What We Talk About When We Talk About History, Part II: Atheoretical History?

I know that the mere mention of the word "theory" makes some people’s eyes roll and their ears flap shut, but history needs theory.

I read Black’s Maps and History last year, and I have to say I rather liked it. But reading it again after reading The Landscape of History and James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State in the last few weeks, the lack of any underlying theoretical structure in Black’s book really stuck out like a sore thumb.

It’s probably not helping that last week I was required to read another book, David Stradling’s Smokestacks and Progressives, that had essentially the same problem. That book sensitized me to how annoyed I can get when there’s a lack of theoretical underpinning to a work of history, even one on an interesting topic.

So yeah, Stradling and Black fall into the same trap– they give very authoritative and in-depth accounts of activity over time, without any theory unifying their books. In one case, it’s the history of smoke abatement movements in the Progressive Era and into the Depression, and in the other, it’s the evolution of historical atlases. Both are fascinating topics. Both books seem quite well-researched. But neither author really puts much effort into demonstrating commonalities over time– whether they be commonalities in causes of change, effects, methods, forces that repeatedly influence the historical narrative, commonalities over time…

And that’s what I’m talking about when I say theory.

History needs theory. Not necessarily big-T Theory, you don’t need to include Foucault or Derrida or Althusser or something to write history… although I often get a kick out of it when historians do. But you need something to unite the events you describe. Otherwise, you have books like these two, interesting at times and even informative, but not fully doing the "work" of History, if you ask me. As Gaddis points out, building on Scott, Historians necessarily must simplify for the sake of legibility.

What this means is that we don’t compile a list of causes and effects– writing History is more than creating a timeline, although even that action is of course still a simplified cartography of the historical landscape for the sake of legibility. But historians, writers of Good History, go a step further– they seek unities, they create theories that express links, similarities, continuities, and even ruptures. Without this, history becomes a confusing mess of discontinuity and unrelated events.

I’m arguing that theory is necessary to the work of History, but but as I said before it need not be the kind of totalizing, absolute Theory that supersedes fact and lobs confusing jargon at the reader.

Gaddis seems to think that Hayden White is one such writer of Theory. While Gaddis acknowledges the utility of the concept of narratization and emplotment in Metahistory, he seems to feel that it falls under the weight of its own jargon. All this is stated in a couple throw-away sentences, and the footnote indicates another book rather than Metahistory… This was one of the few things in the book that really rubbed me the wrong way.

I’m digressing, here, and anyway, White himself has acknowledged in an interview with Ewa Domanska (published in her wonderful collection of interviews, Encounters: Philosophy of History after Postmodernism) that few people read the book in its entirety, and that it is "long and repetitive," and he seems fine with both. The reason I brought this up, though, is that in  the same interview, White argues that his theories in that book are not techniques to be applied, but a sort of contingent, contextually-based structure set up to explain what was going on in a particular set of texts. He seems almost put off at the concept of younger authors trying to continue with his theories laid out in that book in other works. "It is not meant to be applied. It is analytical. It does not tell you how to do something."

White also repeatedly praises Roland Barthes as a diverse and inventive thinker in that interview. The next interviewee, Hans Kellner, seems to put his finger on what it is about Barthes that might be so appealing to White:

From Mythologies to the last essay, he was always changing… in each work… you get this enormous structural framework poised in order to do a quite small job… Then Barthes goes on to his next work and says in effect: "Oh, I’m all done with that. I am never going to use that system again."

So even among these people who are associated with arch-structuralism are nevertheless proposing the primacy in Historical work of theories over Theory.

You don’t need to get married to a single theory and apply it to every event– you don’t have to be a Marx or even a Derrida. You don’t even need your theory to be applicable in any other historical context. But you need theory to really make sense of history.

I liked, on a certain level, both Smokestacks and Maps and History. I’ll keep both for reference. I wouldn’t even be surprised if I ended up incorporating either of them in a bibliography or reading list one day. But the experience of reading both left me unsettled, full of questions.

I never got a clear sense of why Stradling thought that smoke abatement movements over those fifty years ultimately failed, only learning more about the periodic and seemingly unrelated interruptions, upsets, and setbacks that the movement suffered over that time. Likewise, I don’t have a clear answer to the "so what" question as far as Black’s treatment of historical atlases. I don’t have a clear concept of why he feels these atlases are important enough to merit the in-depth treatment he gives their changes over time.

I can propose answers on my own– both authors give their readers enough information to form theories of their own– but the lack of a theoretical base to their books leaves me unclear on how to read certain passages, and generally unsatisfied.

Theory, as well as making the reading more interesting, also gives a reader a map to reading the book, an easy "in" to understanding the authors biases and assumptions, and deepens the feeling of coherence in history.

And after all, coherence and symmetry are things that humankind seems hard-wired to seek out.