From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, August 8, 2015

Causal Contingencies—Introduction

[a] Opportunity Costs RF
I like to say to give my students an observation I have had for some time (and by no means an entirely positive one) that "In the soul of every historian lies a secret desire—even after all of the handwringing postmodern niceties have been dispensed—to know exactly what happened." It gets deeper and more problematic, though. You see, every good student of history (and almost all of the professional practitioners of the craft, know how to lie about that deeply hidden feeling.

They've read Derrida, you know.

Um, well, actually most of them haven't.

They have heard of him, though, and they are pretty sure that he is laughing at them. Like former Vice-President Richard Cheney, historians can tolerate being loathed, hated, and disagreed-with. The one thing they can't handle is ridicule, and the "postmodern turn" even in the field of history has been an unwelcome...and even twist. People laugh at people who want to know "what happened."

Many of those laughing people wear berets and sip Merlot in cafés in the 5e arrondissement.
[b] Contingent (several meanings) RF

I love the study of history, but I have always suspected that I am a wolf in sheep's clothing among historians. You see, I just have never been very interested in what "really" happened. Don't get me wrong here; I don't wear a beret (although I do like the Merlot grape very much, especially when it plays 15% to Cabernet Sauvignon's 70%, but that's another story for another time). 

Just hear this: this is no "denial" narrative unfolding in front of you. Far from it. There are things that happened in the past that matter so much (you know what I mean...yes, you do) that to pretend that they are just little playthings of memory is offensive beyond belief. 

As I always say, and in every classroom I enter, in both history and anthropology, there is a whole bunch of stuff that we can know, and know well. Don't even begin to try to give me a hand-wringing, beret-wearing sad-sack-story about the unknowability of everything. 

Pigwash. Nonsense. We know all sorts of things, and well. If we didn't, we'd never have dinner, never put gas in the car, and never make it to work (or receive monthly paychecks or buy groceries get my point...we know a whole bunch of stuff).

And yet...and yet...there is sooooooooo much we will never know. Ever.

Ever (am I clear?)...
[c] Happened RF

We will never know whether Abraham Lincoln brushed his teeth the morning of his assassination (for one, he did not know that it was that morning). As the nonpareil historian Georges Duby noted, he will never quite know just how William of Marshall got onto his horse during his twelfth century rides. 

I will never know whether Sima Guang would have liked the serial (Oxford) comma, since Oxford (and punctuation) was a thing for future books, not his. And there are many things that are much, much more important that we'll never know, because the historical records don't tell us, and we can't just dream them up. 

We can know a great deal...but we will never know everything (and never know the answer to many of our most important questions—what "caused" the Civil War? or how did anthropology "begin?").
[d] Vortex RF
                                                               *** ***
Here is the rub. There are an enormous number of daily, repeatable consistencies in life. These help to create our sense (such as it is) of certainty. We know (if we check the paper or the website) exactly when the sun will set, and we have a pretty solid notion of the weather patterns to expect, even if they might trip us up now and then. We know that almost every year the University of Alabama will have a very good football team and that the University of Minnesota will not...but I am getting way ahead of myself.

Those repeatable consistencies are covered in the Round and Square series, "Structure, History, and Culture."

This series will explore "stuff" that just shoots out of the blue, stuff that "can't really happen." Stuff (please hear me clearly here) that a fiction editor would reject, saying "that could never happen, and your readers won't believe you if you write it."

And yet...and still does happen. In "the real world."

They are, indeed, contingencies. And they change everything. 

They just "couldn't happen" (could they)...and yet they did...

This series will explore those "contingencies."

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