Do the job or don’t: another rant against post-modernist historiography

Several things combine to produce this latest vituperation, but the immediate cause has been another article in that van Engen volume that has generated me so many posts, some laudatory and some quite the reverse. The last one was a plaudit, so it’s time for the opposite. From p. 273 to p. 299 of that volume you will find Karl F. Morrison’s “On the Statue”, an article which is one of the things I’d been recommended to the volume for. There is a half-tone plate, of the statue of King Alfred at Alfred University in New York State, there is an appendix and some considerable apparatus of endnotes. The article is nothing to do with statues at all, though it uses dispute at Alfred University over their mascot as a jumping-off point. It is instead, as are most of the articles in the volume by design, about the state of medieval studies in the USA at time of the conference that sourced the volume, in 1991. In brief, Morrison observes that teachers and researchers in medieval disciplines at the 1991 conference were from a narrower range of countries, but a wider one of American universities, than at similar conferences in the 50s and 60s; that medieval studies is not a natural unit and is prone to being dissected between other faculties; and mainly, that people have done history in the past because of something they cared about in their own times which they found echoed in the subject material, and that rationalism and revisionism have made it much harder to entertain such feelings of relation to the subject, if not among teachers, among pupils. None of these are exactly encouraging, but all could be argued and are food for thought. So, what’s my problem?

Two things. Firstly, this is a lot of pages to say not very much. I take quite verbose notes, and usually average two lines per page of source text; here I ran at half this, and didn’t really understand a lot of the points until I’d forced myself to extract the note sentence from it. That could just be style, and something of which I’m probably guilty myself, but paragraphs like this don’t help:

We are enigmatologists by training, equipped through such disciplines as iconography, exegesis, and etymology to retrieve the unsaid in the said, to complete the depicted gesture. Because the formal codes at issue were so regularly directed at spiritual—which is to say, moral—sentiment, we are enigmatologists of emotion and desire as well as intellect. Since play is close to the heart of poetics, we must also recognise the foreignness of imaginations that, not only sensed, but also laughed differently from ours. (p. 293)

It is a struggle to articulate why this paragraph makes me so annoyed. I would not like to exclude from our discipline the possibility of metaphor or artistic self-expression. And yet, does this help? There are genuine points here: that our sources contain more information than they actually proffer to us, that this extra information is in the nature of the state of mind and conviction of the producing intellect, and that that intellect’s convictions and perceptions had a difference from our own that has to be accounted for. But to stop these points sounding obvious, we have the made-up word `enigmatologist’, more expressive because less definite and therefore allowing an audience to nod with fellow feeling but without a certainty that the speaker means what they think he does.

And, most annoying of all, we have the po-mo syllogism. This is becoming a bête noir of mine. It goes: [because|since] [unjustifiable and unevidenced assertion of some perception of the human condition], therefore [impressively-rephrased truism]. Or, the parts can be reversed. This is no trouble because unlike a real syllogism they have nothing to do with each other, least of all causation. It is a device to sound erudite and as if you have pierced through to a truth of humanity, when in fact you are drawing patterns in air.

Professor Morrison’s two examples both beg many questions. What formal codes? None have been mentioned, still less evidenced. Do we really accept formal codes of behaviour in the production of medieval sources? I thought this was debated. How prescient of Professor Morrison to close down that debate even before Philippe Buc had published! Then, is play close to the heart of poetics? Is that really what Sassoon was up to in the trenches, playing to take his mind off things? And what have poetics got to do with the medieval author anyway? Some of them were poets, but not all; if poetics are play, should prosody be work? Well it doesn’t matter, because even if it were true it doesn’t clearly relate to the following assertion. It is obscurantist showing-off.

Although, there is far far worse than this out there. The really real po-mo stuff can contain strings of three or four of these alleged deductions claiming to follow on from one another and really merely restating undefined terms until the speaker is impossible to critique on any point but meaninglessness. Let me give you a fleshed-out example that I have made up without recourse to generator programs or any actual subject matter:

Because consciousness is electric, we are beings of magnetism. That magnetism causes us to interact with the earth and its inhabitants as though drawn towards it by its metallic core, a core which we also seek in texts. A text with no core we pierce through rapidly; but a text that is only core, we discard, keeping, indeed, doctors away with the apple so flung. The true location of meaning thus lies between the skin and the flesh, which is to say that texts are dermal not epidermal. In a very real sense, then, we need to get beneath the skin of our authors.

Try as I might I couldn’t actually manage to make that as free of causation as it really need to be to make the point; I will never be able to play with the real critics till I can finally create a paragraph like this in which no subclause links to any other. I am however quite pleased with the general effect of flow without any genuine meaning or logic. And you know you’ve seen examples like that yourself… Well, I think that’s critique enough. My point is that, as I’ve said before, making yourself hard to understand is not the game we’re supposed to be in.

