Distorting time to deny inevitability

The latest issue of Rhetoric Society Quarterly has its authors engaging with “untimely historiography,” which, as near as I can tell, is an attempt to complicate the notion of time as a one-way river of cause and effect. Most of the essays (I’ve read two and skimmed the others) seem to share a common distrust of grand narratives and a distaste for histories that look beyond the contingency of particular events. Cause and effect, linear time—these are human constructs that make sense of distort an otherwise irreducibly complex mess of events.

The chronological anxiety in these essays is of the sort recently addressed by Ted Underwood in Why Literary Periods Mattered. There is of course good reason to be skeptical about grand narratives and historical theories, so I’m sympathetic to much of what is said in these new essays, and I find value in taking a critical look at constructions of linearity in history. However, as genetics blogger Razib Khan notes, acknowledging the dangers of over-generalization presents us with “problems to be grappled with, not a ‘get out of jail’ card to be thrown at any attempts to construct a formal system of interpretation.” Khan’s post is aptly entitled “Human History is Both Contingent and Inevitable,” and I think this both/and worldview is intellectually useful. It makes room for the radical contingency argued for by Michelle Ballif and others without foreclosing on legitimate linear interpretations of history. Thinking about history as both contingent and inevitable leads us to ask where it’s one or the other, to disentangle where it’s more one than the other.

Not everyone would agree with my sentiment, to put it mildly. As an example, I’ll quote from Hans Kellner’s essay “Is History Ever Timely?”*, in which he recounts a talk given by Hayden White:

In 1967, Hayden White . . . journeyed to Colorado to deliver a talk at a conference on biology. At this conference he spoke on the topic “What is a Historical System?” in which he contrasted a historical system with a biological system. In effect, he said that biological—that is, genetic—systems are timely. By this he meant that one’s biological state had been determined in the past by genetic ancestral code. Today we would speak of DNA. But is this true of historical, cultural ancestry? Are we historically determined in the matter of who we are? Is our historical identity as fixed by the timeliness of time and genetic logic as our biological identity is? At that conference, White said, “no.”

A resounding answer, one that, I believe, many scholars in the humanities would echo. It also rejects my olive branch to both sides of the question. It implicitly denies the possibility that culture and history might exhibit large-scale patterns or processes due to the influence of biology, geography, demographics, economics, and so on.

Kellner continues with an example that White used to prove his point: the Christianization of Europe as a culturally created event that needn’t have occurred:

Cultural communities are constituted on the basis of a shared agreement about the choice of historical ancestors. There are times, however, when people lose faith in their chosen identities . . . The example White cited at the time was the crisis of the seventh and eighth centuries in Northern Europe, when a Romanized world saw that the source of their identity had been changed beyond recognition, and a new candidate for that identity had emerged in the teachings of Christian missionaries. As White put it, when the Germanic peoples of northern Europe decided that they were no longer the cultural descendants of ancient Romans or of pagan barbarians, and that their cultural ancestors were Palestinian Jews with whom they had no biological connection at all, a new culture was formed. Backwards. This did not need to happen. Just as the pin on which one sat might have never been noticed if the pain had not caused it to exist for us, so the “Christianization” might have never happened . . .

But is it true that Northern Europe switched identities and cultures as effortlessly as Kellner’s gloss implies? It seems to me a highly contested statement. The Holy Roman Empire was a hegemon among Europe’s warring monarchs and tribes for a time, and, as White describes, the Church Fathers went to great lengths to adopt for themselves and for Europe a foreign Jewish culture and history, but to suggest that the Scots, the Anglos, the Franks, and the Iberians stopped being Scots, Anglos, Franks, and Iberians just because they became Christian is a gross overstatement belied by the constant warfare and power-plays that constitute European history (you’d think White and Kellner would be more careful about hasty generalizations!). It’s like saying the Persians stopped being Persian when they were conquered by the Muslims. Culture runs deep, precisely, I think, because it is tied to and influenced by processes much more intransigent than individual human whim. I don’t believe culture is a costume ready to be changed in a generation or two, and any attempts to do so often result in backlashes or corrections. One might even argue that during the middle ages Europe was just waiting for its monarchs to re-assert their power over Rome so they could all go back to fighting one another again. And indeed they did.

