Rethinking Historical Distance From Doctrine to Heuristic Phililips Mark

November 24, 2017 | Author: Guilherme Rodrigues Leite | Category: David Hume, Historian, Narrative, Hermeneutics, Representation (Arts)
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History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 11-23

© Wesleyan University 2011 ISSN: 0018-2656

Rethinking Historical Distance: From Doctrine to Heuristic Mark Salber Phillips Abstract

In common usage, historical distance refers to a position of detached observation made possible by the passage of time. Understood in these terms, distance has long been regarded as essential to modern historical practice, but this conception narrows the idea of distance and burdens it with a regulatory purpose. I argue that distance needs to be reconceived in terms of the wider set of engagements that mediate our relations to the past, as well as the full spectrum of distance-positions from near to far. Re-imagined in these terms, distance sheds its prescriptiveness and becomes a valuable heuristic for examining the history of historical representation. When distance is studied in relation to the range of mediations entailed in historical representation, it becomes evident that the plasticities of distance/proximity are by no means limited to gradients of time; rather, temporality is bound up with other distances that come from our need to engage with the historical past as (simultaneously) a realm of making, of feeling, of doing, and of understanding. Thus for every historical work, we need to consider at least four basic dimensions of representation as they relate to the problem of mediating distance: 1. the genres, media, and vocabularies that shape the history’s formal structures of representation; 2. the affective claims made by the historical account, including the emotional experiences it promises or withholds; 3. the work’s implications for action, whether of a political or moral nature; and 4. the modes of understanding on which the history’s intelligibility depends. These overlapping, but distinctive, distances—formal, affective, ideological, and conceptual—provide an analytic framework for examining changing modes of historical representation. Keywords: historiography, historical distance, representation, mediation, David Hume I. INTRODUCTION

It would be hard to name an idea that historians have more often invoked or more persistently taken for granted than the one that this essay explores.1 As commonly understood, historical distance refers to the growing clarity that comes with the passage of time. Conceived in this sense, the idea of distance has exercised an important influence on how we think about historical understanding, elevating distancing and detachment to a privileged position with respect to knowledge of the 1. This essay is a version of the introduction to a book-length study of historical distance, entitled Bringing the Distant Near: Distance and Historical Representation. It appears here with the permission of Yale University Press. I am grateful to the organizers of the Groningen conference for their invitation to participate, and to Robert Goheen, Stephen Rifkin, and Edward Hundert for careful readings of the text.


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past. A useful suppleness can be gained, however, when distance is reconceived in relation to a wider range of mediatory purposes that shape historical representation. In this context, calendrical time and objective knowledge have to be put in context with other forms of engagement that mediate the now/then of history. Formal structures and rhetorics, affective coloring and ideological commitments, the quest for intelligibility and understanding—the push and pull of these fundamental investments give historical time a complex plasticity around which a more capacious view of historical distance can be articulated. Historians are not alone in believing that “Truth is the daughter of Time,” but the idea holds a special place in the historical discipline—indeed, it has come to define history as a discipline. “Retrospectiveness,” as Eric Hobsbawm once put it, “is the secret weapon of the historian.”2 As the years pass, so we believe, we come to see events more accurately, reduce them to their proper proportion, and observe their consequences with greater detachment. In personal life, this process is identified with adulthood: we grow up and learn to see things in perspective, albeit with some nostalgia for the lost vividness of childhood. By analogy, awareness of historical distance is figured as the maturity of nations: a stage of consciousness far removed from the simplicity of earlier ages, which expressed their view of history in the bright colors of chronicles and romantic legends. In modernity, however, we have become so attuned to discriminations of historical time that it becomes possible to be playful about time-consciousness in ways that would have been unthinkable earlier. As moderns, we note Shakespeare’s anachronisms with indulgence, never worrying that an inventive staging of Julius Caesar set in gangland Chicago might look like a slip. Equally, we find pleasure in scenes of ancient saints walking the streets of medieval Bruges or Siena, attracted by a display of faith that seems all the more sincere for being innocent of time’s passing. For historians, it is evident, mastery of distance carries strong positive connotations, but the association of distancing with intellectual clarity needs to be put in context with an accompanying desire for other kinds of relation to the past. Since the late eighteenth century at least, Europeans have seen some form of distancing as bound up with historical knowledge. Yet the same condition of estrangement also produces a strong counter-current, encouraging a widespread desire to recapture a feeling of historical intimacy and connected tradition. Historians and philosophers have conceived this challenge in a wide variety of ways, calling it “resurrection” (Michelet), “Verstehen” (Dilthey), “re-enactment” (Collingwood), or “tradition” (Gadamer). Behind each of these terms, however, stand some similar assumptions about the conditions of historical understanding: namely, that a genuine encounter with the past must trace a path from initial recognition of alterity to some form of insight and comprehension. Far from putting an end to the desire for engagement, modernity’s preoccupation with its rupture from the past has often made the desire to abbreviate distance all the more compelling. Conventionally, narratives that make presence their central concern are associated with epochs of romantic emotionalism, but Macaulay’s ambition “to make the 2. Eric Hobsbawm, “Un historien et son temps present,” in Actes de la journée d’études de l’Institut d’Histoire du Temps Present (Paris: CNRS, 1992), 98.

