zie http://cohesion.rice.edu/humanities/csc/conferences.cfm?doc_id=378

History and the Limits of Interpretation
A Symposium

Historicism, Metahistory, And Historical Practice:
"The Historicization of the Historical Subject"[1]

John H. Zammito

In history, the principle cannot be that the stronger the misreading the better, for here history does not emulate creative writing and is constrained by different norms of inquiry. At the very least, there is in history a basic distinction between the attempt to reconstruct the object of inquiry, including its meaning or possibilities at its own time or over time, and the entry into a dialogic exchange with it that tries to bring out its potential in the present and for the future.[2]

Everybody is talking "historicism" these days. There is a new literary historicism. There is a new philosophical historicism. The University of Michigan is on the verge (or has been since 1992) of publishing a book of essays with the tell-tale title, The Historical Turn, signalling that the pundits of theory who have had their "linguistic" and their "interpretive" turns now wish to have a "historical" one.[3] We practicing historians might almost feel flattered. But the fact is, they don't mean us. The last thing this congeries of new historicists want is to practice "conventional" history. For the literary new historicists, it is merely a vehicle to do their texts in different voices. For philosophical new historicism, the matter is more stern: this enterprise aims fairly to discredit many of the conventions that make current disciplinary practice plausible. It is this philosophical historicism that concerns me: how are we to appraise this theoretical onslaught with reference to our practices of historical reading and historical writing?

Carl Page describes the "historicist gesture" as the "new commonplace," the conventional wisdom of contemporary culture.[4] "Historicism is something being talked about, whether one happens to be listening as a Platonist or as a methodological anarchist."[5] According to Page, such historicism "tends to surface first as a mood ... rather than as a systematically formulated and defended doctrine."[6] It finds articulation with the acknowledgement of historicity (Geschichtlichkeit, of Heideggerian provenance), the claim "that the activity of human reason is totally and necessarily determined by the finite actuality of historical circumstance."[7] It registers a serious reservation concerning "the inevitable parochiality of human understanding in all its endeavors."[8] However this reservation itself "is cast as a comprehensive, fundamental, and accurate account of human understanding and its situation" and as such is philosophical, "heir to the critique of reason or knowledge of knowing's first principles."[9]

The rise of the new philosophical historicism can be dated rather precisely, both in continental and in Anglo-American thought, to the late 1960s. It is ironic but revealing that the continental assertion of this philosophical historicism came with strenuously anti-historical post-structuralism.[10] In the Anglo-American case, Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) set off the debate by shattering the complacency of logical empiricism's conception of science.[11] In both cases what ensued was a radicalization of the problem of epistemology in terms of historical situatedness which is perhaps best captured by Kuhn's term incommensurability.12 A third text of the 1960s completes this problematization of cognitive access to the (historical) other: Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method.13 The convergence of all these streams of "indeterminacy" can be read most vividly out of the writings of Richard Rorty from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature through Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.14 Indeed, one might claim that it was Rorty who made (philosophical) "historicism" a fashionable term in contemporary American academic culture.[15]

George Iggers distinguishes among three current uses of "historicism": that of the literary new historicists, which he does not discuss further; that which refers to a practice of historical writing (Historismus) particularly in Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries; and finally as used in the phrase "crisis of historicism," which he suggests has to do with "relativism and loss of faith in the values of modern Western culture."[16] The historical event known as the "crisis of historicism" is best understood as a two-fold philosophical intervention into the problems of historical practice: first, an epistemological intervention by the NeoKantians (Wilhelm Windelbandt and Heinrich Rickert) centered around the idea of method; and, second, an ontological intervention by Martin Heidegger centered around the idea of historicity.17 It is this last sense which is properly philosophical historicism.

