EducationEssaysFeatureScienceTheory & Practice

What Could History Have Been?

Imagining new approaches to the humanities

“What could history have been?” The question asks how events might have turned out otherwise, if only X had happened instead of Y. What if JFK hadn’t been assassinated? What if Hitler had? The official term for this kind of what-if thinking is “counterfactual history,” and it covers anything from an academic’s earnest attempt to imagine the US economy without railroads to Quentin Tarantino’s WWII redux Jewish revenge fantasy, Inglourious Basterds — anything, that is, which imagines history as it did not happen.

But the same question can be the spur to a different kind of speculation. “History,” after all, has two meanings. It’s not just the sum of past events, but the discipline that studies them. When the latter is emphasized, then the question “What could history have been?” doesn’t ask: “What would the world be like if things had turned out differently?” but rather: “What would history look like if historians hadpracticed it differently?”

It was with an ear towards this second sense — towards history as discipline and practice — that scholars, artists, and the historically-curious gathered for the What History Could Have Been symposium at The New School this spring. For the event, organizers D. Graham Burnett (Princeton) and Dominic Pettman (The New School) asked five invitees “to present an obituary, or an in memoriam or anéloge” — in other words, some kind of short biography — of “a philosopher of history and/or innovator in historiographical practice who did not live between 1600 and 1990 — but could/should have existed.”

Yes, you read that correctly: did not live but could/should have.

In a brief introduction, Professor Burnett, who also moderated the day’s proceedings, explained that the unusual prompt was meant to inspire contributors to represent “paths not taken in the evolution of modern historical thought.” The hope, in other words, was that asking people to memorialize the path-breaking practices of a non-existent historian would generate fresh approaches to the writing of history. “The point really,” underscored Burnett, “is to find ways to move between now and then differently.

To which we might reasonably ask: differently how? differently why?

If you’re not a historian, it’s easy to forget the conundrum at the heart of the discipline: historians need to produce accounts of a past that is no longer present. Whereas the experimental scientist can step into the laboratory to test a hypothesis, the historian, while often aspiring to similar standards of objectivity, can’t just hop in the time machine to verify a thesis. Instead she relies on primary sources, which must be selected, authenticated, and synthesized into a narrative that will meet the critical standards of other historians. These standards change over time, producing different ideas about how best to “move between now and then.” There is no one right way to do history. Only, one might say, evolving conventions.

That said, there are dominant tendencies that make some conventions seem possible and others unthinkable. One such tendency — the roots of which extend all the way back to the discipline’s self-conception as a science in the 19th-century university — is to downplay the role of the imagination. The motive here is simple enough: historians don’t want their efforts to be confused with pseudo-historical fantasizing or straight-up fiction. If they were, history would lose its central claim to authority: the superior ability to represent the past as it really was. Anxiety over this issue has led many practicing historians to identify with the sciences, which place a premium on empirical evidence, while turning their backs on the arts, which are more commonly associated with creativity.

But the problem with efforts to separate “serious” historical practice from good ol’ yarn spinnin’ is that such parsing can set up a false binary between fact finding on the one hand and imaginative activity on the other. Take, for example, the following quote from a recent book by the eminent historian, Richard Evans: “Historians have always considered it their first task to find out what did happen, not to imagine what might have happened.” The target here is the contemporary counterfactualist, whose work Evans would like to see relegated to the realm of “speculation,” where it can be safely cordoned off from “serious study of the past.” The distinction is a crucial one for Evans, who fears that the “recent fashion” for what-if history is but one facet of a postmodern colossus that “threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.” No doubt many would sympathize with these concerns. But by opposing the serious work of “finding out what did happen” to endeavors that “imagine what might have happened,” Evans sets up a dichotomy that leaves precious little room for a third possibility: imagining what did happen.

