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Thursday, 19 July 2012

Gaps, Ghosts and Dice, Version 2.0

[Here is the text of a key-note paper I gave yesterday to this conference, under the title of 'Each thought is a throw of the dice: Transition and Irony, Chance and Change'.  it was a nice one-day follow-up conference (to a larger two day affair in May).  It is in part a rework of my earlier 'Gaps, Ghosts and Dice' post which I think makes it those points a lot more clearly.  Then it develops the points to explore some implications (including ethical and political ones) for the study of transition and change in history (or indeed in related disciplines).  The clarifications and digressions of the initial version still apply!]


Seventeen years ago I published an article entitled ‘The Merovingian Period in North-East Gaul: Transition or Change?’  In this piece I principally argued two things: first, at a general level, the concept of transition is essentially teleological.  The whole concept of transition depends on one having determined, after the event, the start and end points of the transition.  ‘From X to Y’: think of how many books and articles have titles of that formula or the related one: ‘the origins of X’.  It relies on one determining from what, and to what, things are in transition.  This tends to remove people from their history; mostly people don’t experience their lives as transitions, largely because they don’t know where their lives are going.  I borrowed a rather nice quote from Ferdinand Lot to open the article - ‘…we who, in regard to our ancestors, are gods because we know their future’ – and, characteristically perversely, the example of Fountains Abbey.  The transept tower at Fountains was completed in 1526, and is an impressive monument at an impressive site – but a ruined site.  Within ten years of the tower’s completion Henry VIII had begun the process of dissolution which in 1539 would see the Fountains monks expelled from their site.  If historians regard the sixteenth century as a period of transition, it can hardly be thought that the Cistercians of the Yorkshire Dales saw things the same way.  As I wrote in 1995:

The only transition that, in c.1520, the Yorkshire monks and canons thought they were living through was one to a period of prosperity and better management, as manifested by their works of restoration and improvement, certainly not one of ‘reformation’, let alone one from ‘medieval’ to ‘early modern’; in that respect they had more important things to think about.
The second, more specific, point developed the first.  The article originated as a contribution to a conference on ancient to medieval transitions.  I argued that to view late antiquity, or Merovingian Gaul, as a period of, or place in, transition muddied the waters by obscuring all the dynamic change that took place within the centuries grouped together under the heading of ‘late antiquity’ or ‘the Merovingian period’.  In all such approaches we prioritise processes that wesee, from our perspective, as having led somewhere, at the expense of all those which we know, but crucially people at the time didn’t, weren’t to lead anywhere.  I didn’t make as much of that last point as I would have done had I written the piece ten years later.

In 1995, I was concerned with the dynamism of change.  Partly this was political – partly local, academic political, in that I wanted to make clear that the Middle Ages wasn’t one big millennium-long lump that a single member of staff could be expected to cover all of; partly political in the wider sense, in that I wanted to argue for the human scale, the lived experience, of historical change and thus that all people have a role to play as historical agents (this, remember, was written in the depressing aftermath of the 1992 general election).  High level political change was intimately related to myriad decisions made at local levels – even in the fifth-to-eighth centuries.  All this, it won’t be surprising to learn, was born of an encounter, via post-processual archaeology, with Anthony Giddens’ concept of structuration and Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the ‘habitus’, both of which in their own ways concern the recursive relationship between ‘structure’ and agency.  The structure within which people act is itself formed by a sort of memory bank of all previous actions and their acceptance or otherwise, a memory bank constantly remade or altered (in however infinitesimal way) by practice, by the innumerable, on-going actions of myriad social agents.   This approach has informed almost everything I have written since then.

