Saturday, March 28, 2009

Just the Facts

by J J Cohen

In a post at Cliopatria, Jonathan Jarrett writes about history and facts:
Whether or not we can in fact know it, people in the past did things, and history's business is trying to recover, describe and understand them ... there is an idea of right and wrong in play that is not itself subjective, though its evaluation must be. And we can say things that there is no point denying are factual: Charlemagne was in Rome on Christmas Day 800, there was a Benedictine monastery at Cluny, the Dorset Inuit met Europeans in Greenland, and so on. (OK, the last one might be contested, but it sounds good.)
Much of his post is about the qualifying phrase "though its evaluation must be." Facts are potentially indifferent to human apprehenders; interpretative processes are where right and wrong come into play. The scheme isn't quite as Platonic as it seems, though, with facts lurking like eternal truths while cave-bound interpreters discern them from their shadows. Jarrett allows an inextricability of investigative process and truth determination when he turns to a passage by Carl Becker (1910), about the selection and sorting of data in its relation to knowledge. Jarrett's point is, like Becker's, that facts are not created out ex nihilo, but take determinate form under specific historical conditions that include the interpreter's interests and predilections.

Arguing with such a common sensical position is difficult, because it isn't so easy to see what exactly the alternative might be. That all "facts" are infinitely malleable?

I raise this question because in a frequent misapprehension the philosophy called [social or cultural] constructivism is often taken as "willy-nilly constructivism": full cultural determination with attendant free floating relativity. Constructivism, that is, is taken to argue that facts or reality are wholly discursive and boundlessly flexible rather than historically durable and undeniably material. Judith Butler, for example, never posited that sexual identity has nothing to do with biology, even though she is often criticized as if she had. Although sometimes misconstrued as arguing that we are free to invent and reinvent our bodies without regard to our genetic or cultural inheritance, Butler is a philosopher who leaves little wiggle room for innovation, a philosopher with a strong materialist and deterministic streak.

Reality (such as our bodies) is not infinitely pliable. We can't turn a stone into water because we "socially construct" the lithic as the aqueous. That doesn't mean that stones are so immobile that they will not reveal their fluid tendencies when viewed in a nonhuman historical frame. Over eons tectonic plates travel vast distances and mountains rise; even in short spans volcanoes spurt molten stone. Rock is actually quite a flexible material, but although we can discover some stone that might float like a ship (as Mandeville wrote of pumice), we don't carve ships out of boulders because something in them resists this construction. Another way of putting this: a fact emerges into knowledge only through the alliances it forms with human and nonhuman agents. A diamond becomes a precious gem because its rarity, lucidity, durability have and can sustain strong alliances with certain forces, tools, economic and aesthetic systems, alliances that pumice cannot maintain. An alliance between the shipbuilder and granite will fail because the stone can't support the laborer's marinal desires, but that between the granite and the architect will flourish since the granite will comply with her desire to shape it into a durable and aesthetically pleasing support for kitchen appliances.

The alliances that underlay facts are typically a good deal trickier than what I've so far outlined. Bruno Latour's work, for example, is full of complicated networks posed around tough questions about how facts come to be and might under certain pressures change. How does a scientist know, for example, that he has created a vacuum in a jar, given that a vacuum is invisible? How do you convince others of your discovery, and under what conditions will your experiment become commonly accepted knowledge? It's not that the vacuum is socially constructed: it exists or it doesn't. But what the vacuum means and how that meaning changes, what processes lay behind its discovery and its determination as fact, what networks of human and non-human alliances are required to give the fact force, and how its existence enters or makes reality: this is what the discipline called science studies is all about.

In The Social Construction of What?, Ian Hacking examines the "construction" of dolomite, a rock that has consistently challenged those who seek to map its origin -- possibly because nano-bacteria (organisms so small they cannot be observed, and therefore may or may not exist) are behind its formation. After Hacking details dolomite's scientific history, he states "we see in plain scientific work, such as the study of dolomite, a happy mix of both induction and analogy ... and conjecture and refutation" (201). Through this long process errors accumulate and are shed (i.e., its supposed calcium is revealed to be magnesium; the fact that dolomite ceased to be created as the primal earth aged gives way to the fact that dolomite is coming into being even now, but only in places hostile to earth's contemporary life); certain data cling and are retained; but an aura of uncertainty consistently surrounds what should be as solid as any stone.

