Narratives Matter

An excerpt of a new book appearedin Salon this week, provocatively titled “Why Most Narrative History is Wrong. The book is similarly provocative, alleging in the subtitle to reveal “the neuroscience of our addiction to stories.” Naturally this caused a series of knee-jerk reactions that spawned long Twitter threads. I had a similarly impulsive response to the chapter, but also wanted to response to it in good faith before returning to a point the author and I actually agree on, that narratives—the stories we tell ourselves—are fundamental to human societies, because my distaste with this piece emerges from the consequences of this point.

Alex Rosenberg declares at the outset that neuroscience and evolutionary anthropology reveal three things, namely that the attachment to history has evolutionary and genetic explanations, that the human brain warps “True” history, eliminating the possibility of any such thing, and that “evolution shaped a useful tool for survival into a defective theory of human nature.” It isn’t clear to me what the third assertion means, but where my brow really furrows is the Rosenberg’s conclusion from these bases, that “they undermine history’s claim to provide real understanding of the past, the present and the future.”

There is nothing wrong with Rosenberg’s most basic argument that human beings are hardwired to want and like stories because stories build community. His big problem is that narrative histories (and biography, an adjacent genre) are wrong in their causal explanations for how events happened. Here Rosenberg specifically exempts academic history from this discussion, implying that it is both too esoteric to have a harmful effect on on society and are better at explaining causality by eschewing narratives and taking into account science.

“Academic history is more than, and usually different from, true stories…But academic history isn’t the history that we consume to explain individual human actions and the lives they constitute, or to understand famous creative, political, public, and scientific achievements, fateful choices and their all too often tragic consequences. That’s because nowadays academic history is rarely narrative.”

What is left is a straw dog of a type of history that is both wrong and dangerous, but also without clear parameters for determining which type is which. “Good” history is unidentified and neutered, but nevertheless excused so that Rosenberg hedges against accusations of overly generic bias. The main target, it seems, is a sort of big-picture history, which has largely fallen out of academic history for a variety of reasons. Jill Lepore, for instance, while promoting her new history of the United States on the New York Times Book Review Podcast fielded a question on why she wrote this in a period where most historians are conspicuously not. Biography, on the other hand, has been making something of a comeback in some academic circles. But non-narrative history still seeks to answer questions about how society or societies develop.

(I am still unpacking the the distinction between “academic history” and “True stories” in my head and welcome discussion in the comments.)

As evidence for the flaw of narrative histories Rosenberg points to the “unending disagreement among historians over the same events.” The virtue of science in his view is that theories converge over time as one or another is proven correct. The other hypotheses, one assumes, are relegated to the realm of pseudo-science and safely ignored in the world view, despite this being a blatant fallacy in the realm of public discourse. In history, he says, each subsequent revisionist account does not supplant the one that came before, but creates more disagreement, offering the divergent explanations for the fall of Rome in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Mary Beard’s recent SPQR as an example.

Leaving alone that Gibbon and Beard wrote with different agendas, word counts, and schedules and that I am skeptical of this optimistic portrait of the sciences, there is is a more insidious dodge. In the sciences it is usually possible to conduct experiments that actively add to the collective knowledge of the field. In history, there are under-utilized archives and archaeology that do the same, but for any given project there is a finite amount of data. The further back you go in history the more limited the evidence, and doubly so when one considers the type of history that Rosenberg is concerned with. What is left is approaching old evidence through new perspectives and with new points of comparison, theories, and methods. While it might seem that everything has been said before, that is not always the case.

Rosenberg offers as an aside the confusion implicit in the divergent meanings of the word “history” in English, compared to other languages, but doesn’t mention that its root in Greek comes from a word for investigation, with a healthy dose of deliberation and choice. I tell my students at the outset of every semester that any history course, let alone book, covering a large period of time is going to necessitate exclusion. As Randall Munroe recently observed, history is just too big. More to the point, part of the virtue of taking history in school is learning how to think through events that happened in the past in order to critically and thoughtfully analyze narratives. There is also a claim in that historical narratives shut down curiosity, when what is being described is a form of indoctrination; history should answer some questions by creating others.

Another issue appears in a lament that most histories cover “internecine” topics. For a long time women, poor people, and many ethnic groups were simply not considered historical subjects. This past weekend for instance I was in a conversation about how as far as the Romans were concerned, the history of a place began when a Roman who cared enough to write about them showed up. Going back to Herodotus and Thucydides, the two subjects that were deemed suitable to write about as the main focus for historical inquiry were the political developments within a community and war. Anything else that emerged could be important to a given author, but they were secondary if you were writing history. There has been a concerted effort in recent decades to rectify this imbalance, but usually too little and too small of circles. Rosenberg is certainly right in the sense that histories of war and sex are what sell, so much so that I sometimes joke that everyone wants to write a biography of Alexander the Great and getting to do so is a sign you have made it in ancient history. But this is an exceedingly and misleadingly narrow vision of what history is.