The conceit behind What History Could Have Been was to sound the depths of this third possibility: to foreground the imaginative aspects of writing history, or even, more broadly, the imaginative aspects of having a meaningful relationship with the past. Now, recall that the sense of “history” operative here refers to historical practices, and not the res singulares, or particular things, of the past as such. When the former is emphasized, a greater focus on imagination is not an incitement to fabricate factual evidence; rather, “imagination” in this context calls for something closer to invention, in the special sense the term has had in classical rhetoric since Aristotle (where any argument lacking recourse to a pre-existing means of proof, such as a law or a contract, must use “artistic” methods to discover new forms and practices.)

The goal of the symposium, in other words, was not to forsake the archive or cast doubt on the possibility of historical truth, but to expand our sense of how “historical truth” can be presented and experienced. To this end, each speaker was explicitly encouraged to “aim for the conjuring vitality of artistic practitioners who use fact and fiction to open clear views on both now and then.”

Fact and fiction? That’s right. But before the credentialed historians out there reach for their sidearms, consider that this provocative prompt, rather than proposing to collapse any meaningful distinction between the true and the not-true, might instead be evoking a different idea; one that lies buried in fiction’s etymological root in the Latin, fingere, for “form-giving, shaping.” From this perspective, the word “fiction” bears a resemblance to the Aristotelian sense of “imagination” above. It speaks to the processes by which all historians, once they have gathered their evidence, must organize and shape (we might even say figure) the material so that it can be shared as a narrative — as a thing, made of words, and having the form of a story.

The invocations of premodern definitions are not as arbitrary as they may appear — they’re actually inspired by Burnett’s idea, explored elsewhere, that some of this recent work on the historical imagination can be understood, “not merely as a brave new world of postmodern anything-goes-ism, but rather as the reanimation of a number of significant premodern historical practices.” The larger point here being that the “traditions” of writing history are themselves historical; that they have changed, and are likely to do so again in the future. Thus, the need for What History Could Have Been: a space to encourage, explore, and experiment with such changes.

Burnett assured us this was not going to be an afternoon of exercises in counterfactual history — not, in other words “how the world could have been different if Alexander the Great’s battle axe cracked.” No, these were going to be exercises in “conjectural historiography,” which is to say, attempts to theorize how history might have been written differently, explored by actually writing it differently; not theorizingabout new practices, but experimenting with new practices. “Our shared purpose,” summarized Burnett, “is to make trenchant arguments about historical possibilities with short works combining rigor and imagination in equal measures.”

* * *

And so it came to pass that a group of five actually existing historians gathered to imagine and memorialize the lives of five historians who’d never existed. Though they interpreted their task in widely differing ways, all shared the same adventurous approach to the creation of form and content.

None was more adventurous than the first speaker, who took to the stage in character to introduce the work of Harrison Wade (1936-2010), a (non-existent) American Art Historian who believed that a civilization’s progress could be measured by looking at what it was willing to call “art” — the more improbable, the better. Impersonating one of Wade’s former colleagues, the speaker reminisced in a molasses-thick Southern drawl (was that even his real voice?) about a hunting expedition they’d gone on together. Nothing much “happened.” Someone shot a deer. The deer was skinned. People went home. But along the way, the narrator’s patient attention to the mundane littered the text with quiet marvels. Breakfast was “a monstrosity of bacon in a vat of off-white lard.” The deer’s eyes “resembled Marilyn Monroe’s at Madame Tussaud’s — spacey, unreal.” Coming one after another, the descriptions lent the day a luminous quality, like something out of a Faulkner novel. The speaker was conveying, in the very texture of his tale, the philosophy of art he’d learned from Harrison Wade — a reverence for “the ordinary.”

Remaining in character, the speaker followed this story with another about the (once existent though now deceased) art critic Harold Rosenberg. Rosenberg goes South “looking for art,” only to be disappointed by the murals and museums he finds there. Throughout the tour he stops in auditoriums to present slides of famous paintings to a consistently stony-faced public. Instead of describing the images, he intones the last names of their creators with affected solemnity: “Gottlieb.” “Pollock.” Thirty seconds for each. The point is clear enough: this is what real art looks like. Though Rosenberg himself is unmoved by the images.

