The “real” and the digital in history

Just as cubism coincided with the theory of relativity, the “cultural turn” in history coincided with the rise of digital media. It’s not a coincidence.

The postmodern or “cultural” turn coincided perfectly with the advent of digital archives. Both were “theorized” at about the same time (60s-70s), and both came into general use at about the same time. There’s no strict causal link,  that I know of, just as Einstein was not hanging out with Picasso. But a general intellectual shift, a “paradigm shift” seems to have begun that both critical theory and digital theory shared. Access without hierarchy: inquiries that reached across genres of knowledge or categories of inquiry. The Foucault “method,” for example, was to take texts that bore no obvious relation to each other and show how they represented the same way of thinking. It required a conscious rejection or interrogation of subject headings and archival disciplinary classifications.

Lots of histories make a distinction between “symbolic culture” (“what people say they mean”), and real interests, (“what they actually want”). So Americans in 1896 talked a lot about how they wanted to liberate Cuba and the Philippines, but what they really wanted was tropical food crops or rubber plantations. Americans talked a lot about liberating Iraqis from Saddam, but what they really wanted was oil.

Most of us have a strong desire for a bottom line, a real meaning. My own work in history, inflected by postmodernism, has convinced me it doesn’t exist: there is no difference between the symbolic and the real.

People act for a muddle of reasons that combine morality with necessity, sentiment with pragmatism, and we can’t really untangle them.

But beyond that, we can’t really understand natural facts except through stories about what they mean. Coal could always be burned, it was always mostly carbon, but those facts have a shifting meaning. In 1900, coal meant progress and industry; in 2011 it means pollution and environmental danger and unwelcome necessity. Coal is a natural fact: it has real material properties. But the meaning of those properties shifts.

Money often seems like “the real.” Follow the money and you’ll find out what’s really going on. But having spent a lot of time studying the history of money,  it’s really clear that nobody ever understands or agrees what money  actually is. Historically, one camp insists it has to be gold; another camp says it has to be gold and silver; a third camp say it should be paper. People who like gold as money have a faith-based certainty about gold’s “natural value.” It works just like religion: if you have faith in the existence of god, then all that god’s pronouncements have the solidity of granite. But the faith part makes money no more real than superstition. It’s not a bottom line, it’s more like shifting sand.

Like a lot of “cultural” historians of my generation, I’m less and less interested in uncovering the “real cause” of this or that event; I’m interested in what people thought the event meant.

Cultural historians tend to ask not “why did this happen?” but “what did this mean?” or “what meanings did people give this?” It’s now a common move, often called “the cultural turn,” and it draws on the idea that everything in history is both itself and a representation of something else, a story people told themselves about themselves. A baseball game is a baseball game and also a story about teamwork, commerce, nationalism, the past, manhood, etc.

The older model of history–the “why did this happen” school–was based on the idea of secrets behind the scenes: letters in archives, receipts, accountancy, the smoking memo; a prize unearthed. It was based on the idea that the truth was out there, in a dusty folder, concealed. Here’s the real reason, the bottom line.

When your source base shifts from scarcity to abundance, and searching becomes extremely easy, the idea of secret evidence, a real behind the symbolic, becomes less pressing. That kind of inquiry will never go away, nor should it, but the kind of fine-grained universal access that digital technology promises forces a different mindset, a different set of questions.

It’s not an accident, it seems to me, that the theoretical foundation  for the age of digital scholarship was laid in the same era as the heyday of postmodernism and the “cultural turn.” There is no doubt in my mind that eventually all archives will be digitized. It’s just cheaper: the market will demand it. Pressure to prevent digitization and access will come from entities that have something to hide, so the smoking memo will still be important. But the congruence between the technical and the intellectual has never been more plain.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Huggins, Mike O'Malley. Mike O'Malley said: In humanities, digital is to cultural as cubism is to relativity. […]

  • Interesting conflation of fascinating topics! I suggest, though, that you almost go too far in equating “natural facts” with “meaning”. When I studied history back in the ’70s, a professor said, “You can only do history 20-50 years afterwards. Until then, it’s just current events.”

    Of course it’s not coal that has changed, it’s us. But there’s an incredibly valid contribution that the discipline of History makes: not so much “Why did this happen?”, as “What happened?”. And it’s more than journalism, because the context is not assumed.

    And isn’t “follow the money” just a shorthand detective technique for “locatethe power”?

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