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past present, to bring the distant near”3 remains a goal for historians whose style and ideology are far removed from the spirit of the age of Carlyle and Michelet. Some of the best historical writing of the past generation, in fact, has cultivated a more immediate connection to the ordinary worlds of men and women in the past, and though the result has been to foreground affective experience, it would be hard to call the motives romantic. Rather, strong ideological commitments fueled this democratized interest in questions of gender, memory, or trauma, much as they inspired a whole generation of left-leaning historians to rally to Edward Thompson’s call to rescue forgotten lives from “the enormous condescension of posterity.”4 In historical representation, as in daily life, assuming a position of proximity is often connected to sympathetic understanding, as it is in Thompson’s championing of the casualties of history. Quite the opposite effect, however, is intended by the opening of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where a close-up description of the tortures inflicted on Damiens, the regicide, is not designed to enlist the reader’s pity. The hideous violence works in the contrary direction, functioning as a kind of “alienation effect” that estranges all regimes of punishment alike, the modern penitentiary system as much as the premodern tearing of the flesh. Foucault’s coldly aggressive close-up, no less than the warm persuasions of Thompson’s style, draw attention to the plasticity of distance, in which the same formal relation—close description—can result in such contrary affective and ideological results. By extension, comparisons of this sort point to the importance of distance in discriminating among various modes of historical writing, distinguishing the political bite of journalism from the measured judgment of academic scholarship, or the often intimate tone of memoir from the wider compass of history “proper.” Though these assumptions are seldom fully explicit, they are so embedded in our understanding of the rhetoric of historical representation that it seems impossible to define the competing claims of different historical genres without implicit reference to associations of this kind. Form, affect, and ideology shape much of our engagement with the past, but still more far-reaching are the implications of distance for conceptions of historical understanding. For the past two centuries especially, doctrines related to distance have exercised a powerful role in setting the terms for both practice and speculation. Much like the discipline of art history, historiography has made the mastery of perspective into an index of the progress and sophistication of Western traditions of historical thought. Medieval and early modern societies, it is widely agreed, lacked a proper sense of anachronism, and even the Enlightenment, if we credit Dilthey or Collingwood, fell short of a full historical consciousness. It was only with Vico, Herder, and their successors (so the story goes) that historians and philosophers turned away from the generalizing ambitions of the eighteenth century to grasp the essential particularity of historical process. The dialectics of

3. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Hallam’s Constitutional History,” in Critical, Historical, and Miscellaneous Essays and Poems (New York: Albert Cogswell, 1880), I, 310. First published in the Edinburgh Review, September, 1828. 4. Edward Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1963), 12.


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distance—of alterity and insight—acquired a new authority as the indispensable structure of historical understanding.5 These views, carried forward as a legacy of nineteenth-century historicism, have exercised a deep influence on historians at large, legitimating certain forms of historical thought while relegating others to an inferior station. (What is the phrase “history and memory” if not a shorthand for two modes of historical distance?) The consequence is that certain prescriptive views of distance have become so incorporated into historical doctrine that the idea of historical distance now seems barely distinguishable from the idea of history itself. II. Distance and Mediation