In fact, the only thing to rouse Rosenberg’s interest is an up-close encounter with segregation. “This happens? Everyday? In the United States of America?” he exclaims, feeling “amazed by the ordinariness of it all.” Amazed — but no more. Officially, his critical attentions are reserved for what the high priests of culture (himself included) have anointed as “art.” Everything outside this sphere, the ordinary stuff, is beneath sustained consideration. The same, however, cannot be said of Wade, who we learn once wrote an entire book on the same subject: Maximum Representation: The Public Art of Desegregation.

What was going on here? A story about a non-existent art historian, followed by another about a once-existent art critic. The sly juxtaposition pitted Rosenberg’s classic definition of “art” (typified by his slideshow) against Wade’s more capacious (or was it really just more perverse?) understanding. In so doing, the borders of our aesthetic categories — including the idea of the “aesthetic” itself, or the belief that art is only art when it is found on museum walls and contemplated with disinterest — were thrown into question. What would an art history look like that did not seek the so-called “extraordinary” in say, a painting by Pollock or Gottlieb, but in whatever captured our astonishment? Political movements. Street conversations. Even — or especially — the stuff of “the ordinary.” What art histories might then be made?

Both the form of the idiosyncratic presentation (an in-character lecture) and its content (the unorthodox views of an unconventional art historian) invited us to question the confines in which knowledge is produced and received in scholarly settings. Later that day, the speaker, who turned out to be Matthew Jesse Jackson from the University of Chicago (so the accent was fake!), spoke about his motivations:

It’s an open question to me which aspects of self are available in a scholarly context — and I’m talking about the viewer or recipient here. There’s a certain scholarly experience that restrains parts of ourselves, and I want to question that. Though it’s still crucial for me that what I do remain scholarly, as elastic as I’d like that term to be. It’s still crucial, in other words, that the endeavor be devoted to knowledge.

Devoted to knowledge, but not necessarily to knowledge production. Jesse Jackson’s performance offered a gadfly historian’s kind of history making, poking holes in disciplinary boundaries without seeking to plug them. “It is not the idea of the appropriate versus the inappropriate,” said Jesse Jackson, “but what is not even considered as appropriate or inappropriate. It is a way of bringing question marks to that which has not really been questioned.” To which he added, with a becoming modesty, “and maybe we realize we don’t need that — and that’s ok, too.”

* * *

Taking a very different, though no less imaginative tack, John Tresch (University of Pennsylvania) kicked off his presentation by announcing an extraordinary “discovery.” While conducting archival research at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, he’d stumbled upon a “forgotten text” in the pages of the late-nineteenth-century anarchist journal, Le Libertaire. The article, provocatively titled Scoundrel History and Utopian Method, was signed “une luteuse” (a struggler).

“Everyone at the time knew it was by Louise Michel,” said Tresch, “It’s undeniable.” Known to her contemporaries as “The Red Virgin of Montmartre,” the colorful biography of the real-life Louise Michel included stints as a school teacher, a leader in the Paris Commune, an ethnomusicologist in exile, and a science fiction novelist. “I wish I’d invented her,” Tresch joked. “She’s unbelievable. Like a character from a Hugo novel.” No, Tresch hadn’t invented her. But the same could not be said (or not with confidence, anyway) of the article he’d “discovered” in the pages of Le Libertaire (which, to complicate the matter further, was a journal the actual Louise Michel had helped to publish with her fellow anarchist Sebastian Faure).

Having stitched a dazzling costume out of dazzling costumes, Tresch launched into a dramatic reading of the text: a first-person account of Louise’s youthful encounter with the forgotten (wink wink) utopian revolutionary, Monsieur Octave Obdurant, who, we later learn, is actually a Mademoiselle . The story, rife with period details, witty dialogue, and uncanny twists and turns, took us to the heart of Octave Obdurant’s secret lair, where (s)he had built a machine capable of modeling with, it was alleged, mathematical certainty, the dynamic interactions of money, ideas, aspirations, politics, and social order — a giant revolution-calculator, an astrolabe of human history past, present, and to come.

