Friday, August 22, 2008

History as Construct

Postmodern philosophers have declared that many of the concepts we take for granted (history, Western civilization, the canon of great literature, etc.) are simply "constructs." Society has created these concepts out of nothing for certain purposes, and these concepts (like history) actually don't exist or are misguided.

Is "history" as we know & study it a construct? How do Marquez & Grass challenge our assumptions about history?

47 comments:

Dean Elazab said...

I believe that history is a construct. An example is the way we learn about world war 2. the differences between what we learn and what kids in japan learn are totally different. Who says which version is right? And is it true what michelle said Thursday that "History goes to the victor"

joel derby said...

I think that Marquez and Grass show us that we can not trust the history that we've learned because it could all be fables as in Marquez's case or written by a mad man like Oskar. It shows us that written history can't be trusted because views are always biased and distorted. And AMURICA is always correct.

joel derby said...

I think that Marquez and Grass show us that we can not trust the history that we've learned because it could all be fables as in Marquez's case or written by a mad man like Oskar. It shows us that written history can't be trusted because views are always biased and distorted. And AMURICA is always correct.

El Paco said...

What is a blog? Is it really just people writing their thoughts? And what defines a thought? And for that matter, what defines a question mark? Truly, these are inspirational inquisitions

bballinsupasta (JB) said...

i agree with joel's statement. i also think that history changes depending on whose telling the story. history as we study it is definitely a construct because most of the time we are taught history by reading a textbook or listening to a lecture. very rarely do people try to act out events or build models, and i think that would be a great way to learn. for instance, to learn about sherman' s march to the sea, every student could build a houe or a store model, and then all of them could be burnt. i think the students would truly understand what it would be like to destroy whole towns if they particiated in that activity.

joel derby said...

But Andrew, aren't sentences just constructs, and if their constructs, do they actually exists? And if they don't exist don't all books not exist? And if books don't exist does knowledge exist? Or are we just beings who walk around in a Matrix type place with constructs making up everything we know? Or does nothing exist and this is just a hallucination and we're just spirits who float around in nothingness.

puddlewonderful said...

I don't think burning replicas of little towns could relate to an eleven year old what it's like to lose your family, your livelihood, or your home to a civil war, nor do I think that's really an important part of history, although sympathy is always a good sentiment to possess. Our notion, or construct, of history, is a falsehood, because we assume it to be objective. We assume that to view past events from a present perspective allows for objectivity because we are separate from the biases that influenced the involved parties. However, when we view history, we view it through the current paradigm. This provides not for objectivity but only for a different bias, for as Kuhn would argue, paradigms serve as frames of mind, placing emphasis on certain qualities—perhaps undue emphasis. To reenact history would do little for this quandary; even if we could watch the events unfolding as they did, right there, in the place and time of their occurrence, we would still subject them to our paradigm. And if we were participants in history, besides the emotional attachment we might have, we would also be influenced by the current paradigm. In our later interpretation, we would employ one of the two possible paradigms. Objective history is a lie—all history is subjective, if only in varying degrees.

Grass and Marquez address this topic, especially Grass. Oskar’s tale is fraught with incredulities, things the reader might suspect he made up in writing the story of his life. But they are tied with the concrete facts of the German life and participation during World War II, sometimes so well blended that they are hard to extract. His warped interpretation of what we would consider concrete fact and the ease with which he mixes his strange imaginings and real events makes us wonder if any interpretation can be completely factual. Obviously, I don’t think so.

Sorry. I still fail at being concise.

Mr. Plainview said...

I think history is certainly a construct in Oskar's case. I don't believe a word about him shattering glass or bringing forth tears with his drum. However, I refuse to believe he is stupid. His story is so moving and complex, no idiot could have crafted it. In this case, Oskar's history is a construct. He needs it to cure his feelings of inadequacy--so he creates it himself.

tmichals said...

I completely agree with mr. plainview. Everyone is taught their own culture/ location's biased view of history. While it clearly bothered Nussdorf, I found reading about Grass's own construct of Nazi Germany and Poland very interesting. Marquez used his own construct of history regarding modernization to create the image of Macondo as well.

tmichals said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
El Paco said...