That said, the extent to which it can be harmonised with the approach that I am going to suggest today is a problem to which I don’t yet have an answer.  What has increasingly interested me over the last decade is the irony of history.  That is to say that what happens in history may not be the result of one social actor failing or succeeding, or compromising to some extent, vis-à-vis his or her aims, in his or her relationships with another, which is the way that I – and I suspect most historians – have tended to view the issue.  Rather it might be something intended by nobody.  This is something I discussed in the central section of Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, where I tried to construct a historical narrative in the ironic mode, attempting to depict events unfolding without colouring my account or analysis according to what I know (but my subjects didn’t) was going to happen next.  This was to some degree an exercise in writing without the usual portentous phraseology of historians: ‘and so it was that, for the last time, the Roman army campaigned north of the Loire’; ‘this decision was to have fatal consequences’; that sort of thing.  It’s a lot more difficult than you might think…  Going back to the terms of my 1995 article, what sorts of ‘transitions’ did contemporaries think they were living through, or trying to bring about, which actually went nowhere, or went in a completely different direction from the one intended?    The usual methods of history have a tendency to ignore all this by assuming that the path of history is cut by agents who know where they are going and are capable of bringing about the changes they want.  History is thus deliberate.  While I don’t want to remove the knowledgeable social actors or the ability to effect change from the equation, I am increasingly convinced that the course of history is fundamentally unintended, chaotic and accidental.

Folding the Ribbon of Time

To explore all this further I am going to talk about historical narrative and to explore it using some concepts from the two Jacques: Lacan and Derrida, principally the latter.  Where these thinkers and their like have been used in the past, it has generally been in the issue of analysing written (or other) sources or in the problems of extrapolating from such data to historical ‘reality’, a rather pointless debate in my view.  I’m sidestepping that to some extent to look at history, or rather at narrative, itself.  I’m also going to use Derrida to do something creative rather than in the way that he has been used by past theorisers of history, where he serves simply to bolster a posturing, half-thought-through epistemological nihilism – which does him scant justice.  Before I go any further I should make clear that I am no expert on the philosophy that I am using as a springboard for these thoughts; I’m not setting myself up as, any sort of philosopher.  I’m an absolute novice in all this. 

I am currently working on a project provisionally entitled ‘The Transformations of the Year 600’ – an exploration of the wide-ranging and diverse changes that occurred between c.560 and c.650.  As this period has long been regarded as one that saw the ‘transition to the Middle Ages’, the issues of change and transition are of some importance, as they have been throughout my work – perhaps even more so.  In tandem with this, though, I am also interested in the politics and ethics that inhere within the historical project.

All that having been said, none of this represents any kind of fully worked out thesis.  These are ideas, if you will, in transition and – like, as I will argue, everyone involved in what might someday be seen as a transition – I have no idea at all how they’ll turn out, if they turn out as anything at all.  Let me just try out some ideas with you and see where they go.

Let’s start with some pretty basic and uncontroversial modelling.  Maitland said “[s]uch is the unity of all history that anyone who endeavours to tell a piece of it must feel that his first sentence tears a seamless web”I think that it is time, as it is lived and experienced, that is the seamless web (or, for the sake of diagrammatic convenience, we might see it as an endless undifferentiated line).  History, I will try to demonstrate, is itself the seams in the web.   Let’s envisage past time as an endless ribbon; a ribbon extending up to the present moment (itself ever moving) (as left).  Now, while we might be able to imagine that past, it is, I contend, impossible to make sense of it without selecting particular elements from all those events that have already happened and placing them in a sequence, rightly or wrongly.  
Prior to such activity the past is shapeless, amorphous, unsymbolised, rather than our neat ribbon (right).  It can be imagined but not really made sense of.  History is surely the inescapable and absolutely essential process of making seams in that web or, in our diagrammatic metaphor, that ribbon.  That process inevitably involves a process of winnowing; you can’t remember everything that has happened (unless you’re Funes the Memorious in the Borges story), and you can’t record everything in a history.  We’ll return to the implications of that.  

For now, let us place our chosen sequence of events along our ‘time-ribbon’ (left).  The space between our chosen events is the amount of time that elapsed between them.  However, when we compose, relate and perhaps write a narrative, those time-lapses are erased.  It is as though we bring all those events together, bunching up our ‘time-ribbon’ between them (right).  We often talk of a narrative thread and I would develop that metaphor to mean that thread that we use it to ‘stitch together’ or sew up the events in our story.  

