Past

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‘Accidental causes cannot be generalized; and, since they are in the fullest sense of the word unique, they teach no lessons and lead to no conclusions.’

E.H. Carr’s remark in What is History? was intended as a warning for the historian who would see the past as a fortuitous sequence of events and mishaps without meaning or direction.

But it was taken up, seemingly, as the animating spirit behind much revisionist historiography of the 1970s and 1980s.

In a notable case, writers such as Conrad Russell and François Furet sought to challenge existing scholarship on the English and French revolutions. The then-ascendant Whig and Marxist-inspired interpretations had located the ultimate source of Europe’s early-modern convulsions in deep-seated social or juridical-constitutional conflict. But revisionists now attributed the genesis of these events to surface contingencies: clerical ambition and religious parochialism, personal stubbornness and court intrigue.

The high tide of historical revisionism, at least with regard to the bourgeois revolutions, has since passed.

Yale’s Steven Pincus has recently published a history of the so-called Glorious Revolution that echoes Marx’s interpretation in his critical journalism of 1850:

M. Guizot does not think it worth mentioning that the struggle against Louis XIV was simply a war of competition aimed at the destruction of French naval power and commerce; nor does he mention the rule of the finance bourgeoisie through the establishment of the Bank of England under William III, nor the introduction of the public debt which then received its first sanction, nor that the manufacturing bourgeoisie received a new impetus by the consistent application of a system of protective tariffs.

(Pincus, though, retains the requisite contempt for the significance of the Civil War and Interregnum. Their achievements, he suggests, were reversed entirely by the Restoration Stuarts.)

But the historical discipline as a whole  along with most of the humanities and social sciences   has retained a broad intellectual preference for the fragmentary and immediate. The social basis for this is diagnosed here  with some success  by Paula Cerni.

This movement has its theoretical touchstone in Nietzsche’s late jottings, in The Will to Power, against what he saw as arbitrary classification of the world’s untameable ontological flux:

The entire apparatus of knowledge is an apparatus for abstraction and simplification… In the formation of reason, logic, the categories, it was need that was authoritative: the need, not to “know,” but to subsume, to schematize, for the purpose of intelligibility and calculation… Knowledge and becoming exclude one another… A world in a state of becoming could not, in a strict sense, be “comprehended” or “known”; only to the extent that the “comprehending” and “knowing” intellect encounters a coarse, already-created world, fabricated out of mere appearances but become firm to the extent that this kind of appearance has preserved life  only to this extent is there anything like “knowledge.”

Hence the postmodernist historiographical dictum, courtesy of Foucault, which repudiated and reversed Carr’s methodological advice:

The forces operating on history are not controlled by destiny or regulative mechanisms, but correspond to haphazard conflict… the true historical sense confirms our existence among countless lost events, without a landmark of point of reference.

If this is how establishment thought treats its past, what of its present?

If no broad significance is attributed to the Earl of Strafford‘s execution, how is the emergence of a contemporary figure like John Yoo understood? Not well, presumably.

But that will be taken up in this blog’s next post.

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6 Responses to “Past”

  1. Brad N Says:

    Hi, long time reader, first time commenter. I agree broadly with the point you are making in this post, but I think you are misinterpreting Foucault. His point, as I read it, is not that any given historical event is without significance. He is, rather, warning against the danger of being overly deterministic in historical interpretation. I’m reading his “Madness and Civilization” at the moment and in his social analysis, he reads great significance into economy, religion, culture and so forth.

  2. Nick Says:

    Hi, Brad. Thanks for reading and glad you chose to comment. It is difficult (by which I politely mean impossible!) to judge Foucault’s argument in any given article/book by reference to his argument in another one. He simply changed his beliefs about the status of knowledge too often, and by too much, for the reader to suppose any consistency exists. This is certainly the case for the period between an early work like Madness and Civilization and a late piece like “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”.

    That said, it is true that in M&C he explains the C17 confinement of the mentally ill and various ideas about medical treatment etc. by reference to other facts like the development of the modern state and the growth of the bourgeoisie. And he makes similar points in other works like Discipline and Punish. This was, in fact, the basic argument of the structuralist-era Foucault: you could only understand a particular observation in the context of the discursive system or episteme of which it formed a part.