To the degree that it has built its disciplinary claims as well as its literary hierarchies on commitments to particular forms of distance, modern historiography makes it difficult to recognize ideas of “historical perspective” as doctrines that serve particular values or ideas. In its simplest conception, historical distance is regarded as a natural accompaniment to time’s passing, as though the progress of years were sufficient to explain changes in historical understanding. But this is to accept the powerful effects that accompany linear temporality without acknowledging the full range of engagements that mediate our relations with the past. More fully conceived, distance is a dimension of history that is both variable and multi-faceted: not just the bequest of time, it is the work of hands, hearts, and minds (sometimes tugging in different directions), and it is in this much more comprehensive meaning that distance takes us close to the central functions of historical representation. Scientific time may be measured by abstractions, but history’s movements are neither neutral nor uniform. Though time is often compared to a river (a more apt metaphor if we think of it as a current of fish as well as of water), it might equally be imagined as a city street, where the traffic changes its rhythms at different times of the day, and where the flow of present purposes rubs up against structures built by earlier generations. In narrative, as in a streetscape, heterogeneity produces a variety not reducible to a single optimum viewpoint—what some have wanted to call a truly historical perspective.6 Rather, historical distance emerges as a complex balance that has as much to do with the emotional or political uses of the past as with its explanatory functions or its formal design. To eighteenth-century Britons, ancient Rome was more immediate and compelling than classical Athens, but for their nineteenth-century descendants the reverse was generally true. (Witness 5. The classic statement of this historicist view is Friedrich Meinecke, Historism, transl. J. E. Anderson (London: Routledge, 1972). The widely discussed emergence of a sensitivity to anachronism in the Renaissance is well summarized in Peter Burke, The Renaissance Sense of the Past (London: Edward Arnold, 1969). For Collingwood’s criticism of the limitations of historical consciousness in the Enlightenment, see note 6 below. 6. See, for example, Collingwood’s condemnation of the historical outlook of the Enlightenment: “a truly historical view of history sees everything in that history as having its own raison d’etre . . . Thus the historical outlook of the Enlightenment was not genuinely historical.” The Idea of History, ed. J. van der Dussen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 77. Meinecke, similarly, though elevating Rousseau above Hume, speaks of the latter’s “failure to achieve a fully historical attitude.” Historism, 300.

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Mill’s remark that “The Battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings.”7) Similarly, Americans today feel the Founding Fathers as a presence in their history and continue an engagement with the eighteenth century that has little resonance for their Anglo-Canadian neighbors—though Francophone and Aboriginal Canadians come to the same period with other, less happy concerns. An old-fashioned, but still usefully compact formulation of history’s mediational character is Burckhardt’s dictum that history “is on all occasions the record of that which one age finds worthy of note in another.”8 This unapologetic recognition that history is and ought to be the product of present interests as much as past realities endows historical understanding with a binocular depth absent from the positivist conceptions Burckhardt opposed. Rather than detracting from its truthfulness, history’s dialogical character supplies the questions that carry the narrative forward in an effort to establish meaningful relations between past and present. For this reason, history is best seen as a mediatory practice, requiring what Gadamer, writing a century later (and with different mediations in mind), would call a “fusion of horizons.”9 This redefinition, it should be added, does not require historians to neglect their traditional concern for questions of evidence and explanation, nor to abandon their more recent interest in narratology and rhetoric. Rather, the mediatory focus suggests ways to bring all of these issues together under a set of common concerns. As conventionally understood, distance carries a heavy weight of prescription. Historians generally invoke principles of distance in order to define the optimum position from which to observe historical events, or (what amounts to much the same thing) to trace a genealogy of modern practice. How often, for example, have students of the Renaissance cited a growing sensitivity to anachronism as evidence of the prescient modernity of that age?10 The same features that seem to invite prescriptiveness, however, make questions of distance a guide to more open-ended approaches to historical practice. In this spirit, I want to propose a liberal heuristic that encompasses a wider range of positions, none of which is privileged except in relation to the specific purposes pursued by historical authors and readers. Every representation of history, whatever its genre, incorporates elements of making, feeling, doing, and understanding—or (to alter the terms somewhat) questions of formal structure and vocabulary, affective impact, moral or ideological interpellation, and underlying intelligibility. Consequently, a more ramified analysis of historical representation needs to consider the problem of mediation as it relates to four fundamental dimensions of distance that shape our experience of histori7. J. S. Mill, “Grote’s History of Greece,” in Collected Works, ed. J. M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), XI, 273. 8. Jacob Burckhardt, Judgements on History and Historians, transl. H. Zohn (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1999), 168. For a present-day articulation of this tension, see Andreas Huyssen: “Given a selective and permanently shifting dialogue between the present and the past, we have come to recognize that our present will inevitably have an impact on what and how we remember. It is important to understand that process, not to regret it in the mistaken belief that some ultimately pure, complete, and transcendent memory is possible.” Twilight Memories (New York: Routledge, 1999), 250. 9. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, transl. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed. (New York: Continuum, 1995), 306. 10. The best summary remains Burke’s Renaissance Sense of the Past.