Because "questions of method arise in context" (198), what best serves this stone is, according to Hacking, "ecumenical descriptive epistemology with hardly any normative implications" (199), a multiple-perspective and nonrigid approach that traces the alliances and networks that enable facts to emerge and to endure. This process-oriented perspective stresses:
  1. the contingency of knowledge (we know dolomite in part because we have asked very particular questions of it, mainly centered upon its petrochemical uses; had we asked different initial questions about its nature, we'd think of the rock rather differently, and might not have wondered -- for example -- if it could be the product of nanobacteria and therefore a key to understanding the origins of all earthly life)
  2. the dependence of knowledge upon a sorting into human naming systems that are value-laden (i.e., it matters to us that the rock is a magnesium carbonate rather than a calcium carbonate because we want oil from it; from a strictly geological point of view, though, a sediment is a sediment and there isn't a good reason to separate your limestone from your dolomite)
  3. the interrelation of belief with epistemological stability (the history of dolomite has as much to do with giving up on certain myths as it does accruing "stable knowledge"; even now we don't know exactly how the rock came to be, and so "the dolomite problem leaves philosophical questions of stability untouched, precisely because it is still a problem" [206] -- meaning that in the end we can't say whether the science stabilized dolomite, or dolomite lent a certain stability to a science intent on explicating it).
Dolomite, a rock so solid and so durable and so ancient that much of Stonehenge is built of it, is a reality; dolomite is a blunt fact, as hard as reality; but it is also -- when looked at within a wide perspective -- a fact on the move.

8 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: thanks for this post and the link to Jonathan Jarrett's post at the History News Network's blog Cliopatria, "Hayden White, Move Over," which also included many links to posts at Jonathan's own blog, A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, as well as to the post, "Against Self-Polishing," at the blog The Edge of the American West, which inspired Jonathan's Cliopatria post. Whew. I decided, perhaps like a fool, to follow all of the links and read as many of the posts as I could. Here is one way I read Jonathan's Cliopatria post:

a) it appears to mainly want to praise a 1910 essay by the historian Carl Becker, "Detachment and the Writing of History" [discussed in the American West post, "Against Self-Polishing"] for stating, more clearly and succinctly, one of the important ideas expressed, in Jonathan's view, in more obscurantist terms by Hayden White in 1987 [e.g., the "facts" of history are always ultimately chosen, selected, arranged, synthesized, narrativized, etc. by an historian who can never really be fully detached or unaffected by those facts, and therefore, certain facts "stick" to the historian more than others; ultimately, then, history writing is never impartial/fully objective--it is always a certain kind of narrative aiming at the construction of what might be called "meaning"--there are still facts out there, but they are always synthesized according to a scheme that arises partly out of the historian's personal experience], AND

b) since history can never really be impartial and the synthesis of facts is always partly a result of the historian's affective investment in some facts over others [we're still with Carl Becker here, via the American West post], it might be important to proceed, as an historian, with some *care* as to "what happened," and while *caring* about some things more than others may not lead the historian to the best possible accounting of the most facts possible to *know*, it will at least lead him to caring enough about "what happened" in order to--and here I extrapolate--craft a more ethical account of past events [an account, moreover, that would be willing to designate some events in history as possessing or exemplifying certain *values*, both negative and positive], so then,

c) history, maybe, should not be morally relativistic [it should take a position], nor should it ever deny that some things really happened [which, according to Jonathan, postmodern critique is guilty of claiming on both counts: supposedly arguing there are no such things as facts and also that, since all knowledge is subjective, then there is no way to discriminate between better or worse ideas and all ideas have equal footing somehow *as ideas*], SO

c) what Jonathan mainly appears to want to take away from all of this, as Jeffrey partly illustrates in his post here, is that historians have an "epistemological advantage" [more so than literary critics, which he accuses Hayden White of being more than an historian, and in Jonathan's view, that would appear to be a demotion] because they are "attempting to reach things that actually did happen," and they don't have to "worry so much, because the object of our enquiry is genuine, and even if it cannot be reached exactly with our messy biochemical thinking apparatus, to say nothing of the experience of the other messy biochemical thinkboxes that the whole enterprise is based upon, we can get closer, and there is an idea of right and wrong in play that is not itself subjective, though its evaluation must be."

I want to see if I can be less than my usually prolix self and just say a few things here relative to Jonathan's post, "Hayden White, Move Over":

1. first, YES to everything Jeffrey says in his post here: things exist in time, there is a materiality to history's "events," objects, past actors, etc., but "facts," or rather, what facts *do* in the world, generally emerges out of various [and complex] alliances and networks of human and nonhuman actors--alliances and networks, moreover, that shift and change form over time in both material and ideational ways, and one of history's objectives, therefore, might be to take better account of the *emergence* of facts over time and of these networks and alliances within which certain materialities, however solid or aqueous and everything in between, are situated];

2. also following Jeffrey here, to say that one of postmodernism's ideas is that "there is no such thing as a fact" is simply not true; at the very least, it's a gross over-simplification of postmodernist thought, or as Jeffrey well explains, of cultural contructivism [saying that it is difficult to get at unmediated facts is one thing, which much of postmodernist critique does say, but then leaping to the idea that postmodernism therefore denies the existence of facts or of material and not-so-pliable entities, such as the body, the world, the past, etc., is just a bad misreading of postmodernist critique--I say this with the caveat that, yes, you can troll for passages in various texts that are badly written and appear to [or even, *do*] make ludicrously anti-common-sensical claims about the nonreality of everything, and you will find them, but could we maybe, just once, stop using these as examples of why all postmodernist critique must be stupid, or in Jonathan's favorite parlance, "rubbish" and "obscurantist showing-off"?

