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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Gaps, Ghosts and Dice: More inchoate musings on the nature of history (in which Julius Caesar meets Stéphane Mallarmé): Part 1

[Brace yourself for more ill-informed, half-thought-through pseudo-philosophical waffling about what history really is.  Ill-informed, etc., yes - but serious and heart-felt, too.  

What I am going to explore here might possibly be considered under the general headings of change, narrative, causation.  Those of you who have read Barbarian Migrations will know from the middle section (theoretically and methodologically, the most important bit - although Stuart Airlie seems to be the only person to have spotted this) that I have been interested in the inescapably ironic nature of history.  That's to say that the outcomes of decisions are very often entirely unintended by historical actors.  I've been carting it about with me for days but I've still not read Benjamin on History, so I'm aware that I'm probably re-inventing a wheel he already invented.  This, incidentally, explains some of the thinking behind my miniature manifesto; for some of the rest, check out the posts with the tag 'The Unbearable Weight']

Here are a couple of minor issues: what is the past?  What is history?  Let’s be basic and uncontroversial.  The past, we can all agree, is simply enough all that ‘stuff’ that happened before now, whenever ‘now’ might happen to be – such as me writing the beginning of this sentence.  Or – now – writing the end of it.  But how do we make sense of that?  Surely by selecting particular elements from all those past events and placing them in a sequence, rightly or wrongly.  (I used to keep a diary and, although I have a pretty good memory, I confess that I often had difficulty remembering the exact order in which things had happened, even if they’d only happened the /previous day.)  That sequencing inevitably involves a process of winnowing; you can’t remember everything (unless you’re Funes the Memorious in Borges’ story).  And then we might process that information to involve an element of causation.  X happened – we think – because of Y and if only I/they hadn’t done A then (we like to think) B might not have happened; etc.  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 imagine the past.  Thus, ironically, it is true to say that memory happens before the past.  By the same token, then, we could also say that ‘History’ happens before ‘the past’.


In the 1990s people started talking about history as memory.  Cultures in many ways create, deploy and access history in the same way as individuals create, deploy and access memory.  As a result, every bandwagon-chaser in the land began to write articles (sometimes spectacularly impenetrable and yet still somehow meaningless) about ‘cultural memory’.  Yet, I’ve never been very sure what this really added to our understanding of history, other than a new metaphor: memory.  I once quipped sarcastically that the only meaningful interaction between ‘memory, literacy and orality’ in the Carolingian world was when one monk told another monk that he had forgotten what he was going to write…  All this does not seem to me to have added any fundamentally new or different ways of understanding the way that history is used; it does, by contrast, seem unhelpfully to have blurred the useful distinction between how people make and access memories of the personal, lived past and how people and societies construct and access their collective past, especially before that experienced by those alive in the present.  It seemed to me that we already had perfectly good words for the latter, in ‘tradition’ and ‘history’.  But there we are; this is how disciplinary trends and paradigms work…
So, none of those opening comments are startling, new or profound.  At its most basic, essential but initial level, history is the process of symbolising the past.  Only then can we begin to imagine it.  It is here, I think, that things (possibly) get interesting.  Someone said that history was a seamless web; what they meant was that time as it is lived and experienced is a seamless web.  History is surely the inescapable and absolutely essential process of making seams in that web; folding it up into the manageable sections that we call periodization.  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 (this, in my view, is ‘history’ properly defined).

Historical narrative is structured like a language.  Events gain their meaning within sequences from their juxtaposition with other events, before and after.  Like words.   These juxtapositions allow us to write history as tragedy or as heroic epic, or in an ironic mode, or however.  Events – types of events or specific events – have different meanings according to the way they are emplotted within a narrative.  OK: this is old news.  What I want to explore is what is implicit in that potential difference.  History does not simply put seams in the seamless cloth of time.  What it does is to fold that cloth and stitch it tightly together – over and over again.  To pursue that metaphor, what the temporal cloth looks like after the process of historical narrative is, from the front, a narrow, densely stitched-together mass of neatly creased folds.  Out behind that, invisible from our perspective, are acres of billowing cloth: time that has escaped symbolisation.  Now, you can unpick a seam and look at the cloth opened up, but to understand it you still need to make it into a sequence of smaller folds; 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 cloth opened up but, equally 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, or when historians unpicked the great seam that lay at 476 and the End of the Roman Empire and made a new fold, called Late Antiquity. 

All that folding and stitching, though happens after the event.  The decision of what constitutes an event that marks the edges of a fold, how we write about them in purely descriptive terms, and so on.  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.

It’s these folds, these billows of cloth behind the stitches, which I want to think about.  These spaces or gaps are where history happens.  They are the spaces – as I will return to discuss – where nothing is decided and where history has not yet been symbolised in any way.  In that sense I like to think of them as the spaces of The Real in a way that is influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis.  The historical ‘temporal’ Real, here, is that space 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, the Shoah, who can have taken part in that (whether as victim or camp guard or executioner) without being aware of experiencing terrible history as it was being made? 


I’m not – let me make crystal clear – making any sort of equation between the perpetrators and the victims of this crime in terms of the trauma of this experience; just that neither can have occupied this temporal space without knowing that something of immense, unprecedented historical importance was happening – whether you were seeing thousands of your fellows butchered and thinking that your race was going to be wiped from the face of the earth, or whether you were a Nazi thinking you were carrying out some terrible, avenging, messianic task.
So, the spaces closed up, represented metaphorically by my ‘billows’ 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 billows (unless 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 (though this isn’t the ghost of my title), a spectre.


