Experimental History?

by Stephen Muecke

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In 1991 Daniel S. Milo and his friends in Paris, constituting a working group in “experimental history”, published a volume of essays entitled Alter Histoire. 1 Their obsession was to liberate the imagination of the historian, admire the force of the possible, intervene in order to spread disorder. This libertarian attitude carried with it certain polemics: a refusal of history as re-enactment and the dogma of the opacity of the past, and a distrust of systems of description and explanation. 2

Their method? The practice of an experimental history which would systematically defamiliarise and displace historical objects. The “experimental” has different senses across the two domains of science and art.3 Science has been experimental ever since Galileo, and the experimental in art would seem to have a shorter history. We talk freely of experimental writing as if its effects were harmless because they are sequestered in aesthetic domains, and in laboratories scientists pursue the testing of their hypotheses with experimental methods so well-established they furnish few surprises. The aspect of the experimental that I would like to borrow from science is that which would have us test things out, which would not only mean comparing and contrasting, juxtaposing conflicting accounts and testing them against facts (and on new equipment), but also, in a human discipline like history, against the end products of historical work–the readers and audiences constituted as part of historical formations–for history will only be history if it is read and made sense of.

The experimental in the creative arts draws more closely on the libertarianism of Milo and Co. or the Dada connections of Groucho Marx.4 Here one has to be a little more cautious since one is playing on the edge of irresponsibility. In order not to be totally haphazard, this play has to make some kind of sense. For instance, a “safe” disregard for patriarchal histories could lead one into fertile territory occupied by those hungry for women’s and postcolonial histories (Tunisian proverb: Take advice from the elders, then do the opposite). At the same time, it would seem that making sense of history means to keep non-sense in view at the horizon of one’s thought and practice. Experimental history implies a gap between what has made sense in the past, and what no longer makes sense, whether it is past events or new ones demanding to be gathered into the fold of meaning

In the case of Aboriginal history in Australia, the “discovery” of spaces beyond the frontier and before 1788 forced a radical reconceptualisation of national histories. The gap between the sense of what “we always knew” and initial non-sense of Aboriginal history is most often elided in accounts which proceed step by step, from one certainty to the next. To the extent that histories are considered “creative” they allow for the temporal or spatial gap between the established and the new, the mundane and the wondrous. They concede that the process of “making sense” depends on it, and that there is a surplus or a dimension of excess in every object.5 History will then operate with uncertainty as much as certainty, holding that every act of memory is also an act of forgetting. For what is forgotten is not the unfortunate down-side of memory, the lack; it is as systematic as the processes of memory.6

Jorge Luis Borges helps by providing us with an intellectual limit case, the case of Funes the Memorious who could forget nothing:

He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of Quebracho.7

Living in a world intolerably replete with particulars, he was incapable of generalisation. Therefore, as the narrator says, he was incapable of thought: “To think is to forget a difference, to generalise, to abstract”. Writing history then, would also be a way of thinking. And since we only know what is thought through inscription, then experiments with historiography become all-important.

For some time now, historians have conceded that the medium for the transmission of historical knowledge is not neutral in relation to that information: it narrativises it, stages it theatrically, and gives it points of view. No doubt an “experimental history for beginners” would start with a simple point of view exercise: a spatial intervention in the chronological tradition: Describe a series of events from one side of the room, then from the other; now from a woman’s point of view, now from the “other side of the frontier”, and so on. 8

For Aboriginal history the mode of inscription is highly significant, as oral histories compete for space with the alphabetic writings of historians. I have discussed this elsewhere,9 but the point is underscored by Mary Carruthers as cited by John Frow:

… anything that encodes information in order to stimulate the memory to store or retrieve information is “writing”, whether it be alphabet, hieroglyph, ideogram American Indian picture writing, or Inca knot writing. 10

Significantly, for the Kimberley histories I discuss, the mediaeval notion of the locus of memory as discussed by Carruthers and Frow is that writing is not an external support for memory, but a mode of memorisation practised in specific places. Similarly Aboriginal “histories” are encoded in places, writing and reading them involves travelling through the country as if the country itself were the text of history. Frow, most importantly, concludes:

… it is only by working out the implications or “writing” (in these senses) for memory that we can avoid the nostalgic essentialism that affirms the reality of an origin by proclaiming its loss.

One of the greatest “experiments” in recent Australian history is no doubt the recovery of pre-invasion events as part of national history: a whole new domain of positivity is forged under the slogan “Australia has an Aboriginal Past”. I think we should take Frow’s lesson to heart and say that this is a positivity, rather than morally declaiming the loss of a history that was “always there”.11 Relieved of the negative drag of nostalgia, this positivity opens a whole new space and brings with it additions to method (eg: the use of “myth” or oral sources). And it challenges established authority, highlighting the erstwhile neutral domain for the production and consumption of historical truth, which “they” are calling “Academic History”.

Stephen Muecke is Professor of Cultural Studies at University of Technology, Sydney.
This piece has been extracted with permission from the introduction to the May issue of The UTS Review. For further information contact the editor

Notes and References

1. Thanks to Benno Wagner for showing me the copy of Alter Histoire, and to Meaghan Morris for comments on an earlier version of this paper.

Daniel S. Milo and Alain Boureau eds, Alter Histoire: Essais d’histoire experimentale, (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1991). The manifesto essay by Milo is called ‘Pour une histoire expérimentale, ou le gai savoir’, (pp. 9-55) and has proved a useful basis for this introduction.

2. Milo and others, Alter Histoire … , back cover.

3. “Experience”, “experiment” and “expert” are all cognates, deriving from the Latin experiri, “to try thoroughly”.

4. More specifically, the connection is with the pataphysics movement. See Julian Pefanis, Heterology and the Postmodern, (Durham, Duke University Press, 1991), p. 122n.

5. Dipesh Chakrabarty puts this point another way. The political-ethical task of the historian is to attend to “the fractures in the semiotic field called ‘history’ so that what is unrepresentable is at least allowed to make visible the laws and limits of a system of representation”. ‘Marx after Marxism: History, Subalternity, and Difference’, in positions, 2. 2 (1994), 461.

6. John Frow, ‘Toute la Mémoire du Monde: Repetition and Forgetting’,n. d.

7. ‘Funes the Memorious,’ in Fictions (London: John Calder, 1965), p. 102, as cited by Frow in ‘Toute la Mémoire du Monde’.

8. Henry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier (Townsville: James Cook University, 1981).

9. Stephen Muecke, ‘Always Already Writing’, in Krim Benterrak, Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe eds,. Reading the Country (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984), Muecke, Textual Spaces: Aboriginality and Cultural Studies (Kensington: University of NSW Press, 1992), pp. 6-9, and in Jack Davis, Stephen Muecke, Mudrooroo Narogin and Adam Shoemaker eds. Paperbark: A Collection of Black Australian Writings (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1990), pp. 1-4.

10. Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Mediaeval Culture, Cambridge Studies in Mediaeval Literature 10 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 31-32.

11. See also Chakrabarty: “… it is always possible to discover ‘history’ (say after European contact) even if you were not aware of its existence in the past”. (p. 459)

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