Circles of Historiography

Today our World History Reading Group met to talk about a new AHR forum introduction on the history of Oceans. The reader included a series of essays on the historiography of oceans, including the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and Pacific. Braduel's famous history of the Mediterranean was the overarching model: if the others scholars weren't trying to employ his model, they were arguing against it. The study of oceans and other similar spaces (deserts, steppes, mountains) occupy the field of world history now; how can we reconfigure our conception of geography to include these spaces as actors in our histories?

As is apt to happen in reading groups, our discussion migrated to the topic of methodology: how is world history actually done, especially with "Oceans" as a theme. A colleague of mine then made an interesting observation. He told us that the way these histories, and other similar histories, were written were quite similar to methodologies of the early twentieth century. He found it amusing that these histories, that are considered so "cutting edge" in the our field, were including frameworks that shaped histories written 100 years earlier.

After my initial surprise at this observation (and, let it be noted, I can't necessarily attest to its accuracy, I don't often read histories of oceans and geography from turn of the century European scholars), I realized more importantly the assumptions that lay behind my surprise. After cultural and linguistic turn, history as "linear" became outdated. We could no longer blindly assume that history consistently moves not only forward but upward; in essence, that human development is constant progression. We also cannot look at history as a line of events; it is not only outdated but purely inaccurate to describe any event as being caused by one other singular event. History is not a line, but a series of trajectories that meet and then create another series of repercussion trajectories. This spatial metaphor, as fuzzy as it may seem, is probably the best example of how our discipline conceives of history today.

Yet it seems that we do not apply this framework to historiography. J. P. Bayley offhandedly wrote in The Birth of the Modern World that historians make their living and sustain their profession by overthrowing accepted wisdom once every generation or so. I think most of us believe, if we would not be ready to eagerly verbalize, the assumption that the way we write history now is better than it has been in the past. It's more developed, more sophisticated, and if not a more accurate than certainly a novel way of looking at the past. I think that this borders dangerously on a linear framework. Yet, if it's not linear, then really, why do we all praise cultural history? Why do we have to include the most novel, the most "in-vogue" theories of the day, if not because they are considered the best? We can't go back and write what Braudel wrote, knowing what we know now. We say that good scholarship stands the test of time, but even the most respected pieces of scholarship, Norbert Elias, or in our field Fairbank or Levenson, still seem "outdated" to us now...

I do not have an answer to this, more just the musings of a grad student caught up in the headache that is post-modernism. It is, however, something interesting, and perhaps hypocritical, to think about. But if we take post-modernism to its logical and extreme end, we require some degree of hypocrisy to get out of it...