Historical Argument From Soup to Nuts

[cross -posted at Cliopatria]

I tell my students that all good research projects and analytical writing have to provide an answer to the question, “So what?”, a justification for the project or the essay. One student asked me if history as a discipline had any stock or standard answers to that question.

I started to list a few that I could think of, and then a few more. I thought I’d try out the results here, to see if readers could knock a few down or add some more.

Many historical monographs answer the question “So what?” in relationship to an established historiography first and foremost. If I publish a new interpretation of state formation in 18th Century Southern Africa before the rise of the Zulu Empire, I may justify my work largely as a response to other scholars who have written about the mfecane and the rise of Shaka’s new Zulu state. However, that historiography as a whole has many more sweeping “so whats” embedded within it, in relationship to contemporary South Africa, to models of state formation within Africa, to arguments about the relationship between environmental and political change. A historian who makes a new claim narrowly directed at a given historiography is often indirectly trying to shift arguments about the larger significance or relevance of the history under review.

Here’s the list I came up with on my first pass. I can think of a lot of works that exemplify arguments #7 and #8, but I couldn’t really think of a book or article that perfectly matched either one.

1. The past is prologue: a contemporary issue or practice has its roots or determinants in the history we are studying. Example: Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm; Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism;
2. The past is not prologue: a contemporary issue or practice that is commonly understood to be determined by history is not, and we’ll demonstrate that by telling you about that history. Example: Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were; many histories that try to debunk the idea that contemporary ethnic conflicts are based on “ancient tribal hatreds”.
3. The past is analogue: a contemporary issue or problem resembles some past issue or problem; the historical example has just enough distance from our own situation that we understand ourselves better. Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror; Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods.
4. The past is another country: our own times are made more particular by looking at just how different the past really was. Caroline Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast; Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre; Richard White, The Middle Ground.
5. The past helps us make N as big as possible: it is a source of data for making generalizations, formulating models, constructing claims about human universals. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel; David Christian, Maps of Time.
6. The past challenges generalizations, models and universals through attention to particulars and microhistories. Carlo Ginzberg, The Cheese and the Worms.
7. The past is procedural: we study it to learn how dynamic processes or change works out over time (without worry so much about the consequences of the history we are studying).
8. Hindsight is 20/20: we study a frozen moment in time because we can understand far better the total spectrum of social relationships, causal relationships, etc. than we can understand the present (here we choose richly knowable examples to study).
9. Nothing actually ever changes in history; change is an illusion; some systems or practices always remain the same. We study the past the same way we would study the present, to understand a single system which is continuous over time. Andre Gunder Frank, REOrient.
10. The unknowability of the past is humbling: we study it to learn about the permanent limits to our knowledge, or about the difficult range of epistemologies involved in knowing the past. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past.
11. The past is ideology or discourse: we don’t really study it, we just build powerful contemporary claims from our representations of history. Hayden White, Metahistory.
12. The past is detection: we study it because we like solving puzzles and mysteries. Charles Van Onselen, The Fox and the Flies.
13. The past is entertainment or personal enlightenment: we study it because it has great stories, or because of the pleasures of narrative. John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive.
14. The past is heritage: we study it to form or enforce national, ethnic, religious or personal identity, or to combat attempts to destroy heritage. Gertrude Himmelfarb, The De-Moralization of Society.
15. The past as it is known in modern Western society is anti-heritage: it is associated with imperialism or domination, and we study historiography to combat or contest that domination. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe.
16. The past is memorial: we study (recite it, really) it to honor what people did or sacrificed on our behalf. Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation.

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9 Responses to Historical Argument From Soup to Nuts

  1. peter55 says:

    For #7, I would suggest:

    Jeffrey Herbst: “State Politics in Zimbabwe”

    John Lukacs: “Five Days in London: May 1940”.

    For #7 and/or #12:

    Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow: “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis”.

  2. j. says:

    where does janik and toulmin’s ‘wittgenstein’s vienna’ fit? i.e. cultural-history-to-reframe-interpretation-of-a-past-text-in-its-historical-context-against-a-climate-of-ahistoricism?

    (are there other cases, even of different types, in intellectual history where the object does not quite have the same kind of historical existence as some of the objects of investigation listed above? viz., a difference between events and times, on the one hand, and texts, on the other? i realize any number of historiographies may not accept that distinction, nor need they.)

