this phenomenon, but I failed to note the page), White shows that something like this was going on in J. Franklin Jameson’s 1925
The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement. So it’s not an idea that historians have been universally successful at keeping in mind, and maybe a view from outside is useful now and then.

The story White goes on to tell is less useful to me at present, because it falls well before the period I’m studying. His final discussion of Benjamin Franklin’s
Autobiography, and republican rhetoric, is challenging. The revolts, rebellions, and regulations are interesting, and would be even more so with more people in them. I like the idea that something is going on outside the cities; that there’s an ongoing debate about the new society being formed; and that even if literate elites aren’t using republican rhetoric to cynically rationalize their own agendas, there’s a space between intention and rhetorical action where something is happening. Of course, this same space exists between intention and physical action; and it should be taken into account when we’re looking at all these “practical ensembles” and what they did.

Cronon on Turner

William Cronon
“Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner”
The Western Historical Quarterly
18:2, April 1987

Synopsis: Cronon reviews the historiographical impact of Turner (especially, but not only his frontier thesis), and reevaluates its implications. He suggests that the flaws in Turner’s ideas can be ignored, and a core set of ideas remain that inform new (especially environmental) approaches to American history.

Cronon defines the frontier thesis using Turner’s words: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” Turner combined Darwin and Haekel (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny) “evolution to narrate “an evolution which recapitulated the development of civilization itself, tracing the path from hunter to trader to farmer to town,” and forming “a special American character...marked by fierce individualism, pragmatism, and egalitarianism.” (157) This formulation is problematic, Cronon says, because its “fuzzy language conferred on Turner’s argument the illusion of great analytical power only because his central terms...were so broad and so ill-defined.” (158) I’d also suggest that the Darwinian paradigm is not a perfect fit for historical development, recapitulation is attractive but ultimately false, and that even if the frontier experience fostered individualism, pragmatism, and egalitarianism generally, it’s crucial to understand how these traits were expressed and distributed. Clearly everyone didn’t have them all in equal quantities. How and why some people became radically egalitarian while others became radically libertarian seems like it should be a central concern in western histories.

Cronon says Turner’s critics have pointed out that “westerners looked to the East,” and that “Among the eastern institutions dominating western life have been the Federal government, the corporation, and the city.” (158) He calls attention to the “urban character of much western settlement,” (169) especially in “rising urban centers whose growth was central to frontier expansion itself.” (like Chicago in
NM, 1992. 173) The impact of these points, for me, is that they break the smooth flow of the westward teleology (just as they break the static von Thünen model). Western (or any regional) history should challenge the idea that the story “of any given American place could be written in terms of a progressive sequence of different economic and social activities [and] embodied in representative figures who might serve as ‘types’.” (166) Cronon suggests that in place of Turner’s narrative arc (which he admits “set American space in motion and gave it a plot,” 166), historians could focus on changes in “People’s notions of abundance and scarcity--of wealth and poverty.” (172) “Among the deepest struggles in American western history,” he says, are “those among peoples who have defined abundance--and the ‘good life’--in conflicting ways.” (175) New histories might “discover a subtler periodization...[and] create a finer-grained sense of movement that will reflect interconnections between regional diversity and the shifting dialectic of scarcity and abundance.” (174)

Historians these days appreciate tightly-focused, evidence-based, bottom-up narratives, but they seem to miss the big, sweeping histories of the nineteenth century. In his most recent book (which I’m in the middle of reading) Kulikoff says he’s bringing back the master narrative (we’ll see). My question is, how to put together a history that will drill down into the details of specific people’s experiences in particular places and times, and at the same time suggest (if not prove) a “big” point about the relationship between country and city? Turner’s use of “great men” as representative “types” was racist and nineteenth-century, but it highlights the problem of believing any particular story can claim to be a general, representative view. Maybe a series of well-chosen microhistories can be sewn together into something that resembles a wide view. Doing this rural history, I might look more closely at the idea of cores and peripheries, which may show unexpected interactions between east and west. I might find cycles of growth and decline that follow different trajectories from Turner’s. Cronon has already told a story of the simultaneous growth of a center and periphery, but more might be said about the people living in the shadow of a “Chicago” (or maybe a Minneapolis). There must be ways rural people’s lives remained unaffected, just as there are ways they were never free of the fact of the city’s existence. And Cronon’s final question is a good one to keep in mind: “To what extent
has the peculiar nature of American class consciousness and republican government been shaped by the shifting resource base of our economic and social life? How do nature and humanity transform each other?” (175) This question might help break an exclusive focus on the city-country binary, to focus on the changing ways rural areas relate to their environments in American history, and how that can be much different from the way cities do. This might go a long way toward a story of how culture, class consciousness, and politics developed the way they did in rural America. Comparing these to the stories city-Americans have always wanted to tell themselves about the character and qualities of their rural neighbors, might help explain how we got to where we are.