Stories shape cultural narratives and, going back to the ancient world, mythistorical foundation myths are powerful expository agents for a community thinking about and even inventing its past. Rosenberg finds this deeply troubling, saying “the narratives that the field of history has provided have been harmful to the health, well-being, and the very lives of most people down through the chain of historical events. Stories historians tell are deeply implicated in more misery and death than probably any other aspect of human culture.” Then he gives this example:

Take the current conflict in the Middle East. All we really need to understand this conflict is what participants believe and want now, not what their parents, ancestors, and founding patriarchs believed and wanted — or even what actually happened to them — a hundred, a thousand, or three thousand years ago. But popular historians and common sense tell us it’s only through history that we can figure out what motivates people now. Not just world history, but personal history, too. That’s why reading people’s biographies can help us understand their current and future choices. It’s what William Faulkner was getting at when he wrote in “Requiem for a Nun”: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”. All this is so obvious, it seems hardly worth mentioning as a justification for paying attention to history.

But this rationale for studying histories and biographies should be troubling — if for no other reason than they don’t tell us what actually happened in the past, only what people think happened in the past. It’s people’s beliefs about history that motivate, not the actual historical events.

Once again I largely agree with the premise, and can cite as eminent a source as Thucydides who says that Athenians are really bad at remembering facts about their own history (6.54). Rosenberg is quite right that the act of realizing history in the contemporary period tells as much about the author and the time as they do about history. I’ll out myself as a fairly comfortable relativist with this statement, but 19th century positivism that demanded “True” history is a deeply suspect rhetorical position where the most benign interpretation is that it is done in the name of legitimacy. Maliciously, it is a way to claim authority and shut down debate.

You might ask, ‘But Josh, if you disagree with Rosenberg so stridently, why are you agreeing with him?’ Good question. Where there is a massive gulf between that author and this one lies in the consequences. According to Rosenberg, these stories are dangerous in no small part because they give the impression that this is how we can learn about people’s current motivations. But also by his own admission, these same people are being influenced by the pernicious stories in terms of how they are explaining their own place in the world. It would seem then, that the solution also lies in reshaping these stories through revisionist history, rather than rejecting it. This is not to reject other explanations for the current crises in the Middles East, but underscores the importance of diverse histories in books, museums, and other media that confront and challenge weaponized narratives.

There is a truism that when dealing with historians one must carefully listen for the sound of bees. Mixing the metaphor, everyone has an ax to grind, and the same is true here. Rosenberg offers an ironic paradox that history is bad, but history is impossible to escape. His problem, it seems to me, is two-fold. First is the marketing of books which advertise such-and-such as indispensable for understanding “nonhistorical” subjects. Second, and related, is that when scientists write for popular audiences, they tell stories about their subjects and it is those stories that are remembered, not the sciences. But neither of these are strictly the purview of historians, popular or otherwise, making the attack on writers of history seem misplaced. More baffling to me is the insistence that:

The histories of their disciplines — how they got to where they are today, don’t come into it. Facts, data, evidence, observations are all important, and though many are about past events, recent or distant, all they do is provide evidence for scientific results, findings, models, or theories. Scientists never confuse science with the narrative histories of science, still less with the biographies of scientists.

What bothers me here is the extreme presentism, without recognition that the motivations of people in the past (and the stories that they told themselves) shaped the very research that they did. Any claim to the contrary is ahistorical. Entire disciplines like the histories of science, technology, and medicine examine these issues at length, but pass here unacknowledged in favor of attacking a particular caricature of history. Moreover, many of the issues raised in this sloppy discussion of history and what it does are debates that have played out over the years in the discipline of history, so looking to the history of the discipline and the factors that played into its evolution would have, ironically, offered insight into the historiographical quagmire he dipped his toe into.

A book exploring the scientific bases for the human predisposition for stories is of great interest to me, but I didn’t like this chapter. What promises to be an illumination of the science behind a natural human love of stories comes across in this excerpt like a near-dytopian call to solve the world’s problems by rallying to STEM against the ravening hordes of history. The polemical tone smacked of territorialism and dismissive assurance of the absolute Truth of science even while acknowledging from the outset that history matters.

By way of conclusion, I have a question. If Rosenberg is right that “more like heroin than milk, this love is an addiction to history,” what should I be putting on my business cards?

2 thoughts on “Narratives Matter

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