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Essay 2. Writing and History

Essay 2. Writing and History

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Published by Ross Macleay
The second of series of essays on the philosophy of history. For history to happen something like writing, which combines durability and replicability, narrative and specific denotation, had to be invented. Of course it’s not just writing as such that is needed, but recorded language, whether it’s in the visual text we call print or the audio ‘text’ of a voice recording. Speech alone is not a record, or at least it’s only a fleeting record written on air. I expect the evolution of media will continue to change the media of history.
The second of series of essays on the philosophy of history. For history to happen something like writing, which combines durability and replicability, narrative and specific denotation, had to be invented. Of course it’s not just writing as such that is needed, but recorded language, whether it’s in the visual text we call print or the audio ‘text’ of a voice recording. Speech alone is not a record, or at least it’s only a fleeting record written on air. I expect the evolution of media will continue to change the media of history.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Ross Macleay on Sep 29, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Writing and History
 Annotated paragraphs on the first medium of history
1. History Has To Defy History
History has to defy history. Spoken reports — unless recorded — are not enough. The eventsof history have to be recorded in a durable and explicit medium, and a narrative medium at that. Anon-narrative medium can provide evidence of events but only a narrative medium is explicit enoughfor the purposes of history. And just as important as durability, and partner to it as far as history isconcerned, is the capacity for accurate replication of records. Whatever is being copied has to last longenough to be accurately copied; and copying is a way of making information last and spread. All thissounds quite Darwinian: before writing, reports of events could not be replicated with the fidelityrequired to ensure that their truth, or at least their consistency with the original, was preserved. Oralreports, told and retold, fail to preserve such fidelity unless they are memorable, and the memorabilityof the details of an oral report is much less likely to be a trait of an accurate report of actual eventsthan it is of a good story. In an oral culture the virtue of being a so-called good story, the mnemonicdevices of prosody, the discipline of rhetoric, and probably other features confer memorability on anarrative. In an oral culture what we might as well dub cultural selection favours the memorablenarrative. Myth prevails, and myth’s good stories are typically limited to plots and events of peculiarsocial interest: kinship, power, stages of life, morality, birth, death, loving, killing, place, food, water,nature, marvels, metaphysics — my culture’s words for pan-cultural interests of long standing. Inwritten and printed culture an accurate or at least original report can be accurately copied giving suchcopies a selection advantage where inquiry demands truth, or, at least, consistency with the original.This is historical inquiry.For history to happen something like writing, which combines durability and replicability,narrative and specific denotation, had to be invented. Of course it’s not just writing as such (
 Derrida) that is needed, but recorded language, whether it’s in the visual text we call print or the audio‘text’ of a voice recording. Speech alone is not a record, or at least it’s only a fleeting record writtenon air. I expect the evolution of media will continue to change the media of history. Nearly all theadvantages of writing — not only its duration but also its capacity to be searched and indexed, whichit has by virtue of its spatial rather than temporal lay-out, will be taken up by the once evanescent,time-traumatised ‘writings’ of audio and video. Maybe new media will drive history into obsolescenceand leave us with something more dazzling and post-historical. The past isn’t much to go on, but ittook quite a while after the invention of writing for history to appear. It took a long time to work outall that writing was good for. Socrates was still floundering with this in
— he was moreconcerned that it was bad for the memory than good for anything else — and we are still working itout. Anyway, for two thousand years now writing has filled the bill for history. And now film andaudio and video recording do too, each in its digital incarnations, each in its own several ways.
(Note: A few questions:First: If there were no writing could there be voice recording and/or film? Perhaps writing and thescience it makes possible are important or even necessary preconditions for the invention of voice recording orfilm. These questions are about the way particular things are caused and unfold historically. They demonstratethe contingency of historical processes. An historical process consists of a particular sequence of particularevents; if just one of those events or the order of events is different, the same kind of result may be impossible.Secondly: If there were no writing and only silent film, could there be history? Film is a durable,reliably copied narrative medium. It can be used to record and communicate what a viewer can see as events, butdoes language, in a durable form such as audio recording or writing, remain a precondition for film used ashistory? Film can show events but language is probably also needed to specify which events are being shown.For with language we can index the events to a time and place whereas without it we may not be able to identifythe events.Furthermore: Is it only because we are linguistic animals that we see events actually
events? Or is itonly because we use the (admittedly slapdash) logical notation of natural language that we, as logicians mightsay,
over events? Is it only because we are linguistic that we can place a film in the context of a systemof linguistic truth claims upon which the logical articulation and disambiguation and thus the truth of the filmdepend?
