The Past is What We Make of It

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For this inaugural post, I want to write a few words about the tagline I’ve affixed to this site: “The Past is What We Make of It.”

The implicit constructivism of this statement is meant to communicate both a theory of historical consciousness and a research agenda.

In the first sense, it is the argument that history is the study of the past as accessed through its traces, rather than a study of the past itself. That is to say, the study of events, persons, and processes that constitute the subject of history have, by definition, “passed,” and so cannot be studied phenomenologically in the same manner as contemporary society or the natural world. History is knowledge constructed from a plenum of documentary evidence, discerned from artifacts, records, texts, and reminiscence.

But even where documents provide us with empirical evidence about historical events or trends, facts do not by themselves constitute the past. Given the privileged position of objectivity and empiricism in our culture, and the putative successes of the sciences in contributing to our understanding of what is both real and true in the world, this may be a contentious statement.

In terms of gaining purchase on historical reality however, documentary evidence presents us with quite limited perspectives on contemporary life and events. While it is true that historical data can, and has, been used to effectively analyze trends, to challenge the deceptions of the powerful, and have contributed toward real change in the world – such as policy research and implementation for instance – facts only serve to describe certain aspects of the past. Facts may be necessary, but may not be sufficient components of historical analysis.

To take an example from American history (be forewarned: as an Americanist, this blog will tend toward my own area of expertise), the detailed inventories and financial records produced by slave traders in the antebellum U.S. south have provided historians with a rich source of factual details about the slave trade. On their own, these “facts” are merely raw data: dates, quantities, prices, age, sex. The intervention of the historian is to processes and interpret this data, to set it alongside other contextualizing data and facts, and to inscribe meaning into that portion of the past they are describing.

This was precisely Walter Johnson’s project in his wonderful book Soul by Soul (1999), which attempts to transform a macro-statistical view of the slave trade into a more intimate, and quite unsettling account based upon letters and narratives written by slaves themselves. Studies that rely too heavily upon the ledgers written by slavers and slave owners tend to freeze out the human experience of slavery. As Johnson writes, “the time-and-space outline of that [slave] trade does not fully describe it. Indeed, it could be said that the daily process by which two million people were bought and sold over the course of the antebellum period has been hidden from historical view by the very aggregations that have been used to represent it.”

Moreover, to rely on documents created by slavers themselves, is to rely on a quite privileged perspective, and which may tend to perpetuate a calculus that reduces human beings to commodities.

Though an historian may refer to a set of primary source documents when she writes about a given historical topic, and though she may marshal supporting facts and evidence, the resulting history is her own interpretive construct. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this. But while facts may be “stubborn things” as John Adams quipped, they can hardly speak for themselves in a meaningful way without being framed and interpreted.

This is not solipsism, nor is it meant to suggest that the past before today did not actually happen as it did, or that there is a moral or qualitative equivalence across historical interpretations (I plan to address these concerns more fully in a future post). Rather it is to acknowledge that there are virtually infinite ways of interpreting and writing about the past – all of which are shaped by the historian living and working in the present, and configured by the pressures, influences, and sensibilities acting upon their interpretations.

‘History,’ and ‘the past,’ are thus separate things. The former is that kind of knowledge work that historians do, typically expressed in written, narrative form. The latter is everything that has happened prior to the present moment – a ponderous category of things and events, which because of its immense and nuanced complexity, cannot ever be fully accounted. To be sure, “history” is our knowledge of the past, but it is not the past itself.

Elaborating this distinction between past/history in his critique Re-thinking History, the philosopher of history Keith Jenkins has explained, “the past has gone and history is what historians make of it when they go to work. History is the labour of historians (and/or those acting as if they were historians).” Jenkins (to whom, along with Hayden White, my understanding of philosophy of history is clearly indebted) argues that historians – and, I would add, anyone else who does historical work – invent concepts and “read” meaning into the past. This reading is the critical point for Jenkins – historians read and re-read, interpret and re-interpret the past. In an empirical sense, the past is something that “seems” to be there in the form of data, facts and dates. What we conceptualize as historical knowledge is more accurately an ensemble of interpretations that is always moving. Often, these interpretations struggle for dominance.

Allen Bennett’s play The History Boys I think provides a good example of how the past can, and has, accommodated a variety of interpretive lenses – including those that have been subordinated or marginalized by dominant readings.

Set in a fictional grammar school in northern England in the 1980s, the play centers around a group of male sixth-form history students studying for university entrance examinations. Toward the end of their preparation, as the boys are becoming confident in the accumulated knowledge of their education, their history teacher Mrs. Littentot cautions the boys that what they have ingested is far from an entirety, but is rather a predominantly masculine perspective that largely ignores the historical experiences of women. Expressing her disenchantment with the “non-gender-oriented basis” on which she is compelled to teach history, Littentot emphasizes to the plainly flush and uncomfortable boys that “history’s not such a frolic for women as it is for men. Why should it be? They never get round the conference table. In 1919, for instance, they just arranged the flowers then gracefully retired. History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with a bucket.”

So much for the “non-gender-oriented” perspective of history, or the putative “view from nowhere.”

Further, Bennett’s dramatized intervention in historiographical debate illustrates the past is not the object of historians alone. Playwrights, filmmakers, cartoonists, television producers, computer game designers, bloggers – a whole raft of cultural producers are engaged with making sense of the past in one way or another.

This brings me to the second meaning invoked by this blog’s tagline, which is meant to refer to my own interest in the particular ways in which historical knowledge is formulated, expressed, and contested. While this is a rather broad range of operation, my research focuses on how history is packaged for consumption within American media culture – and particularly within television, video games, journalism, and user-generated content online.

My vision for this blog is to explore this intersection of history and media in a fun and informal way. It will also be a space to experiment and to develop a number of related discussions about American history and life, and, well, anything at all that will inspire me to keep up a consistent regimen of thought and writing. It is my hope that the result will be productive for me, compelling to whomever wanders into my little garden, and even a bit ludicrous.