 In his most famous poem, 'Un Coup de dés', Stéphane Mallarmé set out his poem with long spaces and different strands within the work indicated by font-size and their place within the two page spread - a type-setter's nightmare!  I often wonder about writing history like this, with long spaces indicating the time past, 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 3 copies even if someone took it on.  But it'd be interesting.

If we were to think some more about these spaces we’d see that they are zones of infinite possibility. Let us assume we can somehow open up the 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’.  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 battle (allied victory) of Waterloo, or the battle (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 stopped the march of 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.

This does not simply mean that ‘what happened’ was different, but also that the whole way in which we symbolise and understand it differs – and that symbolization is ever shifting as the narrative lengthens in time.  It means, then, that the symbolization of an historical event is never fixed.  What it also means is that 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.  ‘Differance’, says Leslie Hill in the Cambridge Companion to Derrida, ‘is the beginning space of time and the beginning time of space.’  No, I have no idea what that means either, but it sounds good (and the ‘beginning space of time’ fits what I’m talking about anyway).

Let’s have an example.  Let’s consider 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; one predicted confidently over his beer that the Iron Curtain would not be lifted in his lifetime (to much later ribbing from his colleagues) – 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, and the analysis, not just the narrative, changes.  The future looks different from the way it looked in the ‘80s but it is no less unpredictable.  I don’t like to quote Donald Rumsfeld but the old b*st*rd did come out with some memorable sayings, one of which is that the future is no less predictable than the past; the past wasn’t predictable when it happened.


There’s nostalgia here and in the link between time and place.  For example, I recently went for a new job – a job I really wanted and I could have done well – but I didn’t pull it off.  I’m quite depressed and angry about it, but let’s not go into that.  So I just went through Sheffield station and I remembered changing trains there on my way to the job presentation.  It was a lovely morning, I felt confident that I’d written a good talk, the sun was shining and I still had everything to play for – it was still a zone of pure possibility.  Isn’t that what nostalgia is about?
There’s no statute of limitations here.  The holocaust is cast as the terrible tragedy that it was, but one that passed, produced the Israeli state (whatever one might think of that) and an awareness of the horrors of genocide, of where antisemitism could lead, and widespread feeling that both were things to be fought against.  But what if…?  What if ultra-right-wingers sweep to power in a post-banking-crisis melt-down across Europe and pogroms begin again?  Would our own time be closed up as a simple interlude between the First and Second Holocausts (or between the Jewish and Muslim Holocausts)?

A history that stops in c.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 the period as though, in most meaningful terms, the Empire didn’t end at all (as in some works within the Late Antique paradigm).  And a political history that continued to 814 would end with the revival of the Western Empire under Charlemagne – so it hadn’t really ended after all.  And what if, in our unpredictable future in post-banking-crisis Europe, something very odd happens to the EU, with it 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?  You see, 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 also the 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. As I mooted earlier, it is just as possible that Napoleon could have his head knocked off at the moment of victory or that Wellington stop one of the canon-balls, bullets or canister fragments that killed or wounded almost every member of his staff (while leaving him unscathed) that day.

I am by no means interested in this as the ‘What If…’ history beloved of right-wing historians like Niall Ferguson (Virtual History) and his ilk.  Or Cowley's What If? Military Historians Ponder What Might Have Been. In this type of history, the absurd 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, referred to earlier, Stéphane Mallarmé wrote ‘a throw of the dice does not 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 – with his son and heir still in Austrian captivity?  Or, alternatively, what might have happened if Napoleon had lost the Battle of Waterloo?  What if the allies fell out and took to fighting each other at the Congress of Vienna, in the course of which one party backed a Napoleonic restoration against Louis XVIII (Louis ‘the Inevitable’: perhaps my favourite royal epithet in French history)?  Not very likely, you might say, but – hey – 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!  There are no endings in history, but many fictional explorations of the possibilities I am discussing in the oeuvre of Jorge Luis Borges.  Take Julius Caesar, declaring 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, Julius.  Watch out for my forthcoming Airport history paperback blockbuster, So What? Historians Ponder How Things Could Have Worked Out Exactly the Same

Political Implications

Now, since my theme in this Blog is very often the relationship between the study of the past and political engagement in the present, you won’t be surprised to learn that I think that there are some political implications in all this.  On the one hand, there is always hope, because the narrative is never closed – maybe it’ll take time, maybe beyond our lifetimes, but if we don’t lose hope and stop fighting, maybe things will change for the better.  After all, only we can do that.  The equal implication, though, implicit in my discussion of The Shoah, is vigilance – because the narrative is never closed.  New Labour was not vigilant.  It assumed that the battle had been won, and it stopped fighting – and look what happened: the battle had not been won at all.  Even the narratives that seem to have come to a happy conclusion require us to keep fighting.  Hope and Vigilance: a committed historian’s watchwords.
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 written about the end of the 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.  The intervention of chance and the fact that the outcomes of actions are not (usually teleologically, as in the oeuvre of Gussie Finknottle) reducible to the achievement or frustration of particular actors’ aims is a major problem with many models of social interaction (in my understanding of it, it’s a big problem with Heidegger’s, for example).  My way of seeing might be a good way of avoiding the totalising tendencies of such approaches.

In the next part of these musings, I’ll return to the folds of the cloth, and more on social interaction.  This is where we'll meet the ghosts.