the literary country

Raymond Williams
The Country and the City

Synopsis: While this is primarily about ideas of country and city in English literature, Williams makes some important points about the actual complexity of things. Between the changing natures of the two poles, there are “many kinds of intermediate and new kinds of social and physical organization.” Williams reminds us of the “temptation to reduce the historical variety of the forms of interpretation to what are loosely called symbols or archetypes,” when it is the variety and “the coexistence of persistence and change which is really striking and interesting” in our ideas about he country and city. (289)

Williams further claims that “the idea of an ordered and happier [rural] past” serves as a counterpoint to a critic’s perception of “disturbance and disorder” in the present. But any such idealization, he says, is based on a very selective view of fleeting moments in the past that “cover and evade the actual and bitter contradictions of the time.” (45) Even though Williams’ country is primarily in the past, his point may be equally valid for the rural world of the present: the noble, heroic country that promoters hark back to usually “rested on the brief and aching lives of the permanently cheated” who are invisible in the record. We have to be especially careful not to let them remain invisible, or else it will be “precisely at this point that the ‘town and country‘ fiction serve[s]: to promote superficial comparisons and prevent real ones.” (54)

Critics: For the most part, they address
The Country and the City’s place in Williams’ development as a socialist humanist. Like Williams himself, they remain a little too literary to be particularly useful to me from the perspective of history. I think in the long run, I may have a chance to look again at the way Williams criticizes Marx and Engels for falling into an assumption about the “idiocy of the country,” but that seems dated -- I’m not studying Victorian British rural history, and I don’t believe in putting theory before evidence in the way I think I’d need to, in order to use this more. For my purposes, Williams channeled through Cronon will probably be the best bet.

One interesting point: the editors of
Science Fiction Studies were apparently huge Williams fans. One reviewer mentioned Jeffries’ After London, which I might want to look at in a different (Bradlaugh) light sometime.

Teaching Kids History

Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts

The subtitle of this award-winning volume of essays, promises to chart the future of teaching the past. Wineburg’s main point, that the “historical thinking” and close, critical reading practiced by professional historians are very different from the ways students in other fields (and high school students, even in history classes) are taught to read and think. This is a valuable insight, which historians who write for the public (and grad students) would benefit from pondering. Wineburg’s essays, gathered from a decade of articles, conference papers and informal presentations, open a new field of study and outline a number of questions that he and others have begun trying to answer.

Wineburg begins by observing that standardized testing doesn’t provide an accurate picture of students’ historical knowledge, partly because of the testers’ focus on data and facts. He suggests that a wider exploration might explore the “cultural pores” through which students (and the general public) acquire historical understanding, “make meaning…[and] situate their own personal histories in the context of national and world history.” Wineburg places the debate over history at the center of the American culture wars, complete with Lynne Cheney at the head of the National Endowment of the Humanities, and candidate Bob Dole calling his opponents in the national standards debate “worse than external enemies” of America. Given the nastiness of the debate over what should and shouldn’t be taught, “some might wonder why history was ever considered part of the humanities…that are supposed to teach us to spurn sloganeering, tolerate complexity, and cherish nuance.” Wineburg’s claim is that history is mind-expanding and humanizing, but only if we learn to think like historians.

Historical thinking, Wineburg says, “goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think.” Wineburg observed high school students, and found that even those with well-developed reading skills “shaped the information [they] encountered so that the new conformed to the shape of the already known.” He compares the naïve high-schooler’s approach to Collingwood’s belief “that we can somehow ‘know Caesar’ because human ways of thought, in some deep and essential way, transcend time and space.”

