Saturday, April 30, 2005

The failure of metaphor in explaining history

It's hard to describe the process and problems of history, especially to those not familiar with the daily activities of historians.* Historians face a few fundamental questions that need answering, at least to their satisfaction, before "history" can be produced, disseminated, discussed, and whatever else you'd like to do with it. Chief among these is the basic, yet absolutely crucial, question that underpins all historical work.

How do we know about the past?

The simple answer is that historians look at sources from the past and compile information from them. But looking at it in such broad (and bland) terms obscures the variety of available sources as well as minimizing the difficulty of finding and interpreting them. But let's assume that the acquisition of historical knowledge is a straightforward activity. There's still the problem of putting this knowledge into a form that's easily transmitted. Not everyone, after all, has the time and inclination to plod though archival records. History has to take some other form. Typically that means books, articles, TV programs, lectures, and the like. In other words, history as most people experience it is at least one level removed from its source(s). Put another way, history is always mediated in some manner. We cannot and do not have direct insight on the events and workings of the past. You could even say that the past is lost.

But it's not easy to talk about the essentially constructed nature of history and its epistemological challenges. Discussions of the indeterminacy of language are often jargon-filled and abstruse. Archival work sounds boring. So historians, like all writers, turn to metaphor to describe their activities in more attractive and understandable terms.

Richard Evans, in In Defence of History** offers two such metaphors.

The first likens history to:
doing a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are scattered all over the house in several boxes, some of which have been destroyed, and where once it is put together, a significant number of the pieces are still missing. The nature of the resulting picture will depend partly on how many boxes still survive and have been tracked down, and this depends partly on having some idea of where to look; but the picture's contours can still be filled in, even when not all the pieces have been located. We imagine the contours in this situation, and have to speculate on quite a bit of the detail; at the same time, however, the discovery of the existing pieces does set quite severe limits on the operation of our imagination. If they only fit together to produce a picture of a steam-engine, for instance, it is no good trying to put them together to make a suburban garden: it simply will not work. (p. 89)

In some respects, Evans's metaphor accurately captures the spirit and problems of historical research. Collecting historical evidence is hard work. There's no magical archive or library that holds every relevant source. For one thing, not every relevant source survives, or even existed in the first place. And that a source exists in no way guarantees that a historian will stumble upon it. Our knowledge of the past is necessarily incomplete, just as a giant jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces missing necessarily fails to show the whole picture.

Yet Evans's metaphor is also problematic in some ways. First, it assumes that bits of historical evidence fit together in just one way that, while it may take some time to figure out, is ultimately clear-cut and indisputable. Document A relates to Document B to produce Meaning X. Second, this analogy presupposes that, if all the pieces of the puzzle/historical sources were present, our picture of the past would be crystal clear - just look at the "whole picture" and there it is.

Both these presumptions fail to adequately capture the complexity of historical interpretation. Sources rarely, if ever, mesh in such a way that all historians would agree on their joint significance. Rather, historians do their best to relate pieces of evidence to each other in reasonable, insightful ways that casts light on the past. But this step, crucially, is an interpretive one. The sources do not speak for themselves. In addition, the puzzle metaphor seems to suggest that there is a single history to be told. While this may have been the case in the nineteenth-century (the inaugural issue of the English Historical Review saw "States and politics" as the "chief subject" of history, "because the acts of nations and of the individuals who have played a great part in the affairs of nations have usually been more important than the acts of private citizens"), historians believe that there are a wide array of interesting stories to tell about the past, an array that meshes poorly with the flat image associated with a jigsaw puzzle.

Evans's second metaphor more accurately reflects the interpretive nature of history while maintaining his assertion that the surviving evidence places real constraints on historical interpretation.

Most historical narratives consist of a mixture of revealed, reworked, constructed and deconstructed narratives from the historical past and from the historian's own mind. We start with a rough-hewn block of stone, and chisel away at it until we have a statue. The statue was not waiting there to be discovered, we made it ourselves, and it would have been perfectly possible for us to have made a different statue from the one we finally created. On the other hand, we are constrained not only by the size and shape of the original stone, but also by the kind of stone it is; an incompetent sculptor not only runs the risk of producing an unconvincing statue that does not much resemble anything, but also of hammering or chiselling too hard, or the wrong way, and shattering the stone altogether. (p. 147)

This idea of "history as sculpture" more accurately reflects what really happens when historians do history. They carefully examine the evidence collected, select key elements of that evidence, and create a new narrative or analysis out of the building blocks of history, discarding the irrelevant and highlighting the key features of the significant.