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cal time. First, we need to consider the genres, media, and conventions that give the history its formal structures of representation, including its aesthetic qualities and rhetorical address. Second, we should take notice of the affective force of the narrative, including the emotional experiences it promises or withholds. Third, we must take account of the work’s implications for action, whether what it calls for is political, religious, or ethical in nature. Fourth, we must consider the conceptual assumptions about explanation and understanding on which the history’s intelligibility depends. Combining in various ways to shape our experience of time, these four overlapping but distinguishable distances—form, affect, ideology, and understanding—constitute the axes of a study of historical representation.11 In this more complex meaning, distance enters into all the ways a narrative works to bridge the then-and-now of history, including its formal structures, its affective and ideological demands, and its claims to truth or understanding. But a further expansion is still required to make the best use of a conception that has been hobbled by a combination of prescriptive and polarized usage. In ordinary speech, “distance” refers to a position of detachment or separation: chronologically a “then” that is remote from “now.” In relational terms, however, this binarism dissolves into a continuous gradation made up of all positions from near to far. Affect, to make an obvious point, can take many forms: sometimes the warmth of intimacy, other times cool detachment or even an ironic smile. Similarly, understanding, so often identified with objectivity and abstraction, also operates through insights won at close range and absorbed in the finest detail. Redefined in this way, distance becomes the entire dimension of representation rather than one extremity or limit. This leaves “distancing” or “distanciation” to designate movements toward positions that are comparatively remote or detached. What matters is to recognize that all historical representations mediate our engagement with the past, though their distances vary both in type and degree. III. Some Complexities of Distance and Representation

In exploring problems of mediation and distance we can draw upon those philosophers who have taught us to see history as “a communicative process built on the model of dialogue.”12 In this context, Gadamer’s emphasis on the situatedness of understanding seems an essential starting point for thinking about the nature 11. In earlier work I referred to the fourth category of distance under the rubric of cognition. I had in mind Louis Mink’s “narrative form as cognitive instrument,” where narrative becomes a mode of comprehension, or Michael Baxandall’s idea of a “cognitive style” that contributes to what he calls the “period eye.” This usage now seems likely to invite misunderstanding. It seems more appropriate to my purpose to speak about these issues (as here) in terms of modes of understanding or conceptualization. I am aware, of course, that the idea of “conceptual schemes” has also generated a great deal of discussion. 12. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Problem of Historical Consciousness,” in Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look, ed. Paul Rabinow and William M Sullivan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 87. Charles Taylor has often acted as an interpreter of Gadamer. See, for instance, Taylor, “Understanding the Other: A Gadamerian View on Conceptual Schemes,” in Gadamer’s Century: Essays In Honor of Hans-Georg Gadamer, ed. Jeff Malpas, Ulrich Arnswand, and Jens Kertscher (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 270-297. Taylor‘s most comprehensive critique of positivist positions is “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man,” in his Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 15-57.