I agree in part with Mr. Plainview, in that Oskar does manufacture some of his stories, but I find it hard to believe that the emotional power his drumming was entirely made up. Fabricated, maybe, but fictitious? If it didn't have an astounding effect on its listeners, how could Bruno, his keeper, have been aware of Oskar as drummer before he was sent to the mental institution?

Michelle - I see you've taken Voltaire's view of history being completely subjective, but doesn't that only apply to social/interpretive history, rather than all history? Because surely literal history must be objective.

puddle-wonderful said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
puddlewonderful said...

Andrew- What if Bruno had never actually heard of Oskar, but Oskar made that up? Where does truth meet fiction in his story? I think that is really up to the reader to decide; Grass leaves few clues as to the location of the definite line. I think, as it seems everyone else does, that that question, that uncertainty, is central the the novel's theme of history as a construct-- we cannot be sure what is real and what isn't. Neither can we be sure, similarly, with history.

As far as literal history is concerned, where, really, does history exist but in the minds of those experiencing it and those looking back on it? In the moment, certainly, and in the past. But is it a part of our reality? I do concede that literal history exists, but it is so sparse in our study and understanding; it is (shall we say) sprinkled lightly over a bed of interpretation, an inseparable seasoning to what we learn. As soon as it happens it becomes tied inextricably to a point of view, an interpretation, a flurry of little ideas that attach themselves to the literal, concrete event. This happens in the minds of scholars and the laity, for those experiencing it and those learning it in hindsight. There is an air, a feel to what we believe are facts-- it is the feel of subjectivity, of a point of view. I think this is Grass's message, that our idea of literal history is akin to Oskar's life story-- a murky mixture of fact and interpretation. Literal/objective history exists, but history as we know and study it is a construct. In essence, in reality, it is subjective by inseparable association.

Manal said...

I agree with Joel, Dean, and Jane. I believe history is a construct because different people have different ways of telling stories. One person might tell an incident different from another who was also there at the same time. That happens because people's point of views are differnt.Someone will notice something another overlooked because to them that was more important than what else was happening. Besides, as stories are retold, they get changed even if just slightly. So there can't be just one version that is correct.

Dean Elazab said...

I would like to think that the world's history could be as objective as possible, but it sadly isn't so. In a world that is globally connected, it is ridiculous to have the generations learn different histories.

joel derby said...

But can't modern history and archeology help make objective history. People looking back through historic evidence won't have biases. They will be able to tell history objectively through solid evidence.

El Paco said...

I still don't understand how you can say that literal history, such as who won the American Revolution, is subjective (unless, of course, you question what winning is. But I hardly consider England losing the most valuable territory in the world winning on England's behalf - and I hardly consider the United States gaining sovereignty losing).

puddlewonderful said...

Who won and who lost, are, I admit, literal and objective things, but as soon as we delve into when, where, why, how-- as soon as we go into nearly any more detail-- things become increasingly subjective. But to say "England lost the American Revolution" is not history as we know and study it-- it is only a piece. The majority of what we know, learn, and study is subjective.

Joel- Evidence is not a concrete indicator of what happened. How can modern archaeological techniques give us an indication of the subtle forces at work in ancient history? How can it even give us facts? It can point us in a direction, but the direction we find is based on our own subjectivity. And even if there is, say, some objective direction, it's like a hurricane path-- there's a whole widening area where it could lead. Even the techniques are part of that subjective paradigm I mentioned earlier; perhaps in a few years we'll find/believe that the logic we thought explained our previous methods is false, and we'll have a whole new explanation, which will change our interpretation of the evidence. Technology is a great tool, and it's helping us learn a lot about history, but it is created by humans and based on their ideas-- subjectivity is built into our understanding of it. In ancient history more than anything else, subjectivity and speculation is amok-- beyond some approximate dates and general facts, we have only the accounts of the ancients that survive to us, histories written by such fallible men as Suetonius and Herodotus, the former of whom wrote years after the fact and based his accounts I believe mostly on hearsay.

Furthermore, who's to say that people looking back won't have biases? Are people ever capable of fully removing themselves from all bias? I am convinced that is impossible. Current literature, historical/economic/social theory, philosophy and sentiment will all influence the historian's interpretation of objective events.

