In commissioning this feature, editorial fellow Rachel Moss asked contributors: how can we radically re-imagine the writing of history? Over the next few weeks, our contributors reply with creative new methods, sources and forms that they are using to reshape what history writing can look like. In this instalment, Julia Laite considers the possibilities offered by “uncertain, multi-possible, quantum history”.
Most people, it seems, expect their history to be solid. Memorials and statues, overwhelmingly dedicated to ‘great men’, other famous people, and well-known events, present their subjects factually and incontrovertibly, set in stone. The majority of history that the wider public encounters in bookshops and on television is authoritative, linear, and confident and, where a debate is introduced, it is adjudicated with hard evidence or reiterated through polemic. Schools teach about historical events, timelines, and famous people with little or no mention of the nature of historical evidence or of the kinds of things and people and experiences we cannot know or can know only partially; and exams ask students to put forward confident arguments about why something happened and its consequences. Politicians deploy national histories to reify national identity, and pillory those who attempt to challenge or complicate the historical narrative of the nation.
Again and again, when historians play the role of consultant, interviewee, or popular writer, they are told that the public is uninterested in maybes and perhapses, and that spending too long writing about the uncertain and reflective process of making history itself is boring and doesn’t sell. Whether this is true or not, the gatekeepers of popular history have tended to take few risks.
Of course, it is not just the wider public who seek to solidify the past. There was cliometrics, then chaos history—both of which believed that mathematical formula could, if properly applied to the evidence, render a clearer and more accurate picture of what really happened. More recently, culturomics has resuscitated this mission, riding a wave of digitized big data. But for the most part, historians are unimpressed with such calculations, not least because we know that the evidence upon which these efforts rests is fragmentary, incomplete, biased, and fundamentally tricky. Even beyond these often-pilloried attempts to scientize history, there are still plenty of historians who feel it is our place to be the authority on the past and that we are able to articulate what really happened. There are, of course, times when this certainty is profoundly necessary: I may disagree with many of the points in Richard Evans’ In Defence of History, but he did write it after finding himself having to defend the fact that the Holocaust happened. He comes by his concerns about postmodernism’s challenge to historical truth honestly.
There are, clearly, things that we know happened, events and facts that are not up for interpretation or debate. But if there is a mathematical metaphor for history, it would be a quantum one. We know that no matter how thoroughly and carefully we observe what remains in the present, the unobserved past is indeterminate, and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. As Carolyn Steadman writes, the archive is ‘one of the few realms of the modern imagination where a hard-won and carefully constructed place, can return to a boundless, limitless space.’ Or as Carlo Ginzburg put it, no matter how hard historians work to collate and narrate the scraps and clues of the past into something we can comprehend and make arguments with, ‘reality is fundamentally discontinuous and heterogeneous.’
I confess that I have never felt drawn to solidifying the past. As I’ve written elsewhere, it is in investigating history’s most unknowable, disconnected, almost invisible threads where I’ve always felt the most excited and inspired. Over the years, I’ve grown more and more interested in how I—how we—might communicate this smaller, more uncertain, less confident history to a wider audience who, for so many years, has been so accustomed to seeing big histories, set in stone.
The practice of uncertain, multi-possible, quantum history has been around for some time. On the one hand, this is an outcome of later twentieth century feminist scholarship, which often dispensed with the masculinist polemic and confidence of earlier histories in favour of maybe, perhaps, and possibility. In 1983, Natalie Zemon Davis offered a seminal history that was in part her ‘invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past.’ Despite the misgivings of her critics back then, this approach to history has gone from strength to strength.