If we give a more 3-D representation of the effect, it would look like this (left).  All the ‘loops’ in the ribbon are, as we have seen ‘eradicated’ and thus concealed from the reader, listener or other consumer of the narrative.  Thus to envisage what our narrative really looks like, concealing the ‘loops’ of unrepresented time, we have to view the ribbon from this side, [the blue arrow in the diagram) so in fact it looks like this (above right).  Each of these folds stitched together by our narrative thread is an event, between our start and end points, and here the only thing that determines the width of the fold from this perspective is the amount of time we devote to describing the event, and thus its relative importance, as we see it.  The relative time between each event has no depiction in the account.

If you want an idea of how things might look otherwise, it might look this two-page spread from Stéphane Mallarmé’s most famous poem, ‘Un Coup de Dés’ (above).  Mallarmé set out the poem with varying spacing over each two-page spread and in different fonts, to try to represent the themes he was exploring.  Different fonts linked particular ideas which made sense on their own, even though the poem read left to right (over each spread) and down the page, as usual.  This, for example, is actually part of the title (Un Coup de Dés n’Abolira le Hasard).  I often wonder about writing history like this, with spaces of different lengths indicating the amount time elapsed between events, and different fonts and font-sizes representing the different threads within the story.  It'd be a huge task and a real work of art, and would sell about three copies even if someone took it on.  But it'd be interesting.

To return to our ribbon metaphor, though, you could break the thread at any point and look at the cloth opened up – say look at the space or the transition between the second and third ‘events’ in our sequence (left) – but to understand it you would still need to make it into a sequence of smaller folds (right); open up one of them and look at a smaller piece of time but have to stitch that into smaller folds still, and so on.  Or you can unpick all of the seams and behold the whole ribbon opened up – and return us to our blurry, undifferentiated ‘ribbon’ but, inevitably, you will only be able to make sense of it by stitching it together again, even if in a new way, with different bits of cloth (time) concealed in the folds.  You can argue that the latter is what happened when historians stopped thinking that their subject was simply the chronicling of high politics, kings and wars, and started thinking about social history, or women’s history.  For today’s purposes, you could say another example came when historians cut the thread at the great fold that lay at 476 and the End of the Roman Empire and made a new fold, called Late Antiquity. 

Everyone who has ever lectured to first-year history students about the perils of periodization knows that historical periods are, fundamentally, simply units of convenience that mask certain continuities by fastening upon other pre-determined aspects of change.  But the problem reaches down much further than that into the very way in which we write the narratives (I like to call this stage ‘chronicling’ rather than ‘history’) that we then analyse and explain, which, in my view, is ‘history’ properly defined.

Obviously, though, all that folding or seaming, stitching or threading happens after the event.  Deciding what constitutes an event in the first place, what marks the edges of a fold, how we write about them in purely descriptive terms, and so on, is all ex post facto.  It’s a truism that very rarely (outside the obvious limit cases) do people see the events through which they’re living in the same way as later historians will.  Between 1914 and 1918, for example, we could say that people were experiencing the horrors not of a ‘war to end wars’, as they (or some of them) thought, but of a curtain raiser for an even more horrible war.  I have written that before about 470 at least, it is very unlikely that anyone alive in the fifth century thought they were living through ‘the Fall of the Roman Empire’.  Now I’d argue that that may even have been true for people alive for two or three generations after 470, too.

None of my comments thus far is – I readily admit – startling, new or profound.  At its most basic, essential but initial level, history is the process of symbolising the past.  It’d be uncontroversial to say that we can’t even imagine the past in any meaningful way without this sort of process happening first.  We can imagine all that protean mass of ‘stuff what happened’ but we can’t access any of it without selecting from it, placing those selections in sequence, evaluating them and having some idea of their meaning; in other words without placing it within the symbolic order.  Only then can we really begin to think about the past.  Thus, ironically, it is true to say that memory – or history – happens before the past. 

Historical Narrative is structured like a Language

Here, I hope, things might begin to get more interesting.  I’m going to steal Lacan’s famous comment that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ and twist it to make a different point: Historical narrative is structured like a language. 