Heidegger's shift of the entire discourse from an epistemological to an ontological level simply dismissed concerns with objectivity and method as beside the point. These concerns were derivative, merely "ontic," while the essential problem lay in a prior and far more fundamental ontology. In Bambach's formulation: "The essence of history is not anything `historical' in the sense of historiography or historical research but lies in the realm of what it means to be (or, in Dilthey's lexicon, to live)."[18] The question is, what does this mean for historical practice? Does this articulation of an ontological question of historicity annul or displace the ontic question of history (Historie: historical writing)? Certainly, it is more fundamental, but does it make the practice of history pointless? David Hoy examines this question, concluding "it is difficult to see how the ontological foundation affects the ontical activity of historical research."[19] One point Heidegger did insist upon: "that the same facts can fit into different contexts and that the context itself represents a choice by the historian. This choice is as much a response (Erwiderung) to the historian's own situation as to the past situation. History has an essential relation to the present..."[20] It is this "historicity of the historical subject" that proves the decisive harvest for Heidegger's postmodern inheritors.[21]

Thus Bambach sees Heidegger's thought as "the inauguration of a postmodern attitude toward history, or, rather, of a postmodern preoccupation with the `end of history.'"[22] "The `crisis' of historicism ... is really nothing other than the coming to self-consciousness of the temporal, historical, cultural, and institutional character of scientific inquiry itself -- a topic that we conveniently label `postmodern.'"[23] What Heidegger thematized was suspicion about time and narrative, i.e. that "events no longer cohere; their unity is disrupted by a break in the line of history."[24]

Heidegger's interpretation of history opens a space for the postmodern understanding of time as acausal, discontinuous, nonrepresentational. On this reading, history becomes polyvocal, disseminated in many ways and in a multiplicity of contexts...[25]
Whether Heidegger was himself as "postmodern" as Bambach claims, certainly Heidegger's idea of "historicity" is the essential link in the philosophical historicism not only of Hans-Georg Gadamer but of the French post-structuralists, particularly Foucault and Derrida, and has shaped contemporary discussion by such philosophers as Lyotard, Rorty, Margolis, and such historical theorists as Hayden White, Dominick LaCapra, Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner.[26]

What this "postmodern" philosophical historicism betokens for historiographical practice is our ultimate concern.[27] I propose to defend a position which Ankersmit articulates only in passing:

Twenty years ago philosophy of history was scientistic; one ought to avoid the opposite extreme of seeing historiography as a form of literature. Historism is the juste milieu between the two: Historism retains what is right in both the scientistic and the literary approaches to history and avoids what is hyperbolic in both.[28]
Postmodernist or philosophical historicism -- even that of Ankersmit -- is, I contend, unwarrantedly hyperbolic.[29] To develop this case, I will examine the merely philosophical "historicism" of literary new historicism, then I will deal with philosophical historicism within historical practice, both in the theoretical writings of Ankersmit and in the practical controversies which have recently arisen among intellectual historians over "experience" and "objectivity."

The New Literary Historicism: Reading as Ventriloquism

Robert Hume recently wrote: "`New Historicism' is a misnomer, for the method has little to do with historicism of any sort." Rather, he maintains, it is "a text-based form of close reading that relies upon essentially arbitrary comparisons with other [synchronous] texts."[30] This, I contend, is an entirely just appraisal, indeed one that would leave most new historicists entirely unperturbed. James Winn notes: "the new historicist offers the illustrative anecdote without arguing the claim that it is in any sense typical... Such a method evidently lacks rigor and completeness, but it rarely claims those qualities." These practitioners "are candid about the partial, contingent, interested qualities of the choices they make," and they would "rather appear as a nimble entertainer arresting our attention with a gripping story" than as archival scholars.[31] As Alan Liu puts it, "the paradigm retains a throw-away quality," it is "serendipitous and adventitious ... a bricolage substituting for what was once the more methodical narratio or presentation of facts in history of ideas..."[32] Marlon Ross explicates the strategy most perceptively:

[T]he new historicist can use the anecdote to suggest or allude to the accidental aspect of both historical events and historical writing, while not having to integrate this accidental aspect into the logic of the discourse or into the actual explanation of how particular histories are logically structured.[33]

What new historicism does, Ross concludes, is to turn "contingency, as accidental coincidence, into contingency, as conditional logic."[34] But this is precisely to circumvent the work of history:

If the writing of history is the process of making sense out of things that have happened contingently (both accidentally and conditionally), then historical method in general can be seen as the vehicle that enables us to distinguish between what is accidental (incidental, adventitious) and what is conditional (capable of explanation and contextualization)...[35]
The strategy of the anecdote and arbitrary juxtaposition circumvents all that: "the structure of the anecdote itself provides the logic for everything that seems to touch upon the anecdote, so that the accidental rhetoric of little stories always become the conditional logic of miraculous homology."[36]

