U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Would It Mean To Be Against Narrative In History?

The kind people of The Junto Blog ran a series recently on the topic of narrative and its vicissitudes, for which an earlier piece by me here served as a prompt. I regret that it has taken me so long to produce a response. Here, I will try to address some of the concerns raised in Jonathan Wilson’s lovely essay “Not Only For Readers: Why Scholars Need Narrative” and to clarify my own position as a historian who is, in certain ways, against narrative.

Appearing toward the end of the roundtable, Wilson summarizes my argument as well as those of the early Americanists who weighed in on the topic.

My position: I feel anxious about the book-length historical narrative as a medium of historical argumentation, because I feel that narrative form itself tends to render invisible the author’s ideological commitments.

The Junto respondents’ position: they don’t feel anxious about the book-length narrative form.

In Wilson’s helpful presentation, the contest over narrative is a sort of Nietzschean conflict over the historian’s will-to-power.

This Nietzschean conflict quickly gives way to a Freudian deadlock. I am the neurotic obsessive, endlessly worrying about what terrible things might happen if I made peace with the power available to me in the world. The Junto writers occupy the position of the analyst, the healthy ego-aggressive adult, unworried about power’s potential for mischief and invested in the positive accomplishments that power enables.

The way out of this deadlock? It seems to me that the answer lies in the third member of Foucault’s trio Nietzsche-Freud-Marx. We face a classic Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach sort of situation. In what way does the refusal of narrative or its embrace help us to move from merely describing the world to changing it?

Digression: Here, I would simply like to re-emphasize a point from my original essay that has perhaps been lost. My concerns about narrative are really concerns about telos, the drive that is written into the very marrow of narrative. Telos often takes over and becomes a sort of surrogate institutional consciousness: a prosthetic device that helps us with our work in much the same way as the Scantron machine assists us in grading exams.

I would like to say a little bit more about why telos in historical narrative merits scrutiny:

1) Comparison. Many instances of takeover-by-telos involve the construction of a model in which events or examples are arranged in such a way that the historian can draw parallels or highlight contrasts. Comparison of different sorts of humans lies at the root of our profession and its narrative passions. This is not a happy history of history.

2) Misplaced Concreteness. The melding of the abstract and concrete works in many ways like the combination of the various elements that come together in an internal combustion engine. A great deal of narrative force is generated by these acts of intermixing unlike elements. That momentum, however, can easily power discursive movement unrelated to history. (To prove the point I would simply ask the reader to think of their least favorite example of misplaced concreteness: e.g. “The Clash of Civilizations”).

3) Problems of Scale. Telos is a persistent bad influence, encouraging wanton scale jumping: for example, in cases where a local narrative stalls out, the story can be grafted onto a national or transnational trend that sustains the feeling of forward motion.

Back to Business: Wilson writes: “narrative is precisely what historical scholars, as such, should produce––with deliberation, according to professional norms, and with as much analytical transparency as possible––in order to weaken the hold of unexamined ideology on their own work.” Wilson arrives at his key point: “We are concealing something important when we draw a dichotomy between narrative and argument.” I would like to spend the rest of this essay attending to this intriguing claim. He concludes:

Therefore, I think it is a mistake for academic or professional historians to accept narrative grudgingly, as a sort of concession to the power of imagination—or even enthusiastically, as an instrument of intellectual conquest—as if it were something extraneous to our proper analytic practice. Instead, we should embrace it for what it can be: our most distinctive and far-reaching contribution to the scholarly enterprise.

Wilson, then, argues for an affirmative and theoretically rigorous narrative art of history. Historians should not begrudgingly concede the inescapability of narrative, but happily identify with narrative as a noble form.

While this is a position with which I disagree, I should concede here a number of points. Normative narrativity strikes me as as a permanent constraint of language and communication. If one is to take up a critique of narrative in history, one’s focus will likely settle on moments of narrative rupture or failure, as against any fantasy of narrative’s supersession. Examined from another angle, one might situate resistance to narrative as interest in moments wherein narrative fails a given subject or set of subjects.

I would like to introduce a method of framing that Wilson does not himself call forth, but which I hope he would recognize as a viable translation of the non-narrative mode of historiography that he calls “forensic history.”

It seems to me that the conflict concerns the degree to which any historiographical work can be boiled down into propositional content of about a sentence or two’s length. This is the one half of the implicit positivism that underwrites my own claims (the other half would be the idea that historians should proceed by making and refining lawlike generalizations, also distillable to one or two sentences). Like “determinist” or “Menshevik,” no one wants to be called a “positivist.” But I don’t see any option other than embracing that title if I want to make the arguments I want to make about history, writing, and narrative. So, “positivist” it is and I am, I guess.

I dwell on this point because I think “forensic” is potentially misleading, in a number of ways. First, the affinity of the adjective “forensic”  with the discourse of law and justice suggests a historical practice in which the historian plays detective, judge, or police officer. (I would not want to play any of these roles).