What I mean by that is that events gain their meaning within sequences from their juxtaposition with other events, before and after, like words.   It is these juxtapositions that allow us to emplot historical narrative as tragedy or as heroic epic, or in an ironic mode, or however.  It’s not just that we have to use words to describe events, which make sense only through signifying chains of difference; events themselves – types of events or specific events – have different meanings according to the way they are emplotted within a narrative. 

This is old news as anyone who has read Hayden White knows.  But let’s return to our stitched ribbon of narrative and explore what is implicit in that potential difference in meaning.  Behind the ribbon, invisible from our perspective, are all those loops of ribbon: time that has escaped symbolisation (as right).

It’s these loops which I want to think about.  The spaces or gaps in the narrative that they represent are where history happens.  They are the spaces – as I will return to discuss – where nothing is decided and where time has not yet been symbolised in any way – where time or the past has not yet become history.  In that sense I like to think of them as the spaces of The Real in a way that is influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis via Slavoj Žižek.  For those who haven’t risked an encounter with Lacanian theory, The Real is, with The Imaginary and The Symbolic, one of Lacan’s three orders (right).  Essentially the Real – the trickiest of the three orders to grasp, not least because Lacan himself changed what he meant by it  – is the stuff that’s out there; it’s not ‘reality’, as such, as distinct from imagination, so much as what escapes the process of symbolisation.  It is fleeting, always shifting around on the edge of your vision, and yet always in the same place.  Any encounter with The Real is traumatic.  We could attempt a preliminary transposition of Lacan’s three orders, as they relate to history, thus (below, right).  

The spaces closed up, represented metaphorically by the loops in the ribbon represent the temporal Real of lived experience.  This can only be folded and seamed after the event, thus symbolising and historicising it.  This process only (as we’ve seen) creates further loops (unless, as I said earlier, one were to write in spaces that took as long – relatively – to navigate as lived time) and so it can never be grasped.  Yet it is always there, always in the same temporal place.  In grasping it you pass through it; it is like a ghost, a spectre.  In my transposition, the Symbolic – the order of language – is ‘history’, the incorporation of the past into a sort of semiotic order, and The Imaginary – the sphere of the ideal – is ‘Narrative’ or emplotment, especially personal narrative.  I’m not investing much in that transposition.  It might work or it might not; you can dismantle it at will.

But let’s shift our ground, our viewpoint, and move from the après coup historian’s construction of narrative to look at what happens in these loops.  This historical, ‘temporal’ Real is where things happen without us yet being able to understand or place them in any sort of symbolic order.  Encountering this Real can (as in Lacanian theory) be a terrible thing.  To take the usual limit case, who can have experienced the Shoah (in whatever role) without being aware of living through terrible history as it was being made? 

These spaces are zones of infinite possibility. Let’s assume we can somehow open up the tiny temporal space closed up by the ‘and’ of the sentence ‘Napoleon’s army met Wellington’s south of Brussels and was decisively defeated in the battle of Waterloo’.  (Forgive me for using a non-medieval example.)  This space – the morning of 18 June 1815 – is inhabited by about 150,000 men and women.  French and allied armies are deployed but not engaged.  Blue-clad troops swarming over the horizon to the east are Prussians.  At this point anything is possible.  Napoleon can disengage; he can fight and win (or lose).  He (and the other 149,999) can yet survive the day or be killed.  The day can turn out to be the allied victory of Waterloo, or the French victory of La Belle Alliance, or an insignificant encounter some days before the great Battle of Somewhere Else, that no one other than Napoleonic military history buffs have ever heard of.  It could be the day that Wellington died heroically, trying to stem the rout of his army, or the day of infamy when Gneisenau inexplicably halted the Prussian army, leaving Wellington to be defeated.  Or the day the Emperor’s head was knocked clean off by a Prussian canon-ball at the moment of his greatest triumph.  Or whatever.