Against this “classic historicist stance,” Wineburg argues with Carlo Ginzburg that the historian’s task is to “destroy our false sense of proximity to people of the past…The morte we discover about these people’s mental universes, the more we should be shocked by the cultural distance that separates us from them.” The Egyptians, Wineburg concludes, “drew differently because they
saw differently.”

This is familiar territory to academic historians, who delight in the tension between the two extremes of “classical” objectivity and “post-modern” subjectivity – and generally live somewhere in between. Wineburg, of course, is writing primarily for social studies teachers and educational administrators. The part that may be new and shocking to professional historians is how their nuanced, qualified descriptions of the past change as they enter the high school classroom. Textbooks, Wineburg says, “pivot on what Roland Barthes called the ‘referential illusion,’ the notion that the way things are told is simply the way things were.” Textbooks eliminate “metadiscourse…places in the text where the author intrudes to indicate positionality and stance.” They generally speak in the omniscient third person, suggesting that they’re presenting “just the facts, ma’am,” and that there’s one correct interpretation and it’s the one they’ve presented. Metadiscourse, Wineburg says, indicates an author’s “judgment, emphasis, and uncertainty.” Historians “rely heavily on ‘hedges’ to indicate indeterminacy, using such devices…to convey the uncertainty of historical knowledge.” Textbooks don’t.

This approach to teaching the past, Wineburg suggests, leaves students unaware that for actual historians, the past is substantially more mysterious and their understanding of it more tentative and contingent – and as a result much more interesting than the textbooks. Students are left with a “presentist” point of view, and come to see concepts like prejudice, tolerance, racism, fairness, and equity “as transcendent truths soaring above time and place,” rather than as “patterns of thought that take root in particular historical moments.” As a result of current methods, Wineburg says, students (and some teachers) don’t know what to make of figures like Abraham Lincoln, whose attitudes toward black people don’t fit those of the twenty-first century.

The two main elements of “historical thinking” for Wineburg seem to be subtext and context. General readers mine texts for data points, he says, while historians are aware of the text as both “a rhetorical artifact and…as a human artifact.” To the historian, “texts emerge as speech acts,” subject to “the same set of concepts we use to decipher human action.” Furthermore, historians are rarely the intended audience of the documents they study, so “as eavesdroppers on conversations between others, [they] must try to understand both the authors’ intentions and the audiences’ reactions” to the text. In contrast, students and their teachers too often looked for “straight information,” and “failed to see the text as a social instrument skillfully crafted to achieve a social end.”

Having laid out this argument, Wineburg presents a series of studies he’s performed over the years. He shows bright, articulate high school students failing to understand the context of primary documents, while historians examine the sources of statements as closely as the statements themselves. In one ironic passage, a student-teacher who majored in history as an undergraduate is less able to pull back from the text, than a former physics major (suggesting perhaps a difference in the way these people learned about paradigms and the contingency of knowledge?). Finally, in a concluding essay, Wineburg makes some interesting points about lived and learned memory, and observes wryly that “family” experience of history has largely devolved into jumping onto the couch together and popping in a Spielberg video.

Historical Thinking, like most field-establishing texts, opens more doors than it closes. Clearly there’s a lot left to do, if the goal is to teach secondary educators and high school students how to think more like historians. Wineburg has outlined the problem, and has made a convincing case that “historical thinking” could lead to greater “intellectual charity.” How to implement solutions, and how critical thinking in history is different from and superior to critical thinking in other fields, are questions that still need to be explored. The promise of “charting the future of teaching the past” is not fulfilled in this volume – but maybe we now have some ideas about where to look.

Playing God?

Robert Darnton, “Skeletons in the Closet” (Chapter 8 of George Washington’s False Teeth, 2003)

Is it necessary to point out that there’s a little element of personality cult going on here? Darnton’s personal memoir is interesting, because it’s Darnton. His observations about the historian’s role are almost an afterthought – a justification for the memoir?