How much of this, if any of it, ever happened? Of course, one could check one’s phone as Professor Tresch spoke, and thresh the wheat of fact from the chaff of invention (Was that Professor Pettman googling Octave Obdurant from the front row? Or was he just tweeting another wry, relatable comment?) But making the audience do that work didn’t seem to be the point. What were we listening to, anyway? A fictional article purported to have been published in an actual journal chronicling the imagined encounter between a real historical character and an invented one? Was this any different from fiction with a historical twist? Or history within a fictional frame? Were these even the right questions to be asking?

In the Q&A that followed, it was suggested that Tresch was “writing source material as a way of showing how profoundly he had researched and synthesized his period and his subject.” Now, from the perspective of current norms in professional scholarship, writing source material is grounds for excommunication. But instead of asking “is this still history?” and thereby invoking pre-established disciplinary boundaries, a more interesting question was put forward: what historical possibilities does the writing of source material open? If the ultimate point is to convey the mood of 19th-century utopian aspirations, or to reveal what it was like for a person to be formed by a 19th-century polytechnic institute in Paris, might we conceive of a methodology that puts analytical rigor and documentary research at the service of invention? The details of Tresch’s piece were rooted in his profound historical knowledge, just as the ideas his characters espoused reflected his deep familiarity with the revolutionary climate of the epoch (on ample display in his “real” scholarship). What if Tresch’s immersion in the idiom of the 19thcentury enabled him to conjure a time and a place in a way that no more sober historical account could ever hope to do? Or if that makes the piece seem safely like a particularly obsessive instance of historical fiction, what if we asked whether learning to write a piece like Tresch’s ought to be understood as “learning history”?

* * *

At first, it seemed as if the final presentation from Winnie Wong (Berkeley) would mark a return to the kind of staid historicizing Tresch’s tale so colorfully eschewed. The premise, at least, was straightforward: Wong, embodying a “scholar-official” from Guandong’s “provincial biographical administration” in China, read from a report commissioned in the 9th year of the Jiaqing reign (1804) upon the death of one Pan Youhe, “the first noted connoisseur of the primitive cloth paintings of the Western Ocean Barbarians.” Written in a dry, facts-forward style (which failed to stifle the whiff of bureaucratic pomposity), the report chronicled what the administration had been able to reconstruct from the scattered papers of the recently deceased.

We learned that Pan Youhe’s “deeply bizarre interest” in Western ocean barbarians first developed in visits to the Guangzhou docks, where he observed illiterate Chinese craftsmen painting cloth pictures for European ship captains, officers, naturalists, and sailors. The techniques used to make these paintings required no special discernment or education. Rectangular lengths of thick cloth were stretched over meager sticks of wood, and the front of the cloth was then covered in colors assembled from the raw sources of the earth. Such childish creations would not have been cause for further study if Pan had not discovered they were prized as fine art by the learned men of a faraway country called Yingjili (or, in the Western Barbarian tongue: England). Fascinated by this “aesthetic delusion,” Pan grew determined to study its source. How had these Western Barbarians failed to develop their tastes beyond “roughly the level of youths in their teens”? Why had their culture “failed to progress to the level of exploring the complexities of endless change and infinite meaning?”

To sate his curiosity, Pan set upon the radical idea of cultivating an emissary to send abroad. (As a wealthy merchant’s son with a sickly constitution, he wouldn’t have dared dream of making the voyage himself.) Down at port, he found a young and illiterate clay-modeler blessed with a photographic memory. Pan trained the artisan, gave him the travel name of Chit Qua, and sent him on his way. Chit Qua arrived in London in 1769, where his figure-making abilities were so admired by the simplistic Englishmen that they believed him to be one China’s great artists. He was quickly introduced to the distinguished men of the land — even to King George himself — and made figures of many of his encounters.

When Chit Qua returned home, Pan Youhe and his friends gathered to listen and laugh at the young artisan’s tales. They learned of the Western Barbarians’ inability to distinguish between a craftsman, a true artist, and a trained scholar-official; of their pathetic association, “The Royal Academy,” which awarded artisans mock aristocratic titles for simply plying their trade; of their unaccountable fixation on what they called “realism.”