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of the dialogue with the past made possible by language and tradition, just as his positive reformulation of the idea of prejudice transforms what we can say about ideological dimensions of distance.13 And (staying with Gadamer a little longer) his discussion of the regulative features of play brings unexpected illumination to issues of form.14 As Ricoeur observes of Gadamer’s hermeneutics, the mediatory framework I am adopting obeys a desire “to escape from the alternative between alienating distanciation and participatory belonging.”15 That said, this heuristic has a distinct purpose that sets it apart from the philosophical discussions from which it takes a part of its inspiration. Most obviously, the historical and critical focus of this analytic requires a strenuous inclusiveness with respect to the myriad forms and practices that have served the purposes of historical representation over the centuries. This is not to suggest that historians of historiography should renounce critical judgment in their readings of particular texts or schools. Nonetheless, there is a strong sense in which the heuristic needs to be as ecumenical as possible if it is to avoid re-inscribing received ideas of distance. Philosophers like Collingwood or Gadamer have a larger story to tell that justifies speaking of “truly historical consciousness,” but this prescriptiveness seems the wrong language for the student of historical thought to adopt.16 The heuristic is open to a range of critical insights, including some that in their original context were motivated by quite different goals. Questions of formal distance, for example, have drawn a great deal of attention in literary scholarship, much of it formalist or structuralist rather than hermeneutic in inspiration.17 On a grander scale, there is no more forceful classification of distances than Nietzsche’s On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life: the monumental with its desire for emulation; the antiquarian, with its posture of reverence; and the critical, with its aspiration to produce a past from which one would be proud to descend. This brilliant attack on the smugness of German historicism has a place in 13. These issues run through Gadamer’s work, but the most relevant sections are to be found in Truth and Method, part II, section II. 14. On play, see Gadamer, Truth and Method, 101-120. 15. Paul Ricoeur, “The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation,” in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II, transl. Kathleen Blamey and John B. Thompson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991), 75-76. Ricoeur’s observation occurs in a discussion of Gadamer and is in part leveled as criticism of what he sees as an antinomy expressed in the title of Gadamer’s Truth and Method. Ricoeur rejects this choice and seeks to overcome it through an analysis of “the text,” which he claims “reintroduces a positive and . . . productive notion of distanciation.” In my view, this gives too narrow a reading of Gadamer’s work. Georgia Warnke puts the issue more fairly in saying that for Gadamer “hermeneutics is not as much a counterforce to methodical science as, instead, a reflection on the scope and meaning of its results.” See Georgia Warnke, Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition, and Reason (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 137. 16. See Gadamer, Truth and Method, 305. 17. Questions of estrangement, focalization, and authorial distance, for example, have an evident relevance to matters of formal distance. On estrangement, the classic reference is Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Device,” in Theory of Form, transl. Benjamin Sher (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), 1-14. For focalizing, see Gerard Genette, Narrative Discourse, transl. Jane Lewin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980), and Mieke Ball, Narratology, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1985). On fiction and narrative inwardness, see especially Dorit Cohn, Transparent Minds (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978). For an illuminating but much less technical discussion, see James Wood, How Fiction Works (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008).


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any consideration of ideological distance, but its polemical spirit is remote from the combination of comprehensiveness and non-prescriptiveness we need.18 Reconceived in these terms, the idea of distance acquires a layered complexity that resists rigid and artificial distinctions. In practice, historians call upon all the resources that our modes of representation allow, and the combinations that result are rarely a matter of self-conscious strategy or theoretical principle. Affect and ideology, for example, are often closely entwined, whether what is at stake is the kind of persuasion that takes the form of warm encouragement or deliberate estrangement. Nor can we doubt the extent to which the best reasoned descriptions are conditioned by affective states or ideological commitments. Form, for its part, holds the whole business of representation in its hands, while understanding has a stake in everything belonging to historical thought and imagination. Other problems need further discussion. One has to do with the manner in which these mediations orient themselves in time. The formal, being the realm of making, is the dimension of mediation most fully rooted in present time, and it carries that knowledge to the reader. In modern circumstances, when aesthetic form is often chosen for historical effect—the antiquated typefaces of nineteenthcentury gothic, the Anglo-Saxon meters of Hopkins or Pound, the revival of fresco painting by the Nazarenes—we understand the meaning of such formal gestures precisely because we accept that the act of representation itself lies fully in its own present. Affect, by contrast, seems the realm in which representation most clearly solicits “a willing suspension of disbelief.” As readers, we participate in a special class of historical emotions, whether founded in fictions of unmediated access, or (to the contrary) the opacity of a past that—by resisting every attempt at familiarization—can never be our own. If the formal is most fully entrenched in the present, and affect most evident in negotiating the presence of the past, ideology is the dimension of representation that most explicitly signals an orientation to the future. Only there, where history has not yet happened, can practical action still be contemplated. Stated more broadly, it is in the ideological dimension that we are most aware that all historical representation incorporates a then of futurity as well as praeterity. By the same token, of all the engagements involved in historical representation, the conceptual realm is the one that most clearly traces the circle through present, past, and future as well as from question to answer. Unsurprisingly, this journey toward understanding has often monopolized the attention of philosophers and historians, while other dimensions of mediation are sublimated or ignored as less respectable modes of encounter with the past. 18. Much the same can be said of Johannes Fabian’s powerful critique of anthropology, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), a book that has done so much to expose the oppressive force of distance assumptions surrounding primitivism. Though often sharply critical, the writings of Carlo Ginzburg are less polemical in their tone, but no contemporary historian has done more to illuminate issues of proximity and distance. Among a long series of remarkable histories, see especially his Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance, transl. Martin Ryle and Kate Soper (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), and his earlier Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, transl. John and Anne C. Tedeschi (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