Facts have indeed gone soft – or it’s finally been admitted they were soft all along. But do biographers REALLY believe they’re digging out “nuggets of reality” any more or less than they ever did? The “nuggets” –whether you’re writing a nonfiction biography or a historical fiction—are what anchors your story to something that the reader can recognize as an acceptable story. Or story-world; since may of those “facts” go toward establishing setting and populating the story with characters for your subject to interact with. We can never know the “real” Virginia Woolf. Did anybody? EVER? But surely, we can (even if we’re non-specialists, reading popular history) sense when a particular depiction might be “realer” than a competing account.

Darnton doesn’t really describe his own decision-making process in full, and I’d be interested to know more of the details of his
Brissot story. He had a manuscript in a drawer for thirty years, but all of a sudden he’s writing a “protective prolegomenon.” What changed? Why did he decide to go ahead with the project now? How might the manuscript need to change, after all these years?

It DOES sound like Brissot’s life would make a good story. Not least because he isn’t a straight-ahead hero. It seems like post-hagiographical bios are “in” right now, and a guy who had a second-rate publishing career, followed by a brief period of power in Revolutionary France; who visited America and may have been a police spy, might make an excellent subject. If you wanted to portray the times as chaotic, a period when even the revolutionaries didn’t agree much, and where loyalties were nearly impossible to maintain.

Darnton gave up the Brissot project when he took up the one that would define his career. That’s fair. But it’s a long step from there to the question of whether Brissot is worth the trouble. Is that doubt justified – or is Darnton suggesting that NO individual is worth the trouble. That using a well-known figure as “the incarnation of a crucial process” is in fact illegitimate.

I’ll agree that finding “the key to Brissot’s life” and building a birth-to-death narrative around it seems a little old-fashioned, and might even be “playing God.” But the other issue, “pronouncing verdicts about…individuals I had never met,” seems entirely within the scope of what a historian/biographer is understood to do. If the (brand-new, previously unknown) evidence says that Marat was in France when he was thought to have been in England, then by all means say so! I think the court-room analogy is a much better one than the “playing God” one. It suggests reasonable doubt as a standard, rather than omniscient certainty.

Darnton’s discovery, that previous biographers had followed Brissot’s memoirs too credulously, suggests a change in our interests. In the era of great men, Brissot was considered a philosopher because that’s what he claimed to be. But when Darnton “began to read his works against the grain, they lost their luster.” Is this a nice way of saying that Brissot’s ideas and writing were second-rate, and that close reading of the primary texts made this fact painfully obvious?

The police-spying question is fascinating, because it points the spotlight on Brissot’s place in the actual setting in which he lived. Not in his books, pamphlets and memoirs. What did he do, and how did it square with the “public image” he tried to create? How did his contemporaries actually view Brissot? And, what did they base their opinions on?

Erik Erikson’s screen memory is a reminder of Dr. House’s first law: everybody lies. But a sophisticated biographer (and reader of biographies) would know that without being warned. The more interesting observation is, that Darnton found a lot of his own biography in the 1968 paper he wrote on Brissot. The ever darker patterns he arranged his facts into were apparently predetermined ones Darnton chose unconsciously. Were they also interests of the times? The sixties may have been “looking” for different stories and patterns than the 2000s are…but is this “discourse,” or the spirit of the times?

Is the appeal to discourse really necessary? Do we really need to deconstruct history and biography to answer Darnton’s concerns? Or just apply common sense and avoid over-reaching in our truth claims? In the end, as Darnton says, all lives are probably “a bundle of contradictions,” and none is an unambiguous metaphor for any historical insight (except maybe, complexity). So, the onus is on the author, to avoid narrative determinism. Unless he’s writing a novel – in which case he should say so and revel in it.

Utopian ends still don't justify the means

Maurice Meisner, Marxism Maoism and Utopianism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982)

“The term ‘utopia,’ Lewis Mumford once observed, can be taken to mean either the ultimate in human hope or the ultimate in human folly. Mumford also noted that Sir Thomas More…was aware of both meanings of the word when he pointed to its divergent Greek origins:
eutopia, which means the good place; and outopia, which means no place.” (3)

Meisner says the Chinese Cultural Revolution was an application of Marxist-Maoist utopianism. He argues, in spite of contemporary Chinese belief that these were “ten lost years,” that the tragic results are not the whole story. Ultimately, Meisner agrees with Max Weber that “man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.” (27 and several other places)

Interesting, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough: doesn’t really address the issue of means and ends. Though Meisner mentions Robert Owen and others several times while discussing Marx and the sources of his utopianism (although he describes these sources as simply the historical setting for Marx’s ideas), he completely misses the point that Owen and his elaborators in England and America were voluntarists. Their utopian ideas culminated in the cooperative movement and in voluntary socialist communities like New Harmony; not in totalitarian (I hate to use the word, but it seems to apply), top-down, deadly government campaigns like the Cultural Revolution.