Now, this does not simply mean that ‘what happened’ was different; the whole way in which we symbolise and understand it differs.  That symbolization is ever shifting as the narrative lengthens in time.  Thus the symbolization of an historical event is never fixed. 

Our temporal Real – lived time – is a true zone of Derridean ‘differance’.  That is to say that its meaning derives from difference from other signifiers and that any ‘true’ meaning is endlessly deferred.  For those unfamiliar with it, Derrida’s concept of differance (with an ‘a’) was – to put it very simply – formulated in the course of his argument against speech having primacy over writing, having a prior link to a metaphysical presence of meaning.  What Derrida argued was that spoken words operate in the conveyance of meaning in the same way as written ones.  This is why he coined the term ‘differance’ – pronounced exactly the same (in French) as difference (with an ‘e’) but meaning something, well, different.  That difference could only be established through a mental process of differentiating the two words or graphemes.  And you can still get the meaning wrong, or repeat it and convey a different meaning to someone else.  Differance with an ‘a’ merges the terms ‘differ’ and ‘defer’. 

As another modern example, take the history of Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War.  If we were writing in 1946, say, we would doubtless see ourselves in a space of triumph after a terrible ordeal; although the future would seem very uncertain, there would be grounds for hope that a new and better world was coming into existence after the horrors of Nazism.  If we were writing in 1982, though, the picture of these events would look very different, a melancholy exchange of one tyranny for another with no sign of anything getting any better any time soon. Even respected professors of modern history could see no prospect of the Fall of the Wall – a good example of why you should never ask a historian to predict the future.  If we wrote that history now, the Soviet occupation would look like an interlude.  The description and analysis, not just the narrative, changes.  The future looks different from the way it looked in the ‘80s but it is no less unpredictable.  Donald Rumsfeld (of all people) once said that the future is no less predictable than the past; the past wasn’t predictable when it happened.

Moving back to our period, a history that stops around 500 finishes with the end of the Roman Empire (Good Thing/Bad Thing/Supreme Irony/whatever) but a cultural history of the period c.300-c.700 can pass through it as though, in most meaningful terms, the Empire didn’t end at all (as in some works within the Late Antique paradigm).  A political history that continued to 814 would end with the revival of the Western Empire under Charlemagne – so the Empire hadn’t really ended after all.  And what if, hypothetically, in our unpredictable post-banking-crisis future, something very odd happens, with the EU becoming a pan-European dictatorship renamed as a revival of the Roman Empire?  Do the 207 years since Francis I’s deposition as Holy Roman Empire become an interval or blip, like the 324 years between Romulus Augustulus and Charlemagne?  Even the history of the Roman Empire hasn’t necessarily ended yet…  What was the significance of 476?  It’s too soon to say. 

The Temporal Real is a zone of pure chance and encounter.  As in my Waterloo scenario, it’s not just the relative skill in generalship of Wellington and Napoleon (and Blücher/Gneisenau), nor the bravery and skill of their troops, nor any combination of those that determines the signification of the event.  All sorts of chance events could intervene.  Turned the other way round, and using a late antique example, no one could have expected, on the morning that the ambassadors of the Quadi came to visit Emperor Valentinian I on the Danube, that their statement – that they had a right to attack Roman troops building a fort in their territory becausethey had intruded into their territory – would anger the Emperor so much that he would drop dead of apoplexy.  That was a ‘response of the [temporal] Real’ if ever there was.  As I set out in Barbarian Migrations, at the start of 421 it looked as though the Roman Empire was going to weather the crisis of 395-413 and re-establish its borders, having gone from this state in 410 (above left) to this one in 421 (below, right).  Who knew that Constantius III was about to contract pleurisy and die, leaving the Empire to a four-year-old Valentinian III and his incompetent uncle Honorius?
This is by no means the ‘What If…’ history beloved of right-wing historians like Niall Ferguson and his ilk.  In this type of history, the premise is that if one thing happened differently, the whole of European or world history would unfold in a quite different way.  This is logical nonsense.  In the poem discussed earlier, Stéphane Mallarmé wrote that ‘a throw of the dice will never abolish chance’.  Quite so, but for Ferguson and co. a different throw does.  What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?  Well, what if he did?  What if he fell off his horse and broke his neck the next day?  Or, alternatively, what might have happened if Napoleon had lost the Battle of Waterloo?  By 1848 both branches of the Bourbons had been deposed anyway and by 1851 Napoleon’s nephew was ruling France.  Different outcomes are always possible – they’re still possible.  Vive l’Empereur!  Julius Caesar declared the die to have been cast when he crossed the Rubicon.  He must have thought he’d rolled high, too … until he got stabbed to death by Brutus and the rest, having ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time after all.  The throw of the dice did not abolish chance.  There are no endings in history. 

