A Christmas Carol


Ryan Ford



            Dear Clio Readers,

                        I have something absolutely fantastic to relate! I know I am supposed to be submitting a paper on Keith Jenkins’s Refiguring History, but this is simply too amazing. My good Arabic friend Norm Al-Historian just told me about this crazy dream he had. I am thinking of writing a brief history on the subject, except the story proves to be totally impervious to normal methods. I can’t possibly cite any documentation on the event and am having trouble finding a coherent beginning, middle and end within it. I know it won’t cut mustard with to your rigorous standards, but I will give it a try anyway.

            The scene: jolly old What's New London, Connecticut.  Here is the background: Norm told me the day of his dream was pretty ordinary. He went to the archives, dug up some amazing ‘facts’ about George Washington’s table manners that will totally turn the understanding of the entire Revolution, what it was all about, on its ear, had lunch, you know, normal stuff. He did have a brief encounter, a skirmish if you will with one of his assistances, Bob Cratchit. The youth, sitting at his cramped desk, asked for Christmas day off, with pay, citing his hard work for Norm; the many paper cuts he had suffered, and poor, sick Tiny Tim. Exasperated at Norm’s refusal, Cratchit tried pathetically to relate some totally-cracked theory to Norm.  He explained some theory about language and democracy that was totally off the wall. My friend Norm took it all in stride though. He, chuckling to himself, told the misguided Cratchit that it was all simply “non-sense,” and that he, “best to get back to his empirically-grounded, real, historical work.” Norm then whacked him repeatedly in the head, with a rolled up essay of Gertrude Himmelfarb and made the poor young assistant recite our oath, “History, for its own sake and on its own terms!” over and over again. Driving home, Norm ran over some Christmas carolers for good measure.

            At the Al-Historian homestead, Norm retired to his bedroom chambers for the night, a book of Charles A. Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization under arm. This is where the story gets strange, and my credibility flies out the window. The worst thing? I have no citations! Norm, my buddy, heard something clanking around! Something like loud, heavy chains banging. Then, a mooooooaaning..! Getting out of bed, in his 19th century authentic night-gown holding a candle, Norm peered out his door… Nothing, nothing there. Whew. Turning around, with some satisfaction, Norm damned the NSA for not being quieter. Only to find, to his horror! There was the Ghost of his old Grad Student, Keith Jenkins!

            The Ghost of Keith Jenkins: “Norm... Al... Historian... You killed me! You’ve killed Postmodernism!”

            Norm Al-Historian: “I...I...I never did! We practice all you preach! Can’t you see we’re Pluralist now! There are African American studies for Beard’s sake!”

            The Ghost of Keith Jenkins: “Norm… you are charged with crimes against Postmodernism! You stand accused of pretending to these What's New practices. You fool, you thought you could simply add a few Marxist histories, maybe some Annales school histories and continue looking for the Truth! You will be P-U-N-I-S-H-E-D!”

            Norm Al-Historian: “Oh my dear Beard! What am I to doooooooooo!

            The Ghost of Keith Jenkins: “You will be visited by three Ghosts this night! The First Ghost will be the Ghost of X-mas Undecidability, and he will be here at the stroke of one o’clock. Before this night is over, you will understand POSTMODERNISM! Hahahaha!”

            Norm Al-Historian: “No! Anything but that! What is it you want? Do you want money? Fulbright scholarships? A Chair at Harvard? Wait-!”

But it was too late, the Ghost had vanished. The unearthly exit left Norm out of his wits. He could only calm himself by rubbing his hands over some primary documents he had stashed for just such an occasion. Upon doing so he regained his senses. He realized he must have strained his eyes at the archive that day. He must have found too much Truth to have strained his eyes so. He resolved to be more empirical in the future, and blew out his candle.

            Unfortunately the story continues as, exactly at the stroke of 1 a.m. Norm was awoken by a loud crash! Out of the shadows appeared an eerie Frenchmen, a Ghost!

            Norm Al-Historian: “Who’s there! What are you doing in my bedchambers! Paris Hilton is next door!”

            Ghost of X-mas Undecidability: “Quiet you fool, for what you say is without understanding. All of your decisions are based on a belief in Objective Truth, of which there is none! For the moment I will pass this aside and discuss the Undecidability of decisions! There is no ultimate objectivity, and this will be explained further by another, it is merely smoke and vapor, yet “we still do make decisions on the basis of preferences according to the tools at hand in any given social formation, we still put worlds under descriptions, and are able to give argumentative support” for them.”

            Norm Al-Historian: “Yes! Yes that is what I do! Argumentative support based on the Truth!”

            Ghost of Undecidability: “No, you twit. You make these decisions on the assumption of truth, but really, “we are now fully aware that we have to live with an intellectual outlook where truth and objectivity, neutrality and disinterest, are simply agreements produced in conversations which are always between interested parties and within and against which we do have to make ultimately groundless decisions…a decision has unavoidably to be taken, but taken without certainty and ‘subject’ to endless revision,” or Undecidable.”