What all too often occurs, Carolyn Porter finds, when new historicists take up "nonliterary, marginal, and often quite esoteric documents as well as canonical texts," is that they "appropriate the `strange things' to be be found outside the `literary,' while effacing the social and historical realm that produced them, at once plundering and erasing the discursive spaces to which the argument appeals for its historical status."[37] Liu highlights the problem of this move:

...A New Historicism paradigm holds up to view a historical context on one side, a literary text on the other, and, in between, a connection of pure nothing... [T]he exact forms of a formalism the New Historicism claims to have left behind (`ambiguity,' `paradox,' `contradiction,' `irony,' and so forth) drift from their origination in literary study to figure the operations of history. What is merely `convenient' in a resemblance between context and text ... soon seems an emulation; emulation is compounded in analogy; and, before we know it, analogy seems magical `sympathy': a quasi-magical action of resemblance between text and context...[38]
And he concludes: "the result is an imperialism of textual and specifically formal analysis..."[39] Concern about this imperialism is particularly acute among some feminists, e.g. Myra Jehlen, who suspect that "the new historicism threatens to return us to a formalist, closed world of intertextuality."[40]

New historicism, far from undertaking history, turns out a ventriloquistic projection of the contemporary dilemma of the interpreter her/himself. Ross notes: "self-consciously acknowledging their own historical relation to the histories they construct, ... the doctrinal rigor of new historicism is determined by the reflexiveness of the method, by the way the method makes everything a reflection of itself..."[41] James Holstun even suspects that "new historicists take on some of the Weimar melancholy of Max Weber, as he contemplates the modern world's iron cage." They see themselves enmeshed in "a gridded network of domination and discipline."[42] As Jehlen puts it, "what is historicist about doing historical research from the point of view of the new historicist, is that we find ourselves within language, and there is nothing we can do about the limits this imposes on us."[43] Liu goes so far as to term it "a rear-guard action spurred by the postmodern fear that in the face of history, literary history or any such mere show of intellect is passÚ."[44] More concretely,

[T]he New Historicist interpreter is thus a subject looking into the past for some other subject able to define what he himself, or she herself, is; but all the search shows in its uncanny historical mirror is the same subject he/she already knows: a simulacrum of the poststructuralist self insecure in its identity.[45]
New historicism Liu defines as "the supremely self-conscious embarrassment of the postmodern intellect as expressed in the medium of historical consciousness."[46] He concludes: "Disbelieving in any regulated method of reaching the historical other from the domain of the text, it [new historicism] at last studies itself in the anxious pose of reaching for the other." Thus Liu concedes new historicism is "in effect a profoundly narcissistic method."[47]

Joseph Litvak charges that new historicist "genealogy is as much a diversion as an explanation: it keeps us entertained so as to distract our attention from the predictability of the conclusions it is busy preparing."[48] New historicism is haunted by the conclusiveness of a poststructuralist argument it cannot overcome: "fear of the deconstructive void propelled these critics back out into history, where the politics of storytelling could supersede questions of epistemology."[49] Or, in another formulation: "The new historicism refuses the `boredom' of deconstruction [i.e., the "technically correct rhetorical readings" of a de Man], both by converting it back into anxiety and by converting its own anxiety vis-Ó-vis deconstruction into new narratives."[50]

New historicism remains baffled by the fundamental challenge -- an epistemological and even ontological challenge -- posed by poststructuralism to the very idea of history: philosophical historicism. One of the most penetrating new historical reflections on this problem is David Simpson's essay, "Literary Criticism and the Return to `History.'" Simpson writes: "de Man, Derrida, and Foucault all raise radical questions about the hermeneutical relation of past to present. This question has been perhaps the most urgent of all those raised by post-structuralism about the possibility of an analytic history, and it is one to which any such aspiring history must have an answer."[51] What Simpson sees holding all the post-structuralist theorists together is commitment "to the model of a discontinuous history, to a decentered or dispersed subjectivity, and to an avoidance of simple vocabularies of cause and effect."[52] Insistently he queries: "Is there a solution to what seems to be the besetting conviction of such authorities as de Man and Derrida, that there is no form of knowledge of the past that is not a projection of the present?"[53]

In response, Simpson suggests efforts at local determinacy against the hyperbolic "all or nothing" postures of the post-structuralists -- "as if there were no alternative between complete self-confidence (all information is objective) and complete agnosticism (all information is projected or undifferentiated)."[54] He concludes: "There seems to me to be no a priori inhibition on the practice of such a history; stringent skepticism about the nature of historical claims can perfectly well coexist with an absolute commitment to historical methods."[55] Indeed, it is a defense of precisely this sort of fallibilist empiricism as constitutive of historical disciplinary conventions that we shall ultimately invoke in response to the new philosophical historicism.