Uncertain history is also one of the stronger legacies of history’s uncomfortable relationship with postmodernism. Unwilling, or as William Cronin argued, unable, to dispense with narrative, what many historians did instead was attempt to remove the authoritative voice from the storytelling, to question and experiment with the way narratives were constructed, to explore a number of potentially conflicting narratives. As Nicole Eustace put it in an article I keep coming back to on ‘Social History in a postmodern world’, ‘what we need may be more stories, not fewer, braided tales woven from multiple points of view’. Or, as Matt Houlbrook wrote in Prince of Tricksters, more and more historians are looking for ways ‘of writing history that is readier to admit its limits, more open-ended in its conclusions, deliberately less confident’.
Uncertain, inventive, unconfident history is not just a personal interest. It can be a radical political project. Without these uncertainties, the branching narratives, the maybe this or maybe thats, we are left unable to articulate the histories of most women, of racialized and marginalized and humble people, and we are left only with what Sadiya Hartman calls the fiction of the archive. That is, the fiction that the facts reported by the overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy people who constructed that archive are true or, even worse perhaps, exhaustive and the only way of knowing about the past. ‘How do we construct a coherent historical accounting of that which defies coherence and representability?’, asks Marisa J. Fuentes, in pondering the documents left behind that offer only biased fragments about the lives of enslaved women.
In her recent book about young black women in the early twentieth century American ghetto, Saidiya Hartman refused to allow the scant, heavily filtered records of their lives to render them unknowable. Deploying a radically inventive narrative method, she resurrects their ‘beautiful experiments’ through one of her own, demonstrating that history can be uncertain while simultaneously breathing life and agency into historical actors who were once considered almost invisible. Uncertain, inventive history can be, as Fuentes puts it, ‘a gesture toward redress’.
A survey of recent academic publications in the field of history suggests that that uncertainty as a radical, feminist, intersectional form of historical scholarship is alive and well; indeed it’s never been better. But how do we communicate this to a wider reading and watching public who are rightly concerned with the ways in which fact and fiction have become politically blurred in recent years, where far-right politics is turning our own critique of power, authority and certainty against us in what might be their greatest sleight of hand yet? How do we arm a wider public with the critical skills to adjudicate fragmentary evidence, to be able to see the way that evidence is manipulated into narrative in both ethical and unethical ways? Can popular history ever become comfortable with the fragmentary, the contradictory, the unknown and the imagined?
In keeping with the spirit of this short piece: I am not sure. The preference in popular history still seems to be for sweeping, big histories and over-confident theories of global change and connection, for the well-travelled stories of war and conquest, and history is largley marketed in conservative ways to a largely male audience. In these kinds of histories, an admission of uncertainty is a surrender of authority; a far cry from feminist, radical scholarship where uncertainty is a reflective, critical practice.
But I do think the appetite for this kind of history is growing. Family history seems to me to be an area of profound importance here—the place where the vast majority of non-academic historians work, and where they first encounter the uncertainties that academic historians work with in their own archives. Family history is a place where the hard evidence of birth certificates and censuses often fail to align with a grandparent’s colourful memories or studied silences. These contradictions cannot be reconciled and few people seek to reconcile them: it is easy to see how both are part of a family’s story, each as important to understanding the past as the other. There are even signs that publishers and television producers are growing slowly more willing to embrace their own uncertainty about what kind of history sells. Either way, in a world that markets history as authoritative, polemical, and factual, insisting on uncertainty can be a radical act.
Carolyn Carolyn Steedman, Dust (Mancheser: Manchester University Press, 2001).
Carlo Ginzburg, John Tedeschi, and Anne C. Tedeschi, ‘Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It’, Critical Inquiry, 20.1 (1993), 10–35.
Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Harvard University Press, 1983).
Nicole Eustace, ‘When Fish Walk on Land: Social History in a Postmodern World’, Journal of Social History, 37.1 (2003), 77-91.
Matt Houlbrook, The Prince of Tricksters (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (Serpent’s Tail, 2019).
Julia Laite is a Reader in Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the Birkbeck Director of the Raphael Samuel History Centre, and researches and teaches about the history of gender, migration, sexual labour and crime. Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey: One trial, six lives and the dawn of the twentieth century will be published by Profile in April, 2021.