Unreal Nature

August 31, 2008

The Muleta: or the Last Interpretation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:48 am

This post is meant to  be thought of reference photography, which is always tied to history (if only microhistory). [ whistling innocently ]

If you cannot point to any historical silver bullet to explain a discreet event in the past (let alone all of American history), why not simply find satisfaction in the evocative story well told? If the past is an infinitely complex web of conflicting causes and effects, why bother with the pretense that we can actually explain something? Instead, let us rest comfortably in the realm of craft where value comes from formal properties rather than superior argument. Instead of trying to be more right than the last interpreter of, say, the election of 1800, let’s simply tell a better story, more alive with engaging prose and rich anecdote.

— (emphasis added by me) from The Little Picture: Or, who’s afraid of the big question?  by Edward Gray in vol. 6, no.4 of Common-Place; July 2006

He begins his essay thus:

I have a friend who’s always ranting about the fact that historians can no longer handle a good scholarly fight. Mea culpa. Wimp. Coward. That’s me. I have never written anything that put a shot across another historian’s bow. My first book was about a subject historians don’t much care about: language. Insofar as it got any play, it was among the lit crit crowd. And my subsequent work has been tame to the point of cowardly solicitude. I would place most of it in a genre who’s origins lay with the very curse my friend believes to have been visited upon historians. That genre—usually referred to as microhistory—has little ambition at all when it comes to disproving another scholar’s thesis. It is, abashedly, about telling stories that, much like short stories, somehow move the reader by evoking distant experience and place. It also inclines toward the blatantly antiquarian in its relish for the small particulars of the past. Old things, long-vanished turns of phrase, antiquated behaviors, small cul-de-sacs of culture—these tend to be the stuff from which microhistorians forge their stories.

I have, of late, been greatly taken with this approach to the past. It has seemed the perfect home for the sheepish among us who’d rather putz around in an archive and toy with their prose than dethrone some betweeded historical titan.

But he goes on to doubt this approach. He ends it with the following:

… Compared to the patriotic-mantra approach to the meaning of America, the free-market, material-abundance, Economist interpretation  (via Potter) feels at least a bit more substantive. Perhaps we should be happy about its very existence; perhaps it is a symptom that foreigners—as they struggle to reconcile our militarism with our professed high-minded, democratic values—are once again trying to figure us out. And perhaps, too, a few American historians who don’t quite feel at home in their own country will be inspired to follow suit. Perhaps, once again, you won’t be laughed out of the seminar room or lecture hall if you stand up and claim to know what America means. On the other hand, maybe we’re just too much the grave liberals, too much the nuanced antitheses to the Fox News/AM radio approach to the world, to ever lay claim to such grandiose territory. How can my world be reduced to one defining trait—the West, material abundance, ethnic diversity, etc.? And yet, there is no denying the appeal of this kind of thinking, even if understood as pure intellectual exercise. What America needs are critical faculties, and critical faculties need a thesis to knock around. Maybe that great nervous scholar and monumental equivocator Moses Herzog put it best when he declared, “What this country needs is a good five-cent synthesis.”

I wish he hadn’t used the phrase, “…even if understood as pure intellectual exercise.” If “intellectual exercise” equates to “interpretation, then it can never be “purely” an intellectual exercise. That would be like saying it is “purely” interpretation which is nonsense. Interpretation must be of  something.

For example, a single photograph, after the fact, is a record, not an intellectual exercise. Discussion about all of photography — which encompasses all individual photographs — is an intellectual exercise, but is never purely an intellectual exercise — because it is rooted in those individual photographs.

Read the whole piece if you have time. [ link ]

-Julie

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