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Response to Review of The Future of History

I wish to offer my compliments to Betsy Ermarth on her reading and review of my book The Future of History. I think her criticisms were well-argued. I did indeed pursue a critique of the practice of those historians of ‘a particular kind’ whom I designate as being methodologically and intellectually enthralled by empiricism, analysis, representationalism and non-authorialism to the intellectual exclusion of all else. And I believe she is correct in that I did not ‘sufficiently engage with the problem of language’. My defence is that I have done that elsewhere in a number of books and so I also disagree with her judgment that, as a result, I missed ‘a key to methodological breakthrough’. I refer Betsy to my History and Narrative (1) which was entirely devoted to the problem of language and its creative use and misuse.

As Betsy rightly maintains, my compass in the book was substantial and indeed this might (as she says) ‘pre-empt to some extent productive exchange among those who establish themselves as specialists and thus regard wide-ranging experiment with method and material with suspicion or even blank fear’. In my defence I did discuss at some length the concepts of scepticism and relativism. And yes, my arguments are subject to the strictures/structures she notes. And yes, I did as she says offer ‘irony as a narrative strategy that operates close to the heart of the challenge to history’. And yes I accept that one cannot single-handedly re-invent a discipline. Any success in that effort is due to many others than me – from Croce, Collingwood, Oakeshott, Gallie, Mink, Carr (not E. H. but D.), Munz, White, Ricoeur, Walsh, Ankersmit, Jenkins, and all those other theorists and practitioners who occupy the intellectual territory of narratological/literary studies or who graze close by.

I choose to argue that the past is void and without form until it is emplotted (and organised in many other ways) by the historian-author. I also think that historians of a particular kind are so enraptured by their empirical, analytical and representationalist epistemic assumptions that they do need to read Gerard Genette regardless of what Betsy thinks of him as a theorist. They have to start somewhere. As Betsy says I do suggest that ‘what history communicates is not separate from its form’. But she goes further arguing that ‘form is what history communicates including all its commitments to developmental causality, stable identities, truth telling and the rest of it’. Okay, it is, as White said, all about the content of the form. But – and this I find distressing – most historians today have no conception of that distinction, let alone of allowing it to intrude on their thinking and/or practice. One only has to read the review in the current issue of the journal History of Betsy’s remarkably impressive, radical and lucid book History in the Discursive Condition to have all our fears demonstrated.(2)

Finding the language for my arguments is always the trick, and for me the dualistic separation of form and content, far from reinstating the ‘very representational move that Munslow is challenging’, instead forces historians to confront and question what Betsy rightly calls the ‘representational instruments because they are the problem’. Yes, I want a history of some kind. I think we need a sense of the past. Indeed, as someone once said, if in a different context, some of my best friends are historians. But I agree with Betsy that being authorially self-conscious is never enough. I am reminded of the late Arthur Marwick’s engagements with Hayden White, Keith Jenkins and myself,  which forced me to acknowledge that as a group of dissident thinkers on the nature of history we have singularly failed to convince most historians of the need for them to reconsider what they do in terms of both thinking and practice.

And this was the point of the second half of my book. To suggest that historians ‘of a particular kind’ might wish to ‘experiment’ with their creation of history has simply failed. To deny the need to live with their ways of ‘doing history’ and so move out of history entirely simply won’t wash either. This is despite the force of your logic as well that of as Keith Jenkins and also the efforts of experimental historians and theorists (David Harlan, James Goodman, Chris Ward, Robert A. Rosenstone, Jonathan Walker, Greg Dening, Sven Lindquist, H.U. Gumbrecht, Walter Benjamin, and Richard Price among many others). The vast majority of historians simply refuse to listen. To be fair they cannot afford to listen. So rather than insist that they are all simply wrong, I choose to believe that the future for history does need to legitimise the personal pronoun and work out from there. That is why I advocate ‘artwork history’, and why I expend so much energy talking about the historian as an author and creative creature.

I make no apologies for this desire to hang on to history as a concept and some sort of practice. But I do thank Betsy for her close reading of my book and her stimulating and perceptive critique, but most of all for her own continued incisive analysis of historical thinking and practice.

Notes

  1. Alun Munslow, History and Narrative (Basingstoke, 2007).Back to (1)
  2. Review of History in the Discursive Condition’, History, 97, 325 (2011), 115.Back to (2)