Thursday Historiographical Rant

I spent most of Wednesday evening massively pissed off by a book that I read. This is an opera blog, not a history blog, so suffice it to say that it was one of those books that claims to be doing something new and exciting by arguing that historians of the specific topic at hand have relied too much on quantitative approaches and too little on the subjective experience of the people involved; the author goes on to argue that the subject in question is in some way outside of our capacity to narrate.


Now, of course numbers can lie. Numbers can mislead. They’re like words in this way. They do what you tell them to. But plenty of other people have investigated the non-quantitative, qualitative/descriptive side of this topic. Debates about the value of quantitative history and its relation to this topic have been going on for years. The author, for her part, has mustered a phalanx of genuinely interesting qualitative questions, clothed them in the language that is likely to appeal to people who like concepts like “disciplining the body”, and proceeded . . . not to answer them. (There was one part where she said she would discuss the thought process by which X group of people came to be doing Y, which I would actually be very interested in hearing about – but she never actually gets to the explanation.) She has an evocative name for her way of thinking about the topic, but the evocative name doesn’t come with a lot of substance. (Oddly enough, the reviewer of the book in the WMQ fixed on the same points that I did, even some of the same quotations, but the reviewer thought that they were wonderful.)

This sort of thing infuriates me. There are limits to what we can know about the past, but arguing against historical intelligibility without offering a good alternative option is like throwing up your hands and saying – well, we can’t really know if Handel wrote every note in this opera, so let’s not work on that performing edition of Alcina. This is one of those books that talks bigger than it walks. It’s not awful. The author is a good writer, and some of what she says is genuinely interesting. But just when you think you’re getting to the good stuff, she’s off to something else. And then in the last chapter she’s like, “well, this type of experience is basically outside of our capacity to narrate.” Maybe so, but we can at least try. We can give it a shot. And if we don’t get all of it right, we can do better next time around. Are we historians, or what?

This was the thought process that occupied much of my evening. And then I had one of those JESUS CHRIST EARWORM NO ONE CARES* moments and I decided to have a gin and tonic and listen to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Schumann instead.

Oh, and if you’re into the Bach B minor mass, I hear there’s a new recording out with the NY Phil and Anne Sofie von Otter and some other people.

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*I do not actually address myself as “earwormopera.”

7 thoughts on “Thursday Historiographical Rant

  1. I do, actually, because this becomes more of an issue the further one gets into whatever it is they call my old theoretical turf these days.

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    1. There are pockets of this type of thinking all over the place. (You are more on the literary side of things, right?) I tend to run into it most often in works that are written by someone who has one foot in history and the other in American studies or Af-Am or other similar fields. I can see the point sometimes – but more often than not I end up irritated and disappointed, because often it’s more about sexy question-framing than it is about rigorous question-answering.

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      1. What puzzles me is the siloing. Historians who work on issues where documentary evidence is fragmentary are very good at constructing other approaches; epigraphy for example. Historians in document rich fields seem to just throw up their hands if the ideal document isn’t in the archives or the question at hand is just not susceptible to that line of enquiry.

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        1. In this particular case I think part of the problem is that the author has gone from 1. based on the extant sources, people who experienced it (the book is about the MIddle Passage) and tried to narrate it later created documents that undermine the concept of intelligibility because the experience was so horrific and impossible to parse to 2. the middle passage itself as a thing resists narratability or analysis. These are two different things, and I think just because 1. is true doesn’t mean 2. is true.

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          1. I agree with you totally. There are many examples of experiences so horrific that first person narration can’t provide a full analysis or narrative. I’m the grandson of someone who served on the Western Front in 1916-18. I have seen at first hand how it can be impossible for one who was there to articulate what happened. It doesn’t mean analysis is impossible or not worthwhile.

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  2. OMG! When did the NYP decide to do this?? I hope they’ll do the same with the recent Dallapiccola/Finley performance! Much better than pirating it off the air (not that I would do that, of course!)

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    1. No, never, no radio piracy round these parts, nothing to see at all. Nope.

      I’ve seen a whole series of recordings like this, live NYP/various soloists with the same style of cover, roughly the same price – so there is hope!

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