Saturday, December 29, 2007

Tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien

Over at the Tenured Radical blog, there is a discussion about objectivity in blogging and historiography. It stems from an ongoing controversy that is, frankly, too boring to mention. Actually, I'm also probably less interested in the objectivity of bloggers than I am in the objectivity of ham radio enthusiasts!

However, the issue of objectivity in writing actually is of interest. It's obviously something that we history scholars strive for and I'm no different in that regard. I like to think that my dissertation topic is so far from my own personal frame of reference that I'm afforded some objectivity by virtue of its strangeness. I'm dealing with French romantic missionaries to the Near East in the early 1800s. I'd like to think that I don't have very strong opinions on French Restoration-era Catholicism, or at least none that will color my interpretations.

On the other hand, since I'm not much of a relativist, I do believe that being a human gives me a common frame-of-reference with all possible historical subjects. I mean, I'm not studying the mating patterns of Brazilian aquatic centipedes here: on some level we understand human behavior, and so we have opinions on that behavior. Pure objectivity might be something akin to sociopathy- a complete alien lack of empathy or connection.

Tenured Radical:
For the non-historians who are readers here, I would also like to note that, among the Sisters and Brothers of the Past, objectivity is no simple thing and it is not a word we normally use as a curse, or to define political battles. It is, in fact, a major source of disagreement between some conservative historians and -- let's just say "others," to avoid polarizing - whether it is either possible or desirable to present only "the facts" and let the reader decide "truth" for him or herself. Facts without narrative are either dull and unreadable or unintelligible; and narrative, as Hayden White and others have argued, is inevitable drawn from a set of readily interpretable story lines: comedy, tragedy, romance and heroism.

These thoughts on objectivity draw on a useful and vibrant discussion among historians over a decade ago, and in my own department, triggered by the publication of Peter Novick's very intelligent and controversial book, That Noble Dream. Novick, who could generously be described as a centrist (and who I perceive as more conservative in his views than not, particularly in his views of social history and cultural history) came to the conclusion that objectivity wasn't something one could "have," but only something one could aspire to.

History is not a science, as much as it would like to be. And the real aspiration to objectivity comes from an era in which it was more widely believed that history would one day become a science. Historians (or social scientists) would make enough charts and discover enough laws of human behavior that doing history would be akin to computer modelling. I suspect one can be fairly objective about the sort of social history that involves things like figuring out how much coal a particular mine yielded by year through the 1860s. It's hard to be swayed by one's emotions there.

Of course, if there were actual laws of human behavior, we could predict future human behavior, and we can't. And history never really became an empirical science. We are of the humanities, thank god. We are the people who get to study those thorny, brackish, sticky questions of human existence that can't yet be chemically-programmed or scientifically quantified. We should be grateful.

I think that some sort of personal biases will creep into any interpretation we make of other peoples' behavior, but as I don't particularly want to be a scientist, this doesn't bother me. Even when I think of some distant event- say, the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett in 1170- it's nearly impossible to treat in a clinical way because, on some level, I have an opinion about an imperious ruler killing a troublemaker over a religious question.

I do think objectivity is worth striving for, if only because I've seen some lousy history written by people who seemingly see themselves as advocates or social workers for the dead. They're trying to give voice to the marginalized and voiceless, who would probably be grateful, if they weren't dead. I don't personally believe that history needs to help anyone, or make the world a better place in any way, or further any political causes. I don't think scholarship is moral or even political work. I just think it needs to be accurate and interesting. Of course, on the other hand, I don't think that pure objectivity is possible for anyone aside from sociopaths and extreme relativists...

So, I guess I'd agree with Novick.


Holly said...

One of the greatest moments of epiphany as an artist came to me during a talk where a sculptor was talking about how we choose our meanings. People love to ask, about art, "What does it mean?" and (especially post-modern artists) love to say, "It doesn't mean anything, I just liked it that way."

[Don't worry, I will bring this around to relevance to your post by the end!]

Eventually, it becomes necessary to acknowledge that our choices are rooted in our beliefs. Why do I like to sculpt in bronze and silver, but not gold? Why do I prefer a certain scale? What underlies my preference for certain lines, certain forms, certain executions? (perhaps, just as significant, what about the things I reject? What about the gold? What about the minimalist geometrics? Why do I loathe Jackson Pollack so much?

And, in talking about all these things, am I not choosing specific words with which to express my interactions with these things?

... all of those are underlaid with beliefs. Choosing words like "form" instead of "shape" is indicative already of things going on in my mind.

At the end of the day, we are unable to escape our prejudices and value systems... even if one of the core values is to try valiantly to escape those tethers. This is probably tied to the fact that we are unable to perceive anything directly--it must be processed and filtered to reach our awareness at all. As a consequence, everything tastes at least a little bit like filter.

It strikes me, in this context, that the idea of objectivity is slightly ridiculous. In fact, it might even be a conceit. It implies that the historian is somehow superhuman (like scientists are supposed to be?) in his idealized ability to speak for the past without applying interpretational spin.

(I say idealized, because of course all sane people will recognize that there's no getting around the spin, not because it can be done.)

Frankly, even your interest in objectivity is a bias.

However! In the interest of providing an uplifting angle on the whole thing, may I recommend to you the book The Light of Other Days by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter? It supposes a device has been developed that allows us to see (and, eventually, hear) historically, and so there is no more speculation involved in the study of history--it's all universally objective fact. Their interpretation of what would happen, on both a public and a very personal scale, is pretty goddamned fascinating. There is, of course, a lot more than that going on in the book, but that was the part that I found completely riveting.

Rufus said...

I think that's right- I think at some point we have to realize that we're trapped in our own subjective experience of the world. It occurs to me that scholars deal with this in different ways than artists. For instance, I think this is why scholars have our work vetted by so many other people. The outside perspective really helps me.

It's also why I think academia needs more conservatives- I'd really rather know if my scholarship is painfully liberal.

But I think that an artist who created their art by running it past numerous committees would seem like they lacked integrity somehow. Even though I'm sure that happens all the time.