I would like to add that I do not mean to belittle the study of history by accusing it of being mostly subjective. Even with its implanted bias it can be useful, and there is, somewhere within it, some general truth to be gleaned. Nor are those biased explanations not telling on their own; we can learn from them something of the nature of history, of people and events. I only suggest that when we learn these things, we keep our minds faintly aware that there is always another side, another spin, another perspective from which to view historical events.

Mr. Plainview said...

What about our own personal histories? Each memory we have is a twig on the branch of knowledge dealing with past events. Do we not lie to ourselves from time to time? (I'm not arguing with anybody; I'm just tossing this out there.)

john p said...

"I only suggest that when we learn these things, we keep our minds faintly aware that there is always another side, another spin, another perspective from which to view historical events."

I would say not to be "faintly aware" of the inherent bias in history and in all things chronicled by human beings, but to be constantly, vigilantly aware of it. Take everything you hear and read with a grain of salt. History may still be biased, but by identifying that bias you can reach at the very least an approximation of the truth.

Take The Tin Drum, for example. The book mixes fact and fiction together fairly indiscriminately, but it's not hard at all to identify some clear exaggerations, such as Oskar willing himself to stay three feet tall his entire life, or his glass-shattering scream. It's also not hard to identify some clear truths, such as World War II happening at that point in history. There are definitely some gray areas, such as the extent of Oskar's relations with women, or the true "power" of his drumming. But I think as long as you recognize that these elements of Oskar's story, his life "history", could potentially be either real or fabricated, you can then make an educated decision whether to disregard those parts of his life as not credible, to take them wholly as truth, or believe something in between. It's these "in-between," potentially credible accounts of history that historians debate over endlessly (off-topic, but you have to have no life, to spend your life arguing about other people's lives).

Understanding bias brings you that much closer to overcoming it. In this way, while history could still be viewed as a "construct" (I kinda hate that word, I feel like it lacks meaning), it still contains truth and meaning, and it's still useful to us.

And - as a shot against postmodernism, which I hate, I would say it's important to consider the author when reading any historic account to help you identify the bias. If you live in the postmodernist's fantasy world and pretend "there is no author," then bias becomes much more difficult to identify, and history becomes that much more of a "construct." Postmodernism only makes sense in the context of its flawed premises.

john p said...

Sorry for the ridiculously long post. I just can't help how right I am.

san agostino said...

Exactly.

El Paco said...

Just because understanding the bias can lead you closer to the truth doesn't mean that it necessarily will. For instance, if we consider the bias of what the Romans wrote about Carthage when studying the Romans' accounts of Carthage's history, we still cannot infer any truths about Carthage's civilization. We can only infer the literal history that Carthage ultimately lost the war was razed.

I don't understand how you can say that "post modernism exists only in the context of its flawed premises." Which premises are flawed? You make a very bold claim with little evidence to back it. If anything, The Tin Drum does reflect post modernistic philosophy in that the reader has to make a decision on whether or not he/she believes the events actually happened. However, the reader can't effectively make such a decision because he/she has no other evidence. Take into account that in fictional literature, anything can happen; it doesn't have to be realistic, and that's something that I think everyone's been overlooking.

I guess my point is that even by taking into account the bias of a history, you can't necessarily approximate truths - you can only analyze the events within their context of literal history and make an educated guess of what you think happened.

John, I wouldn't be so bold as to say that post modernism only works within its "false premises." I, too, dislike the philosophy, but you have to recognize its truths

Dean Elazab said...

Andrew has a good point. Just because we know that there is a bias, doesnt mean that it is a slight bias. Everything the person says could have a bias or they could just think outside of the culture. A person in Rome might not think like the general public, so we cant say that he is writing in that context.

puddlewonderful said...

I'm going to have to cast my vote with El Paco on this one-- I agree completely with what he said about The Tin Drum and history.

Also I think we need a new post on Fouceault so everyone else can begin to aim their postmodern bashing at our new French friend.

Oh, and Brandon-- I definitely think that personal histories are totally skewed. People always seem to have their own very specific perspective which vacillate between incredibly self-favoring to overly self-critical. I know, at least, that I do, and I think (read: hope) that it's only human. I would hate to admit how many times I've been put in a difficult position and then realized with awful guilt how I judged other people's actions so critically when they were in that same position, and then I find myself unable to do any better than they. All of my judgments about the events and people around me are based on my narrow perspective, which, I will admit, is sometimes in turn influenced by my own selfishness (with age, though, I am finding it easier to sometimes assume a very mild level of selflessness).