3. Could we try to keep in mind [and I learned this from Peter Munz's contribution the Routledge "Companion to Historiography"] that even past, historical actors caught up in an actual historical event cannot themselves always fully process their experience in such events, either "in media res" or even afterward [with regard to the question of facts/what happened? as well as with regard to the *why*/what does it mean? of "what happened"]? History, to a large extent, is not as much about *approaching*, as carefully as possible and with some self-awareness of our own affective investment, the *events* of the past with some hope of rendering those events as "truthfully," if only ever partially, as possible, as much as it is about imparting to those events some *meaning* and coherence--meaning and coherence, moreover, that may not have been at all apparent to all of the actors swept up in the event itself. I realize that this is outside of Jonathan's purview, but he might pay some attention to the field of Holocaust studies, where the question of "what happened" matters a great deal, and where the tools of postmodern critique have received, in my mind, their most sophisticated development alongside and in partnership with more traditional, documentary-style & source-based methodologies. No one denies that the Holocaust happened--what need, then, of the historians? Well, for "understanding," obviously, and also, perhaps, for redress and repair of bodily, psychic, cultural, social, and political injuries, and also, in Germany's case, especially, for assistance in determining the future course(s) of a nation. Causes and effects matter a great deal here, but so, too, does the question of narrative and even literary/artistic interventions into the event--the work of Dominick LaCapra is especially important in this regard, and I would also point Jonathan in the direction of what is known as the "historians' debate" in West Germany in the 1980s, the best overview of which can be found in Peter Baldwin, ed., "Reworking the Past: Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Historians's Debate" [Beacon Press, 1990].

4. It is not true, as Jonathan avers in his Cliopatria post, that medieval studies, especially in America, has been "colonised" by postmodernism. I could provide comprehensive bibliographies and books published by American medievalists to demonstrate that postmodern critique within medieval studies is still in somewhat of a minority position, but what would be the point? I know this to be true primarily from having served as a reviewer for "The Year's Work in Old English Studies" for 7 years and also just from my perusal of book reviews in journals such as "Speculum" and "The Medieval Review." Medieval studies, in general, is still, quite solidly and even healthily, a traditionally historicist and source-studies-style enterprise, and those medievalists who employ what might be called post-structuralist methodologies in their scholarship always do so in conjunction with solidly historicist approaches: they are as concerned with "what happened" as with anyone else, which brings me, also, to:

5. why do we always place literary studies *below* or off to the side of historical studies, especially as regards a concern with "what happened"? In medieval studies, especially, a text is always an historical artifact as much as an aesthetic object, and the predominant form of literary critique within medieval studies today [one I don't necessarily love--but that would be a whole other post] is New Historicism. In other words, the predominant form of literary critique within medieval studies today appears to be primarily concerned with fitting literary texts into specific historical-cultural-social contexts and networks [i.e., look at how this text speaks to particular social anxieties that seemed to circulate around Lollardy in the 14th century, etc. etc.]. It simply isn't true, as Jonathan avers, that, in literary studies "there is no sure recovery of the author's intent or lack of it; but with history, even though our texts are authored, biased, partial (in both senses), prejudiced, under-informed or all of the above, we have this single epistemological advantage that we are attempting to reach things that actually did happen." Either there is no sure recovery of intent in both literary and more "historical" documents & objects & events, or there is some hope of "sure recovery" in both. [It's neither, in my mind, but somewhere in between, and I think regular followers of this weblog might recall our discussions of James Simpson's article on faith and hermeneutics, which is certainly apropos here.] Bottom line: a text is also an historical "thing" that "happened"--it is an "event," as much as a battle or crowning of a king. At the very least, Jonathan might spend a little more time explaining how it is that the intentionality of non-literary documents and objects can more readily be accessed than the intentionality behind literary documents and objects. I would like to see that distinction spelled out in more detail since, for me, any artifact from the past--whether a grave remain, a post-hole, a pottery shard, a law code or charter, or a literary text--is an object in need of interpretation and I was not aware that literary objects, unlike all of the others, were inscribed with the secret message: "interpret me however you feel like; after all, I am only a literary object and was never intended to tell the truth about anything *real*. In short, I don't point to anything but myself, so have fun saying whatever you want about me."

