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1/2 idea No. 16: Minimal intention historiography – Historiographical Experiment #2

By Jon Agar, on 30 July 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

History’s primary sources are, nearly always, created for intended purposes. Usually the topic of the historian is aligned to the intention of the author of the primary sources, even when critically interpreted. For example, when I wrote about Thatcher’s science policy I would pay close attention to what she wrote about science in her autobiography even as I critically analysed how she wrote about it and what she might have left out.

Some fields of history, primarily ones seeking to recover unprivileged voices, read against the grain. They take the primary sources written by and for the powerful and do the hard work of bringing to light the experience of the oppressed, marginalised, unpowerful.

What would a history be like that deliberately and systematically set out to minimise the influence of intentions of the authors or makers of primary sources? History written only using the parts of primary sources which are, to as minimal degree as possible, unshaped by the authorial intention of the person wielding the pen or camera?

For example, imagine a collection of photographs of city spanning a century. Most photographs have an intended subject. But they also have detail captured, accidentally, as background. If this collection was the primary source corpus for a historical study, how would the history of the city be different if only the accidental background evidence was used rather than the primary subjects? Would new subjects be recovered?

As you can see from this 1/2 idea, and others, I am intrigued by historiographical experiment. In this case an artificial constraint is imposed on historical method, and the result is compared to history written without that constraint. If it doesn’t reveal anything of interest then it can be considered a formal game. If it does – say if the unlikely event of a new historical subject, or even just an unexpected rearrangement of the usual hierarchies of historical subjects, emerges – then there is revelation.


8 Responses to “1/2 idea No. 16: Minimal intention historiography – Historiographical Experiment #2”

  • 1
    Tim wrote on 31 March 2022:

    Jon. This reminds me of an experiment I wanted to do many years ago, which was to disavow the omniscient eye of the historian. What I mean is: we historians are hungry to find all the sources we can to illuminate the subjects we study. Often we will have read or seen evidence that each of our historical actors would not have known. This is particularly the case in microhistories, I think. So I wondered what it would be like to write histories that are fully sensitive to what our actors knew, only slightly knew, or didn’t know at all. That’s a thing I’d still like to do some time.

  • 2
    Jon Agar wrote on 1 April 2022:

    yes, I think I understand. It would be a way of enforcing the ‘see through your historical actor’s eyes’ instruction

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