Quite apart from the competitive interplay of actors’ intentions (which side ‘wins’) or the intervention of chance, the outcome of actions can be quite unintended by anyone.  I’ve argued – I hope I’ve demonstrated – that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century came about in spite of the fact that in the hundred years prior to 476 we cannot find a single person who actively tried to bring the Empire down.  I described the end of the Western Roman Empire as an ‘accidental suicide’, the ironic result of actions aimed not at destroying the Empire at all, but at dominating it in the tradition of more traditional fourth-century politics.  Every crucial action contributing to the Empire’s political demise was brought about by people trying to preserve it.  The ‘Fall’ was an outcome that no one intended.  The intervention of chance and the fact that the outcomes of actions are not reducible (usually teleologically) to the achievement or frustration of particular actors’ aims is a major problem with many models of social interaction – even phenomenological.  My way of seeing might help us avoid the totalising tendencies of such approaches.

Implications: Deconstructing Historical Narrative; Deconstructing Transition

I would like to suggest that this way of seeing has some quite important implications for thinking about the concept of transition, which are somewhat different from the problems with the idea that I set out in 1995.  For one thing, even the teleology inherent in the definition of transition is further relativised by the approach to thinking about the symbolisation of time and narrative that I have set out in this paper.  In 1995 I argued that one had to separate early medieval data out by time and place.  In the neutral sense of comparing data from the same place and time, this is something that I’d still stand by.  What the approach I have been trying to set out makes problematic is the idea of ‘context’, that key premise of historicism.  Context is everything, we are told, and indeed it is – except, that is, when discussing the importance of context, which is supreme, regardless of context…  Obviously context is vitally important, but what exactly is context?  We can leave aside the fact that historians often treat context pretty loosely, so that putting – say – Gregory of Tours’ writings of the 570s in context means setting them alongside texts by Gregory the Great written ten or twenty years later, or those of Isidore of Seville from later still (this chronological woolliness is born of several different traditional approaches to the period, which we’ll leave aside for now).  A Derridean deconstructionist approach actually relies on a certain contextualism, not least to provide the other traces that go to make up the ‘texte’ – the network of traces – of which our written texts are part.  It also relies on a certain stability of text which is not often available in early medieval studies; these points are often forgotten. 

Nonetheless, these points being made, it must be said that many of the premises even of so-called New Historicism are questioned by the approach I’m exploring.  How, after all, do we define context?  Surely, as often as not, that is done after the event too, when we select those features which we think define the thought/society/politics of a particular period – when we do this we select and obscure just as much as when we select events – joining up features and leaving others out of the equation.  Indeed those two processes are often interlinked.  Context, in terms of politics, is often related to the selection of the events used to fold up our ‘ribbon of time’ – we saw already that this selection can differ from those used for, say, gender history.  The whole contextualist historicist approach is essentially circular: first one creates a context from the available evidence by selecting key points, features or areas of similarity from it; then you argue that the evidence is best analysed against the context you just created from it.  These are the people who like to mock Derrida for saying there was nothing outside text (something which, incidentally, he never actually did say)…

Leaving the absurd – or some of it – that to one side for a moment, another problem with the contextualist approach is the way it artificially closes down the range of possibilities.  Part of that closing down comes from the approach itself, as I just described.  As a historian I find the approach worrying in that it denies creativity, experimentation, invention, failure – the blind alleys that I have referred to before.  It denies the possibility of non-orthodox readings, subordinate readings, mis-readings.  It denies chance.  A throw of the dice never will abolish chance, said Mallarmé, and (in the last line of his poem) every thought is a throw of the dice.  Thinking about other disciplines than history, I find it bewildering that a source can only be read and analysed in the terms of its own period.  I wonder of historicist readers of literature think that medieval writers’ readings of the Classics or the Fathers are to be condemned for not reading them ‘in context’?  The more I think about historicism, the more utterly incoherent it all seems, heretical and subversive though such thinking is in [Poppleton].