6. While disagreement is good for all of us--we simply have to be willing to submit our ideas to the push and pull of other ideas, and also to change our minds, again and again, which also means we have to be open-minded to hearing divergent points of view and be willing to learn something that might change everything we thought we believed [and Jonathan himself begins his post, admirably, by saying that he is "open" to new ideas, even postmodernist ones, if they can help him be a better scholar, and he's right on in pointing us to Becker who really did say some very postmodernist things in 1910 and whose essay, still today, raises some really interesting questions about the historical enterprise]--can we please not assume that other scholars must be operating on bad-faith motives in their thought and writing? We don't have to like, and can even loathe, other persons' ideas and writing styles, and we can certainly judge those ideas and styles as being better or worse than others for getting certain points across, but can we maybe refrain from assuming, as Jonathan occasionally does on his own weblog, A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, that certain "postmodernist" scholars think and write the way they do because they are purposefully engaging in "obscurantist showing off" and "mountebankery"? Writing is hard; damn hard, and while I understand from having read a lot of Jonathan's blog, that he is very concerned that we work a bit harder to convey the insights of our scholarship in such a manner and linguistic style that we might reach wider, general public-type audiences [who would then benefit, if even passively, from the knowledge we have to impart], I think we need to adopt a more pluralistic and good-faith posture toward our collaborators in our field: we are all doing really difficult and strenuous [and grossly under-capitalized and therefore "service"] work and no one is really sitting down at their desk and saying, "I haven't got a damn thing to really say about the past, which I don't really believe exists, anyway, so now how I can say this in jargon so obscurantist and syllogisms so illogical that no one will know what it means but they will praise me anyway because I'm a hip postmodernist and then I'll get tenure." Bad writing will not injure anyone and you can always choose to stay away from whatever stuff you don't think you can stomach [for whatever reason], but don't ever assume the stuff you don't like was written by someone who didn't care very much about conveying their ideas, because everyone, in one capacity or another, *cares* or they would have chosen a less self-punishing and under-compensated profession, and some scholars are also just maybe *willing*, with great risk to their reputation, too, to engage new, radical ideas [if even seemingly crazy at first glance] that require some new languages that have to be experimented with, and not always successfully, but we have to *try* if we want to occasionally travel beyond the heterodoxies of our or *any* field of thought [and we are not, after all, bound by the dictionary, only by our imaginations, without which, there is no going back to the past at all]. For myself, personally, I would rather have a field in which all ideas, methodologies, and styles of writing would be embraced--however traditional or non-traditional, old or new, conventional or radical, sensible or seemingly crazy--because the more we have to think with at our our disposal, the better off we all are. A lot of what is produced might fall flat or not hold up over time, but I guess what I'm really trying to say is: I'm for methodological pluralism and personal freedom and a for a field in which we would all support each other as much as is possible in our scholarly experiments because, gosh, *anything* could happen, and it might even be fun. And it can still be ethical and evaluative, too.

This brings me, finally, to where the post on Carl Becker at the American West blog ended, but which Jonathan did not address in his post: childish wonder. For in Becker's 1910 essay, he apparently commented on how, in the detachment praised by historians bent on objective accounts of "what happened" in the past, what goes missing is the kind of childish wonder at the marvelous in history: the parts of history, like Greek gods and knights-errant without purposes, that apparently have no "use" in the present of the historian, who wishes to set those items aside as irrelevant to an understanding of the "real" in history. I'm just saying.

tenthmedieval said...

This is a flattering amount of attention to what was merely intended to be a nod to a clear thinker from a while back. I read, and it seems best if I stay subjective and say it's only my reading straight away, two very different reactions here: Professor Cohen's subtle attempt to show the uncertainty in my stance's bedrock, and Dr Joy's anguished plea for more goodwill on my part. I think I have to address these two with some separation, because I feel that Dr Joy somewhat misrepresents me by tackling a whole chunk of my Internet writing as if it were a single coherent essay rather than a range of posts of varying formality written over more than a year, all reacting to specific and different texts. (In particular, what she quotes as my `favorite idiom' was not from the post at Cliopatria.) I'll come back to misrepresentation in a moment, to try and clear some of my name, but I would beseech any readers wanting to engage with this to take my writings one by one rather than as a lump. (I would even ask them to read them as progress, if they really wanted to read them all.)

The point where what I've said seems to cross most interestingly with what people here have so far said is at our definitions of `fact'. I think we may be suffering from a problem of unclear usage here, possibly precisely because of the way the critical turn has problematised the word whereas I'm still using it unreformed. What I want is a word to refer to an actual happening, an event, such as which, unless we revert to Creationism, we have to admit happened, even if we don't and possibly can't know what it was or how it went down. I don't mean the way we perceive, understand or represent that event; I mean the source, the `thing itself' (though please don't pin me to Ranke). If one is used to another meaning of `fact' in which the problems with reading loom larger, then I guess confusion is inevitable.

Incidentally, both here and at Cliopatria there has been some hinting that my characterisation of some post-modernist scholarship as preferring to deny the existence of facts at all is a straw man, perhaps because the readers know full well that they don't do anything so extreme; but if Dr Joy was really incensed enough to follow all the links I provided, she must have found the review of Arthur Marwick's The New Nature of History by Alun Munslow where he says, for example, "I'll say there are facts and they are our inferences which we cast as short stories within larger narratives", and namechecks Hayden White. In other words, I am not making this up. I am also, I should say, not getting at writers here with this post; indeed, I linked In the Medieval Middle as an example precisely of people using such ideas to take the lid off the Middle Ages in interesting ways.

