Posted by: aboutalbion | November 24, 2013

History and rhetorical realisms (1)

Every now and again, I come across a book that seems to mean more to me than most.  And now I’ve found another one.  It seems to me to lift the veil on the inner workings of historians.

This book (by Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow) signposts different kinds of histories in a fresh way for me.  They ask the question: Is history felt to be attractive because of the artefacts used in evidence or because of the narrative presentation?  The authors point to the different weightings that can be given to the evidence (the facts – including selection, place, culture, and creator of the evidence), the interval between the age of the evidence and its use by a historian (including the elapsed time, together with culture and language barrier(s)), and the historian her/himself (including her/his place, culture, competence(s) and all her/his interests).

The two authors acknowledge their link with the US theorist Hayden White and his approach to history as “a narrative prose discourse the content of which is as much imagined as found”. (p5)

The conclusion of these two authors is that there are three (plus one) types of histories.  Here are three short extracts to indicate the perspective of Jenkins and Munslow.

“[O]ur view [is] that history in general is constituted by the compulsions of empirical data and language [and this] allows us to distinguish our three main orientations to the organisation of knowledge about the past.” (p5)

“The attitude that historians have towards empiricism, how they perceive the nature and status of facts and their description, how they deploy the explanatory strategies of emplotment, tropology and ideology, and how they view language as a vehicle for their thinking, will lead to their particular genre choice.  In effectively blurring the distinction between historian and history that occurs through the act of narrative construction, we are reminded that historians can choose their own genre.” (p5)

“As a general rule, then, the historian domesticates ‘the past as history’ by offering her/his own particular narrative form of explanation – i.e. their preferred notion of what constitutes the ‘proper way to gain historical knowledge and, most importantly, generate historical meaning.  …  As literature has poetry, drama and the novel, so history has ‘reconstructionism’, ‘constructionism’ and ‘deconstructionism’. (p6)

In subsequent posts, I will introduce these three (plus one) types of histories.

[Jenkins, Keith and Munslow, Alun (eds) (2004) The Nature of History Reader.  London: Routledge.]

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