Följande resonemang utgjorde mitt eget korta inspel under loppet av symposiet (Micro)history and the production of images: towards an audiovisual historiography. Mitt inledande anförande – samt ytterligare några ord om evenemanget – återfinns här.
In a recent autobiographical sketch, Carlo Ginzburg declared: “Labels do not interest me, but the impulse that generated microhistory does.”
Although this symposium has already turned the spotlight on two such labels, microhistory and potential history, I trust that you will forgive me for introducing another one – in fact, even two or three of them. Along the way, I will also offer my own point of view on the ‘impulse’ behind both Ginzburg’s and [Ariella] Azoulay’s work.
The first label that I wish to propose is that of irrational history – and I could just as well reveal straightaway that I regard microhistory as the most striking example of irrational history. Now, if Ginzburg were here, I’m sure he would protest: after all, in his famous essay on “Clues”, he took care to distance himself from what he described as “the fruitless opposition between ‘rationalism’ and ‘irrationalism’”.
When I say ‘irrational’, however, I have something altogether rational in mind – namely, mathematics. As far-fetched as it must seem, I would claim that mathematical number theory provides a useful model for the dialectical development of history-writing in a wide sense. I will not bother you with the details, though. Suffice it to say that, in mathematical parlance, irrational numbers are numbers that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers: no matter what we divide by or how many times we carry out the division, a remainder will always result – the square root of 2 being a classical example.
Now, if we agree to define the term ‘irrational’ in this specific sense, I would argue that we find it articulated with astounding precision in Ginzburg’s most renowned work, The cheese and the worms, where the Italian historian describes his protagonist, the 16th-century miller Menocchio, in the following words:
Menocchio falls within a fine, tortuous, but clearly distiguishable, line of development that can be followed directly to the present. In a sense he is one of our forerunners. But Menocchio is also a dispersed fragment, reaching us by chance, of an obscure shadowy world that can be reconnected to our own history only by an arbitrary act. That culture has been destroyed. To respect its residue of unintelligibility that resists any attempt at analysis does not mean succumbing to a foolish fascination for the exotic and incomprehensible. It is simply taking note of a historical mutilation of which, in a certain sense, we ourselves are the victims.
Some occurences, that is to say, no matter what other occurences we compare them to, seem to leave a kind of irrational remainder: in Ginzburg’s words, a ‘residue of unintelligibility that resists any attempt at analysis’. Pinpointing such singular events – and once we start looking for them, they tend to surface almost everywhere – requires not only the very sharpest of conceptual tools but also a kind of literary sensibility that is subtly present throughout Ginzburg’s scholarship.
Hence, we can think of microhistory as an approach that, in both senses of the word, tends to the irrational – but that nevertheless remains committed to a broadly rationalist perspective: to recall the passage just quoted, respecting the unintelligibility of the past is not the same thing as ‘succumbing to a foolish fascination’ for it. In fact, Ginzburg has increasingly distanced himself from what he considers overly ‘irrational’ interpretations of his work and thereby come to emphasize – perhaps even over-emphasize – its ‘rational’ aspects.
This development, however, should not be regarded as a step back but rather as another step forward. Just as the the positive and negative numbers can be brought together in the set of integers, with the number zero as a kind of capstone, the rational and irrational numbers are reunited in the set of real numbers. By analogy, if The cheese and the worms can be considered a defining moment of irrational history, then Ginzburg’s mature position should rather be qualified as an instance of what might be called real history. This is why, in more recent writings, he continually underscores the complementarity of exceptions and rules, cases and generalizations, questions and answers, microhistory and global history.
End of story? Not quite – but the next step does seem to take us in quite an unexpected direction.
In the course of the preceding argument, we have already encountered the square root of 2 as an example of an irrational number. We now come across another, even stranger one: the square root of –1, also known as the imaginary number.
Again, I will not bother you with the details: suffice it to say that the square root of –1 cannot possibly be a real number, since no real number can possibly yield a negative square. Utter nonsense, in other words – yet quite useful for working out certain equations that would otherwise remain unsolvable. Once mathematicians got used to the idea, the imaginary number allowed them to leave the linear expanse of real numbers behind and venture into an entirely new dimension.
And what about imaginary history? As you will already have suspected, this is the second label that I would like to introduce – in the first place as a more captivating shorthand for the rather cumbersome expression audiovisual historiography. If irrational history attends to the remainder or ‘residue’, to what is either left out of or left over from conventional accounts of the past, then imaginary history opens up what is arguably an entirely new dimension for historical practice. What if we could write history not only from images but also with images – and then not only as illustrations for some preconceived idea about past events, but instead as an integral part of the process of inquiry? In the words of British cultural historian Ivan Gaskell, what if “the visual material of the past […] can only be adequately interpreted by the creation of new visual material […] which is rigorously conceptually disciplined”?