Another place we could perhaps meet here is by agreeing over the granularity of `facts'. Despite Dr Joy's optimism of course people famously do deny the Holocaust, David Irvine probably being a safe name to Google; some of them even manage to get called historians. But it's possible to deny the Holocaust, as a technique rather than as history, because it is not one fact but a huge mass of them—so many deaths, so many orders, so much mess and cover-up, so much time, multiplied by the individual lives who lived it—and some of these events must be disputable as we know of them, which can be used to attack the whole structure by synecdoche, or, if you prefer, by category error. We need, again, another word than `fact' for something so big, or equally something so long-term as the Stonehenge dolomites, though there I think the category error lies in considering that history, which of course Professor Cohen's tagging indicates that he does not. But this was why my examples of arguable facts were only moments, meetings between people, not whole centuries-long or war-long processes.

With respect, indeed, to Professor Cohen's attempt to educate my "common-sensical" position with a sense of the past which is as usual anything but common, the "nonhuman historical frame" doesn't really pertain for my academic purposes, which were all that drove my post, but it seems to me that his examples in stone encapsulate either change over time, what entails before and after states that could be characterised as facts, or a fact too difficult to recover. Human history is full of those, of course, but I thought I covered that in caveats quite thoroughly. In short, I may have missed his point, unless I already met it in the post.

A place I do not think we will all meet is over a join between literary studies and history. I do not, contrary to what Dr Joy seems to think, think of literary studies as `lesser', but I'm very clear that I don't do it and am more interested personally in history. Dr Joy and I have sparred about this before and it seems to me that this difference arises because she genuinely pursues the humanities as a single united discipline, the aim being to cast light on the human condition writ large, whereas I have a narrower and more defined enquiry which I characterise as history. The consequence again seems to be misunderstanding, so that she urges me:

`At the very least, Jonathan might spend a little more time explaining how it is that the intentionality of non-literary documents and objects can more readily be accessed than the intentionality behind literary documents and objects. I would like to see that distinction spelled out in more detail since, for me, any artifact from the past--whether a grave remain, a post-hole, a pottery shard, a law code or charter, or a literary text--is an object in need of interpretation and I was not aware that literary objects, unlike all of the others, were inscribed with the secret message: "interpret me however you feel like; after all, I am only a literary object and was never intended to tell the truth about anything *real*. In short, I don't point to anything but myself, so have fun saying whatever you want about me."'

Passive-aggressive sarcasm aside, again I can only speak in my defence and point out that I have been urging for a long time, in places that I will, briefly, link for the reader's reference, that archaeology is tricky because it needs interpretation; that charters are tricky because they need interpretation; that laws are tricky because they need interpretation; in short, that any of our sources have their own problems of interpretation and that literature is not a special case, for better or for worse. Neither do I say otherwise in any of what she links, I think and hope. But I do think that literature is perhaps best a source for the human condition, just as archaeology is perhaps a better source for settlement and material culture, anthropology for social reproduction, charters and libri memoriales for associations of people, and so on. This is of course where my post went on, with a quotation from literature—quel horreur!—to the effect that some tools are better for certain jobs than others. I continue to contend that at root literary study and history are different jobs and are best served by different tools. I see the difference in approaches as that literary study gets right into the heart of the source and looks around in all directions, whereas history mainly wants to see through it in one direction, or at least a narrower arc of directions, to the reality that created it. Literary studies needs to know about the past to tell it about the source, and history needs to know about its source to tell it about the past, and it often seems that people like us who are about enquiries that face in opposite ways along this line of dialogue are unfortunately still in position to shout at each other in annoyance that the other can't see what's behind them. I hope that even if I've only continued the shouting here, at least it may be clearer what I was and wasn't saying and have and haven't said.

Jonathan Jarrett (with a double `r')

Eileen Joy said...

Hello Jonathan: thanks so much for posting here because I think it's essential to keep each other honest with regard to representing each other's stances, positions, statements, etc., and inevitably, some mis-representation might creep in, and also, it just helps to extend what I think is a very interesting dialogue about history, material facts and their representation in historical records, the ethical/affective position of the historian, etc.--a dialogue which your post at Cliopatria helped to initiate [and I, for one, was grateful to have the lead to the 1910 essay by Carl Becker, which I found fascinating].