  3. tozier says:

    I’m going to break the rules and push out past monographs, here. But I’d like to suggest you include miscellanies, even if you insist they remain focused on a particular subject.

    I was just thumbing through Hazlitt’s wandering tome a few days ago, and while it’s not a “history” as such is surely is historical writing. Maybe generously called a geographically-connected pile of notes, or an anthropological description? I don’t know.

    It’s not a popular or even scholarly style these days, but it sure represents a big swathe of antiquary’s books on library shelves.

    One gets a similar feeling when thumbing through periodicals, like WIllis’s Current Notes. But that’s analogous to a modern mailing list transcript, and the presence of slow, braided conversations imbue it with a mixed-up sensibility. Still, if you squint, a fact-dump seems more fragmented than a “micro”history, but can be used as a book of wonderful trivia. Along the lines of your #4. Maybe the antiquaries were the Fodor’s of the past.

    I miss that antiquarian telegraphic style, honestly. I wonder if it’s coming back in style anytime soon.

    Hmmm… Where on your list would Wisconsin Death Trip fall? #2? #6? Somewhere between? It wasn’t a miscellany as such, since it was fraught with [explicit] agendas. But I think it might be a kind of modern bridge between miscellany and monograph.

  4. aaron says:

    Without taking away from the value of this kind of thinking (and I think it is valuable), I wonder how well this kind of list construction manages to stand outside of the very ideological constructions of history that it is attempting to categorize. While you identify Hayden White with number eleven, for example, it feels like the entire list-making gesture is White-esque move: by boiling every historical narrative into a “so what,” you’re producing a limited set of narratives down to which all history-writing can be reduced. And the logic of that reduction, how it’s done and what it takes for granted, seems to be a huge percentage of historical writing, but not all of it: what about historical writing that doesn’t assume the past is relevent? Or rather, not to claim that it isn’t, but how do we address the kinds of possibilities that are foreclosed when we focus on the assumption that it is?

    To put it another way, it seems like what drops out is the kind of cultural history work that can take seriously the autonomy of a historical or cultural space, its resistance to being made relevent to now and to us. You’ve written eloquently on this sort of thing in the past; in fact, I feel like I’m trying to paraphrase *that* Timothy Burke so he can have a conversation with *this* Timothy Burke, because it would be a conversation I’d love to eavesdrop on. For example, where does “Saturday Morning Fever” fit in here? What kind of history writing is that?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s a good point, on multiple levels. One, that I do often argue against this kind of compression of history to an instrument or tool, and argue instead for its autonomous meaning, for the usefulness of writing about the phenemonology of the past, history for its own sake. And two, that maybe I’m employing the sense of “argument” here that John Holbo is complaining about over at the Valve, where “argument” is not “if A, then B” but instead raison d’etre.

    But I can see the patterns in this list, also. And I think playfully, that any of us might be able to write within these patterns, to reproduce a given structure of argument or approach. I’m thinking pedagogically first and foremost. I think it’s easier for a student learning to write historical analysis to have a list like this and then try to escape from its neat diagram than it is to insist that no such list or pattern is possible or allowable.

  6. andrew says:

    One thing that could be added to a list about historical writing in general – but perhaps not to a list of academic writing specifically – would be “history as a good story” where the goal is to write a compelling, if not all that analytical, narrative of some past event.

  7. alph says:

    What about history as correction – a rigorous historical understanding can help correct commonly held misconceptions?

  8. peter55 says:

    To support you, Timothy: I took your list to be an attempt at a philosophy of history. Every science, the philosopher of language John Austin supposedly once said, begins with a classification, and I think this is a superb one. I am not an historian, so perhaps such lists are old hat among historians or historiographers or philosophers of history. But, no one ever asked, let alone answered, the “what for” question in any high-school history class I took.

  9. peter55 says:

    And, what about history as a call-to-action, as motivation to change the future? I think this use of history is stronger than your #11 (because it concerns the future as well as the present), and maybe generalizes your #15 (because it may apply not only against western imperialism).

    As examples, I am thinking of the various studies of the First Chimurenga in Zimbabwe (the uprisings by the maShona against white rule in the 1890s), written in the 1970s to inspire people to engage in the Second. And, perhaps, much of Marx.

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