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Unit 1: What is History?

We're used to thinking of history as the study of the past - but we cannot study the past itself. Properly understood, history is the study of the past through texts: through artefacts of various kinds that we can read and interpret as evidence of the past. That work of interpretation has been undertaken in radically different ways in different times and places.

We’re accustomed to thinking of history as a discrete and autonomous academic discipline, with its own procedures, institutions, and professional structures, but it hasn’t always been so. During the eighteenth century Richardson and Fielding described their novels as works of ‘history’, and philosophers like David Hume thought of history as a literary genre that could cultivate ‘the most delicate sentiments of virtue’. This introductory unit explores how history has been constituted as a distinct kind of intellectual practice; whether it should still be thought of as such, and, most of all, what it means to understand history as the study of texts about the past.

 

Left: one of Dayanita Singh's photographs of 'archive work', collections of which are available in her books File Room and Museum of Chance. You can read more about her work here and here.

Core text: Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859; repr. 2000)

Some secondary readings on history in A Tale of Two Cities:

 

Week 1: Introduction

Lecture:

Readings:

  • Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), pp.5-108 (i.e. from the beginning of the novel up to the end of book 2, chapter 6)

 

Week 2: Archives

Lecture: on the Moodle site for History & Textuality (click on the 'Lecture Capture' block on the right of the screen)

Lecture slides

Traditionally, historical scholarship has been distinguished by its use of archives as evidence of what happened in the past; and recent decades have seen a renewed interest in archival research among historians. But the organising questions of that work are now different, as scholars pay greater attention to the inequalities in power that structure the documentary record, and to the limitations of the knowledge that can be derived from them. Whereas the great French historian Jules Michelet thought of himself as ‘resurrecting’ the past in the archives, Arlette Farge presents the archives as a site of loss – yet also of possibility and excitement.

Readings:

  • Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), pp.108-194 (i.e. from book 2, chapter 7 to the end of book 2, chapter 16)
  • Arlette Farge, 'Traces by the Thousands' and 'Gathering and Handling the Documents' in The Allure of the Archives (2013, 46pp.)

Suggested further reading:

  • Carolyn Steedman, '"Something She Called a Fever": Michelet, Derrida, and Dust' and 'The Space of Memory: In an Archive', in Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (2002, 42pp.)

Seminar questions:

  • What is an archive?
  • How does understanding the nature of archives change our conception of historical knowledge?
  • What is more important to the historian – what an archive contains, or what it excludes?
  • Are archives inherently unreliable as bases for historical knowledge?
  • How do we see the operation of archives in A Tale of Two Cities?
  • Of what is A Tale of Two Cities itself an archive?

 

Week 3: Evidence

Handout on Joan Scott's 'The Evidence of Experience'

History has also conventionally been defined by its use of sources as evidence of a knowable past. Traditionally this evidence consisted of ‘primary’ sources derived from official papers that detailed the lives of states and empires, but since the early twentieth century historians have examined a greatly expanded range of source material in an attempt to understand much wider aspects of the past. (Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant, for example, demonstrates how a sensitive use of evidence might enlarge the scope of historical study to include things like smell.) Joan Scott’s celebrated essay on ‘experience’, however, points out that even the most seemingly basic historical evidence never points us to a pristine, uncomplicated historical reality.

Readings:

  • Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), pp.194-254 (i.e. from book 2, chapter 17 to the end of book 2)
  • Roger Chartier, 'Do Books Cause Revolutions?' in The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (1991, 25pp.)
  • Joan Scott, 'The Evidence of Experience', Critical Inquiry 17:4 (1990, 25pp.)

Suggested further reading:

  • Alain Corbin, 'Introduction' and 'Air and the Threat of the Putrid', in The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (1986, 24pp.)

Seminar questions:

  • What is historical ‘evidence’, and where does it come from?
  • Of what does Roger Chartier argue that subversive books in late eighteenth-century France should, and should not, be read as evidence?
  • How does Joan Wallach Scott criticise historians’ understanding of ‘experience’ (at the time of writing)?
  • What, according to Scott, do conventional understandings of ‘experience’ exclude from history?
  • What does Scott mean by calling for a ‘non-foundational’ history, and what is the role in such an enterprise of what she calls ‘[r]eading for “the literary”’ (p.796)?
  • Does A Tale of Two Cities offer any examples of how subjects are constituted by and within ideological systems?

 

Week 4: Method

Lecture:

Lecture slides

History could also be thought of as a kind of intellectual ‘method’ – a way of constituting sources as ‘evidence’, and of validating the truth of historical statements. This, too, was central to how history was established as a ‘discipline’ during the nineteenth century. But the idea that history has a unique or distinctive ‘method’ in this sense has become less convincing, as historians like Fernand Braudel have engaged with the ideas and techniques of the social sciences, and others like Robert Darnton have understood their evidence as a kind of ‘text’ which points not to an underlying reality but to more fluid and contingent systems of meaning. In this respect, recent developments in historical method can actually appear to make history appear much more akin to a form of literary studies, which elucidates the meanings of texts rather than recovering or reconstructing ‘the past’ as a stable object of knowledge.

Readings:

  • Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), pp.255-317 (i.e. from book 3, chapter 1 to the end of book 3, chapter 8)
  • Fernand Braudel, 'History and Sociology', in On History (1969, 18 pp.)
  • Robert Darnton, 'A Bourgeois Puts His World in Order: The City as Text', in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984, 37pp.)

 

Week 5: Challenges

Finally, historians have recently come to understand how the traditional practices and structures of their discipline exclude certain things from historical inquiry. This is particularly marked in the case of histories of the French Revolution which traditionally excluded the crucial processes of revolution that swept the wider Atlantic world, notably in the French colony of San Domingo. Michel-Rolph Trouillot's text challenges us to consider the role of power in the production of historical knowledge, and the exclusions and silences that it has traditionally rested upon - particularly in the case of the Haitian Revolution.

Lecture:

Lecture slides

Readings:

  • Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), pp.318-90 (i.e. from book 3, chapter 9 to the end of the book)
  • Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 'The Power in the Story' and 'An Unthinkable History' in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995, 67 pp.)

Suggested further reading:

  • Julius Scott, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (2018), ch.4
  • Susan Buck-Morss, 'Hegel and Haiti', Critical Inquiry 26 (2000, 44 pp.)