Rationally Representing the Past: Struggling with Narrative


History is not a “hard science” and it just can’t be. However, this doesn’t take away from its value as a useful field of study, even though our society tends to prize the natural sciences over the human sciences, assuming they are more “rational” and “objective.” History’s purpose is to represent the past, which involves unique individual events and characters in a unique period of time rather than the repeatable, generalizable phenomenon with which natural (or “hard”) science deals. History involves an analytical process involving several intellectual steps resulting in a coherent presentation of the past. Narrative is perhaps the most natural and logical way human beings think to do this. Because narrative form is inherently subjective, leaving room for bias or a range of judgments, and because we probably can’t get around it, we ought to wrestle with it if we’re interested in history as a rational discipline. We will take a look at suggestions three historians make for the pursuit of a rational history.
Suggestion #1: Seek “elastic rigor” using a conjectural paradigm
Carlo Ginzburg traces the history of different forms of knowledge and distinguishes between the Galilean approach to science and what he calls a “conjectural” paradigm. The Galilean method does not work for history because it involves finding measureable, repeatable phenomenon from which generalizations can be made. Rigor is gained from this form of knowledge, but at the cost of understanding the individual. Ginzburg describes conjectural knowledge as an alternative approach which may not be considered “high” knowledge like the natural sciences, but it poses its own history, rooted in popular experience across time and cultures, and is valid in its own right.
This form of inquiry involves analysis, comparison and classification, bearing some of the central rigors of science. It comes out of the experience of early humans – hunters and diviners. These individuals relied on their concrete, direct observations of the natural world to make complex conclusions relevant to important human tasks. They interpreted animal tracks, hairs, droppings and so forth. This type of knowledge was not exclusive to elites, though elites would misappropriate this type of knowledge to serve their purposes on occasion. Later in history, we see the treatment of tiny, observable details as keys to finding a deeper reality by the art connoisseur, the detective and the psychoanalyst (Morelli, Sherlock Holmes and Freud). All were deeply influenced by semiotics (observing symptoms to diagnose conditions) as medicine was one of the early, respected, models of the human sciences.
Ginzburg, strangely enough, does not give an example of how this paradigm can be applied to an event in the past. He does a great job of explaining how Morelli examined ears and hands in a painting to discern fakes from originals. And he shows how Arthur Conan Doyle and Sigmund Freud were strongly influenced by seeking similar seemingly negligible clues to find greater meaning. What seems to be missing in Ginzburg’s discussion is the fact that there is not one version of history. He does state that determining an animal by its tracks is different (and more precise a process) than determining what happened in the human past from evidence left behind because culture (a human construct which is more complex) is involved and not nature. Multiple perspectives or theories about what happened in the past can all be equally possible, valid and useful. This is another way in which history cannot be a hard science. Ginzburg suggests that historians seek an “elastic rigor,” a paradoxical notion that rigor is possible through a form of inquiry that produces a more qualitative result, but has shown its utility in the past and is simply different from Galilean science.

Suggestion #2: Acknowledge the inherent subjective challenges that go with seeking meaning
Hayden White explores the idea that creating narrative is inherently a moralizing process. This can seem incompatible with scientific inquiry, but he sees it as unavoidable. White describes narrative as a form that is universal across human cultures and serves the purpose of transmitting a shared reality. It is ultimately about creating meaning. (Ginzburg wonders if early human hunters were the first to use narrative in constructing meaning about their findings.) He compares two non-narrative forms of representing the past to the narrative form, revealing the benefits and limitations of narrative. The annals form presents lists of events in chronological order, representing reality as though it speaks for itself. There is no interpretation of the significance of these events overall or when compared with each other. The chronicle is like narrative, taking on a story-telling voice. It has greater coherence and organization of elements; however, it doesn’t have a tidy ending or conclusion.
Narrative’s strength is in the coherence it brings to a bunch of events, institutions, characters and sequence or time period. It stitches together all of the elements seen in the other two forms, providing meaning. However, the past, as with the present, was not nearly as tidy nor did it have beginnings and endings that we create in a narrative. Here we see the advantage of the annals and chronicle forms – history is presented as untidy threads. White concludes that narrative history fulfills a demand for closure and moral meaning as though events happened in a great “moral drama” that people want to understand. Judgments are made constructing history to give it value and this involves moralizing, White asserts. And he wonders whether it is possible to do narrative without moralizing. This rhetorical question suggests that his aim is to call attention to this inherent challenge rather than to root out the moral element.
So, maybe we historians and readers of history should get comfortable with the moral element of historical narrative and be conscious of the dynamic. I’m not sure I could deal with history that was all presented in the annals or chronicle forms. I’m sure I would feel quite dissatisfied with the lack of closure, analysis and coherence. White does not give us a more precise sense of what he means by “moral” or “moralizing.” These are words that have strong connotations in a country with such a strong religious tradition and which has asserted its role in the world in moral terms. I think the concept of morality sneaking into or hanging out in history need more unpacking. I’m not sure I fully understand what White means by the concept, in fact.

