Saturday, September 29, 2007

Confessions of an Amatuer Historian

M.O.W. must confess that, despite her 1805 History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, she is not actually a trained historian. She has been obsessed with stalking the founders for so long that it may appear that she knows everything about them--and, indeed, she does. You may be surprised to learn that her training is not as a historian, but as a scholar of rhetoric. The funny thing about that is that history and rhetoric share a fundamental similarity: both rely upon stories to create meaning. Kenneth Burke defined rhetoric in his Rhetoric of Motives as “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents.” There are many definitions of rhetoric, but this one suits our purposes as well as any other. The key thing about Burke's definition is that we do things with rhetoric and rhetoric does things to us--rhetoric is a kind of action and when actions are read together or presented together to form attitudes or induce actions in others they form stories. Thus, rhetoric is story-telling and history is rhetoric.

It was thus with great pleasure that we read Arran Gare's essay on the "primordial role of stories in human self-creation," for Mr. Gare seems to share our view that the rigid distinctions between poetic, rhetoric, and dialectic are silly. Indeed, as Mr. Gare notes, "history emerged in Ancient Greece along with philosophy. 'Istoria,' from which both the terms 'history' and 'story' derive, meant 'inquiry,' associated with investigation into the causes of conflicts, of failures and achievements, and holding people responsible for their actions." (96) In other words, story-telling is a kind of epistemology--it is a way of knowing specific to a particular community.

Hannah Arendt has also noted the relationship between rhetoric, story-telling, and history-as-inquiry. She notes in On the Human Condition that meaning only appears in retrospect for “it is not the actor but the storyteller who perceives and ‘makes’ the story.” Communal stories thus have the power to define not only what occurred, but how we think about what has occurred. As Arendt reminds us, “who somebody is or was we can know only by knowing the story of which he is himself the hero—his biography, in other words; everything else we know of him, including the work he may have produced and left behind, tells us only what he is or was.”

Thus, the stories that Founder-Chic tells as she stalks the founders with you, her loyal fellow founder-stalkers, help the community--of founder-stalkers, of Americans, of historians, of the world multitude--to understand who the founders were. Yet, these stories also serve as a form of inquiry. We may kid and it may all seem like fun--and it IS fun to stalk the founders--but, our stories are also a way of knowing and of reinforcing or negating particular "truths" about American history.

M.O.W. has a point with all of her founder-stalking. We are silly, yes, but we are also quite serious. And, we think that is ok.


GayProf said...

Wait -- I got into history for the money.

Mercy O. Warren said...

i thought that you got into history to use your gravitas for good, not for personal profit.

tsk tsk. (MOW shakes her head at Gayprof)