Blogs > Cliopatria > The Hooks of History

May 5, 2005 4:02 pm

The Hooks of History

Without going the full Hayden White route and essentially reducing historical writing to the sum of its tropes, I have been thinking more simplistically about the basic rhetorical "hooks" that are common in contemporary historical writing, both scholarly and non-scholarly writing. I've come up with a list of ten: I'm curious to see if there are other identifiable strategies that ought to be on the list. These are the basic strategies that histories use to justify their own existence, to explain their importance to a reader.

Here's my ten:

1. Something that you didn’t think has a history does have one (example: Foucault)
2. The history that you think you know is wrong (revisionism)
3. Your life in some important way is determined by the history I am writing about
4. Your life in some important way is NOT determined by the history I am writing about, contrary to your assumption: the past is a foreign country
5. Past is prologue; history as a guide to future action; history as a data set for predictive social science
6. Past is NOT prologue: history as clarifying how a present crisis is unique to the present; history as confounding social science
7. Illumination of the self: we can identify with individuals or whole cultures in the past and in that identification discover what is universal or expansive in ourselves
8. Illumination of the other: we can find in the past radically different or alien individuals, modes of life, etc., that help understand the plasticity and diversity of human experience
9. History as heritage: some particular past provides you a sense of identity and meaning either by serving as exemplar or as the primal source of important ritual and tradition; history is memory-work
10. History as narrative: history is just about telling good, compelling stories that are entertaining or provocative; stories for their own sake.

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Michael Meo - 5/9/2005

Otherwise known as "HOW DID WE GET INTO THIS MESS?"

Lisa Roy Vox - 5/8/2005

I suppose I am stuck (and have been for sometime) in numbers 3 and 7, though I have always referred to it as "history as autobiography." Fantastic list. I am wondering, though, how you think overtly politicized history fits into your list. I'm thinking of historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (particularly his post-Kennedy work, which seems particularly agenda-driven). #5 seems the mostly likely answer a Schlesinger would give as justification, I suppose.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 5/7/2005

In my first year in college, I was considering both math and history as majors and had mediocre visiting faculty for both courses. (My favorite worst moment from linear algebra was when Professor M. looked down at his notes, looked up, looked down, looked up, and announced, "I've forgotten my notes from this point on and don't remember how the end of this proof goes, but," he added, waving his hands vaguely towards the board, "you can see how it will end up." I ended up in history, even though I liked (and still like) math, because human behavior is more varied, more challenging, and more intriguing than anything else I know, and because I'd hate to be stuck looking just at the present day.

That's not a great intellectual justification for history, but I think all of them are post hoc justifications for doing what we love. And if mathematicians don't have to justify every one of their subfields by claiming relevance, if philosophers can use the nearest hallway for their research, why do we feel the need to justify the exploration of interesting events and ideas? My favorite quip from grad school was Jeff Horn's realization in Lynn Hunt's historiography proseminar for my cohort, where he blurted out, "I'm a cultural tourist!" (He's also a good French historian and offers much more than vicarious historical tourism, but it was wonderful.)

Brendan Karch - 5/7/2005

Perhaps this fits somewhere between 5 and 6. It involves taking a current problem or dilemma that is popularly represented as unsolvable because it is either timeless or immune to the forces of history, then counteracting the ahistoicism by tracing the finite and definite historical origins of the problem. It seems to me that nowadays many historians of the post-colonial world, of ethnic conflict, and of religion thrive on this rhetorical trope.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/6/2005

I guess the question of whether 2, 3, and 4 can be conflated depends on whether "revisionism" includes both the academic historical record and the popular remembrance of history. If it's just the former, then I'd agree.

It's a good list; I may have to use it in my historiography course....

Ralph E. Luker - 5/6/2005

The first Merriam-Webster definition is entirely too one-sided. That is, it seems to assume that the legacy of the past to the present is somehow entirely positive. There's an unarticulated, implicit assumption there that history is progressive. I can't see how the heirs to the 20th century will be comfortable with that.