I think it would be a mistake to assume that other forms of knowledge are less connected with morality. The “objectivity” of the hard sciences, the view that it is without a moral component, may make sense on the surface, but I would argue that all forms of knowledge have a moral connection. Mathematics may not require as much human judgment as history, but at a minimum, what human beings can do with mathematics and the sciences have plenty of moral implications. People in white coats used such fields to design the atom bomb and conduct rational experiments involving injecting syphilis into African American subjects. I’m not suggesting a preachy kind of history (or science or any other kind of field) by saying we should get comfortable acknowledging moral tasks or implications in various rigorous disciplines of learning. I am questioning whether that element makes a particular field less “rational” or “objective.” Perhaps we should be concerned with the degree or quality of morality in a rational field of study rather than arguing futilely that it can be eliminated.

Suggestion #3: Reduce texts to graphical models
I don’t know if I can do justice to the highly abstract ideas of Franco Moretti, who points to a third approach to rationality in history, but I will try. Moretti is concerned with the field of literary history. He proposes reducing texts to abstract models and then making graphical representations of the bare elements and structures within them. He explores the use of graphs, maps and trees. This can provide new qualitative ways of handling material, and it can also reveal unseen patterns leading us to new qualitative insights as well. If we were to map the life of a village from popular novels of the [xxx] century in England, for example, we would discover a mentalité of this social world that appears linear in the text, but has a circular quality in a map of interactions or travels of the villagers.
Moretti, like Ginzburg, offers really interesting insight, but does not provide examples of events in the past that help me to fully comprehend how to apply this theory in the context of history. Perhaps the sales of novels is the example he offers, but I wonder about an event like a war, which may be unfair to want given that he is primarily concerned with literary criticism. He sees great potential in creating graphical representations, for example, he sees a lot of potential in finding patterns of meaning in geometry. So, if we could represent the bare essentials of history in geometric shapes, we might see something new that doesn’t appear in narrative form. I could not help but think about the film, A Beautiful Mind, wondering how this technique would necessarily give us useful or rational information. Could it not also present us with elaborate meanings that are not necessarily part of the reality of the past, just as the schizophrenic character — John Nash — creates an enormous set of messages by assembling and connecting elements of text in mathematically sophisticated ways?

Conclusion: Keep the conversation alive
It’s clear that history falls somewhere between the humanities and the  sciences. It’s a special field of study involving individuals and unique elements, but it can be done with a rational, rigorous approach. It may not look like physics or math, but it doesn’t have to be completely subjective either. I am careful not to use the word “objective” too often, which has been famously reduced to the act of nailing jello to the wall. It seems we do not have to abandon the narrative form, just because it presents us with significant challenges that occur when human judgment is at play. And it is worthwhile to imagine non-narrative ways of representing the past. Where do we go from Moretti’s “graphs, maps and trees?” Do digital technologies present us with any new non-narrative ways to represent the past, or can they help us to deal with the challenges inherent in the narrative form? History is not dramatically different from other fields of study in that even with the most hard of sciences there are challenges around “objectivity.” Even the hard sciences are not immune from the influence of, and the implications for, human judgment, bias and morality. Perhaps the best we can do to have a robust discipline (i.e. history) is to keep open a space for experimenting with new forms of representing the past and to keep the conversation alive about our oldest form of representation, the narrative.


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