Second, “forensic” practices in our time and place are themselves intensely narrative: “forensics” names a certain kind of narrativization that is coordinated with the state’s perceptual equipment and apparatus of punishment.

Third, “forensic” calls to mind works like, say, Robert Brenner’s histories of twentieth century political economy (I believe that Perry Anderson used the term “forensic” as a term of praise in his promotion of that work): in which detail upon detail accumulates at such a rate and density that only the most dogged reader can keep a mental picture of any sort together. I think this pressing against the limits of the reader’s retentional capacities is suboptimal.

So, okay, let’s say I’m a positivist/narrative skeptic and Wilson is a defender of narrative.

Where do we finds ourselves?

Wilson suggests that I face a problem of infinite regress: I imagine a history beyond narrative. But I can only identify such areas of study or sites of historical controversy by falling back on some last-instance primal narrative.

I would not dispute any of this. But “narratives all the way down” seems like a limited objection.

Psychoanalysis provides one way out of the hermeneutic circle. It acknowledges that I am born into a network of narratives (themselves powered by extraordinarily intense social desires), and the challenge of growing up is largely coextensive with mapping one’s own eccentric and contingent personhood against the rigidity or absurdity of such narratives, a process that for most of us terribly painful (so much so that we repress and willfully forget most of it). While some therapeutic disciplines (most famously, post-WWII American ego psychology) insist upon an identification with these originary narratives and adaptation into healthy adult variants thereof, many others encourage patients to understand the contradictory and dialectical nature of psychic development as a way of working through the past and towards a present less restricted and hemmed in by the force of narrative pressures, to “subjectify the cause” of one’s traumatic emergence as a subject within what Deleuzians might call the Oedipal matrix or the authoritarian insistence of the family romance as a way to chart other futures. There is an enormous body of writing by Queer Theorists and Black Radical thinkers that attests to the political urgency of such a dissident recuperation of psychoanalysis (and the sister science of Phenomenology).

If we think about historical narrative and narrativity with the dissident traditions of psychoanalysis and Phenomenology, we are better equipped to consider the problem of storytelling as a question of the logic of historical time. We can better appreciate the permanence of contradiction, paradox, and fantasy within the lived reality that historians seek to capture, and to identify the efficacy of both narrative and anti-narrative forces in the unfolding of history.

And this brings us back to the example that prompted my initial thoughts about the limits and dangers of the desire for narrative: Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton. I was concerned about Beckert’s apparent cancellation of so many paradoxes, contradictions, and simultaneous impossibilities inherent in the history he so deftly narrates. I wondered about the politics surrounding the adoption of a certain authorial voice pegged to a very specific narrative syntax.

Extended into a more general critique of the “history of capitalism,” this objection might be situated as a questioning of Beckert’s theorization of causation and causality. It seems to me that The Empire Of Cotton (and other key works in the “history of capitalism” literature) seek to position “capitalism” itself as the master cause of each and every aspect of historical development. This approach to the “history of capitalism”––captured well in the anthology title Capitalism Takes Command––is quite close to the Medieval doctrine of occasionalism (with “capitalism” assuming the position of “God”), or to what Graham Harman calls “vicarious causation” (with every local “cause” merely a “vicar” or representative of the sole causal force: “God” in theological texts and “capitalism” in historical ones).

In the final analysis, I was troubled by my inability to reduce Empire of Cotton to its propositional content, and bothered by my failure to locate the sort of lawlike generalizations that allow one work of economic history to be analyzed against others. Having discovered myself to be a positivist, I find myself in the peculiar position of defending a rather traditional point of view against what may be a more futuristic one. If that is the case: if anti-narrative is in fact simply the ideological correlate of historical positivism––then that gives us a lot to chew on, beyond the more or less restricted discussion we have had so far.

But if that is the case, we will have to contend with a popular argument within our profession: that presenting our research in the form of accessible narratives is the key to attracting lay readers, and that the more our research looks like “not-narrative,” the more we yield ground to David Barton and Bill O’Reilly.  (This seemed to be an interesting site of contestation at the recent S-USIH meeting). That is a subject for another essay, but I think it is true that we will only be able to fully process the vicissitudes of historical narrative in regard to the question of public history and public intellection if we have thought carefully about what historical narratives are. Without question, this is precisely the valuable work that the Junto writers have begun in their roundtable, and I wish to conclude with an expression of admiration for the seriousness and creativity of that conversation.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this Kurt. I’m not sure I caught your every point, but the summary at the top was exceptionally clear & interesting.

    I have a question and a comment. First, I’m wondering if you could provide more examples of what would be not-narrative, or anti-narrative, or whatever. I can imagine well enough what is narrative, and certainly your example of Empire of Cotton makes sense, but then I’m wondering how far one needs to get from narrative to be something other-than. There are lots of books I could think of that might fall somewhere in-between.
    But then again I’m not entirely clear what, in your mind, successfully qualifies as non-narrative.

