The Varieties of Historical Experience

Friday, April 4 - Saturday, April 5

Alumni House
5555 South Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60637

Free and open to the public. 

See Conference Description Below.

Download Audio from Conference Presentations below >>

Conference Agenda

Day One: Friday, April 4

9:45 a.m.         Coffee
10:20 – 10:30 Welcome: Josh Beck, Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society
10:30 – 11:00 Stephan Palmié (University of Chicago) and Charles Stewart (University College London) Introduction: The Varieties of Historical Experience

Session 1 -- Chair: Dipesh Chakrabarty (University of Chicago)
11:00 – 11:30 Steven Conn (Ohio State University) The Generic Turn: Historians in the 21st Century
11:30 – 12:00 Ann Rigney (Utrecht University, the Netherlands) Facing Waterloo: From Experience to Imagination
12:00 – 12:30 Discussion

12:30 – 2:00 LUNCH 

Session 2 -- Chair: Judith Farquhar (University of Chicago)
2:00 – 2:30 Vanessa Agnew (University of Duisburg-Essen) Gooseflesh: Somatosensation in the Making of Historical Experience
2:30 – 3:00 Mark Auslander (Central Washington University) Rewinding History: Epiphany and the Optical Unconscious in Traumatic Reenactment
3:00 – 3:30 Discussion
3:30 – 4:00 Coffee

Session 3 -- Chair: Francoise Meltzer (University of Chicago)
4:00 – 4:30 Cailín E. Murray (Ball State University) Bodies, Artifacts and Ghosts: The Haunting Legacies of NAGPRA in Time and Place
4:30 – 5:00 William J Turkel (Western University, Canada) Sensors and Sources: How Transduction Affects Our Experiences of the Past
5:00 – 5:30 Discussion

7:00 DINNER (for participants)

Day Two: Saturday, April 5

9:30 a.m.  Coffee

Session 4 -- Chair: Rachel Fulton (University of Chicago)
10:00 – 10:30 James Bielo (Miami University, Ohio) Fused Magisteria: On Creationist History-Making
10:30 – 11:00 Ivan Ross (University of Chicago) Iterative Interactions: New Media Inflections of the Contemporary Historical Imagination
11:00 – 11:30 Discussion
11:30 – 11:45 Coffee

Session 5 -- Chair: Constantin Fasolt (University of Chicago)
11:45 – 12:15 Marshall Sahlins (University of Chicago) The Historiography and Anthropology of the Marvelous: Stranger-Kings, For Example
12:15 – 12:45 François Hartog, (EHESS, Paris) From Experience to History
12:45 – 1:15 Discussion

1:15  LUNCH (for participants)  


Conference Description:

According to views widely held both among professional historians and the general public in the West, producing a history entails the representation of past events and processes based on a number of interlocking moments: the identification and exhaustive scrutiny of sources for data; the application of recognized methods in the evaluation of such data as evidence; the dispassionate colligation and interpretation of the evidence; and its careful narration in writing or other media such as public address, or, less conventionally, film or museum display. These steps have characterized Western historical practice since the institutionalization of History as an academic discipline in the 19th century, and they are continuous with Herodotus’ introduction of historie, a term meaning ‘inquiry’ or ‘research’ productive of knowledge about times past, and their relation to the present.

But “doing history” both involves and (at least implicitly) aims at more than just that. “Practicing” academic historians tend to at least occasionally reflect upon both their own motivations and experience in trying to illuminate certain aspects of the past. They also will, at times, expound on their social mission as inculcators of the scholarly authorized historical experiences they hope will be taken away by the audiences who consume the results of their labors. It is this dimension that we aimed to foreground in this conference. We did so for a number of reasons. The most obvious of them is that the kind of historical experience realized in and projected by the practices sketched above has come to predominate in Western societies not because it is the most prevalent – it might not be, even though it is taught to all children in school – but because it is socially regarded as the superior mode of engaging (with) the past. 

Conceding that professional historiography is the best we can do is not, however, the same as saying that it entails and produces the only type of historical experience. Anthropologists have, of course, been arguing this for quite some time when discussing e.g. mythological forms or inspired methods of arriving at knowledge and experience of the past. Yet even within the contemporary United States there exist multiple parallel and alternative means of learning about the past. These include, at one end of the spectrum, scriptural interpretation, dreams, visions, ghost visitations, divine revelation, or belief in the conspiratory occlusion of the true causes of local and global events. At the other end of this spectrum, we might locate competing academic paradigms for the explanation past human action such as cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, genomics, and other fields aiming to explain past or present human behavior in biological terms.

