The indeterminacy of Historiography: History vs history

This week’s readings deal with the theme of the indeterminacy of  historiography. It is interesting to read a conversation among an historian, filmmaker, theorist and scholar about the ways in which history can be restored and can be written.

Rancière offers a new approach to history. According to him, history as we have known it in modern times is a “discourse of the truth.” Conventional historiography only focuses on the events and story, ignoring the subject who tells the story. Rancière argues that because the main task of historiography is to rearrange events and emphasize the story, it “repriv[es] history of its human subject, it links to a generally political and specifically democratic agenda, and its characteristic mode of representing its subject’s manner of being in the world, namely, narrative.”(p.xi) Since historiography has dealt much with subjectivity and its personal language, Rancière suggests an alternative source of finding the truth which challenges the existing “discourse of the truth.” He calls this source “a poetics of knowledge, a study of the set of literary procedures by which a discourse escapes literature, gives itself the status of science, and signifies this status.” By poetics of knowledge, Rancière refers to two interacting issues. First, literature itself can be taken as a scientific source to find the truth. Second, the subjective, personal language of a fictional work are trustable in order to restore the truth and, in a more focused sense, history.

Rancière confronts the conventional historiography that adopts an objective and impersonal language as the norm. For him, history should combine “science, politics and literature.” Examining the cause of Michelet, Rancière suggests that “history does not become a science by ceasing to be ‘narrative’ or ‘romantic’ or ‘literary’”. (xviii)  In this sense, Rancière redefines history by extending the boundaries of the language and the form of history. Rancière is radical in his approach to the issue implied under the relation between language and the truth because, as he asserts “It is not a simple matter of words. It belongs to a poetics elaboration of the object and the language of knowledge. (p7) His attempt, as Hayden White precisely points out “is to disclose ‘the unconscious’ of historical discourse, everything that had to be repressed in order to make possible the specific kinds of historical discourse met within our culture in our age.” (p. xix)

Sharing the concerns of history and subjectivity, Roland Barthes approaches history in a boldly personal fashion. The idea of history came to him when he was collecting his dead mother’s photographs. According to Bathes, there are two types of history: History with a capital “H” and history with a lowercase “h”. He says:

“the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History, its division. History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it – and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it. As a living soul, I am the very contrary of History, I am what belies it, destroys it for the sake of my own history” (p65)

Barthes’ distinction of History vs (his) history is based on the distance between him and the past. In this case, Barthes cannot intervene in History, which is what had happened to his mom before he was born. However, in order to make sense of his life, he can “belie” and “destroy” the History. In saying “as a living soul, I am the very contrary of History” he implies the emotion that underlines his separation of History vs history. The Mourning Diary was written as a way for Barthes to keep track of his of his sadness and depression after his mother’s death in 1977. The diary can be in a sense, and without of Barthes’ intention, perceived as a history of his mother’s autobiography. In this regard, Barthes engages with History through his mother’s past. He reads his mother’s past mainly through her photographs whose punctum, in Barthes’ own words, keeps “triggering” and “pricking” him.

Barthes famously differentiates the studium from the punctum. According to Barthes, the studium is simply “a kind of general enthusiastic commitment” and it is a “very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste: I like/I don’t like…” (p27),  whereas the punctum is a “detail” that “arouses great sympathy in me, almost a kind of tenderness” (p43). Barthes observes that looking at a photograph of news usually causes him the sense of studium, but looking at his mother’s photographs always triggers punctum. Barthes once asserts that it is memory that supports conception of the punctum.

Similarly to Barthes’ accessing the past by looking at his mother’s life, Godmilow revisits the past – particularly the Vietnam War – by remaking Farocki’s film. Godmilow’s film refers back to Rancière’s viewpoint about the role of literature in helping understand history. Since her film is a documentary in which actors play the role of historical figures, it blurs the sharp boundary between the fictional and non-fictional that Rancière implies when discussing history as a science and literature as a fictional work. In this regard, Godmilow does not contrast making art from making history. In other words, art can be a trustable source to capture history. More importantly, Godmilow refers to the “indeterminacy” of history as a text. Praising the filmmaker Backer for adding imagination to her work, Godmilow emphasizes the actual more than the real she focuses more on the real experience of a viewer rather than the real that the work might represent. (p93) Additionally, Godmilow believes that by abandoning the narrative cinema she can “represent history” and “tell an accurate history.” (p97)

My questions are:

In the interview, historian Ann-Louise Shapiro states that “history as having several simultaneous meanings. I think of it, at the least, as referring to the past, to the narratives that attempt to present the past, and to a discipline that seeks to interpret the pas and define protocols for that process” (p99) Do you agree with his categorization of the meanings of history? Or do you want to add on other meanings?

How do you interpret history? Do you agree with the two types of history that Barthes suggests?

In which ways do you approach history? In which condition do you think that an emotional and personal approach to history is more trustable than the scientific approach?

How can we talk about a historical event if it is based on a collective memory? And how can we evaluate a person as a trustable witness of history?

In term of the representation of history, can we talk about a work of art is “truer” than the others that reflecting the same historical events based on its style?

What do you think about Godmilow’s idea about film as a medium representing actuality rather than history?

~ by Qui Ha Nguyen on March 23, 2016.

2 Responses to “The indeterminacy of Historiography: History vs history”

  1. At last, an insightful post about historiography … this post is actually a repost of something else, apparently, but the poster didn’t include the source. That would be very helpful, indeed, as would some kind of reflection from the poster regarding the selection of the passage and its connection to the broader themes presented here at TVO.

    This site will soon be redesigned with new features. We welcome posts related to the recent Viet Film Fest.

  2. After a quick search, I found the following link:

    We welcome comments and reflections in English, French or Vietnamese. Posts in other languages should be translated with the original text included.

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