Some years later, Pan sent a second emissary — this time, a teenager named Huang Yadong — to England in order to infiltrate their school system. The insights gleaned from the voyage led Pan to conclude at last that the “uncultivated sensibilities of their most learned and most elderly men” were owed to the fact Yingjili “had divided their philosophers from their painters, their poets from their mathematicians, their rulers from their scholars.”

But sadly, because he had produced no scholarly work and accomplished nothing, the provincial biographical administration could only applaud this “failed scholar” for “his methodological innovativeness” and grant him the posthumous names: “Lover of the Strange, Sympathizer of the Rude, and Barbarianologist of the Farthest Peripheries.”

By report’s end, it was clear the disarmingly sober tone of Wong’s scholar-official was in fact a Trojan Horse designed to smuggle decentering questions into the heart of the Eurocentric art historical tradition. Our glimpse of Pan Youhe’s perspective (refracted through the preening chauvinism of a Chinese bureaucrat) had turned us Westerners into “the other.” From that point of view, fresh questions glinted forth on the horizon: Why indeed the obsession with realism? Was it not, as Pan believed, a little childish to focus so relentlessly on the world as it appears to the human eye? And was it not in fact a little strange to have accorded the masters of these techniques the highest honors of society? Seeing our system of knowledge (and representation) through another, its invisible assumptions suddenly appeared in a curious — and hilarious — new light.

But just as surprising as these revelations were Wong’s comments in the Q&A. Questioned about the status of fiction in her presentation, she responded: “Aside from the guy that I made up everything was true; every other detail was totally in the record. It’s just that by creating the character, I was able to string together a narrative that made the data understandable.”

In other words, we had taken a turn through the archive — if on the kick-scooter of a literary conceit. The traveling clay-modeler sent to England on a merchant ship? In the record. His unlikely encounter with King George? In the record. All of it, down to the Chinese teen who traveled to England and attended the prestigious Seven Oaks boarding school during his seven-year stay, was in the record. Far from a flight of fancy, Wong’s story was the product of what Foucault once called the “gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary” business of research. The invention of the Pan Youhe figure had simply enabled her to present a perspective that was already there, latent in the attitudes of a time and place. And is that not the historian’s task? To make the past “live”? To bring it “to life”?

* * *

By the end of the day, a single question had emerged to unite the work of the five presenters (two of whom, due to space constraints, go unmentioned here: Jenny Perlin (The New School), who introduced us to a spelunker of secret knowledge, and Soyoung Yoon (The New School), who followed a rebellious group of Parisian videographers.) That question was not: “What could history have been?” but “What could it be?” And, trailing closely on its heels: “What could it be for?”

In his closing remarks, Professor Burnett suggested that the work we had seen and heard across the afternoon belonged to a larger conversation about the future of history — and, perhaps, the humanistic disciplines more generally. As far as history itself was concerned, Burnett observed that “historians are very good at discerning historical contingencies” (referring to the complex of things-that-could-have-been-otherwise in the course of social and political change),

but we are, I think, less attentive than we might be to the contingencies of “history” as a scholarly practice. There, we tend to display a dogmatism that would seem to be hard to reconcile with the sensitivity to dynamism and diversity that marks the best historical scholarship. It stands to reason that there are many ways of arbitraging or negotiating or activating or closing the distance that separates “now” from the many “thens” of the past — many ways that we are not currently using. And in a world of rapid and radically changing cultures of literacy and visuality and information, there is a good chance we will be needing more and different tools.

He went on to point out that the virtue of the format within which the speakers had worked was, he thought,

the way it let historians “do theory” by doing what we do best: telling historical stories. In that sense, this kind of symposium clips the loop of history and theory, and reattaches the ends with a twist — like a Möbius strip, which has, of course, only one surface, not two. The theory becomes a kind of history, and vice versa.

