After All: Reconsidering Metahistory
It is a distinct honor to be asked to introduce the translation into the Japanese language of Metahistory after all these years. I mean, why now? Or why at all? I had thought that Metahistory was out of date. Indeed, I am surprised that the English version of Metahistory has remained in print after all this time and after all of the criticism it has received. After all, it would seem to belong to a genre—philosophy of history–which almost everyone nowadays puts in the same category of pseudo-sciences as astrology and alchemy. To be sure, although I argued in Metahistory that every work of history presupposes a philosophy of history, in the same way that every work of chemistry presupposes a philosophy of science, my principal interest had been less in the philosophy of history than in the metahistorical discourse to which both historiography and philosophy of history belong, the discourse concerned to inquire about the meaning that might be derived from the study of history. Metahistory is about historiographical discourse, about the modes and means of cultural production in and by which “history” is invented, studied, written, and endowed with meaning. It is about the process by which and in which happenings in the past are changed retroactively so as to take on a meaning they never could have had at the time of their occurrence.
So, let me stress for the benefit of of my potential readers: Metahistory is not a book about how to research history or how to explain it or how to write it or how to think about it. It is a book about how one might read historical writings. It begins with systematic readings of specific texts purporting to be the product of scientific or object research in and reflection on “history” or some part of it. It asks: what are the literary, rhetorical, symbolic, or simply linguistic mechanisms, devices, techniques, concepts, figures, and tropes used in these texts to produce a specifically “historical” account of the past. A number of critics of my work have said that I have neglected to speak about historical research which is, after all, the heart and soul of modern historians’ labors. This is true. But since I was trying to write a history of historical writing (historiography), I had decided to concentrate on the analysis of certain classics of historiography’s classic age—the 19th century—and to treat them as my “primary sources.” As far as I was concerned, many historians had already written about the development of thought about history, the invention of techniques of research and methodology, philosophy of history, and historical consciousness. But no one had studied historical writing as writing—the “graphos” in “historiography”–except in the most vague and general terms. One sometimes said of a given historical work that it had been written in a “graceful” style or that a particular historian, such as Macaulay, was a “pleasant narrator.” As for the analysis of the content of historical writings, they were often treated as consisting primarily of an “argument” that could be summarized or paraphrased without significant loss—as if the narrative form in which the text had been cast carried no conceptual or imaginative weight or force.
In Metahistory, I begin with the texts actually written by historians and philosophers of history of history’s “classic age” and try to educe the tactics and strategies by which a chaos of past events were given form and endowed with different kinds of meaning. This way of proceeding gave priority to the text and appeared to some to relegate such things as the referent, the author, and the audience to secondary status. But reading a text is as difficult as writing one, and it seemed to me to be simply lazy to presume that historical texts whose artistry or literary qualities had been universally recognized were easier to read than a novel or an epic poem.
One commentator suggested that in Metahistory I had attempted to read historical works as if they were novels, and that the effect was to turn those works into “fictions.” There is something to this remark, for it seemed to me that nineteenth century historical writing was still attached to narrative and narrativization and that, consequently, any adequate study of the works of this period had to utilize literary-critical methods for the analysis of the full range of their affects. But it is one thing to say that historical narratives share some of the attributes of fictional narratives and quite another to say that the recognition of this will transform fact into fiction. When it comes to texts and discourses and especially to modern literary texts and discourses, the distinction between fact and fiction is difficult to maintain. In my estimation, the past is first and foremost a place of fantasy and the domain of imagination. The effort to cultivate this place and submit it to the rigors of scientific analysis is quite justified for a culture that may believe that science constitutes the only kind of cognition worth cultivating.
But there are many different modes and means of cognition, of which the scientific is only one. And while I certainly think that science has its place when it comes to dealing with material reality, it may not be the best way to deal with imaginary things such as the past, the dead, the absent, the oppressed, the indigent, the primitive, the archaic, the deprived, and . . .. history.
