27 July 2008

Oxologies, tautymoroa, and other (hi)stories

I'm deeply reluctant to take issue on philosophical grounds with someone who, as Julie Heyward of Unreal Nature does, displays solid and philosophical insight in a world where philosophy is usually misunderstood at best and more often mangled out of all recognition. I'm even more reluctant to argue with one who has seduced and stolen my heart forever with the Red Line and Skystones, amongst other visual displays.

But hey – what the hell. I'll do it anyway.

In "Audience vs Participant", (in response to JSBlog and myself) Julie offers the suggestion that "alternative history" is an oxymoron. Now, I would argue that she's taking the word "history" here in a completely different sense from that which is meant. "History" on its own is at least a seeking after fact, while "alternative history" is a fiction (albeit a fiction which can be used as a thought experiment laboratory for examining "real" history). However, put that to one side and let's take her assertion at face value.

Looking at "alternative history" as if it were in fact about history, then, I would say that far from being an oxymoron it is in fact a tautology. History is always multiple and provisional. "History" with a capital H, which Julie describes as striving to be linear and fixed, is an abstractly idealised mental model and not a real thing in the world we inhabit.

Julie rightly observes "That historians never succeed in this does not change the nature of the endeavor", but I would respond that does define the thing itself. That endeavour is the model: and we should never confuse model with reality.

There is, admittedly, a considerable difference between US and European approaches to history. The US views resemble, in some important ways, those formerly held by European powers in their time of empires. Perhaps that's where the root lies of the difference between Julie and I.

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