Thursday, June 14, 2012


Steven Colbert is famous for, among other things, coming up with truthiness and factiness. Rich Santorum recently showed how a commitment to both that plays out in real life. In the recent Red Plenty book event over to the Crooked Timber a new an equally troubling idea is slowly emerging: historishical. As near as I can figure, Red Plenty is a work of fiction with some documents attached, which is to say it is a work of fiction.

The key difference between thinking historically and thinking historishically is that historians cannot make stuff. Confronted with lacunae they can, it is true, reach for the unstable verities of other social science, weasel words like might or may, assertions of must or had to, or they can attempt the no less slippery reliance on analogy. Or they admit to making a guess but  rely on their general mastery of the subject matter to  paper over the idly speculative guessing game.

However, the best historians when confronted with a lacuna, Heydrich's motivation say, or what the Nazis said to Hindenburg during the fateful meeting, etc, remain calmly silent secure in the knowledge that you don't get to know everything and that making stuff up is just not on.

On the other hand, some of the respondents are confused about Red Plenty's genre based on its truthiness and historishical nature. As one. put it
[i]t probably works well as history, though I really don’t know enough about Russian history to judge. It certainly has the feel of the best kind of history -  it captures what it (probably) felt like for the people under examination when the past was modern, and exciting, and uncertain and contingent, and all those other things that we have trouble imagining the past as.
Another confused the making up of stuff with historical accuracy arguing that
[b]y using fiction, Spufford is able to make abstract accounts of how the Soviet system operated concrete, and concretely horrible. The collage of stories allows him both to portray individuals striving to reach goals and the overarching system that encompasses those individuals.
For all of the authors citation of Hayden White's notion of emplotment, making stuff up is the opposite of concrete and has little to nothing to do with history as a discipline, which seeks to  make events concrete by using the facts of the matter to create a coherent and plausible account  of the event or whathaveyou under consideration.

If Santorum highlights the dangers and dementedness of truthiness and factiness, Ryan Lizza recent essay on Obama's second term highlights the danger of historishical thinking. He "argues" that
[i]f he manages to win this year, it is likely to be by less than that, which would make him the first President in a hundred and twenty-four years to win a second term by a smaller margin than in his initial election. Whatever a mandate is, Obama won’t have one.
It is worthwhile here to note that Lizza, relying on the work of Robert Dahl Lizza has already dismissed the idea of a presidential mandate as a "myth." This means, according to Lizza, that if Obama survives a close reelection he wont have something that doesn't exist much as in a similar fashion if I follow the rainbow I won't have a non-existent pot of gold.

The reasons for Obama's "likely" election year squeeker are the horrid economy and and the bizarre idea that
[b]arring a disastrous revelation or blunder, Mitt Romney will be a more formidable opponent than many assumed during his rightward lurch to secure the Republican nomination.
As Steve Benen has shown in an on-going series of posts, Romney cannot tell the truth and, as anyone who has watched the man in action can attest, he is the black hole of charisma and a human gaffe machine. In other words, if Romney suddenly becomes some one else and if the press refuses to expose his lies and mendacity he just might be a formidable opponent. I give Lizza the last point but cannot really cede the first.

Lizza also offers some "historical" analogies from other presidents second terms in an attempt to shore up his idle speculation on Obama's second term. The problem here is that historical moments are radically contingent on the subjects and object of this or that moment in histortory. As a result, history is one long narrative of radical rupture. A historian's task, oddly enough, is to explain the long or short series of events, individuals, choices, and motivations that allow us to understand or comprehend the rupture. However, as a form of predictive science history doesn't work at all and the other social science offer only owl of Minerva like dim outlines predicated on there being no rupture.[1]
Think about, as one example out of a million, the Soviet Union's collapse. It was not predicted by experts on Soviet politics. Ditto the events that followed on from 9/11.
The world as it actually is and the future that awaits us as a collective entity, out private future is the grave, is beyond knowing and using the historishical mode to describe or illuminate the impenetrable future is not just a fools game, it is sign of intellectual dishonest yoked to a careerist's desire to be interesting in the service of  individual advance.

[1] I would make an exception for the repitition of past mistakes, financial booms leading to busts, faith in markets, allowing homicidal maniacs to take the reins of state, and related etc.

New material added and, no, I am not going to tell you what.

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