After reading Grafton’s The Footnote I considered the legacy of von Ranke for the historical discipline and for my own historical bildung (education/upbringing). While Grafton effectively notes that Ranke was not the first to employ “footnotes”, he was the first modern historian (or at leas the one we still recognize) that provided that crucial positivist pivot towards an historical methodology that–regardless of whether we want to recognize it or not–most of us are still engaged in. The footnote as a rhetorical/methodological/theoretical maker is an interesting and effective way to understand the legacy of von Ranke.
As I read Grafton’s analysis I could not help but wondering about really how much our discipline has changed. I certainly don’t want to suggest that we are all doing the same thing that Ranke was doing with late-medieval and Renaissance histories. We cannot deny, however, that epistemologically many of us are still very close to Ranke’s positivism. Out footnotes demonstrate that we believe in triangulating sources to articulate a narrative that gets to what “really happened.” As one of my colleagues in the department likes to repeat: when we are truly honest with ourselves most of us have not completely given up on a glimmer of objectivity in our works. If we did, then our footnotes would look very different.
What about Grafton’s footnotes? Unlike Gibbons, Grafton applies his clever quibs to the actual text. His footnotes are better described by his own metaphor: “Like the high whine of the dentist’s drill, the low rumble of the footnote on the historians page” (5). Note the lengthy and raw materials: long passages in German, etc.
This readings this week raise questions about the politics of the nation-state when they intersect with the archives; validity of traditional archives versus oral accounts; and the role of the archive for historians involved in public debates about the past.
Pohlandt-McCorkmick and Perry’s articles demonstrate that fundamental epistemological questions are highly volatile since they are embedded in politics and in the minds of a few officials (a justice, for example), enter the Arkheion again. Pohlandt-McCorkmick’s research was contingent upon the political shift in the 90s which allowed for greater access to state/police archival materials. Deep in the “belly of the beast” he found the unexpected: the intimate thoughts of the “subversives.” This is an excellent example of the paradox of the archive: you often find exactly what you seek in the most unexpected places. Furthermore, the more open administration after 1994 created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which fundamentally shifted the state’s epistemological philosophy by recognizing the validity or oral sources.
In contrast, Adele Perry’s analysis of the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia reveals the implications of accepting an epistemology rooted in nineteenth-century positivism. Perry concludes that
“we should move to a postcolonial practice of history–one that acknowledges and utilizes the distinctive possibilities of all archives and embraces rather than denies the interpretive challenges posed to mainstream historical methodology by the indigenous archive, alternative ways of reading the written one, and the simple admission that the ways we know the colonial past are not only multiple but necessarily and unevenly partial” (344).
Does Perry assume we all understand what “postcolonial practice of history” means? According to her analysis, post-colonial analysis simply accepts the validity of the oral tradition.
This essay also reminds me of native Californian struggles for federal recognition. In short, they are for the most part trapped in a system that only accepts a positivist epistemology (i.e. blood quanta, historical documents, and archeological data). To play the devil’s advocate, what are the dangers of relying too heavily on oral tradition?
Finally, I think both Perry and Curthoy’s both illustrate how “positivist” sources–the record written by the hand of the colonials–need to be interrogated. It should never be assumed–as did Justice McEachern and Windschulttle–that written records are inherently valid.