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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

2. History as Content/Story

of that which is past and gone. The implication is that for the notion of replication to make any sense we would have to assume that the historian could pass through the textual veil of historiography and be able to get back to ‘historical reality’.1 As noted, this is not feasible and, hence, history remains a fictively determined attempt at recovering (whether it is reconstructing, constructing or deconstructing) the past in the only way possible - through the creation of a narrative about it. Given its fictive, ‘substituting’ nature, then, as Frank R. Ankersmit argues (and I agree), history is never as good as the original it represents.2 We should not forget that epistemology works on the principle that ‘things’ (reality) and ‘words’ (cognitive language) can be tied together via a tertium quid. But a representation connects the represented (a thing) only to its representation (another thing). This is, by definition, only ever connect things to things. Thus a representation of President Ronald Reagan can only be compared to another representation of Ronald Reagan. Consequently, we cannot cross-reference our narratives as representations with past reality, but only against other narratives or, to use Ankersmit’s term, other ‘narrative substances’.3 Remember that while our historical narratives may be overflowing with factual sentences, these do not of themselves entail meanings. In spite of empirical-analytical arguments, the history text cannot provide a knowable reality that is independent of the history text.4
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

4. History as Expression

History modes of expression can vary widely in their substance and function. Because they are narratives, they can be spoken, or written, a fixed or moving image, or a gesture, a myth, a legend, a fable, a tale, a novella, a history, an epic, a mime, a stained glass window, a film, a comic, a postcard, a performance, a street theatre, a conversation or a painting.1 Because they are the result of the content/story and narrating/narration decisions of their author, all history modes of expression are, therefore, prefigured like any textual history. They are also subject to the epistemological decisions of their authors/creators. As expressive forms, modes of expression can both refer and also exemplify meaning. Thus, a mode of expression such as the painting by Frdric Bazille of his studio Studio in the Rue La Condamine (1870) expresses its predicate metaphorically rather than literally. Where the painting exemplifies in its colour, brush strokes and composition (grouping and distance between figures) the working friendships between painters Bazille, Manet, Monet, Renoir and the writer Zola who are in the picture, it also expresses metaphorically their camaraderie and common concerns. The painting not only ‘portrays realistically’ (as much as any painting can ‘portray’ ‘realistically’) but also metaphorically.2 This is an important feature not merely of paintings and other visual forms, but also of written texts (which also use their own kinds of colour, spacing, composition, etc.).
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

6. Understanding [in] History

We have now begun to confront the primacy of that form of explanation that connects reference (evidence) with meaning and explanation exclusively through the process of inference. In this chapter, I will describe how the conventional definitions of historical understanding in terms of the two key concepts of explanation and meaning need to be re-thought.1 As we shall see, one of the most significant results of the narrative turn has been the emergence of a new approach to the-past-as-history derived from the emerging and growing compulsion to undertake experimental history.
Alun Munslow

7. The Oar in Water

Since Plato the notion of ‘the oar in water’ - the way the oar seems to bend/break in water - has reminded us that, when considering issues of objectivity, truth and relativism, the circumstances of seeing affect our perception. This suggests rethinking the connections between explanation and meaning in history. The realist will say that an object will not necessarily be perceived identically at all times, but this does not affect the reality of its true nature. So, while the past must be cast in a ‘historical’ narrative that does not alter the shape of the past. The anti-representationalist response is that if the object can only be understood in a medium that refracts its reality (the past can only ever be represented through narratives about it - see the hermeneutic circle) then knowledge is always relative in the case of history to the process of narrative making. With the nineteenth century, however, came the ‘age of positivism’ (the victory of science in terms of objective and method) which broadened the gap between literature and history even though in both the greatest ‘authority’ remained the writer and their style.1 But so powerful was the cultural force of science and scientific explanation even in literature that by the end of the nineteenth century, literature itself had succumbed to the power of the real through the literary movements of ‘realism’ and ‘naturalism’. In effect, the banality of (primarily middleclass) reality and existence edged out what, since Aristotle, had been assumed to be the ‘revelatory nature’ of literature.
Alun Munslow
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