These questions are about what an event is and how we individuate and identify events. They seem todemand an analysis of the grammar of events, an analysis that considers questions about truth and logic not onlyin language but also in film. Perhaps an historical inquiry would be useful too, because perhaps we need anatural history of the grammar of events for us linguistic, filmic animals. See
Kicking Stones, Acts, Processesand Other Events
 History, The Movie
 2. Explaining History Historically
Notice that we have wandered in to a very summary history of history. It is not unusual for atheory of history to default into a history of history. Trustworthy or not, history is now second natureas a mode of inquiry and as a way of accounting for things. Narrative of some sort probably alwayswas and now history is the type of scientific narrative.
(Note: The habit of explaining something by giving its history can become a bit slipshod, historiesbeing narratives, and narratives being what they are (There is too much to say here about what they are so see
Truth and Historical Narrative
). Someone explains the contemporary wearing of the hijab by telling a storyabout the reaction against Nasser’s secularism after The Six Day War, adds a paragraph on the adoption of thehijab as a revolutionary gesture in Iran, and goes back to a story from the life of Mohammed to explain theorigin, intent and subsequent interpretations of verses on the hijab in the
. History may proffer suchstories as explanations but they explain only so far as the temporal situation of an event and how it unfolded afterother events may be said to explain it. They are descriptions of how something happened rather than of whysomething happened. One thing implicit in such explanation is the contingency of what is being explained. If event E had not happened then F would not
or at least might 
not have happened; E
have caused F; things
have been otherwise. Contingency is one thing; explicit causal explanation is a stronger kind of explanation than narratives need resort to.)
Small wonder then that history gets used to explain, among other things, itself. This reflexivedisposition is well typified by Hegel. Not only notorious for turning thought, inquiry and experienceback on themselves — to great and lasting philosophical effect — Hegel is a great-grandfather of ourpresent inclination for understanding all things according to their historical character.
 (Note: In
The Philosophy of History
Hegel described, dated and reflected on what he called ‘reflectivehistory’ and, by the motion of thought reflecting-on-reflective-history-itself-and-thereby-superseding it, movedon from ‘reflective history’ to ‘philosophical history’. Hegel was nothing if not reflexive — excessively,convolutedly, relentlessly, ridiculously, inadequately, brilliantly, trivially — depending on your take. PersonallyI think Hegel was on to something. Whether it occurs as self-objectification, reflection, self-consciousness, auto-poiesis, self-perpetuation, algorithmic recursion, or just feedback, he squeezed it for every drop of philosophicalpathos he could.
The Philosophy of History
is, to put it in the reflexive, convoluted way Hegelian thought can tieyou up in, a philosophical history of history-as-philosophical and philosophy-as-historical.
The Philosophy of History
, he gave an explanation of why the word ‘history’ (his word was
) should unite two meanings: the story of what has happened; and the events themselves. InEnglish it unites five or six or seven meanings: the
of what has happened as well as
the inquiry
 that reconstructs the story and the
intellectual discipline
the function of which is that inquiry; and
themselves as well as
the times
in which they happened, and sometimes even
the passing
of time; and sometimes even that which stands opposed to nature, i.e.
. This essay’s opening lineabout history having to defy history uses ‘history’ in its first instance to mean the story of events andin its second to mean time’s passing. With six meanings (at present count) it is quite common to find‘history’ used with more than one meaning in the same sentence. The danger of such meaningfulnessis ambiguity; use can become abuse. Given as it is to conceptual analysis, philosophy could hardlyavoid discerning and trying to account for the different meanings of the word.As Hegel would and did characteristically put it, the combination of two meanings in
is more than ‘mere outward accident’.