But, Professor Morrison wants us to realise, it is hard to understand the Middle Ages. Speaking of Henry Brooks Adams, he says, “… he concluded, he could teach [his pupils] nothing. All but the fewest of the few passively received instruction. Method would not reduce the complexity of his antiquarian subject to order, or make it actual for them.” (P. 281.) And he goes on to suggest not only that this is common experience for medievalists and that we never really teach people anything, but that we can hardly expect to anyway when “‘history does not exist,’ any more than does truth”. And he then says, “Consequently, there can be no question of conveying historical understanding, except as a branch of literary criticism, including subspecialties of criticism devoted to phenomena and theories of reception.” (P. 282.)

I cry foul on this. I have done so before, in comments at Old English in NYC and at the Unlocked Wordhoard, although at the latter Professor Nokes has on both occasions removed or never approved my comments. Given the great service he does me by pointing traffic this way I don’t for a second wish to suggest that he shouldn’t see fit to prevent a fight breaking out in his comments which might then become his problem to calm down. So I’m doing the rant here. (Edit: a comment below from Professor Nokes suggests that the problem here was technical, or at least, not his doing, so may he be exonerated and also consider himself luckily protected by beneficent gremlins…)

A glossed Italian Gospel of Mark, 1140X60 (Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Books Collection, MS Lewis E. 042)

A glossed Italian Gospel of Mark, 1140X60 (Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Books Collection, MS Lewis E. 042)

Texts… wait for it… are tricky. Yes. The author does not always mean what he or she wrote, and their information was not necessarily good even if sincere. Then, we read the things and interpret them according to our own preconceptions and beliefs, and the result must inevitably be distortion. Yes, okay. In fact, because all of our reality is experienced, we cannot ultimately be sure that anything is true, in the sense that another being whom we perceive will also consider what we think `true’ `true’ for them as well. This is heading for the brains-in-vats discussion, but let it, OK, we can be solipsist for a short while. Why not?

Well, because if your entire audience are made up, what’s the point in telling them so, eh? If you’re lecturing at all, if you’re in the business of education and knowledge, your starting assumption really has to be that there is such a thing and that it can be passed from one person to another! Otherwise, how can you take the money for saying that what you do is impossible and that therefore you don’t? How is this not biting the hand that feeds you and coincidentally despising your students’ ability to understand you, especially if you’ve gone so far to make yourself hard to understand? And if you really are constructing your own reality, why can’t you construct more interested students, hey? Maybe it’s not the students who are the problem…

Similarly, yes, texts are constructed, unreliable, difficult, partial and inadequate. Every scholar who works with them must admit this. But if you suggest that this negates any possibility of extracting knowledge from them about the past, and then continue to argue that you should be paid for trying, then you are a hypocrite. If you seriously don’t think a text can tell you about the past in which it was written and how that past constructed or remembered the past before that, then why study history at all? There are others out there who still want to, you know?

Archaeological diggers at work in Wales

Archaeological diggers at work in Wales

Because texts are not the only source, and no medievalist has any business claiming they are. If you wilfully ignore archaeology, climate studies, historical geography, palaeobotany and palaeozoology, demographics, linguistics, social anthropology, art and architectural history and the other so-called handmaid disciplines, and then say that you think texts are no use as evidence because all writing is constructed, either become an archaeologist or step the hell down. Otherwise, accept the starting position: we’re here to tell people about the past, what involves finding out about it. Oh yes, and `passively receiving instruction’ will do fine for most of them actually. That’s only a problem if you think your job is to create historians, or more critics. I think our job is to give people knowledge. And if you honestly don’t believe it’s possible, how can you hold a teaching post in good conscience? I don’t get it, I don’t want to, and I’m fed up with reading it.

The most annoying thing about it is that I’ve read work of Professor Morrison‘s that has been inspiring, insightful and educational. Likewise, his important, if challenged, contribution to numismatics shows that he knows perfectly well about other sorts of source. He’s a clever and sensitive historian. This kind of rubbish should come from someone else. Oh well. Here endeth the rant, hopefully for some time.

8 responses to “Do the job or don’t: another rant against post-modernist historiography

  1. Um, I think your comments must have been eaten by a technical problem, because:

    1.) Comments on the Wordhoard are not subject to pre-approval.
    2.) Basically the only comments I delete are commercial ads masquerading as comments, or very, very vile ones.
    3.) Given the (almost unique in academia) ability of medievalists to be civil, I’ve probably only deleted comments for being trollishly vile about a half-dozen times in the whole time I’ve run the Wordhoard, and I’ve certainly never seen anything you wrote, either here or on the Wordhoard approach that threshold.

    I don’t know what to tell you about where your comments went. I never saw them, and if this post was any indication of the content of the comments, I certainly wouldn’t have deleted them. All I can say, I guess, is let me know next time a comment of yours gets eaten, and I’ll see if I can figure out which hungry god of the internet devoured it. Sorry for the trouble.