History’s claim to the status of a wissenschaft had distracted attention from the literary (rhetorical and poetical) techniques used for the constitution of its objects of interest (real things in the human past) as “historical” in kind. Although I did not make a great deal of it at the time, I had long believed that these techniques were active, not only in the “writing” but also in what was called the “research” phase of historical inquiry. Anyone who thinks that research in the sources is simply a recording of what has been found there rather than a preliminary sifting, selection, and combination of data, a full operation of “composition,” does not know what he or she is talking about. The composition begins right with the choice of a possible subject of investigation. The final writing up of the results of the investigation is merely the completion or fulfillment of the act of configuration which launched the inquiry in the first place. The result can be treated as a report on what was discovered by research
It has always been something of an embarrassment to history’s claims to the status of a science that its practitioners tend to remain resolutely individualistic in their operations, rather than to work in teams or collectively like their counterparts in the natural sciences. Every great historian has his or her own style, signature, attitude, posture, or manner of expression that bespeaks a whole array of epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic preferences (Gadamer might have said “prejudices”) which constitute what might be called a grammar, syntax, and semantics of expression. This grammatico-syntactical-semantical complex is manifested most pertinently in the way in which a given writer uses the literal-figurative relationship to create the illusion of a structure of surface-depth by which to endow “facts” with “value” and “meaning.”
Now, recall that Jacques Derrida had just erupted on the scene of Western philosophy with his epoch-making book, De la Grammatologie (1967) which, among other things had, on the one hand, reasserted the intimate connection between history and writing, but, on the other hand, had defined writing as the key to the understanding of Western science itself.”[i] My idea had been, from the moment I had entered upon the project of writing a history of historical writing, to concentrate on historical discourse as writing for the simple reason that, up until that time, the very idea of a history that was not written had been virtually unthinkable.[ii] Obviously, one can think about history, reflect on it privately or publically, ruminate, even tell stories about it to oneself or others; but not until one has written it, is any of this a history. Yet “writing” remains one of the great unremarked topics of historiographical theory. Modernist theories of writing derive from Saussure’s strict opposition between langue (language) and parole (speech) and, within parole, the difference between spoken and written speech. The older view was that written discourse was simply a transcription of spoken (or thought) discourse into writing, without significant loss or addition. Of course, in the process of transcription, what is lost above all is what Jakobson called “the sound sense of language” and what is added is the grid of writing which parcellates and recombines the element of speech in such a way as to endow utterance with unintended and even unimaginable connotative significances. Such significances are in the text even if they are not in the mind or consciousness of the writer and they produce textual meanings which are quite different from the meanings pro-dicted in the speech event.
It was a limitation of Derrida’s deconstructionist technique to leave unexamined and certainly undeconstructed that “history” which he presupposed as the reality against which written discourse raised up its various structures of meaning. Crude as it was in comparison with Derrida’s subtle deconstructions, I intended Metahistory to be doing to “history” what he had done to theology, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, ideology, politics, and philosophy. I was not trying to destroy “history” or deny the existence of a past (although I confess that I have little idea of what it might mean to say that the past exists). I was not trying to assert that there is no difference between fact and fiction, although I did come to think that “fact” was a kind of “fiction” inasmuch as facts like fictions existed only in language rather than in things—or, if one wishes, exist only in the thing called language. Metahistory sought to disclose and identify the various codes, operating at different levels of historical discourse, by which the chaos of events of the past, glimpsed if at all in the fractured remains and traces of things done in an earlier time, were endowed with form, coherence, and intelligibility and, beyond that, used again as a basis or platform from which to launch programs—ideological and political–for the present and future
It is often assumed that an interest in history is “natural”—at least for human beings who are supposed to be inherently interested in their pasts in the way that modern historians are interested in “history.” But in point of fact, although all cultures make a distinction between present and past, they construe the relation between these two temporal “exstases” differently. For some, such as the ancient Hebrews, that part of the past that matters is included in the present: the moments in the evolution of the Covenant between God and His Chosen People are always contemporary with and bear upon any present moment or situation requiring judgment in the Covenant’s light.
Greeks distinguished between the present (which included the present and a proximate past) to be studied “historiologically” and the remote past—the time of the gods and heroes—to be studied “archeologically.” Livy gives up on the effort to study Rome’s origins historiologically and contents himself with a recoding of the myths, legends, and fables of the arché. It is Christianity which posited a rent in the temporal continuum between the time of the Hebrew prophets and of pagan Rome, on the one side, and the era beginning with the birth of Christ which it had then to try to mend or bridge by treating the former as a prefiguration and the latter as a fulfillment—a labor that was not finished until Dante succeeded in assimilating Vergil to the role of prophet naturaliter Christianae in the 13th century C. E. There is nothing “natural” about this interest in divining the meaning of history or rather assigning a meaning to it. Just as there is nothing “natural” about the idea of “history” itself.
