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Distance and Historical Representation

Distance and Historical Representation

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Published by: dawdsoncangussu on Aug 27, 2009
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Distance and Historical Representation
by Mark Salber Phillips
The questions I want to raise here first presented themselves to me in apointed way during an undergraduate class on historiography. I hadrecently published a social and intellectual biography of a little-known midfifteenth-century Florentine merchant and memorialist named MarcoParenti, whose anonymous history of a failed revolt against the Medici Ihad discovered in the Florentine archives.
The collapse of the anti-Medicean faction must have made it expedient to hide the narrative, andover time both the unfinished history and the would-be historian had fadedinto nearly total obscurity – a condition that seemed to make Parenti anideal subject for microhistory, that favourite form of late twentieth-centuryhistorical writing. My students had perhaps not taken away from the bookas much as I would have wanted about the forms and traditions of Renais-sance historical writing. Still, they appeared to have enjoyed the moreconcrete elements of this narrative of ideas, especially the mix of politicalintrigue, intimate social detail, and strong personality preserved in thefamily correspondence that was my chief biographical resource. But along-side these narrative pleasures, there was also some nervousness about howmuch to trust this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern vision of a period theywere accustomed to thinking of in grander terms. One student in particu-lar stays in my memory because he was prepared to put his doubts quitebluntly, as well as to extend them to other, more notable representatives of the genre – the lousy Cathar peasants, massacred cats, deluded millers, andreturned ‘husbands’ he had encountered in more than one of his under-graduate history courses. My protestations that these microhistorians hadfound a new way to represent ordinary lives and everyday experience weresimply waved away: ‘Aren’t you really saying that your generation came toolate to get the really important stuff – the lives of people like Cosimo de’Medici or Lorenzo the Magnificent – so really there was not much left overfor you to write about except this bunch of odd balls and small potatoes?’Since my first defence had met only limited success, I improvised a newdirection that in retrospect has come to seem more fruitful because morehistorical. I asked them to consider a choice between two quite differentaccounts of the battle of Stalingrad. The first book presents this crucialbattle in a form that is traditional to military histories: that is, it provides atactical narrative of the conflict and analyzes the success of the Sovietcommand in outmanoeuvring the German army, so that the invaders foundthemselves encircled and cut off from all supplies, surrender finally beingtheir only option. Alternately they might want to read a rather differentsort of narrative, one that, deliberately ignoring the larger strategic
History Workshop Journal Issue 57© History Workshop Journal 2004
considerations, uses the letters written by the trapped German soldiers torecreate the increasingly desperate condition of these ordinary men as theyfound themselves facing starvation and grim defeat in the depths of aRussian winter. This time there was no doubt where their sympathies lay:most of us, they readily agreed, were simply more interested in the plightof the common soldier than in the tactics of the general staff. There wassome recognition, however, that readers who had been closer to the actu-alities of these decisive events – especially those who retained a sense thatthe war could have gone another way – might have been less interested inthe common humanity of enemy soldiers and more intent on understand-ing just how this extraordinary reversal of military fortunes had come to be.This was not, of course, the first time that I had recognized that historicalsensibilities change over time, or applied what I knew of historical writingin other ages to the outlook of my own generation. But it was, I think, thefirst time that I consciously applied the idea of ‘distance’ to this problemand that I did so in the enlarged sense that now informs my work. For boththe historian and the reader, I have come to realize, distance, is not only agiven, but also a construction – and one with many dimensions. There is nodoubt, for example, that the chronological interval that separates thepresent-day historian from the momentous events of 1942–3 has a powerfulrole in determining his or her potential understandings of the battle. Astime goes on, therefore, we can certainly expect to find new vantage pointson this history and the result may in some sense be a clearer or a betterpicture. But as the choice of readings I offered the class seemed to illus-trate, chronological distance is just the beginning, since the effectivedistance can be diminished or augmented in ways that can fundamentallychange our sense of what that history represents. Consequently, what wesometimes call the ‘perspective of history’ is surely a much more variableand complex construction than we sometimes like to pretend, and one thatwould be worth thinking about in a more serous, more systematic, and(above all) more historical fashion.***Some degree of temporal distance is always present in historical writing,and in practice an enormous amount of patient effort goes into coping withthe problems of research that ensue. In the abstract, however, this intervalhas not seemed especially problematic since it is evidently a necessarycondition of historical research and in many respects a very productive one.Historians accept that increased temporal distance can mean the loss of valuable information, but we also point to the fact that posterity is oftenable to have access to documents not generally available to contemporaries.More fundamentally, we share a wide commitment to the idea that thelosses that come with the passage of time must be balanced against compen-satory gains in clarity and perspective. In any case, isn’t this intervalbetween the historical moment and its eventual representation one of the
History Workshop Journal 
crucial things that sets history as a discipline apart from more presentiststudies like journalism or sociology?If temporal distance is a defining condition of all forms of historicalrepresentation, an analysis of the ways in which histories of different typeshave confronted the problem of distance in all its modifications would seemto be an important focus for historiographical study. The very ubiquity of distance, however, has tended to render it invisible, and over time certaincanonized ideas about the proper forms of distance have become so mucha feature of our historiographical tradition that we are hardly aware of theirinfluence. In this respect, what is sometimes called historical perspectivebears a strong resemblance to its visual counterpart, where a particularform of spatial construction has come to seem a natural way of seeing theworld, rather than the outcome of specific traditions of representation. Forhistorians, in fact, it has become difficult to distinguish between the conceptof historical distance and the idea of history itself.If we want to defamiliarize our common-sense idea of historical distance,it will be useful to begin with the recognition that historical accounts notonly function at a received distance from events; they also reconstruct andreshape that distance in a variety of ways that bear upon every aspect of our view of the past. Every history, after all, has to establish relationshipsof engagement and detachment, insight and overview, which connect it withthe past it describes, and every subsequent reading of a history (or, tochange the scene, every visit to a historical monument or a museum) effec-tively requires a return to these same issues. Nor is distance in this enlargedsense confined to the poetics or rhetoric of historical representation. Style,structure, and affect are, of course, involved, but so are the moral, political,and methodological commitments of the work. In the last analysis, what wethink we can know about past societies and what we think it important toexplain are just as much at stake as the means by which the story is told orits power over the reader’s emotions and allegiances.Historians have no need for abstract theorizing to be reminded that style,rhetoric, politics, and method all have a part to play in shaping the impactof historical narratives. Typically, however, we have addressed each of thedifferent dimensions of historical writing in its own terms, without thinkingtoo strenuously about what they have in common, or, indeed, what benefitthere might be in being able to keep them all clearly in view. Each elementof historical representation has tended to acquire its own vocabulary,leaving us without an obvious way of aligning the different dimensions of historiography. Like traditional systems of measurement, which countedevery commodity by its own standard (grain by bushels, oil by barrels, wineby hogsheads, herring by cran) our working vocabulary for historical criti-cism has supplied us with a useful lexicon for every part of the mixed cargoof historical navigation, but no common measure by which to weigh the fullcontents of the hold.In reference to expository style, for example, a history might be
Distance and Historical Representation

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