Now, I’m sympathetic to the political sensibility from which I think all this emerges—the idea that if history is not inevitable then the future is, to some extent, in our hands, ready to be constructed in a more just and moral way. On the other hand, if the movement of history is inevitable, then humans can have no agency over their (often unjust) cultures and behaviors, no more agency than they have over their genetics. Such is the “Cormac McCarthy” view of the world, McCarthy having famously said that wishing the species could be “improved in some way . . . will make your life vacuous.” It is an antipathy to this view that brings out the poststructuralist and postmodern tendencies in these RSQ essays, whose authors deny inevitability to history by denying the linear shape of time altogether. Get rid of linear time and any notion of inevitability disappears with it.

I grew up watching wildlife documentaries, so I was inured from a young age to the McCarthy view. It probably didn’t help that I read Blood Meridian in tenth grade. Nevertheless, I try not to err in extremes, so although my default position on culture is determinism of all types—genetic, geographic, demographic, historical—I enjoy challenging and often replacing my default assumptions. I think those who err on the other side—no determinism of any type, history is always contingent—should likewise challenge their default assumption. Hopefully we can meet in the middle.

Hayden White asked:  Are we historically determined in the matter of who we are? Is our historical identity as fixed by the timeliness of time and genetic logic as our biological identity is? He answered no, but I think we should answer, Sometimes yes and sometimes no. It depends on what you’re talking about. The intellectual challenge is to figure out what is (or was) contingent and what is (or was) inevitable. Does history exhibit patterns and cycles? What are the large-scale processes which stand outside of but influence cultural expressions? Do certain cultural expressions change according to broadly identifiable patterns, while others exhibit no patterned changes whatsoever? How do irreducibly contingent moments interact with larger historical processes? Interesting questions, in my opinion, ones that the cliodynamicists are trying to answer mathematically. Will they be successful? Maybe, maybe not. But before the fact, I don’t think we should, to quote Khan again, “throw our hands up in the air and assume that all of history is a contingent darkness from which we can’t infer general patterns.”


*Kellner’s essay is a sensible discussion of the ways that texts, films, and images create connections across great gaps of time to re-figure the past in terms of the present. It’s an excellent piece, and I’m simply using these carefully extracted quotes as a foil.


2 thoughts on “Distorting time to deny inevitability

  1. Well-written article. I’m not sure that I understand Hayden White’s view though. If biological systems are timely – i.e., if we know the state of the system we can accurately predict future states – then I don’t see why we can’t theoretically build layers of abstraction on this knowledge to construct a deterministic model of history. Of course, we can never gather anything near the amount of data required to actually fully accurately model a historical state. But if we wisely shy away from grand narratives and stick to analysing the micro: local events and small communities, such as villages, we should be able to make testable scientific hypotheses about changes in political, economic and social systems; we have a large enough dataset to be able to pin down causes and effects with confidence. For these changes will happen concurrently in many similar places exposed to the same factors. It is when you start to scale up to the grand, Toynbeean narratives that you really can’t say anything anymore as the systems are too complicated, as RSQ points out. Still, to me, the non-inevitable view of history is little more than a pleasantly motivating linguistic trick.

    • If biological systems are timely – i.e., if we know the state of the system we can accurately predict future states –

      Probably depends on the biological system. I imagine someone somewhere has made some good models of, e.g., the evolution of organisms with lightning-fast generations. I don’t know if that’s possible with humans. And insofar as evolution is affected by changes in environment and chance mutations, even though these factors will be “determinitive” in some sense, they really can’t be modeled ahead of time. Determinism, I think, is perfectly compatible with randomness.

      But if we wisely shy away from grand narratives and stick to analysing the micro: local events and small communities

      That’s true. But get enough small, local narratives, I don’t see why one can’t infer patterns across them. Of course, any such inferences or models would be entirely probabilistic, which is no slight against them. One can’t have exactitude outside of physics and chemistry. But the larger problem with such inferences, or models, is how the hell do you test them unless they make predictions that should occur within our lifetimes?

      I think we need more events like Tetlock’s Good Judgment Project, or some Nate Silver-esque bets.

      to me, the non-inevitable view of history is little more than a pleasantly motivating linguistic trick.


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