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Complexities of another sort arise from the paradoxes of representation itself. By definition, representation gives access to something not present—in portraiture an individual human life, in politics a constituency. In the striking phrase of a late sixteenth-century churchman and theorist of images, we make representations in order to overcome “the obstacle of distance”—il difetto della lontananza.19 In the present age, however, this optimistic belief in the abbreviation of distance often gives way to an appreciation of the instabilities of representation, since the same formal devices that give presence to what is absent may also serve to emphasize absence itself. An old photograph, for example, may bring back a lively sense of loved parents or a childhood home, but whether the final effect is one of pleasure or loss is hard to control. When the process of substitution becomes a matter for self-conscious reflection, however, the weight of representation is likely to shift toward absence. Take Macaulay’s evocation of the tasks of representation: “to call up our ancestors before us with all their peculiarities of language, manners, and garb, to show us over their houses, to seat us at their tables, to rummage their old-fashioned wardrobes, to explain the uses of their ponderous furniture.”20 The solid domesticity of ancestral England seems well calculated to evoke the sense of connection Macaulay has in mind. In their plainness and materiality, these “ponderous” objects signal the continuities of living tradition. However, it would not take a great deal of manipulation to re-distance the image toward nostalgia and loss. A letter held in the hand may convey a warm sense of presence, but Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter is clearly a painting about absence. It remains to say something about the work these observations on mediation and distance are meant to perform. As a theoretical structure, the framework proposed has a relatively modest ambition. Crucially, its purpose is heuristic rather than predictive. It does not assume, for example, that particular explanatory structures come attached to particular ideologies. On the contrary, although it is clear that the various forms of historical engagement overlap, making it possible to speak of the overall balance of distances in a given work, I am not suggesting a fixed combinatory logic. Rather, the plasticity of historical distance produces richly variable designs, and it is only on the level of specific schools or genres that we should expect to find recurrent patterns deriving from historically specific ways of engaging the past. The heuristic lends itself to two kinds of historiographical inquiry, one focusing on analysis of historical change, the other on comparisons of form and genre. Since norms of distance underpin aspects of historical practice, periodic revisions of these norms play a role in the emergence of new schools or approaches. (For historians who came of age in the 1960s, the displacement of the Braudelian “histoire globale” by microstoria provides a ready example.) In parallel fashion, the various genres of historical representation are associated with distance patterns 19. Gabriele Paleotti, Discorso intorno alle imagine sacre e profane (1582) in Trattati d’Arte del Cinquecento, ed. Paola Barocchi (Bari: Laterza, 1961), II, 142. Paleotti was a Counter-Reformation churchman engaged in turning back the tide of the Reformation and spreading the Word to the corners of the earth. 20. Macaulay, “Hallam,” in Miscellaneous Essays, 310.


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of their own. Biographies, for example, are not just abbreviated general histories. Rather, the writer of lives is expected to offer a more intimate view and a closer insight into character and motive. In practice, changes in forms and approaches often flow together, so that the clearest signal of new historical interests may be the emergence of new genres. The flowering of microhistory, for example, produced a hybrid form that married the affective attractions of biography to a wider historical outlook. At the same time, as Giovanni Levi and Carlo Ginzburg insisted, a mere reduction of scale was not enough; their choice of close focus made it possible to illuminate lives and experiences previously excluded by adverse standards of evidence.21 IV. Mediation and Metaphor

Distance, it is sometimes objected, is really about space—implying that all other distances are merely derivative. This view not only goes against much thoughtful commentary,22 but also finds no confirmation in English etymology. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest meaning of “distance” as “discord” or “quarrel,” and it follows this with a wide variety of usages, including not only intervals of space and time, but also closeness and separation as factors of social hierarchy, temperament, or personal and familial relations. In any event, no stigma attaches to the fact that this one word covers such a wide variety of meanings. Words requiring multiple definitions are those that we rely upon to express the most basic and widely useful ideas. Surely this broad usage stands as a warning about how much we impoverish the concept if we focus too narrowly on “empty” time without taking into account other dimensions of experience. Distance is often invoked to define disciplinary ideals and methods, but even within a scholarly framework there is room for considerable variation in the way it is defined and asserted. Witness Claude Lévi-Strauss’s image of the mental and physical withdrawal that conditions the anthropologist’s mission. “The ethnographer,” Lévi-Strauss writes, while in no wise abdicating his own humanity, strives to know and estimate his fellow man from a lofty and distant point of vantage: only thus can he abstract them from the contingencies particular to this or that civilization. The conditions of his life and work cut him off from his own group for long periods together; and he himself acquires a kind of chronic uprootedness from the sheer brutality of the environmental changes to which he is exposed. Never can he feel himself “at home” anywhere.23 21. Ginzburg writes: “To select as a cognitive object only what is repetitive, and therefore capable of being serialized, signifies paying a very high price in cognitive terms.” He goes on to make the point in more directly ideological terms, pointing out that “in any society the conditions of access to the production of documentation are tied to a situation of power.” See Carlo Ginzburg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know About It,” Critical Inquiry 20 (1993), 23. Similarly, Giovanni Levi observes in relation to complex negotiations of power: “The unifying principle of all microhistorical research is the belief that microscopic observation will reveal factors previously unobserved.” “On Microhistory,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), 97. 22. See Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, transl. F. L. Pogson (New York: Macmillan, 1912). 23. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, quoted in Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), 36.

