Found Historiography

A Hundred Thousand Hidden Histories

Or, A New Series

I’ve been toying with the idea of running a regular series here. Clearly, research tidbits — as fun as random quotes from antebellum newspapers are — do not for consistent updates make. But about what? I got to thinking about how I really enjoyed writing that Hacker History piece, and the (quite lively) discussion that followed (on FB, anyway).

Too, I want to find ways to make the relevance of historical work visible — and to think about the ways in which historical thinking shapes how we speak, write, and act in venues beyond the Journal of American History.

So. From now on, every week I’m going to try and find an example of historical thinking, or historical practice, in some non-professional history realm and then chew on it for a while, but, like, with words. I think Tom Scheinfeldt’s term for this — Found History — describes what I’m after pretty well, so that’ll serve as the tag/title (until I find something better).(1)

And as a inaugural post for this series, I’m going to cadge from (yet another) blogger’s regular feature: John Scalzi’s The Big Idea.” (2)

In “The Big Idea,” Scalzi invites other sci-fi and fantasy authors to discuss “what makes their books tick — and what that meant for the writing process.” The most recent entry is by N.K. Jemisin, author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Rather unusually, Jeminis opens by discussing someone else’s book — specifically what she’s learned from Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

She starts by talking about Mann’s work because

… this is the kind of thing that really gets me going: hidden truths. History is written by the victors, after all — which means that beneath many historical “facts” lie counter-facts and conflicting events, illogical assumptions and unrealized motivations, all of which would shake us to our foundations if we ever found out the truth. Maybe. …This is what I decided to write an epic fantasy about.

Hidden truth isn’t really a new concept in fantasy, granted. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” (LotR) trilogy is basically the coda of a much longer symphony that most of its principals don’t know they’re playing. …

This kind of epic fantasy has always felt incomplete to me, somehow. Yeah, sure, there’s a certain mental comfort food in the idea of putting the world back to rights. But there’s always a part of me that wonders, which rights should it be put back to? Did the heroes make the best choice, or just the easiest one? Who gets to answer that question?

What Jemisin’s says about the motivation behind her work sounds a lot like the sorts of questions that motivate – and originate in – historical research, albeit with seriously higher stakes (usually finding out a “hidden” historical “truth” does not lead to a long walk to Mordor. Usually).

Specifically, the way she phrases the consequences of answering these questions (“shake us to our foundations”) sounds a lot like one of the most powerful, and common, uses of contemporary historiography: undermining legitimacy.

I like Jemisin’s formulation a lot. Since beginning grad school, I’ve frequently had moments where I encounter an argument that suddenly calls into question something I hadn’t even thought to wonder about, a “hidden truth” abruptly revealed in a seminar or book conclusion. (3)

As in Jemisin’s book, these mostly have the effect of simultaneously delegitimizing an institution (or worldview), usually by just noting it’s recent provenance, and constructing something else in its place. Sort of like an ideological dynastic cycle, with all the terrible (or awesome) consequences that can have.

Let me give you a few examples:

Surprise! The idea of being loyal to a nation-state — one nation, under God, indivisible, etc etc — is quite recent (three centuries, at most, rather less in most places). See: These United States vs. The United States, postbellum shift in usage of. Also, France.

Surprise! The Founding Fathers (et al.) were, in large part, making it up as they went along (though they too argued by appealing to past fathers of liberty). Worse, they trended more than a little to the conspiracy-nut side of the spectrum. See: anything they ever wrote. (No, seriously.)

Or, at an even more basic level: Surprise! All the things you thought were totally natural about human life, especially social and cultural life, have, at one time or another, not been the norm for a significant number of people — whole civilizations, even. See: marriage, sex, money, religion, etc. Even this idea of “the natural” is a rather new one that had a great deal of trouble establishing itself, too.

Now, none of these will be earth shattering to anyone with a passing familiarity with contemporary history, or even to scholarship in general. Nor is it to say that everything is relative.

Rather, it’s to throw into relief what “real-life” hidden truths look like — as Clifford Geertz and others have put it, “it’s turtles all the way down.” Turtles may be silly, but jenga-stacks of turtles are important.

Knowing the “hidden truth” means above all understanding the contingency of it all — while still recognizing that contingent events and structures (WWI, democratic politics) nonetheless have real power.

This is where I think I may part ways with Jemisin; I think she’s more interested playing more with the consequences of revelation of particular truths (and more power to her!), whereas a lot of what historians do is take the same “facts” and sift them through different filters — so, often it’s the filter (imposed or unearthed by the historian), rather than the “truth” itself that we’re trying to argue for, or explain the consequences of.

Big reveals, by themselves, have substantially less power in our world, at least without the proper engine (ideological, material, institutional, etc) to drive them forward, or a proper hook to give them purchase. “Hidden truths” have a lot of inertia to overcome, partly because they are inescapably filtered. But I think Jemisin’s historiography has given her access to a very rich narrative seam to mine, indeed.


Image cite: Stuck in Customs, “The Zen Peace In Your Mind,” Flickr, CC License

(1). In fact, the mission statement for Scheinfeldt’s blog gets at what I’m aiming to do here pretty well, though I’m a bit less interested in digital history as an object of analysis:

Found History explores public and digital history in all its forms. It pays special mind to the myriad ways non-professionals do history, sometimes without even knowing it. By taking seriously the work of amateurs and professionals alike, as well as new trends in digital history and digital humanities, Found History aims to foster a broader understanding of what history is and who should be called an historian.

(2). John Scalzi, “The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin,” Whatever, 26 Feb 2010.

Incidentally, I highly recommend Scalzi’s blog, Whatever. As part of my recent renewed interest in sci-fi writing, I’ve been reading it in tandem with another blog by an author — Charles Stross’s aptly-named Charlie’s Diary — and thoroughly enjoying both.

I’ve been a huge fan of Stross’s Laundry Series for a while now (thanks little sis!), but I haven’t read any of Scalzi fiction except for his most recent novella, The God Engines, which I liked quite a bit. But even aside from sci-fi work, both Stross and Scalzi have smart, smart, smart things to say about writing, being an author, and commercial publishing.

Blogs by smart people who can write well, and who aren’t crazy: I’m a fan.

(3). Which is nice, because that’s actually why I showed up. It wasn’t just for the gentlemanly penury and occasional free lunch.