Trying to grasp hold the ends of this heady idea, I followed up with Burnett post-conference and asked him to expand on the Möbius strip metaphor. He suggested one might also imagine this inside-outside surface as a kind of poetry:

Poetry in the deep sense of Poïesis — an act of making, or even conjuring; which is to say, a sense that we had seen history being made — history being known through a kind of participatory practice that, at its best, sought something like “communion” with its subject matter. This is not the knowledge that seeks objectivity in distance, but the kind of knowledge that is achieved through something like convergence and intimacy: a participatory ethnography of the past.

To be aware of all this was to be forced to rethink the axis on which the day had spun. What now seemed more important than questions of fact and fiction, were questions of past and present, subject and object, performance and pedagogy. What happens once the scholar has gotten to know the past in a formatted way and turns back toward the present to perform his or her findings? I found myself wondering if this kind of “performance” of history makes something possible that wasn’t possible before — “possible” in a sense that gestures beyond undiscovered connections in our safely-buried past; a sense that speaks to possibilities in the present self that writes and the present selves that listen; possibilities that a certain engagement with history might yet “conjure.” The notion of history as Poïesis seemed to mark an attempt to explore how the knowledge effects produced by scholarship can feed the imaginative ways we “move between now and then” to inherit a culture. Is this art? Or scholarship? Or a hybrid form worthy of closer attention? It turns out that Burnett has taught on exactly this topic: a grad seminar called “Aesthetics at the perimeter of truth.”

The seminar, it’s worth pointing out, might just be the best place for these kinds of questions, as the urgent need to ask them may ultimately come not from scholars, but from students. Lest we forget, there is a much-documented, much-bemoaned “crisis of the humanities” going on across the country. While enrollments are low and lowering, the disappointing response of most Humanities departments has been to plead for their existence on the basis of the ability to impart instrumental skills. Read Milton or Melville, so the story goes, and you’ll be a better consultant.

But what if the current “crisis” isn’t that young people don’t care about the Humanities, but that they no longer relate to its traditional forms? After all, the questions, “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” would seem to be just as relevant to students in 2016 as monks in 1206. Less relevant, perhaps, are the modes of inquiry. In a world saturated with new and newly mediated subjectivities, not to mention new kinds of access to and techniques for activating information through immersive experiences, maybe students want new historical forms too. Burnett even hazarded a thought along these lines in the concluding discussion:

Being able to evoke a genuine 1848er or 1871er in the form of a brief diatribe in a journal from the period seems to me like a much more promising way of continuing to activate an engagement in the human past than many of the things that are currently happening in history departments.

To take him up on this suggestion would be to nudge the study of history away from scientism and its positivist tendencies, toward the arts and their empathetic embodiments. The new raison d’être of such historical education would be to inhabit other perspectives, to invest in other ways of being. But wouldn’t this threaten to further erode students’ sense of the line between fact and fiction in an age of spectacle? It isn’t perfectly clear what Burnett thinks about this danger, though his essay “In Lies Begin Responsibilities” appears to address the problem. Burnett seems to believe a process of makerly (or “Dionysian”) historicism would help students to experience how history lives and breathes or splutters and expires through the conjuring acts that bring it into the present. He even wonders whether this kind of education, far from confusing the boundaries of the “really real and finely fictive,” might be indispensable to training critical citizens in an age of increasingly simulacral and performative politics. At the least, the hoped-for result would be historical encounters more alive and enlivening. (And here it’s worth noting that such an approach could best be called “revolutionary” only in that term’s archaic sense, i.e. a return to the point from which a cycle began: early modern students might well have been asked to demonstrate their understanding of Cicero by writing the missing section of a Ciceronian disquisition.)

In the end, then, What History Could Have Been was a collective experiment in reanimating questions of historical and art historical engagement at a moment when the familiar approaches seem to be in trouble. Burnett gestured this way in conclusion: “We need new ways of moving between now and then, new art forms that are made of history and make history, new ways of doing the oldest work of all: singing the thinking about the kinds of creatures we are.”

What could history have been? What could it be? The great feat of the symposium was to make “singing the thinking about the kinds of creatures we are” sound like a plausible — even a necessary — answer.

Matthew Strother

Previous post

I Love Dick

Next post

A Burkini Removed and Secularism Exposed