I never meant to lump together, as you say, a bunch of your posts at "A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe" in order to make it appear as if you had simply made, across these posts, only one particular argument, and of course your thinking progresses *across* these posts and therefore, also, over the time span within which they were variously written. At the same time, I mainly just kind of dutifully followed all of your embedded links, both within the "Cliopatria" post and also within the posts at "A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe," and there *is* a kind of cumulative effect after having read all of them that can be summed up by the title of one of them, "Do the job or don’t: another rant against post-modernist historiography. Which is just my way of saying that, over time, in your posts at "A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe," I do detect what I would call, at the very least, a longstanding concern to expose what you see as some of the flaws and excesses of postmodernist critique, and in a short note on your weblog to guide your readers to your post on the "Cliopatria" weblog, you indicated that you were "swinging once more to the attack against the useless postmodernist critique of factual knowledge" [which is just to say that you yourself signify here that you have had a concern, over time, with an "attack" on postmodernist critique of a certain bent--which "bent" I sometimes feel *you* feel is endemic in postmodern historiography, but I am listening to you here saying, "no, that is not always the case"]. Which is *also* just my way of saying that, for my own purposes, I wanted to see if maybe *I* could argue on behalf of the idea that postmodernism, in toto [meaning: taken as a set of various discourses ranging over many disciplines and decades], does not necessarily evacuate the existence or materiality of factual knowledge and I think it is often misconstrued to do just that, as well as it is often misunderstood to be, supposedly, completely morally, or ideationally, relativistic [i.e., all knowledge is relativistic, no one idea could be better or more persuasive than any other idea, everything is text/discursive and nothing is factual/material, etc. etc.].

I really did follow all of the links, including the one you mention here to Alan Munslow's review of Arthur Marwick's book "The New Nature of History" [and I even read Marwick's riposte!--it was all quite interesting, actually], and so yes, Jonathan, I fully understand you are not making some of this stuff up [as regards the tendency of certain scholars, including in another of your examples, Karl Morrison, to claim that facts are nothing more than narrative inferences, etc.]--my main concern is that we not let individual essays, articles, reviews, etc. stand in as official spokespersons, as it were, for all of postmodernist critique, when in fact, postmodernist critique [much like your own blog posts] has developed over time, has a long and richly varied history [really, multiple histories in different times and places], and cannot be "ranted" against, I hope, vis-a-vis *some* of its practitioners. On the other hand, I also know that several of your weblog posts were in the form of reactions you had to various chapters you were reading in the 1994 anthology edited by John van Engen, "The Past and Future of Medieval Studies," and you are obviously entitled to register your positive and negative responses to the various pieces of writing in this volume: I would never have a problem with that; but I don't like the idea, either, of something Karl Morrison wrote in 1994 in one book standing in for all of postmodern historiography [but I may also protest too much--this will be admitted, although I do sometimes get the feeling in many of these posts, Jonathan, that the examples of writing that you provide as representations of what you see as a certain po-mo affinity for purposefully obscurantist rhetoric and fallacious logic and maybe even bad-faith refusals to acknowledge history's factual materialities, are meant to stand in as indictments of postmodern historiography more broadly as a disciplinary practice, so I guess my question now might be: is postmodernism in general the problem, or is just certain of its practitioners? One thing I have a gut feeling we'll both agree on here is that this question might not even be worth pursuing because you've already acknowledged that you're open to being persuaded by any methodology that can help you be "right rather than wrong" when you talk about your material].

As to the question of literature and history as constituting, maybe, separate spheres and/or disciplines of knowledge, I apologize for my sarcasm in the "secret message" I attributed [via my analysis of your Cliopatria post] to literary texts, but I would still evince here my discomfort with your attempt, in the Cliopatria post, to argue that,

"With literary criticism there is no sure recovery of the author's intent or lack of it; but with history, even though our texts are authored, biased, partial (in both senses), prejudiced, under-informed or all of the above, we have this single epistemological advantage that we are attempting to reach things that actually did happen."

I will just say [maybe again, and annoyingly so] that I can detect no real distinction, especially in medieval studies, between a literature scholar who is trying to reach things that actually did happen and an historian who is also trying to do the same thing, but with a charter, maybe, rather than a poem. I actually really appreciate the further clarifications you provide here that,

"literary study gets right into the heart of the source and looks around in all directions, whereas history mainly wants to see through it in one direction, or at least a narrower arc of directions, to the reality that created it."

I can't agree, though, mainly because I just don't see [especially without further, more specific examples] how literary criticism [again, especially within medieval studies] mainly dwells within the one source [the text itself] whereas historical criticism is supposedly trying to get *through* this source to some reality that created it. I guess I am one of those critics who thinks the line that some want to hold in place between a charter and a poem, or between a castle and a novel, is not as firm or as unmoving as some would like to believe [at least, as far as using any of these objects to both talk about *what they are* as made/created objects and also about what kind of historical "realities" they might point and gesture toward]. I also do not believe in the distinctions you provide here, Jonathan, of literature being

"perhaps best a source for the human condition, just as archaeology is perhaps a better source for settlement and material culture, anthropology for social reproduction, charters and libri memoriales for associations of people, and so on."