    Second, I wanted to comment on the issue of whether anti-narrative or non-narrative has, as you put it, ceded ground to Barton, O’Reilly and the like. I hear this a lot. While I am someone who believes very strongly in the responsibility of historians to think and also *act* publicly, I don’t do so out of an overconfident assumption of our power and influence — and it seems to me that to suggest that somehow the public’s lack of good historical knowledge or (to get what’s usually at the heart of this), politics that represent a half-decent understanding of reality is due to our failure to write narrative is a grandiose statement that greatly overestimates both the public’s malleability in our hands and our capacity to mold their perspectives via a good story. On the other hand, it also vastly underestimates the role of politics in the creation of this awful public history; i.e., the narratives of O’Reilly and Barton are not the result of the absence of good narratives written by historians, but the result of a public with a politics that wants those stories — indeed, they could even be viewed as a *reaction* against professional historian’s alternative narratives, as for example, when they complain about “liberal professors who say that America is bad and all white people are horrible.” It is not like, after all, there were not plenty of progressive bios of Lincoln and JFK available to the public; they didn’t choose O’Reilly because he filled a lacuna, they chose him because they watch Fox News and wanted a reassuring narrative from the same political perspective.

    Finally — I realized I have two comments!, actually — I think that something both the anti-narrative and pro-narrative sides in this debate might want to consider is how narratives can actually be pretty weak in the face of deeper, more engrained opposing narratives. This is why, while I am one of those “you-can-have-argument-AND-narrative” people, I strongly feel you have to make sure that the argument is inescapable and always in the driver’s seat. For example: someone who I know (everyone who knows me knows who this person is; they show up all the time in my political discussions….) recently read the Comanche Empire and *loved* it. Why? Because it was not “politically correct” and showed “how Indians could be just as brutal as anyone else and killed more Native Americans than whites ever did.” So in other words, they took what historians would take as an exemplar of historical work that transcends stereotypes and explores the agency of a people sometimes regarded merely as victims and instead read it as a balm for their white guilt. (Check out the reviews at Amazon, btw; this is not an unusual response.) I could provide more additional examples of the same phenomenon.

    This is another reason, I think, why argument, and ideological honesty, is so important — it’s actually sometimes required to prevent your work from fitting into someone *else’s* narrative, the one you thought you would undermine by making snotty-sounding and difficult theoretical material fade into the background to allow narrative to supposedly do its seductive work. It doesn’t always work out that way; sometimes it can even backfire in exactly the opposite direction you intended it to.

    Anyway, wow that was long! Sorry about that :). Anyway, to sum up, history is super important, but historians need to realize what we are up against and make strategic decisions on that basis; and, moreover, our responsibilities, I think, should be increasingly conceptualized as extending beyond merely what we write, and towards also how we act as political agents in the spaces and institutions around us. But that is another rant, so I’ll leave it there. 🙂

  2. I found this particular post highly intriguing, but found the didactic nature of the question rather unwholesome. Rather than a break between narrative (O’Reilly being your characterization) and anti-narrative (I’m also not quite clear on this). The best comparison I can think of for understanding the separation between these approaches from your post is the philosophical divide between continental and analytic philosophy (a whole chaotic mess). My question then is this the angle you are approaching, that these forms are substantively or qualitatively different (which is as it appears to me you are suggesting), or that these forms are simply different stylistically? If these are stylistic (regarding footnoting and its appropriate usage) concerns, could not the insights of other disciplines be a useful consideration when structuring historical writing while emphasizing research methodology in asserting those claims? Furthermore, would retaining a form that has been suggested to be stylistically ineffective in reaching outside the discipline be a disservice to our own survival?

  3. First, a note from William H. Sewell, Jr. that I wish I had put in a footnote in the section above on “occasionalism: one “would need to be a god to write a truly adequate history of capitalism”

    Second: Ethan Chitty–thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. I will try to address the questions you raise.

    1) I am not sure I agree that I know what you mean by “didactic,” though I would love to know more.

    2) I feel like I should restate the conflict between me and the Junto folks. None of us attempted to stack up narrative vs. non-narrative histories and fight it out. The conflict concerns, specifically, the question of the book-length argumentive narrative (I prefer any of the infinite variations on the positivist model of an argument offered as clear propositional content and the use of narrative as illustrative or complexifying discussion vis-a-vis that propositional content; the Junto folks are more comfortable with narrative as a self-sufficient historical form)

  4. Kurt, thanks for the clarification. I made a mistake and meant diodesque not didactic (meaning polarized). Coincidentally, I recently reread Stephen King’s The Waste Lands and Wizard in Glass (both in his wonderful Dark Tower Series) where he has that linguistic peculiarity when describing computers and power sources. *Geek fail*

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