But why, exactly, would this qualify as an entirely new dimension rather than just an extension along previously established lines? Although this is a matter of discussion, I would say that writing history with images – especially photographic images – is essentially different because, compared to written sources, their ‘residue of unintelligibility’ can hardly be considered residual at all. Due to its distinctive mode of production, photography invariably gives rise to a surplus of sense – so much, in fact, that the result often verges on the nonsensical. As the American film theorist Mary Ann Doane has put it:
Beyond the inevitable selectivity of framing and angle, the camera always seems to evade issues of subjectivity, agency, and intentionality in the process of an unthought and mechanical recording. In reception, this lack can readily be transformed into the questions What does it mean? and What is it for?
Clearly, if we still wish to ‘respect the residue’ of such sources, we cannot just disregard the questions that they raise – but neither will it do simply to explain them away, so to speak. Rather, we would have to somehow elicit the ‘unthought’ of the image – still without ‘succumbing’ to it but, pace Ginzburg, perhaps just barely. Hence, if irrational history ultimately proves to be compatible with a certain kind of rationalism, imaginary history would have to occupy an even more ambivalent, because liminal, position.
Does the approach that Ariella Azoulay calls potential history occupy such a liminal position? We will find out soon enough – since, unlike Ginzburg, she is here to answer the question herself. In any case, by virtue of its similarity to as well as its difference from microhistory, potential history provides the perfect point of orientation for my argument.
To begin with the most apparent difference: although Ginzburg’s microhistorical inquiries draw on a range of visual materials, Azoulay’s perspective distinguishes itself by the significance it ascribes to photographic images, both as historical sources and as historiographical means of expression. If there is nevertheless a certain similarity – a family resemblance, perhaps – between microhistory and potential history, it is because both seem to approach their chosen materials from the same fundamental point of view. “The ontological nature of the photograph,” Azoulay explains,
enables one to enact a civil reading, a viewing that one can call “nongovernmental viewing,” a viewing that will turn the traces of constituent violence that became the law […] into traces of disaster and that will show the expanded field of the disaster. It will point out that the disaster has also affected those that the regime has maimed by virtue of the loss of ability to see disaster and recognize it as such.
Although Azoulay is primarily concerned, here as elsewhere, with the situation in present-day Israel/Palestine, her reasoning has an almost uncanny resonance – at least to my mind – with the passage from The cheese and the worms that I quoted a while ago. Indeed, what is Ginzburg’s ‘dispersed fragment, reaching us by chance’ if not a ‘trace of constituent violence that became the law’? And could Azoulay’s ‘disaster’ not be described precisely as ‘a historical mutilation of which, in a certain sense, we ourselves are the victims’? All differences aside, is microhistory not another instance of ‘nongovernmental viewing’, enacted with the help of Inquisition protocols rather than photographs? With more time on my hands, I would gladly have pursued this argument further.
Instead, let me retrace my main lines of reasoning. First, with allusion to mathematics, I introduced the notion of irrational history and suggested that Ginzburg’s microhistory consitutes a subset of irrational history. Next, I proposed imaginary history as a more distinct term for what we have also been calling audiovisual historiography and raised the possibility that Azoulay’s potential history might belong in this category, hence operating in an even more ambivalent epistemic register. Still, it seems to me that both microhistory and potential history remain, so to speak, on the same side of the line – ‘fine, tortuous, but clearly distiguishable’ – between the rational and the irrational, comprehension and the incomprehensible, restraint and excess.
To conclude, I will also sound a note of restraint rather than excess. Whatever becomes – if, indeed, anything at all becomes – of audiovisual historiography, it needs to be conceived not as a self-sufficient approach but rather within a wider range of historiographical practices. To resort one last time to my slightly fanciful parallel with mathematics: just like the rationals and the irrationals together form the set of real numbers, the real and imaginary dimensions come together in the complex plane. Hence, if imaginary history is to prove meaningful, it can only be as a contribution to what might be called complex history.
In the end, then, should we regard imaginary history simply as one possible vector among innumerable others within the wider field of complex history – just like, in practice, the imaginary part of a complex equation is always eliminated at the end of a calculation? To recall my initial hesitation, how many labels – two or three – have I actually proposed? Well, perhaps we can take the term imaginary history in either a loose or a strict sense, where the latter would refer to a more specific direction of inquiry, one where the ‘real part’ tends towards zero.
In that case, the concept can be summed up as follows. First, imaginary history would, if not exclusively, then at least primarily draw on visual sources. Second, it would, if not exclusively, then at least primarily make use of visual – or, indeed, audiovisual – media. Third, and perhaps most crucially, imaginary history would give pride of place to the faculty of the imagination, constituting a rigorous (but, pace Ivan Gaskell, not primarily conceptual) investigation into the image-worlds of the remote as well as the more recent past.
Another experiment, that is to say, in practical epistemology, now aiming to answer a quite narrow question: how far can audiovisual historiography be taken without ceasing to be historiography in any meaningful sense? A question that I would be more than happy to discuss with all of you – with the proviso that, in all probability, it cannot be answered in principle, only in practice – that is, by force of example.