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.