I admit to knowing next to nothing about Chinese history, but this seems to be a flaw in Meisner’s argument. Notwithstanding, he raises an interesting question: do utopian ideals necessarily lead to disastrous results? Or just when implemented at gunpoint?

Hayden White's Metahistory

Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1973)

I’m tempted to jump right to looking at reviews of this, because it’s so absurdly
unreadable. As an example, it begins with a quote from Bachelard’s (who?) The Psychoanalysis of Fire (what?): “One can study only what one has first dreamed about.”

I picked this book up because I’ve read articles by White that have made sense, and because I’m aware he’s a pivotal figure in the battle over post-modern historiography. I’m disappointed that he was apparently unable to write in plain English. Either he believed his insights were too complicated for non-specialist language, or he was too infected with the jargon of the academies where he spent his time. White’s writing is as dense as the French, without having the excuse of being a translation.

But he does some things that are important. In the Preface, he tosses off a definition of history that bears looking at: “a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse…[that] combine[s] a certain amount of ‘data,’ theoretical concepts for ‘explaining’ these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation…of events presumed to have occurred in times past.” I’ll skip over the precious code-word, discourse, because the rest of the statement calls attention to some interesting points.

History is a verbal artifact, constructed using the tools available to writers. These include not only grammar and syntax, but since history is presented as a
story of the past, narrative structures (plots, themes, archetypes) that might carry meanings of their own, based on the reader’s level of literacy, sensitivity to these subtle hints, etc. So in addition to the choice of data and the explanations the historian advances, the way the story is plotted and presented may communicate the historian’s interpretation and even his/her philosophy of history.

White goes farther, claiming that the historian’s philosophy of history “
prefigures the field” of study, and that histories can be decoded for their philosophical content by analyzing the rhetorical “tropes” the historian uses in their presentation.

The book is built on an introduction, where White lays out his theory, and nine chapters of examples, where he reviews the work of nineteenth-century historians and philosophers of history. In White’s theory “the historical work represents an attempt to mediate among what I will call the
historical field, the unprocessed historical record, other historical accounts, and an audience” (5). The “historical field” remains fuzzy—I’ve yet to find where White pins this down. The other elements are interesting, since they point to the historian’s thought processes in searching for data, thinking about other historians’ interpretations, and trying to communicate something relevant and new with readers (White doesn’t mention the historian’s overriding motivation to find something new to say, and thus justify the new history. This is a major concern for the current generation of historians, and I see no reason to suppose it wasn’t relevant in the past.).

White goes on to point out that the historian “invents” history, in a way that shares some of the elements of fiction. A particular historical fact like “The death of a king may be a beginning, or an ending, or simply a transitional event in three different stories” (7). The act of binding a set of historical facts into a story is itself interpretation.

This is obvious on reflection, and it’s amazing that conservative historians like Marwick have allowed themselves to be viewed (or characterized) as trying to deny it. Even a list of data, completely lacking narrative, has been chosen from a much larger possible set. That choice is either completely random, or it’s based on some principle, some question, some pre-existing idea that sent the historian to the data in the first place.

In addition to the recognized forms of explanation (White calls them “explanation by argument” and “explanation by ideological implication”) emplotment itself is explanation, White says. And because it is, White makes his big jump and claims that the meanings of histories (and the philosophies of historians) can be analyzed using ideas from rhetoric.

