Sunday, January 3, 2010

History is Written by the Writers, Not the Winners

So, a comment of the Media Ecology Association listserv led me to write a post there that I thought I'd share with you here. The comment was, "After new year greetings, we must remember that the history is told by the winners, but not the real history, the manipulated , the false truth." And this was my response:

This is one of those memes that gets repeated uncritically over and over again. And it's an insult to history's "losers" to characterize them as incapable of writing their own histories. After the fall of Troy, the natives of Asia Minor maintained their own oral traditions about the Greek invasion that paralleled those of the Greek colonies, and may even have informed the Homeric epics (and certainly Virgil's Aeneid). Jewish history, beginning with the Bible, is mostly a history of survival, not conquest.

Harold Innis's essay, "Minerva's Owl," in The Bias of Communication, serves as a welcome corrective. It opens with the quotation, “Minerva’s owl begins its flight only in the gathering dusk . . .” and then goes on to say:

Hegel wrote in reference to the crystallization of culture achieved in major classical writings in the period that saw the decline and fall of Grecian civilization. The richness of that culture, its uniqueness, and its influence on the history of the West suggest that the flight began not only for the dusk of Grecian civilization but also for the civilization of the West. (p.3)

A little later he returns to this theme and suggests:

With a weakening of protection of organized force, scholars put forth greater efforts and in a sense the flowering of the culture comes before its collapse. Minerva’s owl begins its flight in the gathering dusk not only from classical Greece but in turn from Alexandria, from Rome, from Constantinople, from the republican cities of Italy, from France, from Holland, and from Germany. (p. 5)

Vulgar Marxists insist that history is written by the winners because they see the superstructure as determined by the base, and therefore culture is determined by the powerful alone. Neo-Marxists, along the lines of Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, grant that the superstructure has some autonomy. If only winners write history, how could Karl Marx have written his own history of class conflict?

Media ecologists understand what should be painfully obvious to all:

WRITERS write history.

Winners may have better resources to engage in literacy education than losers, or to pay literates to write their history for them. And literates may enjoy certain advantages that tend to make them "winners" relative to their nonliterate peers. But writers and winners are not the same category, and should not be mistaken for one another.

And yes, written history is not the "real history" in the sense that it is not the same as the events that actually occurred. As Korzybski would remind us, written history is a map, not a territory. In fact, it is a map of a territory that has gone out of existence, so that, in the absence of time travel, there is no way to ever test its accuracy to the same extent that we can test maps of geographic territories.

But we still can determine that some historical maps are better than others, in that they better conform to the available evidence. Both winners and losers have reasons to distort the available evidence. Elizabeth Eisenstein has shown how Gutenberg's printing revolution made historical evidence and written histories widely available, spurring scholars on to cross check and engage in further research.

By the 19th century we have a historical revolution and historical consciousness the like of which had never before existed. And if the maps still had many inaccuracies, they continued to be improved over time. What makes the difference is adherence to higher standards of scholarly integrity, a commitment to reality testing that includes examination and re-examination of the available evidence, cross-checking among different scholars, evaluation of competing explanations, etc.

Oral tradition bends history to the requirements of oral performance and mnemonics. Writing frees history from those requirements and suggests new criteria of logical coherence. Printing facilitates comparison and evaluation of written historical narratives, as well as preservation of primary sources, and gives us the most accurate maps of past events that we have ever had.

The electronic media make it possible for us to preserve more historical evidence than ever before, which means that our maps of the recent past can be more detailed than any previous. But they also are biased against coherent narratives, instead giving us discontinuous historical "moments" and images and consumer products, i.e., nostalgia. And the electronic media also breed suspicion about the accuracy of history in general due to their nonlinear bias. And this is what leads to simplistic statements like, "History is written by the winners."