But, like the puzzle metaphor, the sculpture metaphor is also flawed. In spite of Evans's claim that the "statue was not waiting there to be discovered," the block of stone itself did previously exist as a single entity. Yet, as the puzzle metaphor so aptly displays, finding sources is never quite so easy. There's also the slightly troubling notion that once evidence has been used by one historian, it is somehow unavailable to other scholars, chipped away and discarded.

Both the puzzle and sculpture metaphors, then, fail to capture just what historians do and the challenges they face. If anything, some sort of composite metaphor is needed where the pieces of evidence are scattered about like the pieces of a puzzle yet are still open to the historian's interpretation just as a block of stone is subject to a sculptor's touch. But it's hard to imagine just what that metaphor would be. History as a Lego sculpture, perhaps?

My aim here is not to criticize Richard Evans for his choice of metaphors. As metaphors go, the two I've discussed are fairly good ones in that they accurately describe a key element of historical work. But the fact remains that they're imperfect, as I'm sure Evans would readily admit. History's complicated business, and it resists simple comparisons to more easily comprehensible activities. To really understand what history's all about requires thoughtful discussion about the historical process in its own terms. Metaphors can be useful, but if their flaws aren't examined along with their insights, they ultimately fail to improve our understanding of history.

History, done well, is hard work, and it requires serious thought that goes beyond simple metaphors.

*I'm talking about history as a field of study rather than history as what happened in the past. I feel like I've said this before, but an easy way of distinguishing the two would save me the trouble of clarifying.

**Awkward as all hell, isn't it? Nick Hornby offers some fantastic advice in Songbook: "Never begin a title with a preposition." It just gets ugly.


At May 1, 2005 12:04:00 PM , Anonymous Sharon said...

I agree that metaphors will always be imperfect, only a starting point for thinking. But here's an all-time favourite of mine, from EH Carr:

"The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger's slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use - these two factors being, of course, detrmined by the kind of fish he wants to catch." (What is History, Penguin edn p. 23)

Of course, we have all sorts of problems with Carr's idea of what 'historical facts' are now. But I think there's something about that metaphor that transcends those limitations, the particular thing he's referring to: I like the broader idea that doing history can be compared to going fishing in a vast ocean. It's better than the metaphors which use inanimate, fixed objects. To me, they just never work very well at all. (Come to think of it, my favourite metaphors generally focus on the act of doing history as much as the object - another one I love compares history to jazz.) There's maybe a subjective element to this (perhaps it helps that I used to have a partner who was an avid angler...), but some metaphors just make you go, 'stop, no, that won't work' while others stimulate you to the serious thinking that needs to be done, and that's the point of a good metaphor.

At May 2, 2005 5:41:00 PM , Blogger Danny said...

Thanks for reminding me of the Carr metaphor, Sharon. I was actually going to write about it a long time ago but evidently got distracted and never got around to it. The funny thing is, I haven't read What is History (yet, I really should), but I know I've come across the fish metaphor before. I just can't remember where.

Anyway, I think that the fish-as-facts idea works better than the puzzle or sculpture ones. For one thing, it suggests that research isn't a value-neutral task - people generally go fishing for a particular kind of fish (Carr was also the one who said that historians will find the facts they're looking for, right?). It also captures, even better than the puzzle metaphor, that it's really just not plausible to obtain all the relevant facts. Even if they exist in a source somewhere, there's just no way to examine every possible document.

I think the best lesson to take away from Carr's metaphor is that historians shouldn't restrict themselves to fishing in just one spot, with just one type of lure. We should be looking for the big fish, the little fish, and everything in between. Then again, I've done all the research for my dissertation (so far) at one library, so I'm not really one to make judgments.

I'd love to hear the jazz one...

At May 5, 2005 4:14:00 AM , Anonymous Sharon said...

