Why I am not a historian

trust_me_historian_apparelMost people believe history is my discipline. I think this may be a result of my elevator pitch, which usually includes “Franklin Roosevelt”, who is obviously a historical figure. The one time I was on tv I had a really hard time avoiding being called a historian in the national media, and overall there is a persistent sense among people who have to introduce me that I am a historian. I do not think so. I have taught in the history department at the University of Amsterdam, am affiliated to the history department here at Yale, and am interested in close-reading historical sources, events and people. But I was not trained as a historian, and I think my methods and aims are fundamentally different from “real” historians, like, incidentally, both my parents.

I am not super interested in finding sources to prove what precisely happened in a particular historical situation. I do not in the first place look for archival evidence to back up an interpretation of the past that does it justice, although I see that that really needs to be done as well. Rather I read historical documents, events and people as literature. More specifically, one might even argue that I read all forms of memory-making (including historiography and historians) as literature. Historians are far more aware than most people of their own positionality and the vantage point from which they are selecting what is important to remember – “history is written by the victors” is a stale cliché especially among historians – but it is still that positionality that intrigues me, rather than the honestly, and no doubt often successfully, attempted objective accounts of the past that true historians are looking for. What about the past do “we” consider relevant now and why? Who are “we”? What linguistic and visual rhetoric is employed in narrating the past? What ideologies underlie those narratives, and what ideologies do they in turn support?

This discussion of course takes place within the historical discipline as well, but there it is usually limited to the projects, theories and methods of (professional) historians and historiography. I am, however, interested in all remembering, all interpretation and invocation of the past, also outside of academic history and even outside of what is commonly called “public history” (museums, archives, historical education etc.). All this remembering obviously differs widely in character, purpose and quality, and historians form one category within this. Viz-a-viz Franklin Roosevelt a number of categories of storytellers narrating his stories all with different aims and strategies, are, for instance, academic historians, documentary makers, historical fiction writers, and very importantly: FDR himself, and the later self-declared representatives of his legacies and ideals.

So perhaps I am a historian after all, but if so, I’d be a public historian. Not in the sense of a historian doing history in a museum, archive, or civic engagement project (although I have done the latter too and sometimes think I should go back to it), but someone researching a radically inclusive range of memory-making processes from a literary theoretical, sociological and political perspective.

Over Sara Polak

Blog about my research: The World We Live In Today Is FDR's World
Dit bericht is geplaatst in Cultural memory, Miscellaneous. Bookmark de permalink.

2 reacties op Why I am not a historian

  1. Isabelle Ley schreef:

    Dear, I really see your point and totally agree with the distinction between These two types of historical interests, if you want. We have a similar dichotomy going on in international law – there are the “real” historians who are after reconstructing the legal situation with regard to a, let’s say, the treaty of San Remo, or the legal structure of the Republic of Venice, or whatever. And then there are those who have a somewhat presentist, more instrumental take on history, actually aiming at showing something about the Situation today and how it emerged and usually about its contingency (mostly critically minded international lawyers engage in that Business). Anyway – just wanted to say – do you really think the “true” historians are “honestly, and no doubt often successfully,” [attempting] “objective accounts of the past”? From what I understand of the theory of science, noone (at least in human and social sciences and probably also beyond) actually still beliefs in objective truths. But the thing is – then what does the difference between the two types of historical interests come down to? It’s something I’ve really asked myself before, maybe you have an answer. Maybe it is really just about the different Research interest – the ones are truly historically interested (i.e.: in the past), the others want to prove a point about the present?

    • Sara Polak schreef:

      Dear Isabelle, thanks a lot for your reaction! I didn’t realize this kind of debate is also going on in law, although now that you say it, it’s not so surprising. But to answer your question: I do think that there is a real difference between historians and people like me (whatever their discipline is, probably literary studies or something ;-)). Of course historians know that they cannot be objective, but they have a method and a set of ‘rules’ that is geared to help them be as objective-yet-aware-of-their-perspective as possible. They go to archives to find evidence to reconstruct what probably happened and/or to prove that something could not have happened in a particular way. They are sure to refer to these archival materials so that anyone else can replicate their research and interpret their findings. That’s not what I do. I look at how people reconstruct (re-member) the past and what ideologies or cultural needs are met by a particular reconstruction. Essentially I would say that I look at the construction of narratives. Professional academic historians are a particular kind of storytellers, distinguished by their method, and also by the genre of their cultural productions (historical monographs and articles, although public historians use the same method to arrive at, say, museum exhibitions or television documentaries). Does this make sense to you? I’ll reread it tomorrow to see if it still makes sense to me 😉

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