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About this book

Based on the assumption that reality, reference and representation work together, Narrative and History explains and illustrates the various ways in which historians write the past as history. For the fist time, the full range of leading narrative theorists such as Paul Ricoeur, Hayden White, Frank Ankersmit, Seymour Chatman and Gérard Genette have been brought together to explain the narrative-making choices all author-historians make when creating historical explanations.

Narrative and History:
- considers the range of author-historian decisions through key concepts such as epistemological and aesthetic choice, ethics and ideology, emplotment and argument
- defines and illustrates the functions of narrating and narration, authorial voice, characterisation and the timing of the text
- explores in detail the consequences for truth, objectivity, meaning, the role of experimental history, and history representation beyond the textual in film, TV, public history, performance and digitization.

Combining theory with practice, Alun Munslow expands the boundaries of the discipline and charts a new role for unconventional historical forms and modes of expression.

Table of Contents


The aim of this book is very simple. It is to explain how historians make, and specifically, write history. By that I mean what ‘rules’, ‘procedures’, ‘figurative’ and ‘compositional techniques’ do historians follow and what decisions do they make in order to turn ‘the past’ into that narrative about it we choose to call ‘history’? It follows from what I have just said that the basic assumption behind the book is that history is a form of narrative written by historians. Professional historians are generally well aware of the construction of historical explanations - especially the basics of hunting out the sources and the most appropriate ways to work out what they mean. Indeed, many historians have written at length about the techniques of source analysis and inference. However, discussions of the nature of history as a narrative-making exercise have primarily been left to a few philosophers of history who have an interest in what seem to be matters largely irrelevant to practitioners who actually do the job. Because of this deficiency, I offer in this book an introduction to the nature of the history narrative. That requires that I outline the rules of, and functional relationships that exist in, the actual writing of history as a narrative form. I will be illustrating this mainly from twentieth-century historiography.
Alun Munslow

1. Narrating the Past

Human beings are story tellers who exist ontologically in a universe of narrative making.1 Narrativist thinkers like Jerome Bruner hold that narrative making is wired into the human brain as the key mechanism for representing reality (i.e., not added on after we have analysed, explained and produced meaning). For Bruner, narrative is the a priori concept through which we apprehend reality.2 This suggests narrative is the mode of cognition. Moreover, in acknowledging this we are forced to consider Hayden White’s famous metahistorical argument concerning the functioning of the trope, which is the metaphorical (linguistic) turning of one thing into another in order to create meaning. As Bruner suggests, narrative is a form of cognition (knowing), one that is particularly applicable to story telling disciplines like history.
Alun Munslow

3. Narrating and Narration

Key to any understanding of the authorial act of narrating and narration is the analyses of Gerard Genette in his Narrative Discourse and Narrative Discourse Revisited.1 Genette, with the narrative theorists Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, has identified several categories through which we can understand what authors are doing when they narrate.2 Whereas Genette evaluates the speaking function in narratives, Barthes asks us to consider the prior question of ‘who is speaking’, claiming that we cannot ever be sure given the nature of writing and language. This led him to his (in)famous announcement of the ‘death of the author’ suggesting that there is an unavoidable pluralism in the meaning of every text beyond the ‘fixing’ of the author. Hence reading history is not about trying to set the meaning (the interpretation or the story of the past) of the author; rather the act of reading itself (the destination or consumption of the text, film or museum display) becomes the centre of meaning creation.3 Foucault’s contribution is, however, to ask if it matters who is the speaker? Foucault says ‘yes’, but only if we ask that question. More important for Foucault is what is the consequence of the ‘disappearance of the author’. For Foucault the concept of an author suggests they are the origin of meaning.
Alun Munslow

5. The Past, the Facts and History

As Frank R. Ankersmit noted over 20 years ago, epistemological approaches to history have always been concerned with the criteria historians deploy for truth, the accuracy of historical descriptions, explanation and meaning.1 Narrativist approaches to history, however, focus on the linguistic instruments deployed by historians in understanding and interpreting the-past-as-history. Epistemology is concerned with the correspondence between historical statements and their referents. Narrativist history is concerned with history as a story-discourse connecting activity. But this does not mean that epistemological history is ‘realist’ and narrativist history is non-realist or idealist - or fiction. For narrativist approaches to history are, as I will explore in this chapter, concerned with the relationship between reality, reference and representation. Briefly, I will examine how this rethinking of the logic of history affects seven key historical concepts:
Alun Munslow
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