    But while this theory allowed for (in the lingo of the time) synchronic interconnection, it did not allow the historian to situate an event or document in a diachronic context. The whole point of Foucault’s discursive systems was that they were self-contained and non-overlapping in time. According to him one can’t judge the truth or falsity of a C17 French medical textbook – at all – outside whatever “regime of truth” was functioning at the time. And that context-specific truth regime was, for Foucault, the condensed outcome of violent struggles.

    This is how he describes it in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”: ‘In a sense, only a single drama is ever staged in this “non-place”, the endlessly repeated play of dominations…Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity…humanity intalls each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination.’

    How does this move from one set of rules to another occur? He does not say (though describing this transition is the topic of M&C, D&P, Birth of the Clinic etc). What is the relation between one mode of domination and another? There is no such relation. To suggest otherwise would be to construct a unilinear narrative (‘succession configurations of an identical meaning’). Hence all the geological metaphors (archaeology, sediments and so forth). History is like layers of rock – levels pile up on each other but they don’t intermingle.

    And beneath all the ‘systems of rules’ installed by the ‘play of dominations’ lay the same ontological magma described (sometimes) by Nietzsche: the primordial chaos that human thought cannot handle, and must classify, make intelligible, organise into categories. Beneath the apparatuses of medicine and sexuality lay unfathomable madness and the ‘body and its pleasures’. And these things are entirely incomprehensible and cannot fit into any historical schema. Just like Hercule Barbin in Foucault’s famous preface. Here is where Foucault grows inconsistent, because often he claims he does not believe in these ‘pre-discursive realities’. But of course, every now and then, he must gesture towards them, because otherwise what’s the point? You can’t condemn C18 criminological practice if in some sense they didn’t get it wrong. The problem is that his theoretical stance is incompatible with his political commitments, so he is forced to shuttle between them.

    Anyway, I like to think I do have a pretty good handle on Foucault and what he is saying in any given book or article. My take is that Nietzschean ontology (where reality is ‘changeable and wild, a woman in every way, and no virtuous one’) is vitally important to almost every one of Foucault’s arguments. And from there it has seeped into cultural/social theory generally, e.g. in people like Judith Butler. And historians are generally not very philosophically sophisticated, and were impressed by all this fancy talk. They started to adopt some of these ideas without really understanding them.

    In fact the idea that macro models or “master narratives” are in some such artificial and arbitrarily imposed on a hyper-fluid reality has been enormously influential. (Lyotard got this from Nietzsche, too, of course.) It is no exaggeration to say that this belief, in whatever guise, is supported by most historical scholars. And this is because, as you say, “determinism in historical interpretation” is a bad thing, and wrong. I agree with you about this. But who upholds any belief in strict historical determinism? Foucault thought that Marx did, but he was wrong about this, and all the evidence suggests that he never read Marx very closely. It is entirely possible to believe in historical direction (even a unilinear one) while holding that history is probabilistic.

    All criticisms of historical determinism may seem to have an intuitive plausibility. But they must ultimately be judged, not on what they attack, but what they themselves have to say. And it is the case that, as I said in the post, Foucault says that historical events ought to be judged up close, in glorious isolation, and not organised: ‘to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations…the exteriority of accidents.’ And elsewhere: ‘the historical sense can evade metaphysics and become a privileged instrument of genealogy if it refuses the certainty of absolutes. Given this, it corresponds to the acuity of a glance that distinguishes, separates and disperses…the kind of dissociating view that decomposes itself, capable of shattering the unity of man’s being…[History] will not discover a forgotten identity, eager to be reborn, but a complex system of distinct and multiple elements, unable to be mastered by the powers of synthesis…[Knowledge] is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.’

    What is this exaltation of difference, specificity and ‘the singular randomness of events’? It may not be that old empiricist view of history as “one damn thing after another”, but it is pretty damn close.

  3. Brad N Says:

    Well I wasn’t absolutely convinced by the short quotation you made in the main post but you certainly convinced with your reply. Thanks for making such a considered response. I suppose I was reacting to how the Foucault you described in the post is different to the Foucault I am only now making myself familiar with and this is (probably) indeed attributable to Foucault’s inconsistencies over time.

  4. Nick Says:

    Cheers. Happy to explain myself, though this is not my favourite terrain. Glad you found my comment ‘considered’ and not embarrasingly distended and possibly evidence of some of kind of fixation, which is how the long ones look to me as I write them.

  5. Not a suicide pact « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] have seen how establishment thought treats its past. What then of its present? If no broad significance is attributed to the Earl of Strafford‘s […]

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