Occasionally I am given to reminiscing rather glumly on what the great pity of our narrow understanding. How often have we had drastic misunderstandings of our other peoples' motivations? Unless we are told (and even that requires full trust in the teller's honesty) what someone was thinking we never know the influences behind that person's decision. Furthermore, we generally tend to favor our own choices and actions and preferences, consciously and unconsciously. Obviously these biases will have a huge impact on our perception of our personal history.

Sorry about the long post. Unfortunately, I cannot justify its length with the assurance that it is the sole valid opinion (after all, it's only an opinion). I can only apologize for any inconvenience its length might cause.

ndepass said...

i have to agree with john on the point that we must take the history we are taught with a grain of salt and try to extract the truth from it. Because no matter how you look it the history we receive is biased to a certain degree and that will always be the case. We must just take what we are given, be happy that we even have historical information, and learn from it.

Ehren said...

yes, i agree. I think history will always be slightly (or greatly) butchered by the person narrating the story. There is no definitive right or wrong, but rather people must choose from history what is important in order to extract a significance from the events that took place.

joel derby said...

But how's it possible to exact fact from fiction when you're studying a document that is three hundred or a thousand years old. It could be some madman like Oscar completely fabricating his own history. It's not as simple as simply picking out the truth from the huge pool of falsehood.

tmichals said...

I have to agree with Michelle in the fact that I do not believe bias can ever be fully removed from literature (and life in general). While we do not realize it, everything that we are taught and surrounded by from the beginning is biased in its own way. Therefore, it is both unfair and unnecessary to completely ignore bias, as long as we recognize its presence when necessary.

P.S... The whole difference between bias/biased/biases has always confused me, so I apologize if I completely misused them and sounded like a moron.

john p said...

"Just because understanding the bias can lead you closer to the truth doesn't mean that it necessarily will. For instance, if we consider the bias of what the Romans wrote about Carthage when studying the Romans' accounts of Carthage's history, we still cannot infer any truths about Carthage's civilization. We can only infer the literal history that Carthage ultimately lost the war was razed."

You're right... some historical accounts simply aren't useful to us because they're too biased. Don't use those. Find some better sources to build your objective history.

"The Tin Drum does reflect post modernistic philosophy in that the reader has to make a decision on whether or not he/she believes the events actually happened."

You're right again. The Tin Drum is a postmodernist work, and a work of fiction - I'm not arguing against that. But if you want to analyze the book like you would a real-life historical account, you only have to disregard the clearly biased parts and think about the credible parts. Using the Tin Drum as a metaphor for why history is a construct, then, doesn't work except again under the flawed premises of postmodernism.

"I don't understand how you can say that "post modernism exists only in the context of its flawed premises." Which premises are flawed?"

Postmodernism can seem really complicated - and it is. But ultimately, it's an attack on the idea of truth.

This is the premise that is fundamentally wrong. There is such thing as truth, and reality, and an author - even if we have trouble interpreting these concepts at times.

Postmodernism can sometimes be an interesting way to look at things, and it's led to the creation of a lot of great art. Fight Club, for example, is awesome. But that doesn't make the school of thought that produced it any more correct.

Just because it has "ism" at the end of it doesn't make it smart.

puddlewonderful said...

I don't think postmodernism attacks truth-- rather, it makes a statement on the nature of truth. I think it does attack the idea of objective, standard, consistent truth. I think it attacks the idea of a reality constant and identical for every person and everything; I think it takes into account the inconsistency of perception from one person to another. As far as truth and reality are concerned, of course they exist, but they are not, cannot, and will never be exactly the same for every single person. I'm no scientist, but I think even biology leads, in some ways, to that answer. (Everyone is structured slightly differently so that even colors might exist in slightly different hues from person to person; everyone is "wired" slightly different so that our thoughts are uniquely tuned by our own inner chemistry and the personal experiences which have shaped us alongside genetics).

bballinsupasta said...

about mr. plainview's lying to ourselves comment- i completely agree that everyone lies to themselves from time to time. that is one reason why i take autobiographies with a large grain of salt. i think that our subconscious makes us look more favorable in our memories over time. it also blocks out painful ones sometimes too.

bballinsupasta said...

for dean's objective history comment- i agree that is sad that many times history is biased. after all as mrs. scandurro says, history is recored by the victor. also though i think that biased history is not always a bad thing. if you have opposing biased views recorded, then you can deduce a common history from them. also i think it is important to learn how different people felt about the same historical events. i think that dr. mooney should retell his historiography lecture.