So much for all that.  What I want to dwell upon is deconstructing historical narrative.  Deconstruction is a grossly misused (and abused) word.  People often describe simple close reading as deconstruction; alternatively, people who’ve never actually read Derrida (like, it has to be said, most of Derrida’s historian and analytic philosopher critics) have alleged that it opens the way to holocaust deniers, complete relativism and so on.  It isn’t; it doesn’t.  Deconstruction, said Derrida, is ‘what happens’ (‘ce qui arrive’”).  To be super-simplistic, when dealing with texts, what deconstruction (as I understand it at least) tends to involve is the identification of pairs of concepts, one being haunted (to use a term from later Derrida) by the other but sublimating it.  Then that sublimated term is brought to the fore.

If we take that as a means of reading narrative, then what it allows us to do is to look at historical moments (our loops in the ribbon), what happened and the terms we use to describe it.  All that is haunted by the spectres of their opposites, the reverse concepts (victory/defeat, for example), and the things, the outcomes that didn’t happen, the outcomes that perhaps people (even the people who seem to have got their way) were trying to bring about.  In a sense that allows us to deconstruct transition itself.

To return to the sorts of dynamics that I thought in the mid-1990s were implicit in social change – the interplay of identities – one has to look very closely into the loops in the ‘ribbon of time’, into context if you like.  Identities, by their nature, are about likenesses and a likeness can only imply looking backwards.  Ambitions, obviously, by contrast, can only imply looking forward.  In both cases what one has, in Lacanian terms, are elements of the imaginary; in later Derridean terms you have spectres: no one can quite imagine things as they aren’t.  Such ideals are like ghosts, spectres.  Actions are ‘haunted’ by these spectres.  In later writing Derrida coined the term ‘hantologie’ (hauntology), which in French sounds the same as ‘ontologie’ (ontology).  We’re back to differance.  Nonetheless, that gives us a way into the sorts of unintended outcomes that I’ve been interested in.

Lastly, though, this approach permits, as I see it, a more ethical reading of history.  At the heart of the whole historical enterprise, as I see it, lies an ethical demand to listen attentively to the voices of the past.  Attentive listening doesn’t imply acceptance of their point of view; it implies engagement.  Engagement is consistent with deconstruction.  Deconstruction was always concerned with politics and ethics, as Simon Critchley has argued and indeed as Derrida himself was at pains to make clear in the last decade of his life – it was just that the political element in his thought became more visible later on.  Deconstructing narrative (or transition) means listening for the ideas that didn’t come to fruition, for the ambitions that failed, for the outcomes that didn’t come out.  As I see it there’s nothing more ethical than that.

Ultimately, what an ethical, politically-committed approach to history is about is telling us that things don’t have to be this way.  It is about (to use a phrase of Frederic Jameson) keeping faith with the impossible, with the once possible impossibilities of history.  A throw of the dice, after all, will never abolish chance.  And each thought is a throw of the dice.

1 comment:

  1. "The whole contextualist historicist approach is essentially circular: first one creates a context from the available evidence by selecting key points, features or areas of similarity from it; then you argue that the evidence is best analysed against the context you just created from it."

    If you write this up, you might like the Becker article discussed in this post at Edge of the American West as a cite; it beats Hayden White by seventy years and makes the same point as you're making in this line more clearly than he does. It's one of my favourite accidental Internet finds. (Forgive me if you already know it!) It does, however, argue that like our demons, we bring our context with us to the sources.


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