            Norm Al-Historian: “This is ridiculous; there is real Truth as real as this conversation!”

            Ghost of X-mas Undecidability: “Language is exactly where we shall begin. For language is made up of words, and you assume when writing your histories that such words are meaningful ‘in and for itself’…a sort of “transcendental signifier, that is, a word whose meaning was both self evident and that its meaning would remain the same for everybody throughout space and time.”

            Norm Al-Historian: “Precisely, words change with their contexts, I understand!”

            Ghost of X-mas Undecidability: “Words then get their “specific meanings relative to other signifiers” since no word’s meaning is immediately obvious outside of all contexts. “For example take the word God. In order to explain what is meant by this particular signifier/word, we would have to add a lot of additional qualifying terms such as Father, redeemer, omnipotent, Savior and so on, the problem being that there is not a logical or finite number of such terms…and if this is the case, if we can never close down every possible description of God, then the word’s meaning always escapes us and so becomes logically open forever.”

            Norm Al-Historian: “You are robbing me of my words meaning? If what you say is true, then words have no meaning anymore?”

            Ghost of X-mas Undecidability: “Words may have any meaning yet will “always need supplementing by another set of signifiers to become a meaningful concept. But because the relationship between any two signifiers is never automatically derived or fixed or uniformly patterned, then the potential meaning that occurs …is always contingent, arbitrary…even though terms are repeated they are always slightly different according to the words surrounding them.” There is simply no pinning down words.”

            Norm Al-Historian: “That’s all fine and well… but how does this all affect me as a Historian?”

            Ghost of X-mas Undecidability: “There is no way of getting meaning into the world that you can be absolutely certain of forever…” Your histories will remain forever challenged, and there is no objective Truth for them to lie on as a result. There is no one history. “This is not to say that words and discourses are not…relatively stable in practice…this seemingly fixed nature of meaning…makes people think that there is something essential in language.” People insist on having an objective view of words and I will point to the reason that this may be dangerous. “[I am] trying to show how our various social institutions, conventions, law-codes and political systems are all attempts to stabilize ‘unstable and chaotic’ social and cultural formations…It is because there is instability that stabilization becomes necessary” and stabilization is unnatural. You as a Historian refuse to accept any, but ‘proper’ histories, because you mean to, however unwittingly, stabilize society. “Chaos is at once a risk and a chance.”

At once the Ghost left the room. He had vanished just as the Ghost of Jenkins before him. Norm thought of what the Ghost of Derrida had said, about language and Undecidability, but decided it was nonsense. He crawled back in bed to sleep till morning.

            Only his sleep would not remain undisturbed. At 2:12 a.m. the Ghost of X-mas Tropes entered the room, frantic.

            Ghost of X-mas Tropes: “Behold! I am late!”

            Norm Al-Historian: “Who the hell are you? I’m trying to get some sleep tonight!”

            Ghost of X-mas Tropes: “Dude, I am the second Ghost… the Ghost of X-mas Tropes. I can show you exactly how this language mumbo-jumbo applies to like, your every day history!”

            Norm Al-Historian: “What’s that smell, it smells like weird fruit in here!

            Ghost of X-mas Tropes: “Dude, my most-awesomely humble host, can I like proposition you for some totally primo-munchies before we begin?”

            Norm Al-Historian: “Get out of my bedroom chambers you dirty hippie!!”

            Ghost of X-mas Tropes: “Dude it’s like totally ironic that you brought that up, I’m all thinking this is a tragedy, you being a jerk not giving me any jerky, and it hits me… that’s one the historian’s forms of emplotment! It’s even ironic that I just said ironic, cus’ like that’s another one of those emplotments! Irony! Now let me see if I can remember the other two.”

            Norm Al-Historian: “What the heck are you talking about you Bob Marley loving, no shoes wearing, smelly, dirty hippie!”

            Ghost of X-mas Tropes: “You are like totally bumming me out here with all the negative vibes. Bummer. But really I’d like to discuss with you on how you begin to write a history, what do you always start with?”

            Norm Al-Historian: “The facts you dummy! Historians always compile a chronology from which they can use as a starting point!”

            Ghost of X-mas Tropes: “Hmpfh, the ‘facts’ eh? If history is composed of these ‘facts’ then, why are there so many different views / understandings / interpretations all based off the same ‘objective’ ‘obvious’ facts?”

            Norm Al-Historian: “Historians have simply not gotten it right yet. They have yet to write ‘the perfect history’ which synthesizes exactly, totally checking author biases – the level of professionalism is still being distilled down to the perfect method, the ultimate authorship!”