Yes: a really outstanding metaphor has different layers of meaning. (I could add that the fish make me think of something slippery - even when you think you've hooked a beauty, it can escape... or turn out just to be an old car tyre - and always on the move, always changing...)

The jazz metaphor I have in mind is being used for a different kind of historians' problem. It appears in an article by Elsa Barkley Brown called 'Polyrhythms and improvization: lessons for women's history', History Workshop Jnl 31 (1991). (I don't think it's only relevant to women's history mind you.) Looking at it again, there's a second kind of metaphor in there too, history (and jazz) as conversations between (many) people. Anyway, she has in mind the problem of how we deal with both difference and connectedness in writing history: so history is like jazz, she argues, in that it consists of "multiple rhythms being played simulaneously... As historians we try to isolate one conversation and explore it but the trick is then how to put that conversation in a context which makes evident its dialogue with so many others - how to make this one lyric stand alone and at the same time be in conjunction with all the other lyrics being sung." (There is a contrast being made too with the much more fixed and structured classical music, under the direction of the conductor - much history, she argues, has been written more like that.) Men and women raise their "voices constantly and simultaneously in concert, in dialogue with each other. Sometimes the effect may seem chaotic because they respond to each other in such ways; some times it may seem harmonic. But always it is polyrhythmic; never is it a solo or single composition." It's also open-ended, "waiting for the next musician to pick it up and play it a different way." Maybe people who actually know something about jazz can pick all sorts of holes in it, but I like it.

At May 5, 2005 7:34:00 AM , Anonymous Caleb said...

I like the jazz metaphor, too, Sharon.

The one that came to my mind is a bit crude, but often feels apt: I don't remember who said it, but doing history often feels like drinking an ocean and then trying to pee in a cup. (I think I might have read this in the Evans book, come to think of it ...)

At May 5, 2005 7:44:00 AM , Blogger Danny said...

Yup, the ocean/piss metaphor's definitely in the Evans; it's from Flaubert, apparently.

I like the jazz one... I'll be sure to check out the article. Thanks for passing it on.

At May 6, 2005 9:27:00 AM , Anonymous Rob said...

This will be neither elegant nor eloquent, but in my own head I often picture history as something like a pointillist painting - no, scratch that - as something like a colorblindness test: a mosaic of dots of various shapes and sizes and colors. But one of immense size, complexity, and meaning. If you look in the painting for just the red dots, you'll see one picture. If you look for just the green dots, you'll see another. If you ignore color and distinguish the little dots from the big dots, you'll see yet another picture. And if you get right up close you'll see that the dots are made up of smaller dots with their own patterns and pictures. And if you stand way back, you'll see that there are much larger patterns that only resolve at that scale.

The historian is standing in front of this astonishing, complicated, magnificent painting, trying to describe it in words to a bunch of people who are in the next room watching TV.

The point is not that one can see anything in the picture, but that any one pattern we see and describe ("It's a picture of a sailboat!") may be at once correct from one point of view and wholly inadequate from another.

The fishing metaphor is a lot deeper.

At May 16, 2005 7:30:00 AM , Blogger paper dragon said...

I really would have no idea of how to justify history without using metaphors. I never thought of the consequences of them though.

At May 16, 2005 4:18:00 PM , Blogger Marc said...

regarding your note that said "I'm talking about history as a field of study rather than history as what happened in the past. I feel like I've said this before, but an easy way of distinguishing the two would save me the trouble of clarifying."

For myself, I've used History to mean the act of doing historical research, writing, etc. and use history to mean, well, history itself. History is the profession, the act of creating a record of the past, history is the "product", the "completed" (you get my meaning) record of the past. This simple "capitalization" cue has worked for me, anyway.

At Sep 9, 2007 4:06:00 AM , Anonymous Dr WHY? said...

You people are playing an important part in getting people to think broadly not miopically. A lot of trogs think that History is just about dead people,. I teach philosophy of History to High School students in Australia....most of them love it because its different to the other subjects....AND IT IS !

Have you noticed that most of your metaphors have a postmodernist flavour? Do you think Post Mod has "killed" History or enlived it?Has it taken out of the hands of traditionalists and given it to the masses?


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