Tyler Curtain - 5/6/2005

Would you say more about why you believe this?

I just looked up the word 'owe' on Merriam-Webster. It gives two primary meanings. The first means to articulate obligation or indebtedness. The second claims that one thing is attributable to something else. I don't believe the first, though as I said, I think we must act as if were true. I do believe the second (we owe our present to a past), and an interest in lines of attribution is what motivates my interest in history.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/6/2005

Well, I suppose I am glad that I walked into the trap set by your not saying that you didn't accept the proposition. I suspect that most historians would say that we owe the dead and the future owes us an accounting. Beyond that, I'd say that we owe the dead and the future owes us some elemental fairness in the accounting.

Tyler Curtain - 5/6/2005

I'm glad that you said this. I meant to add that in articulating the point I don't mean to sound like I accept the proposition. In fact I find Beowulfian logic rather specious--indeed, I think that what is of interest is the impulse to create or record or archeologically unearth within an understanding that these things are extensions or preservations of a "self." I don't mean to sound too precious about that, either. Humans have a difficulty NOT grounding (or justifying) present actions in relationship to (at least a gesture toward) imagined futures. (Even if it is, at base, an action that means to give rise to a story that in turn would allow one to live in song.) Is it possible to have an ethics that didn't take the value of an action to be connected in a necessary way with "the future"? I would imagine, of course, that the answer to that question depends on the action and its consequences. Any given history is a recitation or account of a complex system and emergent relations among disparate actors, institutions, and their material circumstances. John McGowan has asked this question in another way: "What do the living owe the dead?" I find this question extraordinarily interesting. We often act as if the as-yet non-existent futures owe us something, too. My answer to the question is, nothing. It is in our interest to act otherwise, though. Each point in Tim Burke's recitation of 'modes' of doing history seem to me to pivot on how one answers the question, "What do we owe the dead?"

Ralph E. Luker - 5/6/2005

I think there's definitely something to this. But one doesn't have to be obviously telling one's own particular story for the telling to stake a claim on the future. There are senses in which our children, our students, and our published work are means of staking that claim.

Tyler Curtain - 5/6/2005

History as immortality: the unsung self dies in the silence, but the song of the self gives life to a soul. Beowulf forward assumes that the telling of the story does, in part, give life to subject of the story.

Timothy James Burke - 5/6/2005

Oh, I think you can argue that the present is determined by the past, or is free of determination by the past, without revisionism. (2, 3, 4)

Certainly there are many works of history that employ more than one hook--but there are certainly many, especially non-scholarly histories, which stick largely with a revisionist hook: "everything you think you know is wrong".

I agree thought that 7 and 9 are very closely associated. I think 9 is the "conservative" version of 7, the proposition that the collective "memory-work" of history helps to stabilize the present in relationship to the past, to keep us from moral or ethical decline in relationship to some past golden moment or standard. 7 is more exploratory, more the notion of history as smorgasbord, with no urgent need to fix a particular relation between a particular past and the present.

Caleb McDaniel - 5/6/2005

Thanks for this helpful list. There's also the old stand-by, history as morality play: some hero is actually a villain; some villain is actually a hero; this vice was really vicious and this virtue really virtuous.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/5/2005

I think 3 and 4 are aspects of 2. I don't see a real difference between 7 and 9, either.

You may have included it under 5 and 6, but I'd expand those definitions to include moral truths and exemplars.

I have two which I think might be worth adding, though they also might collapse to a single category with some thought:
a. History as catalog -- the antiquarian impulse to record and list and expose everything
b. History as puzzle -- the answering of yet unanswered questions -- filling in gaps -- without regard to the utility or beauty of the answer.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/5/2005

That was what one of my undergraduate profs said. Of course he taught it so that we could learn from it, to try to understand the world, both past and present better.

Perhaps he had seen one too many lessons unlearned or ignored the day that he made that comment. Useful or not, he nearly always communicated it as a precious and beautiful thing, precious even when it was horrid.