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.
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