One story to rule them all

This blog claims to see a new trend in history research: the mono-history. This basically amounts to attempts at describing some greater phenomenon by examining one small part of it. The most common type seems to be something a la “[One small thing]: The history of [modernity/the World/warfare etc.] explained as a function of the development of [one small thing]”[1].

One thing to note about these histories is that they are both very interesting, yet tend to wildly overstate the importance of the thing they are examining. The author, having spent months and months delving into the history and details of their topic, often becomes blind to the fact that s/he is describing a small part of an ever more complex world. Personally, I have read a book like this called The Chip : How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution. It was exciting and well written, but claims too much on the basis of one small component.

That being said, these mono-histories often represent good research in the vein of typical STS research. They tell the concrete history of something (most often a technology) by examining the different crossroads where things could have gone the other way, or where there was a struggle between what then seemed like equally good choices. Telling these stories is important, and maybe reading enough of these books leaves one with a more complete picture of things.

[1] Always with the colon titles. Somehow authors today are not content with having just one title for their books. One day I’ll write the book “Up the colon: How the sign came to dominate publishing: A history of punctuation: Introductory notes”.

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2 Responses

  1. I liked your post on historians using single objects, phenomenon or other small things as lenses for telling stories. However, I think it might be problematic. Her is a quick attempt to nuance your story (written down in a hurry):

    Many object centered stories is clearly biased by a tendency to frame the object as a cause for changes taking place in it’s socioeconomic or cultural context as you say. Such stories, I claim, is often popularizations meant for other audiences than the academic.

    The problem you seem to have with object centered stories is that they often claim that an object is the cause of something larger. For instance how the microchip created a revolution in say computing. The problem of constructing causality is however, a more general problem involving many kinds of research in the humanities, and perhaps especially in the social sciences (because of their inherited envy of the natural sciences).

    Poststructuralism (or should we call it postmodernism?) can be seen as a reaction to the causal ambitions of modern science and to the grand narratives constructed by the moderns. Poststructuralist studies has an ambition not to describe “Reality” at large, but rather to describe various “realities” and construct small narratives.

    Following such ideas, it is impossible to do a study of one single object and to state its importance in the rise of modernity/warfare/the world simply because there is no single cause that transformed or gave rise to such large phenomenon. It is however possible to tell a small story that suggest that certain objects played a part in the transformation of warfare/the world/modernity.

    One historian I read some time ago, Reviel Netz, calls his study of barbed wire “an ecology of modernity”. Thus, he might at first glance be accused of exaggerating the effects of barbed wire upon agriculture, war and emprisonment. As might one of his conclusions: “One of the main features of history is the prevention of motion”.

    At second glance however, it becomes clear that he is not stating that barbed wire was the cause of the modern need for controling motion. He rather uses barbed wire as a lense for describing this modern need (which is one of many needs in modernity) in warfare, agriculture and emprisonment. As such he uses barbed wire, an object used in agriculture, war and concentration camps, to link these seemingly separate spheres together. This allows him to tell a new, and small, story about a process that took place in all of them.

    This does not mean the historian sees the history of modernity as a function of barbed wire, but rather that barbed wire is a object existing in modernity and as such can be seen as a symptom of one of the things that became very important in modern warfare and agriculture.

    Hmm having written this, I don’t know if i have actually created an argument which is very good. I guess you will tell by the coffee machine on monday:)

  2. Damn it, what’s the point of blogging if people all give thoughtful and problematizing replies? Where’s the polemic?

    Anyway, a reply: I agree to most of what you write. It’s obvious that in one sense, the only history worth writing is in some sense micro-history. Any attempt at writing a comprehensive history of everything is doomed to fail (except maybe Bill Bryson’s awesome A Short History of Nearly Everything). These prismatic histories definitely have their value.

    However, I want to nitpick on your argument. I think you attack the quote from Netz that “one of the main features of history is the prevention of motion” in the wrong way. It’s true that he doesn’t claim that barbed wire caused the need for controlling motion (at least I think it’s true, I haven’t read the book), but the really problematic thing is the claim that prevention of motion is a “main feature” of history.

    I don’t want to start constructing lists of main features of history, but if I did, prevention of motion would not even make the Top 10, unless you ascribe a lot of things not normally associated with motion restriction to that category.

    It’s this tendency to bend historical trends to fit into the overarching story that I wanted to criticise in my post, not the idea that they can have something to teach us. If you want to describe a general historical trend, I think it’s impossible to do that within the frame of one single technology.

    Oh, by the way, now I realise I have to make a list soon: Top 10 Features of History.

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