Similar questions can be raised at the level of representation. There are multiple media for communicating accounts of the past that diverge from standard historiography. Some of these have been coexisting with standard historiography for some time. Others have emerged more recently. In the first category, one thinks of period dramas, secular history painting, or historical fiction, attested to since the 17th and 18th century, respectively, and so preceding the advent of historicism, proper. In the second, the rapidly expanding list of media promulgating “history” (often to great emotive effect)  might include major cinema treatments of historical episodes ranging from Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to The King’s Speech, television documentaries shading into infotainment, interactive museum displays, historical walking tours, living history theme parks, battlefield and other re-enactments, computerized historically themed simulations and games (whether of pedagogical intent, or as mere entertainment), and the debates about school book contents, as they were raging in Texas in 2010. 

Parallel to this is an emerging discussion among academic historians in the West about whether they themselves, have always lived up to (or even should live up to!) the standards of dispassionate scholarship and objectivism their discipline has projected for close to two centuries now. Here we did not wish to harp on epistemological issues that are only too well known to historians themselves – such as the historical fact of historiographical revision. Instead, we referred to what Vanessa Agnew called “History’s affective turn” and Emily Robinson termed “affective history.” As Hayden White argued long ago, historians inevitably deliver accounts of the past “narratively moralized” in light of present concerns and modes of representation. What is more, from Gibbon’s ruminations amidst the ruins of 18th century Rome onward, they have – admittedly or not – been under the spell of what Huizinga called “historical sensation,” Ankersmit “sublime historical experience,” or Derrida “archive fever,” even before (and perhaps sometimes beyond) their decision to dedicate themselves to recount the past “as it really was” for the benefit of present and future generations of their fellow-citizens.  

Convened by two anthropologists with a longstanding interest in Western as well as non-Western forms of history making and history telling, the aim of this conference was to bring together specialists from a variety of disciplines (media studies, literature, history, sociology of knowledge, philosophy, and anthropology, among others) to present empirical case studies of various forms of historical mediation and experience in the West.  As the Jamesian allusion in the conference title implies, the goal was not analytical reduction. On the contrary, we felt that the “Varieties of Historical Experience” are now as much in need of careful – and shall we say, pragmatist? – consideration as the Varieties of Religious Experience may have been when he penned his Gifford lectures at the beginning of the past century.

This conference explored these “alternative” (in relation to academic historical self-representations) practices and structures of feeling to understand why they currently proliferate in self-consciously modern Western societies, and how they relate to school-learned historical experience in the lives of individuals and communities. In large part, our aim was to contextualize the social situation of what, in Thomas Kuhn’s sense, we might call “normal historiography.” Here we submit that what Science and Technology Studies have contributed to our understanding of knowledge production in the physical sciences prompts a similar self-scrutiny in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Although preeminent in status, academic historical experience is but one of many possibilities. Even the readers of professional history are simultaneously enmeshed in completely other modes of historical practice, perception, and – potentially – critique.  To wit the buoyant sales of biographies of Abraham Lincoln or books about the Holocaust in a market where video games such as Brothers in Arms or Ostfront Reloaded are also avidly consumed. It becomes an empirical question, then, what messages “crossover readers” (and players) might “take away” from these products. Academic historicism, as enshrined in the discipline of history by the end of the 19th century, is no longer (and perhaps never was) the “only game in town” – not even within academia itself, let alone in Western societies more generally. More than a decade ago, Dipesh Chakrabarty charged us with the task of “provincializing Europe” in order to recognize alternative paradigms of history in non-Western societies. We carried that aim forward by examining the divergent forms of historical experience that flourish in the shadow of historicism in the West. 

This was one of the first conferences to examine the varieties of historical experience in Western societies for what they may reveal about the domain of historical consciousness as it is formed by various types of historical experience singly, serially or simultaneously. Ethnographic attention to current practices is a necessary first step on the way to an empirically informed anthropology of history. Contributors examined the practices that socially produce and legitimize notions about the relation between past and present, and the affective and experiential states that inform those practices and the reception of their results.