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May 16, 2006

Experimental History: Experiments in Rethinking History - (Eds.) Alun Munslow and Robert Rosenstone

Posted by Jeremy Black

Experiments in Rethinking History
edited by Alun Munslow and Robert Rosenstone
Pp. xiii+245. London: Routledge, 2004
Hardback, £65

To travel round the world is to be reminded of the very public presence of history, of the past as issue and identity, and yet that presence is frequently ignored in the academic and pedagogic writing on history as a subject. Works on historiography and historical method focus, instead, on a standard cast of writers and topics, mainly those of the USA and Western Europe. This cast has been expanded in recent years, not least by those embracing postmodernism, an approach and subject, however, that leave most non-academics confused or uninterested. Furthermore, whether the focus is on traditional or, as in this book, on novel perspectives, the emphasis generally remains that of history as seen in, and from, the USA and Western Europe.

In the West, the gap between academic and public history, symbolised by the differing responses to the postmodernist perspective, tells us something about the academic profession, not least its focus, and its concern about itself as audience and setter of goals and standards.

The gap between academe and public history also reflects a benign characteristic of the profession, in particular, on the one hand, the contrast between the questioning ethos and methods, that are central to the modern notion of scholarship, and, on the other, a public use of history in which the emphasis is rather on answers. At one level, this is a gross over-simplification, not least because, in both teaching and research, academics also seek to offer answers. Nevertheless, a cultural distinction can be noted between the humane scepticism that is seen as normative across much of the profession as goal and/or method, with a judicious definition of terms and with answers arising after careful questioning, and the more didactic approach that can be seen in the public use of history; including by historians. This public use of history focuses on history as answers and as assertion.

A more indeterminate note is struck in this collection. As the editors point out, experimental history self-consciously uses different voices, and they are greatly to be congratulated for ranging widely in their quest for examples and contributors. Marjorie Becker, the author of the first chapter, sets the arresting tone by attempting to recreate a spectacular anti-clerical moment in Mexico in the mid-1930s, through a combination of ethno-historical and fictive techniques in which imagined dialogue plays a role. Becker's reflective authorial comments are of great interest (p. 25):

If I re-enact a North American cultural pattern – seizing on an act, removing it from its context, forcing it to mean something new – it is because I believe that our lives throughout the Americas are more intertwined than we often like to acknowledge … pressures placed on subordinate groups to silence themselves here and there exhibit powerful similarities.
Greg Dening presents cross-cultural relations in the South Pacific, specifically the meeting point of the beach, and argues that (p. 53):
in writing history, we are really re-writing somebody else's histories. These other histories – as raw as a birth certificate, as latent as a ship's log, as full as an intimate diary – each has its own narrative forms and is subject to our critical reading. To see what these eyes on the beach saw, we need a sense of the cultural filters through which they caught a glimpse of otherness.
Maria Theresa Hernández considers another site and period of cross-cultural interaction, San Isidro Cemetery located in Sugar Land, Texas, displaying the variety of remembered shapings of place and time in memory. Sumiko Higashi, a Japanese-American, uses his family's history as migrants, not least through family photographs, to consider the wider experience of migration. There are fourteen contributions in all. Others repeat the variety in method and coverage already noted. One of the most striking is Chris Ward's "Impressions of the Somme". All are worth reading, although they would not be easy to teach from.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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