Writing as Historical Practice

A History & Theory Workshop

May 18-19, 2017

Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN


History is made not found, the saying goes. But how is it made? It takes shape, in the most immediate and literal sense, through the activity of writing—both by historical actors and by their historians. Writers of history evoke a feeling of time whenever they put pen to page, finger to keyboard, ear to airwaves, or eye to the screen, whether intentionally or by the by. Writers manage the experience of time and temporality in the flow or skip of a piece of writing: by shuttling between past, present, and future tense; by forcing the eye to drop from body to footnote and back; or by stringing sentences that, in content, rupture time through their grammars. Writers obscure, undermine, or impose a sense of chronology and ontology in the activity of writing, which is itself a time-bound process.

Writing may be solitary at times, but it is just as commonly a social act, and is always a tactile and situated practice. As a result, the sense of the past can shift as words move beyond their original media into different modes of experience and communication. This has been the case not only for familiar examples, such as when oral testimony is written down, but is also the case when folios and photocopies enter different social, sensory, digital worlds or when static texts are declaimed, sung, or performed. Attention to paratexts, marginalia, indexicals, and intertextuality shows the social, situated quality of historical evidence and expression.

As a result, the process of writing and its change in form can produce a sense of order and difference, certainty or equivocation, new ontologies and surprising chronologies. Recently, scholars from history, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy have explored these issues by building on approaches inspired by Husserl’s phenomenology, Pierre Bourdieu’s reflexive anthropology, and Harold Garfinkel’s pragmatist ethnomethodology, to name a few. By focusing on manners of expression and the trajectories of texts—not only on the representations or words themselves—these approaches have held at bay the appeals of formalism, narratology, neurohistory, and genre studies. By engaging writing as a material process, they have worked to collapse classic divides, for example, between narrative camps and the new materialist camp. The aim has been to better describe the process and theorize its implications—the process that yields written traces, as much as the traces themselves. 

Taken together, this line of work from disparate fields prompts exciting questions:

  • On what grounds can we claim that static words evoke emotion, equivocation, or a sense of time?
  • What are the implications of such claims for theory of history?
  • How does a better understanding of the phenomenology of writing change our interpretations of sources and practices as history writers?
  • At the broadest level, how does attention to the social phenomenology of writing rebalance classic debates between language and materiality in the making of the past?

This workshop seeks to explore these questions in May 18-19, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. The papers from the workshop will be published in the December 2018 issue of History & Theory.