  2. having a poetic soul – or perhaps just a literary sensibility – i rather like the paragraph you quote. but i can understand why it annoys you. some of the stuff i have to read makes a lot less sense than this. sometimes i read a small paragraph five or six times and i’m still not sure what it means or how it sustains its argument. fancy words can be a trap, i think.

    i guess it’s different for historians, but the primary goal of a literary studies person isn’t to tell people what it was like in the past…

  3. We wouldn’t have this problem if people would stop thinking that there is some sort of Historical Truth. There isn’t. What we do is best-guess supported by well-trained interpretation and use of evidence (which is not, by the way, a verb! :-) ). We produce narratives and analyses, and test them, and revise them as we learn more. But we none of us can produce Truth, nor should we try.

  4. Professor Nokes, I’ve edited above to exonerate you, and I’m sorry to have impugned your policies without cause. I wonder if the comments were just so long that they got spam-trapped? Except I’ve seen pages-long spam comments on the Wordhoard before now. Oh well: it may be better placed here anyway.

    Meli, what would you say is the primary goal of writing like that, then? In any case, I think Professor Morrison has to be described as a historian: he’s a Professor of History in a History department and teaches eight courses, four of which have the word ‘history’ in the title. And lit. studies types wouldn’t normally go near numismatics except for the imagery.

    ADM, here I think you and I must disagree, at least in part. Firstly, I’ll gosh-darn well verb ‘evidence’ if I want to, it’s been done by too many others to count as weirding language. Secondly, there is a difference between what we produce, which cannot be Truth, and what actually was. Now, at some level of course reality is individually perceived and facts only consensus, and at the level of motivations and thoughts there’s absolutely no hope of understanding at any synthetic level. Fine. On the other hand, Charlemagne was in Rome on Christmas Day 800; you and I did meet in the British Library yesterday. These are true enough things that no-one except Missing Years theorists (in the former case) and someone with very peculiar motives (in the latter—and the former as well I guess) would dispute them. We can accept the existence of a broad factual truth without having to hand in our solipsists’ badges I think. The question then becomes, how closely can we as historians approach that truth or recover it? And the answer I hope for and aim at is, never 100%, but closer and closer all the time…

  5. What a great rant! Your example of po-mo meaninglessness reminds me of management-speak, which is where I mostly encounter obscurantist jargon that can mean anything or nothing but is presumably supposed to overawe the reader.

    “Never 100%, but closer and closer all the time…”
    I second that. Again, I come at it from a different field (evidence-based medicine), but the principle seems to me to be the same.

    As for the disappearing comments on Unlocked Wordhoard, Blogger just eats comments from time to time. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. I suppose it’s a free service so one can hardly complain when it doesn’t always work properly :-) Given that there’s no comment moderation turned on on Wordhoard that I can see, your comment should appear instantly. If it doesn’t, Blogger’s eaten it and you just repost until it appears. Typing the word verification incorrectly will cause Blogger to reject the comment, so it’s worth checking that. Also, it sometimes gets OpenIDs wrong, so another thing worth trying is to click the “Anonymous” button and then just sign your comment in text.

  6. The bit you quote of Morrison sounds more like a purple prose style that’s got pumped up a little too high and hasn’t been repressed by a tight word limit, than truly po-mo meaninglessness. A bit of red-pencilling would get a reasonable coherent passage:

    We are enigmatologists by training, equipped…to retrieve the unsaid in the said, to complete the depicted gesture…We are enigmatologists of emotion and desire as well as intellect…We must also recognise the foreignness of imaginations that, not only sensed, but also laughed differently from ours.

    That might still be too flowery in expression for some historians’ taste, but it’s not rubbish. It’s positively enlightening in comparison to some of the stuff I’ve come across.

  7. Good rant – I heartily agree. I now have a rule for reading academic prose:- I am an intelligent, academically-trained adult, and if scholar X cannot make their point clearly and comprehensibly to me, then I wonder who precisely do they think they are writing for? Further I conclude their thought is probably not worth trying to extract out of their clotted verbiage. Bad writers are not usually good thinkers. So I fling the book across the room and shout ‘Next!’.

    Applying this rule is not the same as ignoring metadevelopments in the field – developments which I keep abreast of. Also, every so often a badly written book says something vital (John Koch’s edition of The Gododdin, for example, which is marred by a deeply affected style) and one just has to struggle on. But on the whole, this approach has saved me much time, and given me the change to read a lot of actually important and weighty things with due concentration.

  8. I think what I am mostly objecting to here is a literary flurry of expression, but one that has chosen unhelpful imagery rather than enriching extras. There may be a root problem of critics trying to write like their texts rather than about them, but that isn’t what was happening in the section I quote.

    Some people of course are very clever but just bad writers, and some people’s styles I just find antagonistic, which is not always their fault but mine. I deep-read only if pushed, these days. But deep-reading to find no extra depth is especially annoying.

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