Monday, October 27, 2008

The "event" and narrative

One of the academic journals I regularly read, differences, has published a special issue, In the Event, which centers on the very notion of "the Event," with particular reference to Katrina. I'm finding this interesting reading (though I suppose that anyone who consciously hates theory would not share my response to the issue). The whole notion of "the Event" has long been a matter of concern for historians and philosophers, but it's not usually something anyone who's neither a philosopher nor a historian ever think about. An "event," for historians, is a singularity or a rupture. In the US, one could make the argument that cable news has pretty much fostered the impression that the Event doesn't exist-- "breaking news" is more likely to be a piece of utterly banal trivia as it is to be anything anyone would care about in a day's or a week's much less a decade's time, and a constant stream of shrilly proclaimed "breaking news" has pretty much led us to conclude that nothing in the public sphere is more important than anything else. And yet for many of us, there's been a sense over the last couple of weeks that we are in the middle of such an "event." But whether the global financial meltdown will qualify among future historians as an "event" remains to be seen.

The journal issue is conceptually grounded by Hayden White's article, "The Historical Event," which immediately follows the introduction. White is known for his important work on how the structures of narrative influence the writing and production of History. As he notes, the famed Annales School of history attacked the whole notion of the event:

"Event-history," it was held, was little more than entertainment and little less than fantasy insofar as it fed the dreams and illusions of a bankrupt humanism. In fact, the French historian Fernand Braudel tried to diminish the focus on the event in historical research because he saw it as the mainstay of a narrativist approach to history, which made history into a drama and substituted emotional gratification for the intellectual satisfaction of science in the process.

Reading this, I'm struck by this rather nice irony: thirty years ago, the hot new thing among up-and-coming young historians was writing "microhistories"-- that is, recovering the narratives of the everyday, ordinary people who never figure in history, from archival documents. This passion for telling the lives of ordinary people was a direct result of the work of the Annales School, which gave historians new ways of thinking and resources they hadn't previously had. Oh, sure, a few antiquarian types had told such stories as "curiosities," but because of the Annales work, this new approach was much more sophisticated than the antiquarian curiosity narratives. And of course the new approach continued to defy the assumption that diplomatic history (as the Great Events method was called) was the only True History. And if I recall the discussions of the day correctly, most of the historians interested in such narratives also wanted to make scholarly texts of history (again) readable by nonhistorians.

White notes something that philosophers of history have been worrying about for some time:

The historiological notion of event is much closer to the dramatic or rather dramatistic than it is to any possible scientific conception thereof. Historical narratives run much too smoothly to support any claim to realistic representation of the events they feature as their subject matter. Unlike the kind of natural events (or sets of events) studied by the physical sciences, real historical events run rather roughly and raggedly...

The Annales School, of course, claimed the name of "science" for its practice of "history." The typical Annales work examines "being" or structures rather than "events." A couple of paragraphs later, White discusses Alain Badiou's take on the Event:

[Badiou] assumes that being is everything that is the case and that there is nothing that is not the case. Nothing new can ever be added to being and therefore no event-- understood as an eruption of something coming from outside the totality of being-- could ever take place. And yet events seem to take place all the time, at least to observers or chroniclers of happenings in the real world. This "seeming to take place" could be construed as an event, but it would belong to consciousness rather than to the world exterior to it.

So how is this kind of event possible? As I understand it, Badiou thinks that events seem to occur because there is a disparity between being, on the one side, and the knowledge of being, on the other. Event occurs when knowledge of some hitherto unknown aspect of being as to be added to what has been previously known about being. It is, as it were, this "shock" to the knowledge-system by the insistent nature of a newly discovered truth about being that registers as an event to consciousness. In reality, Badiou argues, a new bit of knowledge is only apparently new: it is like the discovery of a hitherto unknown prime number in mathematics. It was always "there" (which is to say, was always "nowhere" but among the universe of numbers) only awaiting (as it were) that computer which is endlessly generation new prime numbers of all but infinite length for its registration.

After further discussion, White comes to the interesting conclusion that "specifically historical events" cannot occur "before a specifically historical kind of knowledge existed" because "it would have no ground or context against which to display its newness." In other words, whether certain happenings are classified as events has to do with consciousness.

White then traces the invention of historical event to Herodotus and then notes that it was the Romans who gave us the word historia-- "with its primary meaning of tale or story understood as the kind of account 'proper' to the rendition of a series of events into a 'history'." And this, White says, is where

the idea of history as a truthful account of events that really happened in the past cast in the form of a story with a plot is achieved. And this provides at least one way of identifying a specifically historical event. As Paul Ricoeur puts it: a historical event is a real event capable of serving as an element of a "plot." Or, as Louis O. Mink used to say: a historical event is one that can truthfully be described in such a way as to serve as an element of a narrative."

And so,

In order for a given singular event, set, or series of events to qualify as "historical," the event, set, or series must also be validly describable as if they had the attributes of elements in a plot of a story.

Which is to say, without a narrative, there's no event.

We might also then say: if there's no narrative that a singularity can fit into, if the singularity doesn't fit any of the stories historians are telling, then it can't be perceived as an event. Lack of narrative = invisibility. (But we all knew that already, right?)

Much of this discussion of the relation of event to narrative is familiar to me from the historiography course I took as a graduate student in history. But for the last twenty-eight years I've been thinking of narrative from the perspective of a writer, reader, and critic of fiction. There's much in the two perspectives that are similar. As a graduate student, I read fiercely for what I was taught to call "underlying assumptions." As a fiction critic, I'm always nailing the subtext. In the former case, the "underlying assumptions" often account not only for the conclusion the historian draws but also for the facts selected as relevant to a historical account. In the latter case, instead of the "conclusion," one finds the ideological implications of the work; and instead of facts selected, one finds choice of characters and circumstances and events described.

As a first-year graduate, writing a paper on the Roman Republic, I had the conceptual epiphany that every historian-in-training must experience. Suddenly I understood: history is about change! And that's why professional historians don't consider antiquarian histories interesting or useful. Curiously, science fiction is about change, too. (I've long believed that my jumping from historical scholarship to writing science fiction was no accident.) The doxa has it that in fiction there can be no story without change-- that a piece of fiction in which nothing happens is a vignette, not a narrative. (Which is not the same thing, of course, as saying it has to have a plot: it doesn't.) Ought written histories to be plotless in order to make them less susceptible to ideological manipulation and the inauthenticity that accompanies any narrative arc? Ought fictions to be plotless in order to free them from enslavement to the same stories about the same characters told in endless repetition? Some of the issues do seem to be the same...

I can't help wondering: is a historical figure in a traditional narrative of history, however faithfully and carefully rendered, any more real than a fictional character? Consider that very most personal of histories, the autobiography: writing an autobiography requires fictionalizing the self. (And let's not even go into the question of the authenticity of the "self.") Even if every fact put into an autobiography were documented, a degree of fictionalizing would still be necessary. If that is the case for autobiography, surely it must also be the case for biography. The fictionalizing isn't about telling lies or making up "facts" out of whole cloth: it's about imposing a narrative arc, a story on facts that are only fragments of a larger picture that can never be fully constructed.

If any of this interests you, check out White's article. He goes to an interesting place after he's laid down the groundwork I've quoted from. (It's Volume 19, No.2)

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