Sitting in a hotel meeting room in downtown Atlanta the weekend before Thanksgiving, I watched a professor ask one of my colleagues if the Civil War really happened. This question reflected an effort to challenge the approach that sees scholars and language creating the world. (For an example of this approach to history, see Vaia Touna’s posts here and here.) The questioner here also emphasized a distinction between history (stuff that really happened in the past) and historiography (the writing about the stuff that happened), suggesting that a focus on analyzing historiography ignores the reality of the events themselves.
The photo above of a reenactment of the Civil War in 2009 becomes an interesting object to think about in relation to these questions. Even as the photographer adjusted the image to be black and white with a dark edge (I assume to make it look old), we easily recognize that this photo is not the Civil War but a recent reenactment of an event labeled as part of the Civil War. As a photo of some stuff that happened about 6 years ago, though, we also can easily distinguish between the photograph and the reenactment itself. The photo is like historiography. Someone used a camera to take the image and, in that process, cut out a whole range of actions, people, and objects outside the frame that the lens provided and all the things that came before and after the moment captured. The photo is not the history, to paraphrase Jonathan Z. Smith, and, like in Magritte’s painting below, the image is not the same as the object depicted. (For an interesting expansion on the complex layers of difference here, see Michel Foucault’s book This is Not a Pipe.)
To push this point further, the label “Civil War” is like the photograph. It represents an entire series of things that happened with a simple term, but it is not the events themselves. In the area around Atlanta, some people (at least at one point in time) called those various actions, things, people, etc., the “War of Northern Aggression” because that label better reflected their perceptions of that series of events. The name that a person chooses to use is their choice, reflecting their background, assumptions, etc., and is not a simple description. When we describe something, our words do not become whatever we try to describe. The words reflect the choices of the speaker/author to decide which elements are important, what events are included within the period of the “Civil War.” Thus, they also decide which things fall outside the conflict, left unrecognized on the cutting room floor that is an important aspect of our mental capacity. In fact, even naming the time period (1861-1865) not only establishes clear boundaries for the inclusion of events but also conveys those boundaries through the arbitrary (yet extremely useful) system of dating.
The assertion that scholars and others construct the world does not deny the existence of physical objects or events past and present but emphasizes how we can only analyze and engage the world through language, naming, describing, debating the things around us. We cannot access the specific events themselves, the history; we can only access the historiography, the description of the events in language (as well as image), making such descriptions the place to focus analysis. In fact, my account of the panel in Atlanta that I witnessed just over one week ago itself is historiography (and probably contested historiography). The panel really happened, but my description of it (and counter-descriptions from others) are the only ways we can engage it now.