We must suppose historical narrations to have appeared contemporaneously with historical deeds andevents. It is an internal vital principle common to both that produces them synchronously.
(Note: Notice that this translation of Hegel says ‘we must suppose’. If he is actually telling a historyhere, it is a history whose events are
, or, to put it charitably, inferred from evidence. It is speculativehistory. As we see in philosophers like Bacon and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the modernizing andprogressive impulse in thought has typically used a simple historical narrative to distinguish itself from the past.More emphatically, and especially since Hegel, many have philosophized by historicizing. The modern road tophilosophical reflection often approaches through a history of ideas or a history of philosophy, typically of aspeculative kind. Consider just Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses On The Concept Of History’, Hannah Arendt’s
The Human Condition
or Alasdair MacIntyre’s
 After Virtue
. Note also that just when Hegel conceives of history ashistorical he also proposes two events whose historical relation is curiously detemporalised by ‘an internal vitalprinciple common to both that produces them synchronously’. For all his insight Hegel was not able to get toofar ahead of his time and conceive of the historical development of history with the same eye for the detail andorder of historical evolution or co-evolution as say Darwin or Nietzsche.)
We must assume, wrote Hegel, that the narration of history appears, historically, at the same time asthe emergence of the State. The State is the condition and also the result of making a permanent recordof its acts and events.
(Note: the Hegelian feedback loop here and in what follows, and how Hegel manages to tease out whathe would have called the ‘moments’ of the process of the historical development of writing, the state and history.He uses this concept of ‘moments’ to put some history (i.e. in this case passing of time) back into history (i.e. inthis case the events themselves, namely those of the co-evolution of historical narration, the state and history,which in this case are the events that may be understood as properly historical.)
 ‘It is the State which first presents subject matter that is not only
to the prose of history, butinvolves the production of such history in the very progress of its own being.’ For its own purpose of lasting, the state must make lasting records.
Instead of merely subjective mandates on the part of government — sufficing for the needs of themoment — a community that is acquiring a stable existence, and exalting itself into a State, requiresformal commands and laws — comprehensive and universally binding prescriptions; and thus producesa record as well as an interest concerned with intelligent, definite — and, in their results — lastingtransactions and occurrences.
 3. Words Are Deeds
Notice that the events Hegel referred to are linguistic acts in which we
by sayingor writing
something. Commands, laws and prescriptions belong to a special class of linguistic actsthat typically describe and enact themselves all at once, in the same words and in the same statement.The class includes proclamations (of laws), declarations (of war, treaties, rights, obligations, andprivileges), promises, vows, apologies, agreements and denials. All are social acts, fundamental to thebinding of one to another and a state and its citizens. Well known to twentieth philosophers of language, J. L. Austin called such acts
linguistic acts.
(Note: A digression on
Secondary Sources
. Austin’s word for statements, or more strictlyutterances, that just describe something was
. In contrast, those that describe and enact themselves atthe same time he called
. (Way back in the mid 50s Austin, who was a stickler for and investigatorof ordinary language, apologised for using what he called ‘a new word and an ugly word’. Novelty and uglinesshave since turned out to make it quite popular in the jargon of the theories of art and culture, although
appears to have lost the distinct meaning Austin coined it for. Since Jean-Paul Lyotard used it in
The Postmodern Condition,
it has grown older and more boring. Many now seem to use it as a would-beimpressive adjective suggesting of the noun it qualifies merely that it has something to do with performancewhether that is performance in art or of one’s social or economic functions.) When someone says ‘I promise toserve the people’ they are not simply talking
the action of promising, they are actually
theaction of promising. To resort to some more of Austin’s awkward terminology: a performative utterance is not just a
act, which is an act
saying something about such and such, it is an
act, whichis an act performed
saying something. Linguistic acts are not only about things in the world, they themselvesare things. They don’t only
historical deeds, they
historical deeds. And when they are written andperform themselves by describing and recording themselves, they make up a kind that is of the utmost historical

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