Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New modes of historical presentation

Victor Lieberman's Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 and Strange Parallels: Volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 represent about 1000 pages of careful, dense historical prose extending over two volumes. As previously discussed (link, link), the book reviews a thousand years of history of the polities of France, Kiev, Burma, Japan, and China, it documents a significant correlation of timing across the extremes of Eurasia, and it offers some historical hypotheses about the causes of this synchronicity. It is a long and involved story.

My question here is perhaps a startling one: Is it possible that some alternative modes of presentation would permit the author to represent the heart of the historical findings much more efficiently in the form of a complex animated visual display? Could the empirical heart of the two volumes be summarized in the form of a rich data display over time? Is the verbal narrative simply a clumsy way of representing what really ought to be graphed? What would be gained, and what would be lost by replacing the long complex text with a compact series of graphs and maps?

This thought experiment is possible because Lieberman's argument lends itself to a quantitative interpretation. Essentially he is focusing on factors that can be estimated over time: degree of scope of a regime, degree of integration of institutions, economic productivity, agricultural intensity, rainfall, temperature, population level and density, mortality by disease, and transport capacity, for example. And he is looking for one or more factors whose temporal variations can be interpreted as a causal factor explaining correlations across the graphs. So we could imagine a master graph representing the factual core of the research, with six groups of graphs over time, representing the chief variables for each region over time.  Here is Lieberman's initial effort along these lines, graphing his estimate of "scope and consolidation" of the states of SE Asia and France.  And we can imagine presenting different data series representing his findings about agricultural productivity, mortality, population, climate change, etc., arranged around a single timeline.

We might imagine supplementing these superimposed data series with a series of dated maps representing the territorial scope of the states of the various regions, arranged along a timeline:

 France T1
 France T2
France T3

(A similar series would be constructed for the states of SE Asia.)

What this coordinated series of graphics represents, then, is the core set of facts that Lieberman has synthesized and presented in the book.  By absorbing the social, political, and economic changes represented by this graphical timeline, the reader has gained access for the full set of empirical claims offered by Lieberman.  And, one might say, the presentation is more direct and comprehensible than the verbal description of these changes contained in the text.  Moreover, we might expect that patterns will emerge more or less directly from these graphic presentations -- for example, the synchrony between state crisis and accumulating climate change.

As for what is lost in this version of the story -- several things seem clear. First, much of the narrative that Lieberman provides is synthetic. He attempts to pull together a wide variety of sources in order to arrive at a summary statement such as this: "The Capetian state increased dramatically in scope and administrative competence between 1000 and 1250." So the narrative serves to justify and document a particular inflection point in the long graph of "French polity". It provides the evidentiary basis for the estimate at this period in time.

Second, of course, the packet of graphs I've just described lacks the eloquence and vividness of the prose that Lieberman or other talented historians are able to achieve in telling their stories. It represents only the abstract summary of conclusions, not the nuance of the reasoning or the drama of the story. The prose text is inherently enjoyable to read, and it engages the reader to share the historical puzzle. But, one might argue, the epistemic core of the book is precisely the abstract factual findings, not the prose style. And the reasoning can be captured as a hypertext lying behind the graph -- a sort of annotated hyper-document.

Finally, this notion of arriving at an abstract, schematic representation of a history of something doesn't work at all for many kinds of historical writing. Michael Kammen's Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture is an inherently semiotic argument, working out the ways that public ceremonies and monuments work in the consciousness of a population. Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History is a deft interpretive inquiry, arriving at a complex interpretation of a puzzling set of actions. These examples of great historical writing are evidence-based; but they are not designed to allow estimation of a set of variables over time. And I don't see that there is the possibility of a more abstract and symbolic representation of the historical knowledge they represent.

One might say that what we have encountered here is an important fissure within contemporary historical writing, between "cliometric" research and knowledge (Reflections on the Cliometrics Revolution: Conversations with Economic Historians) and hermeneutic historical knowledge (Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting). The former is primary interested in the processes of change of measurable human or social variables over time, whereas the latter is concerned with interpreting human actions and meanings. The former is amenable to quantitative representation -- graphs -- while the latter is inherently linguistic and interpretive. The former has to do with estimation and causal analysis, while the latter has to do with interpretation and narrative.

Often, of course, historians are involved in both kinds of interpretation and analysis -- both measurement and interpretation.  So when Charles Tilly describes four centuries of French contention in The Contentious French, he is interested in charting the rising frequency of contentious actions (cliometric); but he is also interested in interpreting the intentions and meanings associated with those actions (hermeneutic).

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