Aaron Nussdorf said...

baises occur everywhere, but that does not mean that history is a construct.
events occured and history is the study of how, why and the aftereffects of the event. historiography is the interpritation of those events; what has happen is that history and historiography have become so intertwined such that it has become difficult to strip one away from the other.
Oskar interprits events into a construct that he could understand and we as unwitting readers believe him. Marquez uses the turbulent history of a Latin-American nation as am outlet for the strife in the Buendia family.
...but that's just how i see things

El Paco said...

Alright, John, I'm calling you out. "But if you want to analyze the book like you would a real-life historical account, you only have to disregard the clearly biased parts and think about the credible parts. Using the Tin Drum as a metaphor for why history is a construct, then, doesn't work except again under the flawed premises of postmodernism." What parts are clearly biased? If you want to analyze it like a real-life historical account, you have to remove ALL supernatural occurrences, including his glass shattering voice, his drumming, and about half of the entire novel.

Care to provide any examples of "better sources?"

"An attack on truth?" Post modernism doesn't attack truth, it merely questions our conceptions of the truth (not just history), which will eventually lead to a better understanding of the truth.

Sorry for the length of my post - I just can't help how right I am.

El Paco said...

Alright that last bit was a little mean. But let me put this in Calculus terms; If a person drives an average of 50 mph between 5:30 and 5:50, and drives an average of 60 mph between 5:40 and 5:55, you can't assume that the average speed between 5:30 and 5:40 is between 50 and 60 mph. You can approximate that it is, but can never KNOW that it is. The same concept applies to history

ndepass said...

el paco i see what you are saying, but i still think we get a general idea of what actually occurred. However, i am sure there are some cases where we can't pull out the truth, but the majority of the time i think we get the main idea of what really took place.

ndepass said...

...not looking to get into a "blog fight"

john p said...

Wise -

Your post was too long, I didn't read it.

tmichals said...

News regarding the fellowship of the couch:

As postmodernism has taught me to not trust in history, I must go against this and fear the unimaginable idea, based on the past of Katrina, that the fellowship may be compromised due to Gustav. This strongly bothers me and proves that postmodernism cannot always be trusted.

joel derby said...

I agree with Taylor. The postmodern ideals that fuel the thoughts of our current generation will come into great effect during this storm season and the upcoming Gustav. The fellowship of the couch must not be compromised due to the physiological and physical effects of Gustav.

john p said...

lololol, just kidding. I just didn't have time to do a response to Wise's call-out justice... but now I do.

"What parts are clearly biased?"

The part where he's a 3-foot-tall midget Casanova whose scream can shatter glass and whose magical drumming can stop an army's march. Maybe Oskar really believes those things... but he's clearly very biased towards his own divinity, considering that he compares himself to Jesus.


"If you want to analyze it like a real-life historical account, you have to remove ALL supernatural occurrences, including his glass shattering voice, his drumming, and about half of the entire novel."

Yeah. That's right... I don't see what you're getting at here.

Lots of folk history includes supernatural occurrences - like in 100 Years of Solitude. There could easily be some truth in there, but the supernatural stuff is an indication that maybe the source isn't so good, and that it could've possibly been written by somebody who thinks he's three feet tall because he willed himself to be.

The credible parts of the book would be the parts about the war, but I would say not to trust any writer who clearly has such a thin grasp on reality.

Care to provide any examples of "better sources?"

Thucydides, author of The History of the Peloponnesian War, one of the earliest historians whose work survives today. From Wikipedia:

"Thucydides (c. 460 BC – c. 395 BC) (Greek Θουκυδίδης, Thoukydídēs) was a Greek historian and author of the History of the Peloponnesian War, which recounts the 5th century BC war between Sparta and Athens to the year 411 BC. Thucydides has been dubbed the father of "scientific history" due to his strict standards of evidence-gathering and analysis in terms of cause and effect without reference to intervention by the gods.[1]"

Strict standards of evidence-gathering and analysis in terms of cause and effect. Now that's a source I'll trust. Not entirely, because even the best sources can be purposely or accidentally inaccurate - but definitely far more than a little midget with a drum.