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In comparison, Georg Simmel’s classic essay on “The Stranger” offers an idea of distancing that is considerably less lofty. Not only does Simmel’s view entail a more complex balance between engagement and detachment, but also his identification of distance with the figure of “the stranger” (a decidedly less heroic figure than Lévi-Strauss’s self-isolating ethnographer) suggests wider and more ambiguous social meanings. “Another expression of this constellation lies in the objectivity of the stranger,” Simmel writes. “He is not radically committed to the unique ingredients and peculiar tendencies of the group, and therefore approaches them with the specific attitude of ‘objectivity.’ But objectivity does not simply involve passivity and detachment; it is a particular structure composed of distance and nearness, indifference and involvement.”24 For Simmel, the stranger brings into sharp relief the complex balance of alterity and acceptance found in every human relation. In consequence, the “phenomenon of the stranger” represents both an empirical category of social relations and an analytic device for measuring distance-relations across a broad social spectrum. Thus, though Simmel’s essay lacks Lévi-Strauss’s explicit self-reference, it is natural to read it as a reflection on his own condition, both as a social analyst and a European Jew. Distance lends itself to the economy of metaphor. “Life,” says Charles Chaplin, “is a tragedy when seen close up, but a comedy in long shot.” Macaulay is almost as succinct in his summary of the evolution of historical writing from the colorful narratives of Herodotus or Joinville to the dry analytical writings of his own day: “It may be laid down as a general rule, though subject to considerable qualifications and exceptions, that history begins in novel and ends in essay.”25 Oscar Wilde and Lord Acton make an odd pairing, but their thoughts on truthful testimony have something in common. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” writes Wilde, but “[g]ive him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” For Acton, the context is certainly different, but his observations on the deceptions of self-censorship are much the same: “The living do not give up their secrets with the candour of the dead . . . one key is always excepted.”26 Simmel, as already noted, speaks of the “objectivity” of the stranger as conditioned by combination of “distance and nearness, indifference and involvement.” Acton (quoting Seeley) invokes similar terms to speak about history’s relationship to the practicalities of political life: “Politics are vulgar when they are not liberalized by history, and history fades into mere literature when it loses sight of its relations to politics.” And where Simmel says nothing about his own circumstances, the never-reticent Michelet is brimming with energetic self-disclosure: “I speak because no one would speak in my place. . . . As for me, I have always loved. Perhaps I also knew better the antecedents of France; I lived in her grand eternal life and not in her present condition. I was more alive in sympathies and more dead in interests; I came to the questions of the day with the disinterest of the dead.”27 24. Georg Simmel, “The Stranger,” in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, transl. and ed. Kurt Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1950), 402-404. 25. Macaulay, “History,” in Miscellaneous Writings, I, 270 (originally published in the Edinburgh Review, May 1828). 26. Lord Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (New York: Meridian Books, 1962), 26. 27. Jules Michelet, The People, transl. John P. McKay (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), 20.