            Ghost of X-mas Tropes: “No professional historian would “for a minute hold to anything so vulgar as a Whig theory of progressive history, yet most actually do hold to a Whig view of historiography and methodology.” Tragic. But what I am talking about with tropes is basically, “the kind of work you do presupposes or is based upon a number of implicit assumptions.”

            Norm Al-Historian: “Well, I’m not concerned with that. I must continue to do my work” as a proper historian.”

            Ghost of X-mas Tropes: “The idea of propriety means that proper history is rather like proper deportment, it indicates an etiquette rather than a theory. I mean, proper history is the kind of thing that is done by the right people at the right time at the right place…anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the norms of professionalism is thus put down by saying this person isn’t doing proper history.”

            Norm Al-Historian: “And what do you suggest? That we not have a ‘proper’ historian?”

            Ghost of X-mas Tropes: “What raises the question as to why the professional historian is seemingly alone in being able to determine the proper answer to the question, ‘what is history’? …we might note in passing that such skills [utilized by historians] are not historical in any meaningful sense at all, but generic. ‘Finding’ and generating data, checking the provenance of sources/texts, reading critically, extrapolating ‘evidentially’, writing synoptically, these are hardly skills specific to history; think of the work of lawyers, geographers, literary critics or philosophers.” To move on what would you say the aim of historians is?”

            Norm Al-Historian: “History for its own sake and on its own terms!”

            Ghost of X-mas Tropes: “And yet this is obviously a logical impossibility. We can never shed our own prejudices when writing history. Yet this is more than impossible, it is undesirable. In order to accomplish your goal you would need to become an ideal chronicler. “Such a chronicler would be a person who knows about and who records absolutely everything that happens the moment it happens, who also knows the necessary and sufficient causes of such occurrences and their meanings, and who does so without any knowledge at all of the future.” Totally impossible dude. A history “immediately introduces hindsight and anachronism as unavoidable, formal requirements of history.” The dream historians claim to aspire to cannot ever be realized. “Nor should it be. For the whole point of a historical consciousness is very precisely not just to know the persons and events…as a contemporary might have done then, but as historians do now; looking back… the only thing we can ever offer as a history is a present-centered proposal, a tentative presentation about how ‘the before now’ might be seen.”

            Norm Al-Historian: “’the before now’?...

Alas, the second Ghost was gone in a cloud of purple haze. Perhaps finally my friend had found an end to his trials, to his ‘night of terror’. But of course this would not be so.

            Ghost of X-mas ‘the before now’: “Wake up you worthless ‘historian’ and justify your existence.”

            Norm Al-Historian: “I-I-I..!”

            Ghost of X-mas ‘the before now’: “I will leave you with a final choice, between your prized methods and a What's New path. The argument both for normal methods and against deviants is: we may “fall victim to all kinds of anachronisms, relativisms, skepticisms and contemporary ideological pressures, or, at worst, to succumb to the apparently disastrous ‘logical conclusion’ that anybody could say anything they liked about the past.” Taken with messages from the previous Ghosts we can see that “no historian… ever returns from his or her trip to ‘the past’ without precisely the historicization they wanted to get; no one ever comes back surprised or empty-handed from that destination…the historicized past is always only ever us – back there.” So what does it mean to hold objective views of the Truth and history? Do we avoid the pitfalls your discipline intended to avoid? Can anyone avoid these? It means we set up ‘professional’ disciplines required to create “proper responsible academic histories operating within acceptable limits and armed with all the usual gate-keeping paraphernalia: academic standards, publication controls, peer reviews, benchmarks, responsible and efficient methods and, in the wings, latent, ostracizing power.” All of this, when in reality, through language and our own personal subjective views, which are impossible to escape, we realize that ‘the truth’ is simply another arbitrary choice. What gives ‘the truth’ the right to decide? Simply put, it has no such right. “No socio/cultural formation is any more able to fold into harmonious and fixed relationships the patternings of dominance and subordination which so uneasily constitute it than ‘its’ individual subjects can resolve the inner tensions of their identities…thus… no hegemonic ordering is ever secure: it is always at a risk of being trans-formed; refigured…Accordingly, it is this recognition that no subject or political system is ever totally closed that gives radical democracy a chance… a definition of radical democracy [is] the attempt to preserve the conflictive character of all personal/social processes so as to stave off totalitarian social formation whilst at the same time aiming for a polity of ‘equality and equivalence’ that will still give difference an opportunity… to try to work the discourse of history in the direction of that kind of radical, open-ended democracy that grasps the impossibility of enacting a total historical/historicising closure of the past whilst recognizing that its refigured ways of figuring things out ‘will never have been good enough…and that this is the most desirous thing.”

This was the last thing said to Norm that night. He woke up with the rising sun. Realizing everything that was said he decided it was non-sense and went back to sleep.

            That’s all there is to tell on this strange series of ‘dreams’ my friend Norm Al-Historian had. More like nightmares.

Best Regards,

Ryan Ford