Ankersmit's Postmodernist Historiography: The Hyperbole of "Opacity"

Ankersmit's History and Tropology, a collection of his most important essays over the last two decades, presents a very coherent and ambitious argument for the emergence not only of a new historiographical theory but of a concomitant practice which signals the rise of postmodernism within the discipline.[56] Accordingly, an Auseinandersetzung with Ankersmit may be the most economical vehicle for establishing what is at stake in the current clash of "paradigms." Ankersmit is a worthy interlocutor for two reasons. First, he recognizes as his point of departure that historians should decide upon historical practice.[57] For him, the test of theory is ultimately in practice, and the verdict is still out: "it still has to be seen whether postmodernism is more successful than historism in its support of historiographical practice."[58] But second, and even more important, Ankersmit strives seriously to acknowledge the importance of historicism in historical practice. "[N]o historical theory has guaranteed historical writing greater and better-deserved triumphs than historism."[59] This is not to say that Ankersmit is uncritical of historicism. Indeed, he proposes that it has halted "halfway" and that postmodernism represents a historicism carried to its radical conclusion.[60] I would argue, against him, that precisely this historicism Ó outrance (philosophical historicism) is the hyperbolic move he cautions against.

The issue is ineluctably about referentiality and empiricism. Ankersmit acknowledges: "It is true that neither historism nor even postmodernism will or can deny that history is an empirical discipline in which historical reality, however conceived, is described or represented on the basis of empirical data."[61] Yet this acknowledgment is tougher for Ankersmit to be faithful to than he would like to believe. He certainly insists that the philosophical point of a "critical philosophy of history" is to face the "challenge to clarify the nature of historical representation rather than ... too facile an injunction to abandon the concept of representation for the writing of history altogether."[62] I agree with this and with his amplification of this commitment:

The dispute ... concerns the philosophical interpretation of this state of affairs. Historists will interpret the historian's procedure as an experience of an independently given historical reality; the postmodernist theorist of the simulacrum will have his doubts about the autonomy the historist attributes to past reality. Thus the real dispute between the historist and the postmodernist concerns the nature of historical experience and the place of historical reality in the historian's interpretation of the past.[63]

Ankersmit recognizes the tight bind such terms for the debate place on the postmodernist theorist: "the postmodernist notion of the simulacrum and of the historiographical hyperreality seems to leave no room whatsoever for the autonomy of historical reality and for an authentic historical experience of that reality."[64] He will have to go to some extreme lengths to circumvent this dilemma, as we shall see.

Ankersmit identifies himself and other postmodernist theorists of history as "narrativists," but he does not mean at all by narrativism what one would suppose. It is altogether to be distinguished from "story-telling."[65] Ankersmit himself traces the evolution of this latter (superceded) "narrativist" idea about history through three phases. First, with such figures as Gallie and Louch, it signified a concern with rhetorical contrivance in the narrow sense of strategies for occasioning the reader to suspend disbelief.[66] The second phase of narrativism is closest to the "story-telling" idea, namely the search for "narrative arguments," the idea that narrative represents a form of explanation -- "genetic explanations." The key figures here were Morton White and Arthur Danto.[67] Yet a third phase of this (rejected) sense of narrativism is that in which phenomenologists like Ricoeur, Carr and Olafson argued that narrative interpretation emulated and was grounded necessarily in the structure of lived experience.[68] Ankersmit identifies his own sense of "narrativism," rather, with Hayden White's linguistic approach to historical writing.[69] Indeed, Ankersmit acknowledges -- as do all postmodern theorists of history -- the seminal influence of Hayden White.[70]

For Ankersmit the decisive development in the theory of history in the last several decades has been the movement from description and explanation, which he associates with the "epistemological" approach to history (from Hempel to Von Wright and Dray), through the hermeneutic and narrativist theory of interpretation, to an even more encompassing theory of historical representation. Ankersmit writes, following Hayden White:

