Saturday, June 18, 2005


A pet peeve

I've started to dislike a certain rhetorical tic that historical writers often use. In an attempt to add drama to turning points in the narrative, a writer will often say of a character: "He never could have anticipated that ..." or "She could not have foreseen that ..." The book I've been reading has used such a construction to close at least two chapters, but instead of pointing the finger, here's an example of this tic using my own material from the essay I've been working on:
In 1833, twenty-two-year-old Charles Calistus Burleigh was a law student and part-time teacher in Plainfield, Connecticut, where he helped tend the family farm for his disabled father. When he looked out over the horizon of his father’s hay fields, envisioning his future, Burleigh probably saw a Windham County law practice, or perhaps a life of scholarship and teaching like the one his father had led before a midlife case of blindness descended on him. He could not have anticipated that five years later, on January 2, 1838, he would be ascending a platform in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the capital of the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere, to address a meeting of the Haytien Abolition Society.
It's not that I have a problem with historians trying to figure out what their actors could or could not anticipate. But usually, that's not what paragraphs like this are really trying to do. It's a writer's trick to surprise the reader; it's a piece of dramatic flair. What the writer really means to say is not that Burleigh never anticipated where he would be in five years, but that you, the reader, never would have guessed the chain of events that took Burleigh from Plainfield to Port-au-Prince. It's a way of transmuting the reader's mental state and expectations into speculations about Burleigh's mental state.

Again, it's not that I think speculations about Burleigh's mental state are totally out of place. I think one of the most important thing historians can do is try to explain what historical actors found thinkable and possible, to sketch their horizons, to determine the boundaries of what Carlo Ginzburg called the "flexible cage" of culture. But if this is one of the most important historical endeavors, it's also one of the trickiest.

What people can anticipate is, first of all, highly contingent. For any given historical event, the extent to which contemporaries could have foreseen that event varies considerably. To say of President Bush, as Condoleeza Rice tried to do before the September 11 Commission, that he could never have anticipated that terrorists would turn airplanes into weapons, is quite different from saying of someone who worked at the World Trade Center that she never could have anticipated, when she left work on the morning of the 11th, that terrorists would fly planes into the Twin Towers. Just because both President Bush and the putative worker were contemporaries on September 10 doesn't mean their horizons of expectation were exactly the same, and their horizons would also continue to change the more we specify the future event. It takes hard historical work to figure out precisely whether a given historical actor could have foreseen a given historical event. To set that work aside for the sake of surprising a reader seems careless.

Often, the most historians can do is say what their actors did anticipate; to rule out what they could not have anticipated is much harder, because proving a negative is always more difficult than proving a positive assertion. For even after we scour the material records that actors leave behind, we are treading on thin ice when we attempt to look into their minds and see what they could foresee. This is partly because anticipating things is part of what it means to be human. To borrow from Heidegger, human being always has a temporal "fore-structure." In our day-to-day being in the world, we are constantly anticipating our next moves and forming "fore-conceptions" of ourselves and our futures. Who knows how many of the expectations that flit across the face of our minds will actually come true? And who knows whether we ourselves could say with certainty that we never anticipated things that happen to us? That self-reflection ought to at least give us pause when we say, cavalierly, that a historical actor never saw something coming.

Collective Improvisation:

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