What is history? Not so easy to answer…

20 Dec

I do not propose a treatise on this, not only because the blog would be a silly place to try, unless of course the particular blog was entirely devoted to teasing out answers to this question. This is not an academic blog, nor is it devoted to any one subject, but rather to my own whims and hobby-horses. But it is a very serious question. Not enough people think about it. It is rather important, as so many of our arguments have recourse to some form of history, because no sooner do we begin to wonder why things are the way they are than we start looking for explanations, or a back story. In other words, we start doing history, and most often we probably do it naively or badly.

If you want to get into this in depth you could begin with Wikipedia – as we all do, even those of us who are snooty about the Wiki, or (not unjustifiably) suspicious about its status. (I am so glad some HSC students here in NSW have the opportunity to do a critical study of Wikipedia as part of their English course; I can’t imagine a more relevant or desirable study – though not as a whole course, obviously.) The old Wiki offers Historiography.

Historiography studies the processes by which knowledge is obtained and transmitted. Broadly speaking, historiography examines the writing of history and the use of historical methods, drawing upon such elements such as authorship, sourcing, interpretation, style, bias, and audience. The word historiography can also refer to a body of historical work. As the tools of historical investigation have changed over time and space, the term itself bears multiple meanings and is not readily associated with a single all-encompassing definition.

I have also glanced at The historiography of world history, which is from a viewpoint: “World History Archives, by Hartford Web Publishing, offers documents to support the study of world history from a working-class and non-Eurocentric perspective.” Given that, the site looks very useful nonetheless. What is regarded as “history”, whether or not it is “objective” or “scientific” – or can be – is fiercely debated. There is also the fact that across time and cultures what is taken as history has varied enormously. What is constant, however, is that no culture is a-historical. Every culture has its distinctive take on “the ancestors”, its special way, or ways, of treating the past.

We need our memories, individual or collective, it seems. They are in fact a large part of what defines us. Perhaps they are what defines us. Unfortunately, they can also be what divides us, what haunts us.

You can see already how deep a discussion could go, had I but world enough and time… Or talent…

Jim Belshaw often thinks about, indeed practises, both history and historiography. He pondered some issues just the other day: Byzantium, Turtledove and the power of imagination in history, and again this morning, though that entry raised another related policy issue where I find Jim’s argument quite attractive, though I am still at a loss to see what model might in fact take such things into account.

In the second of those posts Jim wrote:

When I studied ancient history at school, our initial focus was on the fertile crescent, Egypt and the middle east. This then shifted north and east to Greece, and then west to Rome….

I was not really aware of the degree of British and Western European centricity in my own historical thinking until quite recently. I was then quite annoyed, because it meant that my own thinking had been caught, conditioned if you like, by powerful but not fully seen mental maps…

In the first one he wrote:

I can and do argue that history is important. In doing so, I mount a variety of arguments. Yet the reality is that I just enjoy it. Too me, history is fun. However, in trying to understand history I also struggle to break through to that past world. What was it really like?

At one point Warren Treadgold discusses the decline in Byzantium intellectual activity during a particular period. He suggested, to use my words, that citation had taken the place of scholarship, that scholarship had taken the place of writing. I think that this is where we are today. 

The best history, the best of any discipline, comes from applied imagination. Too few people ask what it was really like, too many are simply prepared to argue present cases and attitudes.

Now I agree entirely that history is fun as well as important. I agree too that the best history – or at least the best to read – involves “applied imagination” and the art of giving at least a facsimile of what the past world was really like. It can only be a facsimile, albeit a good one if well done, as short of time travel that past world is, indeed, another country. Even if we could engage in Dr Who activity, we might still not be all that much further along in our understanding; how well do we even know what it is really like in 2008? Depends too on who’s doing the looking, who’s doing the talking, where they are, what they are looking at…

History is just like that, only more so.

That’s where Jim and I may differ a bit, as I welcome the variety of historical approaches. I think there are excellent reasons for being “prepared to argue present cases and attitudes”, even if that ought not to be the only history there is. So I actually rejoiced in the recent television history of Australia from an Indigenous perspective, even if it was using its own lenses, because the stories that came out were well worth hearing. That there are also other stories is beside the point. No matter how you cut it, as soon as you start doing history you have already made choices about what to attend to, what to follow. No-one can simply “tell it all.”

Empathy and imagination remain vital ingredients nonetheless. I hasten to add that neither Jim nor I would mean “invention” when we say “imagination” – well, not entirely. It really is quite fascinating how the past has been invented, from time to time, the history of Scotland being one rather interesting case in point.

The other thing which prompted this musing was watching an ancient (1974) documentary about flying boats, which led to today’s post on Ninglun’s Specials: Closely watched planes 6: flying boats. There was some marvellous footage there, and interviews that I am glad were recorded, with the likes of P G Taylor. But looking at it I could see how the doco had itself become a piece of history with its period concerns preserved in its own fabric, and I also realised that 1974 really is a long time ago and that consequently I, who was 31 at the time, am indeed in danger of being a fossil… Even further back in the dark ages I broke, to some extent, with my “degree of British and Western European centricity” by taking up Asian History at Sydney University, a considerable eccentricity at the time. But I have never regretted it. On the other hand, time and actual engagement with Asian people – M, for example – have shown how even that exercise did not escape my earlier mental maps, though it began to change them. In fact the first History class I can actually recall teaching when I was Cronulla High’s Thomas, in a manner of speaking, was on Indonesian history, and I was given the assignment, I now realise, because no-one there was comfortable with it at that time (1965) and my eccentricity had gone before me…


One response to “What is history? Not so easy to answer…

  1. Jim Belshaw

    December 21, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    Nice post, Neil. I will respond.

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