[T]he historical narrative is a complex linguistic structure specially built for the purpose of showing part of the past. In other words, the historian's language is not a transparent, passive medium through which we can see the past as we do perceive what is written in a letter through the glass paperweight lying on top of it... [W]e do not look at the past through the historian's language, but from the vantage point suggested by it.[71]

Ankersmit argues that the hermeneuticist or interpretive approach to historical practice has been caught up in paralogisms of "transparency." First, it adopted the ideal that a work of history should be transparent with relation to the underlying historical reality it depicted, that is, that one could read the world without distortion through the work, in the classic phrase, wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. Second, and in high tension with the first, it held that one could similarly discern transparently through the work the intentions of the historian who wrote it.[72] The work was held at one and the same time to be in unproblematic epistemological relation both to its object and its subject, its referent and its author. But in neither case could this be true. Neither the "naive" realism of the first notion of transparency nor the equally "naive" access to authorial intention have withstood critical investigation. This has been the upshot of the debates about hermeneutics since Dilthey. Ankersmit's essential criticism of traditional hermeneutics has to do with its penchant toward the self-effacement of the historian, the ambition towards authorial transparency as the token of objectivity. "The omnipresent, tacit assumption always is that the historian's own experience of the past will unavoidably lead to subjectivity, to a distortion of the past and to the illegitimate interposition of the historian himself between the past and the reader of his text."[73] The Rankean ambition that "the historian must completely disappear from the text" Ankersmit labels the decisive naivety of traditional historiography.

By abandoning even historical hermeneutics for "representation" Ankersmit is subscribing to a textualist approach in the strong post-structuralist sense:

For the new historiography, the text must be central -- it is no longer a layer through which one looks (either at past reality or at the historian's authorial intentions), but something which the historiographer must look at. In the new historiography this new postulate of the nontransparency of the historical text leads to a concentration on the conflicts, hesitations, ambiguities -- in short, on what Paul de Man has styled the undecidabilities of the historical text, in which the nontransparency of the text reveals itself.[74]

Generally, the thrust of postmodernist theory of history is to demonstrate that we are "unable to distinguish between difference in historical reality (or historical forms or ideas) and mere difference in interpretation."[75] There is an "undecidability," in de Man's terms, between what is made and what is found in historical representation.[76] In Ankersmit's terms: "[W]e cannot be so confident about the possibility of telling historiography apart from history itself."[77] There are two dimensions to the aporia which this insinuates. First, the text occludes the reality it depicts. It is "the text's obscurities which constitute this opacity."[78] But, second, the historian's own involvement in the construction becomes highlighted by this occlusion.

The decisive breakthrough to postmodernism, according to Ankersmit, comes with the "historicization of the historical subject."[79] Philosophical hermeneutics showed us we are always already in what Hans-Georg Gadamer called Wirkungsgeschichte.80 Yet Ankersmit really wants to radicalize even Gadamer.[81] "Wirkungsgeschichte dissolves itself into an endless proliferation of historical self-reflections within an ever-expanding historiographical present."[82] The new area of maximal critical investigation is no longer "the interaction between text and its historical context" but rather the "interaction between the text and the historian."[83] "[T]he historicization of the historian and historical knowledge effects a coalescence of the level of the writing of history and that of historiography (the history of historical writing)..."[84]

Historical reality is simply what is common to the available narratios of a given matter: "Their overlap determines what historical reality actually is like for this set of texts..."[85] What makes each one unique is the differences that remain. As ever new narratios are added, this uniqueness or "identity" can and must change, therefore no narratio has a permanent, essential identity. It is only in juxtaposition, in mutual contestation, that they take on any determinacy, any contour that is meaningful.[86] Ankersmit sees this as theoretically homologous to the (post)Saussurian argument about the lability of signifiers. "The reality of the past is an effect caused by the tension in and between historical texts."[87] As Ankersmit elaborates this idea: "these rules and codes ... unconsciously and unintentionally construct the historical object and the reality of the past. They do not analyze a previously given historical reality but define it first. Historical reality is not a datum but a convention created by the reality effect."[88] Intertextuality is all.