How, for example, are settlement and material culture separate from the human condition or from associations of people, etc.? Aren't questions and statements of the human condition articulated as much in grave remains and pottery shards as they are in poetry? I think they are, and I realize we may disagree on this [you might say you do agree, but you think the articulations we get in those different items will vary exactly according to the purposes/uses of each item]. I just think you're working too hard to draw lines and distinctions between states of affairs, objects & entities & events, and texts that are all enmeshed together in broad social and other networks and we need multi- and inter-discplinarities [both *singly* of and between the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts] to help us get at the possible factualities as well as the possible meanings of any of these so-called factualities enmeshed in these networks. Which brings us right back to facts again, and here I think you, Jeffrey, and I will certainly all agree: yes, certain things happened a certain way and nothing can change that intractable *fact* of history. But, once having agreed on that, as well as having agreed with you that, as regards these certain things having happened, "we don't and possibly can't know what it was or how it went down" [i.e. our knowledge of how things went, one thing after the other, and why, and so on, will always be flawed, partial, etc.], what then? I mean: that's where our theoretical, ethical, and other difficulties really start settling in, and that's what we need to talk about, *together*, and more often. And I'm not sure, either, that I can really let go of the idea, which I think is also a fact, that even as things are happening, *in time*, hardly anyone has a grasp on their specific factuality and/or meaning. That always comes belatedly, so it's not so much that we *approach* the past, as best as we know how, in its state of *having happened already*, so much as we pick up where the past itself left off: in the middle of everything.

Let me also say that when you characterize me as someone who is interested in "the humanities as a single united discipline, the aim being to cast light on the human condition writ large," that I think you basically have that right about me, and I would ask you, and anyone really, to consider whether or not we can really say that our disciplines are as separate from each other as want to believe. I am all for multi-disciplinarity, by the way, and I've argued that here before--by which I mean, if someone wants to spend their entire career studying pottery shards and nothing but pottery shards, more power to them [I will even advocate for whole departments of the study of pottery if I can get away with it because I have no problem with highly specialized fields of study and think they should flourish along with everything else--this is all just part of my democracy of inquiry principles]. But to think that pottery shards can somehow be studied as an artifact that conveys narrowly-defined historical meanings that are somehow separate from whatever narrowly-defined meanings a poem, castle, or grave remain might convey--and yes, about the human, or let's say, earthly condition--seems too impoverished an historical viewpoint to me.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

here I think you, Jeffrey, and I will certainly all agree: yes, certain things happened a certain way and nothing can change that intractable *fact* of history.

That's the nub of it all, really, isn't it? What are these 'certain things'? How do we know they happened. Is that at the heart of your disagreement - a dispute about two kinds of disclosure: the excavation of new previously unregarded certain things or the telling of new stories about old (formerly) certain things.

tenthmedieval said...

Thankyou for the gracious response, Dr Joy; you're always challenging to discuss with, I have to make notes in order to respond! You characterise my distaste for post-modernism generally fairly, I think, and I am probably at fault in that, because I resound very happily with things like the post-modernism generator and the story of Alan Sokal, when I see something that I do like in the field I am probably inclined to declassify it for my intellectual comfort. I could more robustly contend, of course, that given how empiricist I am in some ways, if I like it it probably can't be 'real postmodernism'. In either case, there certainly is work in this line that I do find helpful. But, so far, not very much, partly because I don't often look for more, though that search was what originally made me pick up van Engen's book. So there I could mend my ways, perhaps, though I don't think I would ever want to stop advocating for the simplification of academic prose.

The progress we can hope for from this dialogue is probably understanding more clearly, and perhaps accepting (the other person has to go first!) the differences in our axioms of study, I think. You don't agree with me about the object of literary study, and perhaps you should know better given as you do it and I stopped when I was still at school. It seems to me though that when you write of:

using any of these objects to both talk about *what they are* as made/created objects and also about what kind of historical "realities" they might point and gesture toward

that you are not making a difference that I would most definitely make between the study of the source and the study of the source's context or environment. I don't mean to say that one can't or shouldn't do both; only that they are different things and require different skills, tools, and (to let Becker back in) sorts of engagement. For my enquiries I question the usefulness of most of the tools that such post-modernist discourse as I come across appears to offer. (Most: not all, and I'd like more if they're out there.)

We also seem to have some vagueness over the definition of human condition. To my "impoverished" phrasing `human condition' is a universal. For you it seems to encompass a great many specificities. Would you say, for example, a sixteenth-century map of transhumance routes in Iran will tell you as much about what it means to be a human being, a mind corporeal in the world as does Hamlet's soliloquy? This seems to be implicit in your statement:

Aren't questions and statements of the human condition articulated as much in grave remains and pottery shards as they are in poetry? I think they are, and I realize we may disagree on this.

And if that is what you would say, well, no, I can't agree, any more than I could agree that a fourth-generation copy of a cassette tape sounds as good as the original; the soliloquy is just closer to the matter, and an obviously richer source for the enquiry about human existence as a universal. If what you want, however, is to know how a certain group of human beings, defined either by time, geography, or subsistence method, could manage their resources, where that group is either, sixteenth-century people, inhabitants of Persia, or pastoralists, then it seems obvious to me that the map is more use than the soliloquy. Again I wind up standing at the end of my Cliopatria post quoting Tom Sharpe about fitness for purpose. So I can only assume that I don't understand what you mean by `human condition' and appeal for clarification.