"An attack on truth?" Post modernism doesn't attack truth, it merely questions our conceptions of the truth (not just history), which will eventually lead to a better understanding of the truth.

I'm going to save discussion of this for the Foucault topic, but suffice it to say that, after looking it up, I learned that there is a LOT of variation within postmodern philosophy, and a discussion about what postmodernism is and isn't would be very difficult and would very possibly be pointless.

I'm posting on the humanities blog at 1:00 AM, how cool am I.

El Paco said...

Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War is literal history, which, as I argued earlier in this post, is objective. He studies and writes about irrefutable evidence that you'd have to be an idiot to deny (like the Iranian president/dictator/whatever he is saying that the Holocaust didn't happen). However, all history beyond literal history must be subjective - I'd keep going but I don't feel like repeating everything Michelle has been saying for the past week.

My point on the Tin Drum is that the reader isn't supposed to interpret it literally - that's why more than half the book is filled with the supernatural. Instead of interpreting it within the context of or own world, we need to interpret it in the context of Oskar's world. Anyway, we need to stop talking about this book. I'm beginning to hate it even more.

I guess I should follow the trend on here and apologize for the length of my post, even though I'm not really sorry that it's long, and even though it really isn't very long at all. Well I suppose that would depend on one's definition of the word "long." What is length? Who cares. On to a more important topic: Jackets Vs. Sweaters

joel derby said...

Sorry, Andrew but I agree with John. To say that objective history is fine and post-modernism does not apply to it is ludicrous! THAT'S RIGHT LUDICROUS!!!!11

Post-modernism questions the histories and truths of the constructs which our society is based on, so how can you draw the line between objective and subjective history? To say that your argument only applies to certain books that you think are subjective would be to contradict post-modernism.

And as to the argument of jackets versus sweaters, Jackets are clearly the better choice. For example, Sometimes My torso is cold but my arms are hot, I can unzip the front while still keeping my arms cozy. Furthermore, The possibilities of different styles with jackets far exceeds that of sweaters. Sweaters come in only about 3 styles and looks with different graphics, but jackets can be completely different styles and looks and combinations.

JACKETS




PWN




SWEATERS



'
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!111111111111111!!!

El Paco said...

"To say that objective history is fine and post-modernism does not apply to it is ludicrous!

Joelseph - I think you misinterpreted what I was saying. Literal is history that can't possibly be skewed, like saying that "WWII happened and the third Reich was ended." And yes, like Michelle was saying, literal history is intertwined with subjective history. But what I'm saying is that everything that happens beyond literal history is subjective.

"To say that your argument only applies to certain books that you think are subjective would be to contradict post-modernism."
That's not what I was saying at all...

I do, however, agree with your analysis of the superiority of jackets. Jackets can be both formal and casual, while sweaters are sort of on the line. Plus, the Man Utd. crest is more widely available on jackets than on sweaters - and that's all that's really important, right? Don't even respond to that; I know your answer is "yes." Of course, my opinion may be a little biased because I have a plethora of jackets (and extremely stylish ones, at that).

My point is that the only issue in life that has a definite and completely objective solution is that jackets are superior to sweaters. Jackets are me, and sweaters are n00bs that I am pwning.

john p said...

What about trench coats? Do those count as jackets? Because trench coats are awesome.

What is a "jacket," anyway?

Margaret said...

I suppose I agree with everyone... in a way. History is always biased, yes. Everything is written with that certain person's personal point of view, and each person's point of view is different. You may share the same opinions, but the reasons and experiences behind that opinion which supports your beliefs are always, always varied.
Truth means something different for each person as well. As long as you find it to be true and meaningful to yourself, you should be able to accept other people's truths because it is also true to them, though maybe not to you. So, I guess I'm talking about "a" truth, not "the" truth. I don't think "the" truth really exists. How can we as flawed human beings really grasp the truth? We can understand the concept, but perhaps never fully realize it. Maybe.