Given that the only access to the past is through the various representations (interpretations) that have been constructed already, he claims, it becomes increasingly problematic to dissociate the original past from its reconstructions. "[A]ll we have are constructions produced by historians on the basis of ... traces [the past has left us] (that is why the term `constructivism' is used...)... Even the word `reconstructivism' would be out of place."[89] If I may coopt terms, the contemporary situation, as Ankersmit invites us to understand it, witnesses the displacement of Wirkungsgeschichte by Rezeptionsgeschichte.90 What fades, as Ankersmit would have it, is the authority not of the author's intention, but of the very text itself, beneath readers' constructions of it.[91] "All we have is the `intertextual' interplay between the historical narratives we happen to have on some topic."[92]

The actual past may provide us with arguments for preferring one narratio to another, but in historiographical discussion it is never compared with narratios in toto in the way we can compare reality with singular statements in order to establish their truth or falsehood.[93]

"Historical representations are not so much contradicted by historical reality itself but by other historical representations."[94] Yet there is reason to question the cogency of this claim, since historians certainly do not try to grasp the past as a whole in an interpretation, but they certain do endeavor to gain a grasp and dispute the grasp of other historians over more than mere singular statements. And just in the measure that arguments to sustain such claims to grasp segments of the past invoke evidence and lay claim to "truth," Ankersmit has not really made the kind of clarifying deconstruction he thinks he has.

As Ankersmit correctly observes, "historians generally consider the history of historical debate about a certain historical issue as not merely propaedeutic to new historical insight but as a crucial part of it."[95] He is sound, as well, in observing: "Only through the rules and codes which discipline the historian and his work can a stabilization of the historical object be reached, and only then is collective historical enquiry and historical debate possible."[96] He elaborates at another point:

In the past two centuries historians created a series of more or less complicated intellectual constructions, in the form of notions like people, state, nation, social class, social structure, intellectual movement, which could come to embody the distance between past and present ... These notions have proved to be useful tools for the historian and it is unthinkable that they should be discarded."[97]

Yet Ankersmit accuses historicism of "positivism" in this endeavor: "[H]istorism sought to reify each of these historical periods ... to present them as objects of historical experience... [showing] an intellectual mentality coming quite close to that of positivism."[98] He later argues that postmodernist history must discard precisely these ideas, however unthinkable he found it in the passage cited before, and he claims that indeed historians of mentalities are currently doing just that.[99] That, it seems to me, tumbles him into hyperbole.

The guiding analogy, the master metaphor for Ankersmit, is the idea that historical writing is like representational painting.[100] What Ankersmit wishes to achieve by this master-metaphor of history as painting is to see historical writing, just like the work of painting, as a thing distinct from what it "represents." Representation, as Ankersmit understands it, takes on a substitutive function: it not only stands apart from what is represented, but displaces it, taking on opacity.101 Substances -- things -- according to Ankersmit have "a certain unity and coherence" which he identifies precisely as "opacity." The historical past is no such thing. "The historian gives this unity and coherence to the past through his narrative proposal as to how the past should be looked at. Unity and coherence are not properties of the past but of the narratio..."[102] "The historian's language does not strive to make itself invisible like the glass paperweight of the epistemological model, but it wishes to take on the same solidity and opacity as a thing."[103] As he notes, "This is ... why I would prefer to speak of historical representation rather than of historical interpretation. For the former term is more suggestive of the ambition of the historical text to function as a substitute and of the similarities of the work of art and historical writing than the latter."[104] "Historiography possesses the same opacity and intensional dimension as art."[105]

Ankersmit wants to contend that the history of conventional historiography can be compared to the development of representational painting in the West since the Renaissance, with the crisis of conventional historiography in postmodernism analogized to the challenge of high modernism to representationalism in painting.

As in the case of naturalist painting, the historical narrative implicitly exhorted its reader to look through it and, in the same way as the brush strokes of naturalist painting, the linguistic devices the historian had at his disposal allowed him to create an illusion of (past) reality.[106]

But with high modernism, "we no longer look through the representational medium of art but see only it. Art becomes like a metaphor for which no literal analogue can be found, yet which achieves this effect by being merely literal itself."[107] There is some reason to question whether this characterization is as conclusive as Ankersmit believes. It fails to take into account serious questions about the point of the overthrow of representation in painting.[108] The issue has to do with an expressive as opposed to mimetic theory of artistic truth. How all this relates to historical narratives is far more problematic than the analogy Ankersmit seeks to cash out.