For the most part, White seems to be claiming that these processes are consciously chosen by historians (in contrast to others, who say the historian is unconsciously preconditioned by his language/culture). “Before the historian can bring to bear upon the data of the historical field the conceptual apparatus he will use to represent and explain it,” he says, “he must first
prefigure the field—that is to say, constitute it as an object of mental perception. This poetic act is indistinguishable from the linguistic act in which the field is made ready for interpretation as a domain of a particular kind” (30). The problem is, if this means anything at all (and I have my doubts), it’s an issue that should be addressed by looking at the most advanced epistemology/cognitive science. Not by applying Northrop Frye’s literary theory and rhetorical ideas dating back to Aristotle.

Anyone who has read philosophy and still chooses to write history has either come to grips with these issues, or is trying to bamboozle people who aren’t aware of them. This is where White leaves himself a possible “out” by saying that “In order to figure out ‘what
really happened’ in the past…the historian must first prefigure as a possible object of knowledge the whole set of events reported in the documents. This prefigurative act is poetic [a term he uses interchangeably with “figurative”] inasmuch as it is precognitive and precritical in the economy of the historian’s own consciousness” (30-1). There’s an implication of naïve literalism in the beginning of White’s statement, as if historians (or at least un-enlightened ones) believe they’re finding “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” But worse, there’s a weird sense in which the history becomes the historian. A historian might hold a set of beliefs about the nature of knowledge in general and historical knowledge in particular, before beginning a given history. But that doesn’t make them “precognitive” or “precritical” for the historian; just for the particular work at hand. White doesn’t seem to want to be pinned down: are historians deliberate agents, using these tropes and devices consciously? Or are they the unwitting dupes of poetic prefiguartion?

White goes on to populate his three explanatory forms (emplotment, argument, and ideology) with four “modes” that combine in particular ways according to their “affinities” to create historiographical styles. Emplotment can take the form of Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, or Satire. White admits there are legitimate combinations (the Romantic Comedy or Romantic Tragedy) and others that are not allowed (the Romantic Satire), suggesting the “modes” may not all be of the same type. Argument can be Formist, Mechanistic, Organicist, or Contextualist, and ideology can be Anarchist, Radical, Conservative, or Liberal. The precise meanings of these terms as White uses them depend on extensive reference to Northrop Frye, Kenneth Burke, Karl Mannheim, and his own earlier articles. In some cases, notes go on for two or more pages in small type, but the categories still fail to seem definitive or convincing.

White associates these various modes with particular historians and philosophers of history, and also with the “tropes” of classical rhetoric: Metaphor, Metonymy, Synecodoche, and Irony. He reminds the reader of Nietzsche’s warning that “by such reductions…the phenomenal world can be populated with a host of agents and agencies that are presumed to exist
behind it” (35). It’s a warning that seems amazingly apt in this context!

I have to admit, I can’t stand this type of writing. I don’t see how it contributes anything to the content, and I suspect that it’s intended partly to browbeat the reader into accepting the argument in order to simply follow it. For example, White sneaks in a claim that “there are no extra-ideological grounds on which to arbitrate among the conflicting conceptions of the historical process and of historical knowledge…since these conceptions have their origins in ethical considerations, the assumption of a given epistemological position by which to judge their cognitive accuracy would itself represent only another ethical choice” (26). Ah, no.

The introduction concludes with a short sketch of nineteenth-century historiography, which White describes as a sort-of spiral of eternal return. The ironic stance of the Enlightenment (Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Gibbon) gives way to pre-romantic idealism culminating in Hegel’s organicism and Comte’s (organicist) positivism. This leads to mechanism in the form of Marx, and ultimately “the consistent elaboration of a number of equally comprehensive and plausible, yet apparently mutually exclusive, conceptions of the same sets of events” leads back to an ironic loss of confidence in the ability to know anything, “freeing…historical consciousness from the impossible ideal of a transcendentally ‘realist’ perspective on the world” (41).

That’s enough of that, I think. I’m not going to read the nearly 400 pages that separate this introduction from White’s concluding remarks in which he says that “if we wish to transcend the agnosticism which an Ironic perspective on history…foists on us, we have only to reject this Ironic perspective and to will to view history from another, anti-Ironic perspective,” because, in the end, it’s a moral or an esthetic choice. (434)

do think White calls attention to questions about the way “emplotment” carries implicit or explicit interpretation. I think there may even be something to the idea that we look for the archetypal stories and story-forms in history. Our culture, in this sense prepares us to some extent to see the world in a particular way. But I don’t think we need to be victims of this. Even if it was “precritical and precognitive” (which I don’t accept), we’re not uncritical, and we can be cognitive. So we can apply that thought and criticism to these questions, and examine them adequately.