“History” is an invention. More specifically, it is a figure rather than a concept, as when someone says, “That’s history” or “History shows” or “History will judge” or uses the adjectival form: “historical past,” “historical reality,” “historical knowledge” etc. It is a figure of a relationship between past and present. Not only have there been times before which “history” began to happen, but there have been many times in many places where the very concept or even the word “history” (or any equivalent) are lacking. The word “history” can be used synonymously with “the past.” But as everyone knows, “history” can also refer to a process of change or development, a kind or genre of discourse, narrative, story, and so on.
It was not so in antiquity in the West but it has become so in the West that the invention of history was coterminus with the invention of the modern conception of “the human.” So that: to be in history (rather than outside it), to live in history (rather than outside it), to exist historically (rather than merely “naturally”), to have a history (rather than to lack one)—all this being, living, existing, and having “historically” is tantamount to living a human, rather than a non-human life. Or at least was thought to be so for a long time in the West. For, after all, isn’t it just as deluded to wish to know the meaning of history as it is to wish to know one’s fate or to know how to derive gold from excrement? From a modern naturalistic point of view, history can have no more meaning than the rest of nature. And yet, as Hegel famously said,
“When we look at this display of human passions, and observe the consequences of their violence, the unreason that is associated not only with them, but even—rather, we might say especially—with good intentions and righteous aims; when we see arising from them all the evil, the wickedness, the decline of the most flourishing nations mankind has produced, we can only be filled with grief for all that has come to nothing. And since this decline and fall is not the work of mere nature but of the human will, our reflection may well lead us to moral sadness, a revolt of our good spirit (if there is a spirit of goodness in us). It can be said without rhetorical exaggeration, that a merely truthful account of the miseries that have overwhelmed the noblest of nations and polities and the finest exemplars of private virtue forms a most fearful picture and excites emotions of the profoundest and most hopeless sadness, counter-balanced by no consoling outcome. We can strengthen ourselves against this, or escape it, only by thinking that, well, so it was at one time; it is fate; there is nothing to be done about it now. And finally, out of boredom with which this sorrowful reflection threatens us, we draw back into the vitality of the present, into our aims and interests of the moment; we retreat, in short, into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore and thence enjoys in safety the distant spectacle of wreckage and confusion.” Hegel, Vorlesung (Eng. Trans., p. 25)
To be sure, as Saul Friedlander has noted, “For most historians, a precise description of the unfolding of events is meant to carry its own interpretation.” (p.7) In other words, the truth about the past is the meaning of the past. On this view, historical knowledge collapses the distinction between facts and any interpretation of the facts that might endow them with meaning. And yet surely meaning has to be added to any merely truthful account of anything whatsoever.
So, philosophy of history, in its effort to derive some meaning in history in excess of the mere establishment of the facts is indulging in mythology. But is the desire to know the meaning of the whole historical process any different than wanting to know the meaning of some part of it? Friedlander is no doubt right that, for most historians,
“precise description of the unfolding of events is meant to carry its own interpretation.” But the notion of a precise description has its problems. “Description
On a number of occasions I have said that, if I were writing Metahistory today, I would conceptualize it differently. This statement was meant as a reminder that the book was a product of a response to a specific socio-political situation—the late 60s in the US—and that any critique of it might begin with an attempt to place it in that time, place, and situation rather than treat it as some as an effort to achieve a transcendental point of view or advance a thesis meant for the ages. This seemed especially pertinent as the years rolled by, translations into other languages appeared, and reviewers began to perceive “contradictions” “ of “inconsistencies” between what I had said in Metahistory and what I was saying in subsequent years and in response to criticisms of Metahistory itself. I have never tried to defend Metahistory against even its most hostile critics, precisely because I do not regard it as a perfect or perfectly coherent philosophical tract. My position was that I had tried to conceptualize the basis for a history of historical writing using the instruments and tools of contemporary philosophy, discourse analysis, semiotics, linguistics, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and structural anthropology, to account for the peculiar dynamics of history’s evolution as a “scientific” discipline in the nineteenth century. The subtitle of Metahistory was: “The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe.” Imagination! How was it possible to “imagine” a past (or the past) that had the many different kinds of configurations imputed to it by the great historians and philosophers of history during historiography’s “classic age”? I did not try to write a general history of the discipline of historical studies, the invention of new research procedures, new thought and new ideas about history, the establishment of what Michel De Certeau called the institutions of historical studies, their academicization, and so on. That story had been told many times. I wanted to know how people who had a vested interest in studying the past actually composed different not to say mutually exclusive, versions of what was alleged to be the same past while continuing, each in their own way, to meet standards of scholarship and cognitive responsibility generally shared by one another.
