from historiography to history

when does historical writing go from being historiography to history? — or in other words: when do we stop regarding a piece of historical work as a piece of academic writing on some historical event, and start regarding it instead as a primary source in itself?

The most straightforward way to think about this might be to consider Thucydides (widely regarded as one of the earliest historians in the canonical sense of ‘history’). Do we take his history of the Peloponnesian Wars as part of the historiographical canon on the topic — that is to say, do we place Thucydides (~410 B.C.) along with Hanson (2005), Bagnall (2006), Kagan (1989) etc.? Or do we take his history as a piece of literature, a source document on the wars themselves?

The question, I think, also applies more presently. There’s a wonderful history of British Malaya by an exceedingly erudite but spectacularly colonial historian who produced a scrupulous historical account riddled with the sorts of pronouncements that historians today would shudder at: “the leading characteristic of the native Malay is a disinclination to work”, to take one of many. It served as a seminal historical and informational reference for all colonial officials dispatched to Malaysia to serve in the administration, but it’s no longer quite something we would deal with in, say, surveying the historiographical literature on British Malaya today. It’s become a source document — a memoir of, rather than a history by, the colonial official in question.

There may be a third way, as there so often seems to be with resolving historical questions — a case for saying that a piece of historical writing can be both. An example suggested to me was Edward Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire. In such cases, distinguishing what is ‘outdatedly’ historical and what is ‘legitimately’ historiographical about the account seems a tricky endeavour, and the criteria by which this is achieved might merit more thought at a later date. But I’m interested in the transition from something being part of the historiography on a given historical event to becoming something historical in itself — a document of, rather than on, the past. History seems unique amongst other disciplines in this respect, because perhaps unlike scientific and medical literature, even outdated historical literature seems to have a certain value, albeit perhaps a rather different one from its original function as history.

I don’t know if I’ve made myself particularly clear here — it’s late, and I take responsibility for resultant incoherence. Meanwhile a post is brewing for Cliopatria, hot tepidly on the heels of my first post — watch this space.

12 responses to “from historiography to history

  • Rich

    I’m not sure your ‘question’ is really asking anything. History is probably most like a science in the sense that it is very supercessionary. Generally speaking, the newest works are the best works, and it is the rare historical ‘classic’ that can be studied without the critical approach that morphs it into a primary source.

    As if our jobs as historians weren’t already thankless enough, we write with the knowledge that our words will be picked apart and mocked as artefacts of flawed knowledge in 100 years.

  • Gavin Robinson

    This post is just crying out for someone to use the dreaded phrase “always already”. (I put it in quotes which either means it doesn’t count or makes it twice as pretentious.)😉

    But seriously, whatever is written about the past is history and historiography straight away. It’s just that it takes time, and more work, before we tend to notice. The text itself doesn’t change, only the way it’s received, so it isn’t really becoming anything, it’s just categorised differently.

  • Kyle

    Putting the phrase “always already” in quotes is like crossing it out but leaving it there: it makes it both not count and twice as pretentious, and neither not count nor be twice as pretentious. Papa Derrida would be proud.

  • Kyle

    Rachel, I am intrigued at your suggestion that a historical “source document” is a “piece of literature” rather than a “piece of the literature.” When you write “literature” are you in fact referring to the notion of a critical literature (i.e. a collection of academic texts that comment on a historical event) or to Literature (i.e. a collection of works that, however grand its claim to Truth, is always at least to some degree fictitious)?

    The latter, intentional or not, I see as a valuable line of questioning if only because, through simple substitution of terms, it allows us to ask the inverse (which is what I always seem to be asking): When does a piece of literature go from being literature to histor(iograph)y?

  • Gavin Robinson

    Just realized my comment doesn’t really make sense. It’s the information content of the text that doesn’t change (although there are some cases where the information does change but it’s still considered the same text). In terms of information it isn’t ever history or historiography or anything else. That’s all in the meaning, wherever meaning comes from. So we can get rid of the “always already”.

  • yiwench

    kyle: all literature (critical or ‘fictional’) is rooted in its cultural and historical circumstances… and can hence be regarded as part of history/historiography

  • Rachel

    long silence: things have been hectic the past few days. but I see a discussion sprouted without (perhaps in spite of) me🙂

    @ Rich: I’m not so sure that the newest works are — even generally — automatically the best ones. relatedly, I also think it’s possible, in the simplest of scenarios, for one work to have done a better job with a given corpus of sources than another work, irrespective of which one was done first. if we grant that, then it seems quite clear that there are works that won’t simply be “superceded” by dint of having been written earlier than its successors, and that such an occurrence might not be such a rarity. but I’m still thinking about this, esp. in relation to science. any thoughts welcome!

    @ Gavin: the sequence of your comments, however, demonstrate the potential for later works to supercede their predecessors🙂

    @ Kyle: I think the ambiguity you perceive in the word “literature” is perhaps a semantic one (as I suppose all ambiguities ultimately are) — certainly I didn’t mean to invoke it! it’s simply the case that we use the same word to indicate fictional/non-fictional writing as well as historiography, because they’re both taken to be things-that-are-written … though of course we are all keenly aware of Papa Derrida’s long shadow, under which some of the profession have been beating of all the past into a Proverbial Text …

  • Kyle

    Rachel, I don’t want to hijack your comments with only tangentially related literary questions. Still, I’m interested in hearing from your readers, because they’re very, very smart. So I’ve posted them chez moi instead, for better or for worse. Come one, come all, etc. etc., if the literature side of this is of interest.

  • Tim

    You know, there’s actually something safe about taking a text that seems to understand itself (?) as a factual historiography and treating it as something else. You don’t have to worry (at least very much) about its facticity, verifying or refuting its claims. Instead, you can use it purely for its interpretive value, whether you take it seriously as a work of philosophy/political theory or hold it at a distance, seeing its language as marks of a discourse, or clues to an otherwise foreign world.

    If you go with the latter, then the text does actually tell you something, it is a record of a historical reality. It’s just not a fully reliable record of what it claims to document. Gibbon might tell you more, and more reliably, about 18th-century Britain than the Roman Empire; Burckhardt might tell you more about modernism than the Renaissance.

    In some cases, finding the factual inaccuracies gives you a way into reading the text against the grain. If Burckhardt misunderstands the Renaissance, why does he misunderstand it? Or, why was that misunderstanding so influential? Documenting the historiographical error is the beginning; trying to understand it with the additional burden of self-criticism is much harder.

  • Jonathan Dresner

    I have to disagree with Tim: facticity does matter when treating a history as an artifact, precisely because it’s the distortion of contemporary lenses which you’re trying to identify. Facticity isn’t the only factor — focus, interests, emphasis — but I’m wary of a full-bore postmodern disconnect which treats historical writing no differently than memoir or fiction.

    In answer to the original question, you stop considering a work to be part of the historiography when historians stop citing it, refuting it, or being influenced by its themes and arguments. That doesn’t mean that you can’t treat it also as an artifact; in fact, we should treat even our own scholarship as an artifact of its time, just to keep our perspective.

  • Gavin Robinson

    “we should treat even our own scholarship as an artifact of its time, just to keep our perspective.”

    That’s kind of what I was trying to get at in my first comment but I somehow managed to turn it into a self defeating argument. I’m glad you’ve managed to say it better than I did.

  • chessabelle

    The colonial histories are an interesting example; they tell us not only of what they were looking at, but also their lenses. What astonishes me is that so few historians make those assumptions and lenses a study in themselves. Or how those assumptions were created, perpetuated and ultimately framed the policy inputs for the decision makers back home.

    aka Belle

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