History is not fiction

Rethinking History
October 16, 1998

In a sparkling essay on history and writing, Greg Dening describes how, in teaching his students history, he first asks them to describe the present. In doing this they discover the difficulties of description and explanation: "They soon learned that everything they discovered was the subject of reflexive discourse by somebody else. The more they claimed the novelty of their experience, the more they had to plumb the plagiarisms of their thinking."

Historians are not always very good at thinking originally. There are famous exceptions of course; but for the mass of us, the satisfaction of recounting the "voices" of the sources has tended to dissipate larger conceptual efforts. The process of historical imagination outlined by R.G. Collingwood back in 1940 could be said precisely to require the historian to work through plagiarisms, to fill in the blanks in our knowledge by recourse to what has already been said and known. Here, then, is a specialist journal that aims to make a change. Rethinking History sets out to provide "a forum which will bring togetherI the non-sectarian questioning of the establishment of ideas and methods in our reconstruction, construction, and deconstruction of the past". The editors, Alun Munslow and Robert Rosenstone, invite articles from all chronological periods and intellectual directions that will aid this "rethinking".

I am in support, both because it seems important that there should be an arena for conceptual discussion in history (particularly inspired by recent currents in theoretical thinking); and, forgive me, because an article of mine will shortly appear in the journal. Indeed, there is a lot here that should find support. Dening inaugurates a regular feature of historians talking autobiographically about their work. Richard Maddox supplies a multi-faceted account of the early modern beata Madre Mar!a, that takes on board poststructuralist theories of the fragmented subject. David Andress asks "what is postmodern history for?", and provides a thoughtful answer in relation to our position as teachers of history, encouraging an "ethical" engagement with the past on the part of our students. Looking at "discourse analysis" in relation to mystic speech in the Reformation, Katherine Arens productively invokes and rethinks the theories of Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Michel de Certeau. Finally, in one of a number of interesting works on recent historiographical areas, Penelope Corfield provides an interesting overview and critique of gender history and its relationship to postmodernism.

And yet I cannot be uncritically supportive. A lot of what Rethinking History has published thus far - and the editorial comments of both Munslow and Rosenstone - emphasise the area of historiography and representation, on how we write history and the ways in which we bring the past into the present. Indeed, in Munslow's first editorial, it is the attitude towards representation and historiography - seeing them as a problem, rather than a simple descriptive process - that marks off the "postmodernists" from the other "streams" of history writing he identifies (the "modernist" and "late-modernist" approaches). He may be right - though his division of historians into these three camps may not serve as the best way of promoting "non-sectarian" discussion in our profession. But more importantly, I think that he is only half right. Historiographical representation is a problematic area and thoughts on how to deal with it are welcome; but it does not address all that historians do. I am not suggesting a naive and hermetic division between the historian's activities in the archives and in front of the word-processor, but I do believe that "rethinking" is needed for the former as well as the latter. In concentrating on historiography, there is a danger that even the most fully "postmodern" historian lapses into plumbing the plagiarisms of their own theoretical thinking, citing the familiar (pre-eminently Hayden White), playing trope-spotter and restating a problematic with which we are already familiar. We need to rethink at all levels, not just in the area of textualisation.

When we do engage with the problems of representation and historical "truth", we also need to come up with more interesting responses. A number of articles present rather queasy "fictionalised" accounts of historical episodes. This seems to be a rather stunningly prosaic response to the problems of representation: "History is a fiction, so why not write it as such?" Why not? Because the historiographical process - even when presented as story rather than fact - inevitably lays claim to a different creative and authoritative background.

Let us, however, applaud something Rethinking History has inspired, and end with Dening's lapidary words on historical rethinking: "We catch the contingency of silence in our imagination. Not our fantasies. Our imagination. Imagination is the ability to see those fine-lined and faint webs of significance. Imagination is hearing the silence because we have heard some of the sounds."

John Arnold is lecturer in medieval history, University of East Anglia.

Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice (3 times a year)

Editor - Alun Munslow
ISBN - ISSN 1364 2529
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £35.00 (idividuals); £90.00 (institutions)
Pages - -

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