I have stressed “composed” in the last sentence, because for me whatever it is that is called “history” is encountered, first and most directly, in the texts actually written and published by “historians.” And I put “historians” in scare quotes in that last sentence in order to be able to define as a “historian” anyone, whatever their “discipline,” who is drawn to or driven by a need or a desire to know the past or a past or some past, wishes to cultivate ways of accessing that past, and is willing to spend the long days and nights in researching it, in order to write up their findings and disseminate them in a text, discourse, novel, lecture, film, play, or dance where they can impact other people.
Metahistory is an exercise in deconstruction, if by that term one means the careful and loving disassembly of a thing in order to comprehend how it was put together in the first place, what are its parts, how they are related to one another, and how the whole thing works in order to produce the meaning-effect of meaningfulness itself. Compared to the other deconstructors of the time—Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, De Man, Lacan, but also Kenneth Burke, Northrop Frye, Stephen Pepper, Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Karl Löwith, Erich Kahler, E. H. Gombrich, Thomas Kuhn, and lots more—my own efforts in this direction, I have no trouble recognizing, were crude indeed. But because I was interested in the history of historical writing, I felt the need to begin my analysis with a deconstruction of what historians had actually written and presented to their publics as their best thought on their topics. I was not arguing—as some critics thought—that “history is a text,” that “there is nothing outside the text,” that, since there was nothing outside the historian’s text, there was no past and no reality about which a history could be written. I did suggest that what we mean by the historical past was or in the modern age at least had to be considered to be a construction of historians, that this construction was linguistic or more precisely discursive in nature, and that, therefore, analysis of historians’ writings had to begin with consideration of their status as writing, as discourse, before any assessment of their truthfulness or meaning could be determined. I did not suggest anything like “linguistic determinism.” Indeed, I argued that, while any given language set limits on what could (and could not) be said, within those limits the range of choices is so extensive as to make of writing the very model of what it means to be able to innovate within continuity. It was thus ironic that, while some critics took me to be a “linguistic determinist,” others took my book to be promoting a kind of “linguistic anarchy” in which an “anything goes” and a “right you are if you say so” attitude predominate.
I have never seen any point in responding to criticisms of this sort. They are manifestations of fear or anxiety on the part of those of advance them. I think that it is possible to read or to misread anyone’s text, including my own.
There is a lot wrong with Metahistory, so much that I would never think of trying to revise or rewrite it for a later edition. Moreover, I have no stake in the ideas that make it up– at least in the way in which they are expounded in the book’s original form.
I am surprised and of course gratified that a number of people have seen fit to regard the book as liberating
I believe that intellectual work is done for other intellectuals who should be free to make of it what they will and put it to whatever use or cause they believe in. I have never claimed that the work was original and indeed I do not even claim ownership of it. People who think that ideas can be owned are victims of that capitalist mode of intellectual production who believe that ideas are property.
First, the title. The title, a barabarism contrived of a Greek preposition (meta=after, beyond, with,
post-) and an English noun (history=inquiry, past, story, etc.) names—on the analogy of “metaphysics”–a topic: what comes after, beyond with, or post-history. In other words, what do you get when you get a or some or the “history” of anything? The book Metahistory was an attempt to study what comes with, after, beyond, and so on, what else do you get when you get history?
[i] Among the theses advanced in Chapter 2 of this work: “6. that historicity itself is tied to the possibility of writing; to the possibility of writing in general, beyond those particular forms of writing in the name of which we have long spoken of peoples without writing and without history. Before being the object of a history — of an historical science — writing opens the field of history — of historical becoming. And the former (Historie in German) presupposes the latter (Geschichte).” And then: “The science of writing should therefore look for its object at the roots of scientificity,. The history of writing should turn back toward the origin of historicity. , A science of the possibility of science? A science of science which would no longer have the form of logic but that of grammatics? A history of the possibility of history which would no longer be an archaeology, a philosophy of history or a history of philosophy?” Of Grammatology.
[ii] Indeed, the notion of “oral history” was regarded as a contradiction in terms. Oral accounts of past experiences were generally treated as “evidence” pertaining to the events of which they were accounts but not as histories. And as for visual (or cinematic) histories, the very idea was denied—the American Historical Review did not review historical films or documentaries until very late. Although composed along much the same lines as a “history,” documentary films were suspect for reasons set forth in a debate in AHR (in which I participated) in