Clinging to a rather restrictive notion of representational painting, Ankersmit can claim the representational artist, in contrast to the historian, always has available the gesture to a referent "out there" beyond his signifier both to justify his vision and to provoke the destabilization of his viewer's conventional sight. But it is not easy to imagine that such a gesture really entails any higher order of presence than the historical gesture of reference. What high modernists in painting insisted was that their craft was about paint on canvas, and that the imaginary "window" in the painting (whether via traditional perspectival realism or indeed any form of representation) should be slammed shut so that only the surface (of paint on canvas) signified.[109] Yet even as artists insisted upon the materiality of their media as an essential element of their practice, and upon the self-constitution of the work of art via form, they also, in many cases, made the claim that art possesses an expressive "truth" beyond materiality.[110] The theory behind non-representational painting does a good deal more than assert that painting could dispense with representation. There is a case for the autonomy of the work of art that cannot be made for history. In sum, the limitations of Ankersmit's analogy seem more compelling than its strengths. Above all, Ankersmit is eliding crucial issues of reference in historical, as contrasted with painterly representation.

What is striking about Ankersmit's argument is that he wishes to supplement -- if not even ultimately ground -- his case about postmodernist theory of history by demonstrating a transformation in historical practice. Invoking Barthes' idea of the notation -- the seemingly inadvertent detail in a text through which it achieves its "reality effect" -- Ankersmit moves to parallel the development of recent historical practice to the theory of the development of representational painting.[111] His idea is that the landscape painting arose when artists shifted their attention from the foregrounded thematic to the background into which they had set it. Similarly, what historians have done, in moving to social history and then to the new cultural history or history of mentalities, is to take up the neglected background and abandon the thematic meaning foregrounded by their earlier concerns. For Ankersmit, postmodernism in historical practice arose when historical writing "reached a stage where the boundary between reconstruction (of the past) and invention (in the present) is overstepped and the contours of the historical object are dissolved."[112] This is what Ankersmit professes to discern in the practice of the new cultural history, or the history of mentalities, as he terms it. "These books are not about the past, but about the boundary between the past and historical representation of it. They form a curious mixture of theory and history."[113]

Ankersmit sees this as a dispensation with diachronicity and explanation in favor of a "marginalizing of the historicity of the past."[114] "This journey past newer and newer categories of notations is a movement toward us."[115] Ironically, what this does is carry undigestible fragments like bits of debris from the past forward into the present.

What remains are these `chunks of the past,' these raw stories about apparently quite irrelevant historical occurrences that leave most contemporary historians just as baffled [as viewers of Duchamp's "ready mades"] ...[116]

Ankersmit is adamant that such microstorie are "not representative of their time." He argues: "We could not derive Menocchio's opinions from the outillage mental of his time (if we could, Ginzburg's book would be anecdotal); nor do the microstorie help us to understand or to explain it."[117] Rather, "The effect of these microstorie is thus to make historography representative only of itself; they possess a self-referential capacity very similar to the means of expression used by the relevant modern painters."[118]

The uncanny independence of the objects discussed in the history of mentalities does not serve to objectify the past, but, on the contrary, to undo (historist and positivist) objectification; it suggests the mysterious existence of a realm lying between ourselves and the reified past of the historist and the positivist.[119]

He concludes: "past reality disintegrates into a myriad of self-sufficient fragments. Postmodernism functions within the matrix of the detail..."[120]

But Ankersmit's interpretation is, I think, unfaithful to his own precept of learning what is meaningful from historical practice, and not dictating standards to it, for he does not hearken to what Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis say about their practice. While they are not naive about the anxiety occasioned by the "historicization of the historical subject," they unequivocally insist upon the utility of microstorie in "help[ing] us to understand or to explain" the past in which these stories arise. And the point is precisely to demonstrate that our previous conception of outillage mental was unduly constrictive, so that a proper outillage mental will incorporate such possibilities and in that measure be truer to the historical actuality.[121] What is essential is Ginzburg's insistence on the referentiality of empirical history: "no text can be understood without a reference to extratextual realities."[122] Writing of the aims of microstorie as exemplified in the work of Natalie Davis, Ginzburg states unequivocally: "The specific aim of this kind of historical research should be, I think, the reconstruction of the relationship (about which we know so little) between individual lives and the contexts in which they unfold."[123]


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