I also don’t buy the idea that epistemological stances are essentially esthetic or moral in nature. Even in a world where reality is mediated by perception and conception (our senses and our mental training/language/etc.), some models of the world are more accurate than others. So it’s
not okay to embrace teleology or dialectical materialism just because it feels more comfortable or satisfies our yearning for beauty and meaning (or panders to our prejudices and justifies the status quo).

In the end, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a book like this. White continually says his analysis is formalist (in the sense he defines formalism in his theory) and ironic. But I suspect (not having read his narrative chapters) it’s actually organicist, with a generally upward/forward momentum. So I wonder, was he unaware of this? Or did he choose to hide it, as he chose to obscure so much else, in this maze of words?

Thomas Kuhn's Paradigms

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 3rd Edition 1996

Kuhn’s thesis is that scientific progress does not proceed cumulatively, as most people have believed. Instead, he says that it oscillates between stable periods of “normal science,” during which scientists elaborate and extend a single dominant paradigm, and revolutionary breaks, when an existing paradigm is abandoned in favor of a new one.

Kuhn rejects the belief that knowledge progresses by a series of “successive increments” (p. 2) which add to the accumulation of facts making up current scientific truth. He disputes the description of professional scientific life as an impartial empirical exploration, describing it instead as being guided and directed by paradigms which create the rules and standards for a scientific community. Sharing a paradigm allows this community to take the foundations of their field for granted, resulting in highly refined studies into the most esoteric and elaborate problems.

Kuhn describes “normal science” as “mop-up work,” which he describes as “an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies.” (p. 24) The “normal” scientist is “an expert puzzle-solver,” (p. 36), and the mark of a puzzle is the certainty of a single correct solution. This does not mean there is a single right solution in nature, just in the paradigm.

Anomalies between observations and paradigm-induced expectations are the first clues to the weakness of a particular paradigm. Kuhn says the difficulty of seeing anomalies is due to the conditioning of our expectations by the paradigm. Normal science produces sufficiently detailed information and exact enough expectations that discovery of anomalies is enabled. Insecurity caused by a growing preponderance of anomalies leads to a crisis for the existing paradigm. “Failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones.” (68)

The response to a crisis is not immediate abandonment of the paradigm. Falsifiability in Popper’s sense does not play a role; a paradigm is never released until a new one is accepted in its place. “Every problem that normal science sees as a puzzle can be seen, from another viewpoint, as a counterinstance,” (79), but some of these can ultimately be answered within the existing paradigm. Others point the way to new paradigms. “Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.” (90)(What are the implications for highly professionalized disciplines like history?)

Revolutions result when a scientific community rejects an existing paradigm in favor of a new one. There may have been several contenders, but only one paradigm can win without splitting the field into separate disciplines. The new paradigm comes to be recognized as better than the old one based on the set of criteria which (now) matter to the community. The relative importance of these criteria may vary between individuals and over time. But the result of accepting the new model is recognition of the failure of the old.

Adoption of the new paradigm changes the scientist’s perceptions, tools, and language in a way that makes his understanding incommensurable with that of the old-paradigm scientists. “Confronting the same constellation of objects as before and knowing that he does so, he nevertheless finds them transformed.” (122) Ultimately all experience is processed through interpretive structures (paradigms), so there is no “neutral observation-language” from which to judge the paradigms. The process works like a “gestalt-switch,” Kuhn says.

Scientific revolutions appear invisible because that is not the way we learn science. Paradigm choices are made, not based on “comparison of a single paradigm with nature,” (145) because nature cannot be
SEEN except through a paradigm. The paradigm cannot be accepted incrementally, it must be experienced. This is why there is no going back. It is not always clear that the new paradigm is more successful than its predecessor when the decision is made. There is an element of faith involved.