Mark Salber Phillips

The eighteenth century made distance central to aesthetic commentary, both as a matter of idealized images and disinterested viewing. In Shaftesbury (and later Kant) “disinterestedness” plays a crucial role in forming the emerging category of the aesthetic. The “mere face painter indeed has little in common with the poet,” writes Shaftesbury; “but, like the mere historian, copies what he sees and minutely traces every feature and odd mark. It is otherwise with men of invention and design.”28 In a different context, Collingwood too argues against undigested particularity. Since the historian’s knowledge of the past is “mediate or inferential or indirect, never empirical,” Collingwood asserts, if we could build “some Wellesian machine for looking backwards through time,” the resulting information would not count as historical knowledge.29 Like Simmel’s stranger, all of these images are figures of distance. Chaplin’s “long shot,” Macaulay’s “novel” versus “essay,” Wilde’s “masks,” Acton’s “mere literature,” Shaftesbury’s “mere face painter,” Michelet’s love of country, and Collingwood’s “time machine”: these and any number of similar expressions enrich the language of distance relations in order to give shape to what Simmel calls the “unity of nearness and remoteness involved in every human relation.”30 Even Lévi-Strauss’s heroic self-description as lonely ethnographer becomes a symbolic figure when seen in “long shot.” V. Distance and Re-distancing

Let me conclude by pursuing Simmel’s idea of “the unity of nearness and remoteness” a little further, taking David Hume’s observations on distance as my text. If the goal is to revive the capaciousness of a concept that has been reduced to narrower and more prescriptive purposes, it is worth asking why we need concepts of distance at all. Historical distance encompasses the variety of ways in which we are placed in relation to the past (or—to put the case more fully—to the futures that the past makes possible). In broader terms, this means that historical distance belongs to a family of feelings, judgments, and actions that are bound up with our need to navigate the world around us—whether in relation to gradations of time, space, affect, or the rewards and pressures of community. Thus, though historical distance is usually discussed in more restricted contexts, it is clear that the need for conceptions of distance begins in something broader and more elementary. In essence, distances are relational concepts, and much of the work they do addresses the continual need we have to reconcile the claims of something close by—the here and now, the family, the home, or community—with the larger structures that surround us. As Hume put it, “There is an easy reason, why everything contiguous to us, either in space or time, shou’d be conceiv’d with a peculiar force and vivacity, and excel every other object, in its influence on the imagination. Ourself is intimately present to us, and whatever is related to self must partake of 28. Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. Lawrence E. Klein (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 66-67. 29. Collingwood, Idea of History, 252, 282. 30. Simmel, “Stranger,” 402.

rethinking historical distance


that quality.”31 As a result, Hume goes on to say, “men are principally concern’d about those objects, which are not much remov’d either in space or time . . . Talk to a man of his condition thirty years hence, and he will not regard you. Speak of what is to happen to-morrow and he will lend you attention. The breaking of a mirror gives us more concern when at home, than the burning of a house, when abroad, and some hundred leagues distant.”32 Hume puts a great deal of weight upon this elementary recognition that human life is deeply conditioned by the force and vivacity that objects acquire by virtue of being intimate to the self. But if the starting point is “easy,” tracing the consequences certainly is not, since it becomes his task to understand how the powerful preference given to “whatever is related to the self” succeeds in producing life-worlds that are socially responsive and cognitively stable. Thus the raw data of sight would grossly distort the size of physical objects depending upon their distance from the eye, leaving us with a very uncertain understanding of the relative size of a far-off mountain or a nearby chair. So too the proper functioning of human affairs depends upon an analogous capacity to resize social objects to bring them closer to their real proportions33—in other words, to the way others would perceive them. “And tho’ the heart does not always take part with those general notions,” Hume concedes, “or regulate its love and hatred by them, yet are they sufficient for discourse, and serve all our purposes in company, in the pulpit, on the theatre, and in the schools.”34 This is not the place for an extended discussion of Hume’s historical thought. It is enough to note his conviction that attention to distance is key to understanding the dynamics of social relations and the role of the passions. Depending on situation, of course, different distances will be salient. Thus, though space and time are broadly similar in their effects, Hume speculates on the dissimilarities between them, whether these be in the realm of aesthetics, affect, or authority. In general terms, however, what matters is the invitation he offers to view the play of distances as motivating some of the most fundamental features of social life, coupled with his clearly stated belief that were it not for the human capacity for re-distancing, proper social communication would be all but impossible. No wonder, then, that distance is so frequently a focus in his writing, whether the immediate subject is as trivial as the “breaking of a mirror” or as grandly pathetic as the execution of a king. Carleton University

31. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 274. 32. Ibid. 33. Adam Smith provides a particularly clear statement of this idea: “As to the eye of the body, objects appear great or small, not so much according to their real dimension, as according to the nearness or distance of their situation; so do they likewise to what may be called the natural eye of the mind: and we remedy the defects of both these organs pretty much in the same manner.” Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1982), 134-135. 34. Hume, Treatise, 385.

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