Of course, all evidence is good for something and it would be lovely to be able to have people studying it all in their different ways, had we but money enough and time. But while we're all competing for the same jobs funded by the same money, they can't all "flourish along with everything else" and therefore questions about purpose and fitness therefor come to have a very unpleasant relevance, I fear.

Dr Rees-Jones, I don't think we are disagreeing about whether to find new things or revise opinions of old ones, in fact. Nor do I want to leave the impression that I think things, once discovered, are fixed. I maintain that there was a truth in an event, but we can very easily be wrong about it. I think we're arguing about whether it's worth trying to be certain about anything of either sort. But I admit that I'm not certain about that...

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

It's interesting how much of this conversation comes down to a question of degree: how much humanity can be discerned in a pottery shard relative to a soliloquy or a charter? How much time must elapse before a fact or event that seems knowable (it happened or it didn't) no longer constitutes anything that can fit within this frame? (the life of rocks versus the lives of humans). You can seem, Jonathan, that I am most interested in how the interactions between the human and the nonhuman not only call upon us to recognize what it is that might be universal within the human condition, but also what universals humans might share with nature (even stones), and how this glimpse of infinity (if you will) might invite a person to think about all those nonhuman things upon which our humanity depends.

Another common element: the plea not to totalize -- not when we talk about each other's work, not when we talk about a school or movement. That's a caveat that bears frequent repeating.

Eileen Joy said...

Jonathan: thanks for your further comments here, which give much food for continued thought. Although, on the one hand, I think we need to have room within the academy to promote the singular study of particle physics [to devote one's career, say, to sending atoms racing down a particle accelerator, just to see what might happen] or numismatics, etc. [devoted study of a singular field or discipline over a long period of time can add to the general store of knowledge and maybe even contribute innovations with broad practical applications], at the same time, I think saying that we can draw distinct lines between

"the study of the source and the study of the source's context or environment"

may be arguing for something that really cannot hold [and I can tell you that, post-1950s New Criticism, that pretty much no one is studying literary texts, of *any* period, outside of their multiple contexts and environments--historical, social, etc.], and I wonder sometimes if we in the humanities sometimes press too hard on what we hope are the scientistic aspects of our studies. Now, in particle physics [since I already raised the example], once *can* remove nucleons from certain environments and send them on collision courses with other nucleons in a particle accelerator in order to investigate the structure and properties of these *bare* particles, but in a humanistic field like history, or even archaeology, and even with its scientific methods [carbon dating, geophysical surveys, and the like], can we really say that something like an historical context or environment can be studied apart from various items produced/made within those contexts and environments? Can I study Charlemagne, as a bodily *item* in history, apart from his residences, his burial plot, all of the texts produced within his realm/kingdom [legal, literary, theological, and otherwise], various wars, etc.? Can I study medieval warfare only by studying its weaponry? And so on and so forth. Maybe these example are stupid [I'll admit I'm typing/thinking too fast as it's time for a martini!], but I guess what I'm trying to say is that, in medieval literary studies, anyway, there is really no studying the source only without also studying historical, social, and other contexts. I guess, and sure, I know you won't agree, but still, and again, I think some of the lines we want to draw between our disciplines tells us a lot more about the post-19th-century establishment and rise of academic fields and less about, let's say, *life on the ground*, in any period. For that, we've got to get outside our disciplinary boxes a little bit and muck around.

As to the human condition and how I define that, and whether or not Hamlet's soliloquy gets closer to it than the 16th-century map of transhumance routes in Iran, I guess I would say I'm aiming for a a more holistic humanities that won't privilege one over the other and that might even ask, what happens when you put these two things together? Unholy conjunctions between humanistic objects not thought to fit together at all is a big part of what I do in my own work, but that's just me.

In previous conversations we've had before, Jonathan, you've raised the issue of funding, and I have a LOT to say about that, but will save it for after the martinis.

tenthmedieval said...

The Martini theme is giving me an inadvertant soundtrack to this comment. But I struggle on :-) Today the real world is keeping me from the Internet and so I don't have time to chew over the question about whether my distinction can hold; I think that, if it does, it does so on the grounds of necessary technique, but really I said that already and we don't appear to be meeting each other there. However I did want to pick up one core statement:

Can I study Charlemagne, as a bodily *item* in history, apart from his residences, his burial plot, all of the texts produced within his realm/kingdom [legal, literary, theological, and otherwise], various wars, etc.?

Well, no, in theory one can't, but in practice, can one? I recognise the point of what you say, but if one were going to do this thoroughly one would have to master archaeology, theology, the whole literacy question, and several other fields, and one would be well into one's career before one was able to publish anything. The Academy just doesn't support that kind of endeavour, this is leisured antiquarian territory. That may be wrong, but again comes down to money. In the situation we have, we have to specialise to an extent, and wherever we don't specialise, we have to rely on the work of others. But obviously we have to be able to make some kind of critical appraisal of whether those others' work can be trusted. (I have numerous examples of interdisciplinary work that can't.) And, for me at least, the original post and this subsequent conversation are all about what work can be so trusted.