This model works in science because of its reliance on a single paradigm at a time, and its very detailed elaboration of that paradigm. There is an “evolutionary” element to the revolutions, in that the new paradigm must solve the outstanding counterinstances which caused the crisis (at least better than the old paradigm did), AND it must “promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem-solving ability” of the predecessor model. But there is NO implied evolution TOWARD any goal or truth, just a “process of evolution from primitive beginnings.” (170)

In the Postscript, Kuhn
REALLY improves on the clarity and complexity of the argument.

The term Paradigm is refined to mean: “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by members of a given community,” AND “the concrete puzzle-solutions which, employed as models or examples, can replace explicit rules as a basis for the solution” of scientific questions. (175) “A paradigm governs…not a subject matter but a group of practitioners.” (180)

“Crises need not be generated by the work of the community that experiences them and that sometimes undergoes revolution as a result,” Kuhn says. (181)

Kuhn elaborates a very detailed argument of how paradigms relate to human knowledge. This involves a “disciplinary matrix” which holds a group of sciences together and defines a “field” of science (182), “symbolic generalizations” which “look like laws of nature,” and are also definitions of the symbols (“the balance between their inseparable legislative and definitional force shifts over time” as the paradigm matures) (183). There are overarching “metaphysical paradigms”: “beliefs in particular models…[that] supply the group with preferred or permissible analogies and metaphors” (184), “values” such as plausibility, consistency, mathematical beauty, etc. Their relative hierarchy changes between scientists and over time. Because these are communities of teachers and students, the paradigm includes “exemplars” or “concrete problem-solutions that students encounter.” The “differences between sets of exemplars provide the community fine-structure of science,” and because they point directly to the way humans know anything, learning a particular set means a student has “assimilated a time-tested and group-licensed way of seeing.” (189)

In his discussion of knowledge, Kuhn says we are “tempted to identify stimuli one-to-one with sensations,” and that we “posit the existence of stimuli to explain our perceptions of the world, and we posit their immutability to avoid both individual and social solipsism.” (193) He says that paradigms, in their role as exemplars, allow us to “learn to see the same things when confronted with the same stimuli.” (193) This creates the unity of the scientific discipline (other disciplines might ask themselves if they can be this monolithic?)

“An appropriately programmed perceptual mechanism has survival value,” Kuhn says. “To say that the members of different groups have different perceptions when confronted with the same stimuli is not to imply that they may have just any perceptions at all.” (195) “What is built into the neural process that transforms stimuli to sensations has the following characteristics: it has been transmitted through education; it has, by trial, been found more effective than its historical competitors in a group’s current environment; and, finally, it is subject to change both through further education and through the discovery of misfits with the environment.” Because this is an embedded, invisible process, he calls this layer “tacit knowledge.” (196) This is the evolutionary psychology that links David Hume with the real world.

Kuhn continues: “interpretation begins where perception ends. The two processes are not the same, and what perception leaves for interpretation to complete depends drastically on the nature and amount of prior experience and training.” (198) This is a hidden element of paradigm use, which is not under conscious control. “There is no neutral algorithm for theory-choice, no systematic decision procedure which, properly applied, must lead each individual in the group to the same decision… Two men who perceive the same situation differently but nevertheless employ the same vocabulary in its discussion must be using words differently.” (200) So they need TRANSLATION. But: “To translate a theory or worldview into one’s own language is not to make it one’s own. For that one must go native, discover that one is thinking and working in, not simply translating out of, a language that was previously foreign.” (204) This is the CONVERSION EXPERIENCE, and Kuhn says it is necessarily one-way. “Translation may… provide points of entry for the neural reprogramming that, however inscrutable at this time, must underlie conversion. But neither good reasons nor translation constitute conversion…” (204) You know it when it happens.

Does it work this way in the social sciences? Kuhn seems to be proposing this as a theory of all human knowledge. The “notion of a paradigm as a concrete achievement, an exemplar” (208) gets past a lot of arguments about subjectivity, facts, and language. But “How does one elect, and how is one elected to membership in a particular community, scientific or not? What is the process and what are the stages of socialization to the group? What does the group collectively see as its goals; what deviations, individual or collective, will it tolerate; and how does it control the impermissible aberration?” (209) These are
BIG questions for me thinking about the academic discipline of history right now.