Rise of the Narrative Are We Returning Essay

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Rise of the Narrative

Are we returning to a narrative in history? Yes. But now it is a narrative impacted by the numbers of the technology of the information age, which is a different type of impact tha the guardians of the past saw coming.

There is little question but that narrative has again begun to find a place in documenting and shaping the substance of history. Few people believe that numbers, be they those of the math of the hard sciences or those of the democracy of the softer sciences, can provide all the answers. As Lucien Febvre is reported to have complained to some of his students, "We have no history of Love. We have no history of Death. We have no history of Pity nor of Cruelty. We have no history of Joy." These were not of the topics of scientific inquiry in the traditional sense when he was sharing these thought, but clearly they would have to become such if it were going to be possible to record an accurate flavor of history. This was arguably why Febvre and Marc Bloch began Annales, a journal archive of French history and the jewel publication of the time that was seeking to make the case for why narrative had to be understood and accepted as its own additional to data-driven science. Their purpose was clearly to turn to the emergence of new technologies of a various sorts to "expand historical studies beyond the traditional concerns of politics, diplomacy, war, and great leaders, and to create stronger analytical frameworks drawing on social and economic history." [1: Fredric Cheyette. A Biography of Capitalsim. The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring, 1980), pp. 102-107. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40255803 .] [2: Pamela Long.Technology and Culture, Volume 46, Number 1, January 2005,pp. 177-186 (Review). The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/tech.2005.0024. ]

Early lovers of the value of romantic notions like Ranke had long before provided a more colorful rationale for why this transition to a bigger perspective was needed. A translated quotation captures his motivation: [3: Anthony Grafton, The footnote from De Thou to Ranke. History and Theory, Vol. 33, No. 4, Theme Issue 33: Proof and Persuasion in History (Dec., 1994), pp. 53-76. Blackwell Publishing for Wesleyan University Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2505502.]

When entering a great collection of antiquities gathered from many countries and from many ages, and placed next to one another in disorder, one could be overwhelmed by the genuine objects and the forgeries, the beautiful and the repulsive, the most brilliant things and the most dull. One could feel the same way looking at once at the manifold monuments of modern history; they speak to us with a thousand voices, display the most varied natures, and are clad in all colors. A few arrive with ceremony. [4: Ibid, pg. 59. ]

It would be in the 1970s that the change toward today's acceptance of this concept would take hold, though even that effort faltered before starting up again with the popularization of the computerized connectivities we use today. The 1970s, as Eric Hobsbawn said of the time, it was "a good moment to be a social historian." The Revival of the Narrative was important because it signaled the failure of the past approaches, wherein science could not answer all questions, and because of his recognition that the social and economic sciences were becoming ready to realistically play their roles. Unfortunately, Stone's plea failed to generate all that it could have, in part because it appeared to be limited to economic issues and the plight of the poor, which was timely with the ending of the civil rights era and the rise of a larger concern for social justice. This perspective did allow for a balancing of the voices of the "high culture" of literature with the "low culture" of peasantry, but it was not able to keep up with an expanding interest in other focuses that were also seeking to be heard. Only later, in the 1980s and into the 1990s and beyond, would gender and culture, as we might think of in the form of multiculturalism, begin to reignite further interest and lay the groundwork for the historiography of today that incorporates the broader possibilities of the voices of communication and online technologies. [5: Geoff Eley. Is all the world a text? From Social History to the History of Society Two Decades Later. CSST Working Paper 55. October 1990. Viewable at ] [6: Lawrence Stone, "The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History," Past and Present 85 (Nov 1979) pp 3-24.] [7: Eley, pg. 9-10.]

The rise of the narrative now is pulling its strength from the fact that the earlier advocates fought well to make sure that a multidimensional appreciation for scientific inquiry, including the narrative elements, was understood. This was why Febvre and Bloch actually dedicated so much time to their multidisciplinary approach. "Bloch and Febvre rejected the positivism that flourished in their own day, reaching instead for an all-encompassing history. For these two scholars, the history of techniques was intrinsic to history itself, and they provided a rich model for an expansive discipline." Doing so would enable others, such as Fernand Braudel, to undertake their "gargantuan" works on larger world systems theories, which would become the basis for some of the more radical philosophies of the true economic and cultural elements of the struggle toward the demand for social justice. It was no coincidence that when the time came, Hobsbawn's Age of Extremes would rely first on his take (possibly prematurely in light of the current economic struggles) the end of the Middle Ages came about in the 1950s with the death of economic peasantry. The world was coming alive with the rights of civil and economic justice and that viewpoint needed to tell its own story. [8: Long, pg. 186. ] [9: Henry Bernstein. 'The Peasantry in Global Capitalism: Who, Where and Why? The Socialist Register. Viewable at www.socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5754. ]

Lawrence Stone and Hayden White would pick up on this timing with the revival call. As Stone put it, "More and more of the 'new historians' are now trying to discover what was going on inside people's heads in the past, and what it was like to live in the past, questions which inevitably lead back to the use of narrative." Other commentators were at the very least contending that past efforts had not done a good job of explaining the complexities of their days so it was necessary to look again at what narrative had to offer. A contemporary review on Hayden White's work exemplified this theme: [10: Stone, pg. 13. ] [11: J. Morgan Kousser. The Revivalism of Narrative: A response to recent criticism of quantitative history. Social Science History. Vol. 8, No. 2. Spring 1984. 133-149, pg. 138. ]

White asserts that the kind of history one chooses to tell is based on moral and aesthetic values that stand in sharp contrast to some objective, neutral understanding of historical evidence alone. White's Metahistory reveals a relativism that collapses the distinctions not only between historiography and the philosophy of history, but also fiction and historiography. [12: eNotes. Hayden White. Contemporary posting. Viewable at http://www.enotes.com/hayden-white-criticism/white-hayden.]

Critics have taken a hard look at what these contemporary writers are suggesting. Much of this commentary still centers on the challenges of using measures that do not carry the full credibility that the numbers and math sciences are supposed to offer. They would feel as had others of the decades before that there would always remain a from the QUASSHA class, as Kousser likes to call those who react against the quantitative class of social sciences. His assessment in 1984 was that because of tough economic times and because of the promises of other technological advances, he too feared that the numbers people would once again rise in their predominance. [13: Kousser, 1984. ]

An interesting article by Samuel Cohen (written in 1985) is worth reviewing briefly. His piece is entitled Plagues, Consciousness and High Culture in the Early Renaissance. What Cohen does is complain about how even those who derided the numbers game in favor of the revival of the narrative relied on the numbers themselves, including numbers that didn't do justice to the larger picture. What he sought to do was to demonstrate how using a mix of both approaches could achieve the ends that many seemed to be looking for. He was in the midst of writing a book on the changing ideas of the peasant class from 1205 to 1799 when he noted changes in the ways that wills and bequests were documented particularly in regard to deaths amongst the lower classes. What is most important is how he feels vindicated in finding a consistency of representations of the time in looking at both the numbers and the context of the materials of the dead and dying that cross classes and even centuries -- something that he believed those…[continue]

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