Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Notorious Book Club day 2: Science and Story (Grafton, chapters 2 & 3)

“Simply to say how it actually was.”  — Leopold von Ranke

Poor, misunderstood Leopold von Ranke. If most of us know anything about him, it is this quote, which makes him seem inutterably naïve, the symbol of the way we wrote history before we knew that our sources couldn’t be taken at face value. A slightly more sophisticated summarizer of his life and contributions to the discipline might take a slightly more charitable view, to say that Ranke was the founder of a “scientific” history, one that was born out of an inherenet skepticism of received historical narratives. In oder to find out “how it actually was,” one had to master a method: learn enough of languages and paleography and the intricacies of archival spelunking (archives in those days being largely closed affairs) so that one could go back to the original sources and see what they said.

Are those laugh lines, Leo?
It is this latter Ranke whom we might expect to come up with a nitpicky instrument like the footnote: something that specialists use to show how they are specialists. Grafton’s two chapters on Ranke introduce us to the young (and then middle-aged, and then quite old and blind) enthusiast for source work. The fact that his method depended on critical reading of original sources meant that he had to show his work: as Grafton puts it, “the historian who had eaten from the tree of source-criticism could not regain the innocence necessary to write a simple narrative.”[1] Footnotes for Ranke were not Gibbon’s commentary nor the ancients’ appeal to authority; they were the method laid bare, a sort of postmodern architecture in which all the pipes and struts and supports become an essential part of the design.

Yet this picture, like much modern design, leaves us with an impression of a sterile coldness that doesn’t match the other crucial component that usually gets left out in descriptions of Ranke’s work, and that Grafton so eloquently reproduces in these two chapters: the romance of the archives. Ranke was in love with archives[1] and libraries, he was drunk on undiluted primary sources. In these chapters, we meet Ranke as storyteller. The method was the means to an end, but a perilous one: Footnotes broke the story, took the reader out of the past that he was trying to recreate. He put in footnotes to point the next generation of historians towards the sources they would need.[3]  To put it more simply, he created footnotes not out of love of their scientific nature; rather he used them probably for the same reason he put on pants: because it was necessary to the culture he inhabited.

The final part of the second chapter raises another point: that Ranke was not even the originator of the modern footnote. But I’m going to save that for tomorrow and append it to my discussion of Grafton’s “Enlightenment Interlude,” where he follows the footnote’s backtrail. For now, I just want to rest on this point and invite contemplation of the battles between our own inner scientist and inner storyteller, and to note that even our avatar of scientific history had his misgivings, loved narrative, and maybe even envisioned heaven as an archive. That he aimed to come to his sources with precision — footnotes being a part of that precision — does not mean that he did so without excitement and wonder.
[1] Grafton, 68.
[2] Though he didn’t use them nearly as often as we think.
[3] Towards, not at: Grafton notes that Ranke was at the receiving end of some rather vituperative criticism because his citations did not point where he said they would; he replied that a real enthusiast would not need something handed to them so precisely; they should love the hunt as much as the kill, so to speak. In other words: he had no patience with pedantry — at least not pedantry directed at him.


Belle said...

I loved Ranke's joy in the archival experience - add to that the smell of the old papers and even glue, the rustle of the pages fluttering the silence of the other scholars, the mysteries of the systems. How delightful it would be to spend time simply doing the scholarly research and thinking of historical research. And even then, he only looked at the elites (as Grafton and others note). To look at the practice of modern historians and their required broadening of scope, far beyond the issues of power and state. While travel to distant archives might be faster, it is no less expensive or challenging. As the field changes, the mechanisms of study change.

"What we need is a [scholar] equipped with reasonable knowledge, lavish letters of recommendation and good health," generous travel funds and available time to learn the languages of the entire region, to study the cultures, literatures, mores and peoples of the entire region AND its trade practices...

Even then, we'd be expected to both support and undermine our own theses. Being modern isn't easy, is it?

Sarah C said...

I thought ch. 3 was particularly juicy -- I mean, Grafton essentially turned source criticism back onto Ranke and picked apart his own self-presentation as the master of archives, sources, narrative, and, indeed, historical knowledge itself. And I think Grafton thought we readers would think that the answer would be "of course, Ranke invented modern footnotes!" so it was a narrative delight to find that position critiqued in such a manner.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

One of the things I liked about these chapters was that -- to me, at least -- Grafton is saying that we have been both *blaming* Ranke for the wrong things and *praising* him for the wrong things. The other bit that I am coming to appreciate (which you'll see as you go on) is how he's written the whole thing in reverse chronological order, peeling back one layer at a time: "Will we find our origins here? Sure looks like we might... there's a little bit... but nope: looks like we're going to need to dig a little deeper." And back another century we go.

And Belle: I, too, continue to be a romancer of the archive. It probably has something to do with my upbringing and how far that world is from the world of my own surroundings. But that's for a therapist, not a blog.

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