Calculating the past

 “As a historian,” Rebekah Higgitt is “always likely to be suspicious of the use of history to serve particular purposes”. Although she presents it rather straightforwardly, this is a controversial position to take.

 The past and all of its temporal detritus is right there, a few years (or moments or centuries) thataway. If I want to see it, I need only to go into a library or an antique store and ask to see anything at all from before, say, 1870, and there it will be. It would be a daunting job to understand the past in this way, but it is available, and one thing is for certain: it would “serve no particular purpose”.

 In one way of looking at it, a historian does this job for us, but curates the oceans of material into comprehensible narratives. To do so, however, is intrinsically a process of editorializing – in the process of crafting those explanatory narratives, historians must privilege certain events and causal explanations over others. Even the most evenhanded and objective-minded historian will juxtapose the account of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand with discussions of Serbian nationalist movements rather than with Gavrilo Princip’s sandwich preferences or the manufacture of ammunition. This comprises an implicit argument about the parts of history that are relevant and the types of causality readers should care about. These biases toward history are entirely grounded in arguments historians (knowingly or not) wish to make about the present. To be sure, these arguments can be as uncontroversial as “today’s important political happenings can be found in meetings of nationalist groups, not sandwich shops”, but that’s nonetheless an argument.

 If Higgitt denies (or merely problematizes) the rhetorical content of historical narratives, she risks naturalizing the past. The accounts of Ada Lovelace that are available to us are shaped by the assumptions and biases held by the historians who authored those accounts. For the most part, that’s fine – some of those assumptions are that Lovelace was a human who needed air to survive, etc. But a rejection of the use of history for any “particular purpose” can mask the existence of those assumptions, and make them appear to be artifacts of nature rather than artifacts of human discourse. Thus, it appears that the way things “were” (according to a given account) are the way that things “must have been”. This is the way things are, this is the way they have to be, because that is the way things were, and so on. History couldn’t have taken any other course. While this may be true according to a strictly determinist physical model of the universe, it is far to easy to equivocate the way things “must have been” with the way things “should have been”, turning history into just-so stories. This is why I think Higgett’s hesitation to focus on individual women who bucked the trend can be dangerous. Sloppy thinking can lead from an altogether noble desire to understand the past systemically and the way it actually was to an uncritically accepting study of the mechanisms of patriarchy. While Higgett is right that we should avoid superimposing our own values on people of the past, it is a different enterprise to evaluate the past by our own values. But sometimes even denying modern ethical attitudes to citizens of the past echoes white sheriffs in the segregated south saying “their negroes” are happy the way things are and don’t want no integration.

 The Difference Engine‘s conceit avoids this. Sterling and Gibson look at the past and say that it could have gone another way. They are happy to allow that the past could have taken another course, and to employ the past as a sort of laboratory to talk about the interaction between culture and events – if history is a fiction anyway, why can’t there be computers? In history, Ada Lovelace may not have been the “great man” (sic) that Higgett is wary to see her portrayed as. In The Difference Engine, however, slightly different circumstances have opened up a space for her to have accomplished a great deal more, making the contradictions between the opportunities afforded humanity by information technologies and the way women’s opportunities are circumscribed by leftover Victorian gender rôles appear far sharper.

 I believe that this is the point that contemporary Lovelace boosters are trying to make, and the point that Higgett complicates. I don’t think anyone really believes that Historic Women in Science were the norm, or even individually well accepted into scientific communities. But the point is that they wanted to be, and they could have been. Now, I want to make it clear that in large part, I agree with Higgett. Focus on exceptional individuals can mask the oppressive structures that they were exceptions from. And it does sort of misrepresent the way that science progresses, as the cumulative work of many. A critique of the “great man” mythology of science is important, but I wonder why Higgett feels like she needs to take aim at women, rather than the paradigm in general. For example, Rosalind Franklin, a woman, discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, and Crick and Watson, men, baldfacedly stole her results, won the Nobel Prize, and receive credit for the discovery to this day. How would Higgett have us conceptualize this? To be sure, Franklin wasn’t the first person to ever look through a microscope, but this certainly seems to be a fairly clear-cut case of an individual woman being screwed out of credit for a discovery that is rightfully hers. Are we to just say “well, that’s how the cookie crumbles. If you didn’t get credit then, that’s the way history went, so it would be historically inaccurate to give you credit now”?

 I agree with Higgett that we need to understand the way that patriarchal (and other sorts of oppressive) structures function and that constantly hearing narratives about people overcoming the odds through pluck and ingenuity can make it appear that such stories are the norm, when really they are anything but. But I think that The Difference Engine‘s approach to history might be approaching the better tactic: an unapologetic and vigorous use of history for the purpose of exposing and critiquing those systemic problems.

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