History and the Limits of Interpretation
Historicism, Metahistory, And Historical Practice:
Historicization of the Historical Subject"
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.
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
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
Carl Page describes the "historicist gesture" as the "new commonplace,"
the conventional wisdom of contemporary culture.
"Historicism is something being talked about, whether one happens to be
listening as a Platonist or as a methodological anarchist."
According to Page, such historicism "tends to surface first as a mood ...
rather than as a systematically formulated and defended doctrine."
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."
It registers a serious reservation concerning "the inevitable parochiality
of human understanding in all its endeavors."
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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)."
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."
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..."
It is this "historicity of the historical subject" that proves the
decisive harvest for Heidegger's postmodern inheritors.
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.'"
"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.'"
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."
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...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.
What this "postmodern" philosophical historicism betokens for
historiographical practice is our ultimate concern.
I propose to defend a position which Ankersmit articulates only in
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.Postmodernist
or philosophical historicism -- even that of Ankersmit -- is, I
contend, unwarrantedly hyperbolic.
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
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."
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
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..."
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.
What new historicism does, Ross concludes, is to turn "contingency, as
accidental coincidence, into contingency, as conditional logic."
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)...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
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."
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...And
he concludes: "the result is an imperialism of textual and specifically
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."
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..."
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
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."
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."
[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.New
historicism Liu defines as "the supremely self-conscious
embarrassment of the postmodern intellect as expressed in the medium of
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
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
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."
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."
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."
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."
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
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)."
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
I would argue, against him, that precisely this historicism Ó
outrance (philosophical historicism) is the hyperbolic move he
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."
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
Ankersmit identifies his own sense of "narrativism," rather, with Hayden
White's linguistic approach to historical writing.
Indeed, Ankersmit acknowledges -- as do all postmodern theorists of
history -- the seminal influence of Hayden White.
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
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
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."
The Rankean ambition that "the historian must completely disappear from
the text" Ankersmit labels the decisive naivety of traditional
[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.
By abandoning even historical hermeneutics for "representation"
Ankersmit is subscribing to a textualist approach in the strong
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
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
There is an "undecidability," in de Man's terms, between what is
made and what is found in historical representation.
In Ankersmit's terms: "[W]e cannot be so confident about the possibility
of telling historiography apart from history itself."
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."
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."
Philosophical hermeneutics showed us we are always already in what
Hans-Georg Gadamer called Wirkungsgeschichte.80 Yet
Ankersmit really wants to radicalize even Gadamer.
"Wirkungsgeschichte dissolves itself into an endless proliferation
of historical self-reflections within an ever-expanding historiographical
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."
"[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)..."
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..."
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
"All we have is the `intertextual' interplay between the historical
narratives we happen to have on some topic."
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.
"Historical representations are not so much contradicted by historical
reality itself but by other historical representations."
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
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."
He elaborates at another point:
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."
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, it seems to me, tumbles him into hyperbole.
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."
The guiding analogy, the master metaphor for Ankersmit, is the idea
that historical writing is like representational painting.
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..."
"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."
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."
"Historiography possesses the same opacity and intensional dimension as
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Ankersmit sees this as a dispensation with diachronicity and
explanation in favor of a "marginalizing of the historicity of the
"This journey past newer and newer categories of notations is a movement
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
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."
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
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
He concludes: "past reality disintegrates into a myriad of
self-sufficient fragments. Postmodernism functions within the matrix of
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.
What is essential is Ginzburg's insistence on the referentiality of
empirical history: "no text can be understood without a reference to
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."