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Tuesday, May 27, 2003


Social history has, to a great extent, failed in its proclaimed and relatively simple task of writing history �from the bottom up,� according to historian Sigurdur Magnusson in the Spring, 03�s issue of Social History. LI recommends his article, The Singularization of History, which examines the proliferation of micro-histories and the collapse of the radical impulse that generated them. According to Magnusson, the social history in the seventies and eighties underwent a crisis of confidence in the Annales theory that underlay it. The old school, building on sociology, and Marx, counseled the historian to find episodes demonstrating time, to find these episodes on a significant scale, to subject his matter to categories that could be quantified, and to look for causal explanations that could link up to grander schemes. In the late eighties, under the assault of deconstruction and Foucaultian archaeology, the macro view could no longer be supported. But Magnusson thinks that this only has meant that discredited categories have been imported into microhistories, where one finds, compulsively, the same patterns that used to be adduced in macrohistory. Of course, the Italian historians like Ginzburg who pioneered microhistory were after something different � developing the local according to its own autonomous rules. Which meant a sort of Hegelian immersion in the mindset of the local.

Magnusson is distressed by a general retreat from the assertion of microhistorical autonomy � from, in fact, the vanguard attack of the parts against the whole � to the conservative contemporary atmosphere, which silent accedes to the positivistic values of showing a progress, measuring it with those measures that are generated from thinking of the now as that towards which history moves, and imposing upon the internal structure of microhistory those connections to macro-history that make it comprehensible to us. In other words, the steam has gone out of the left historicist project. Magnusson places himself in the camp of those who view micro-history as requiring other techniques � such as the techniques of the novelist. And he sadly surveys the comrades who have moved on, like Lynn Hunt. At one time Lynn Hunt was a Foucauldian � or a feminist version of one � and now she has become a mild positivist. �Modern,� he quotes her as saying, �is better.� And in a recent essay on gender history, she admonishes feminists to hook up to the macro train about tying �the stories [of women] into much more general narratives of long term social changes�� The fragments are glued together; the urn is as good as new.

Under the influence of our friend, S., we�ve been reading about complex adaptation theory. In particular, we�ve just been perusing a very interesting tome by Frank T. Vertosick, The Genius Within, which argues for a broader conception of intelligence than that which centers intelligence on the brain. Vertosick is arguing for an idea that was entertained by Spinoza and Diderot, and that has a lot of attraction for LI.

There�s a passage on the genotype and phenotype which, I think, might serve as a model for how macro-history and micro-history can be separated and at the same time connected. I�m not sure Magnusson would approve of an organic metaphor. Still, here it is. After talking about what it means that an organism can be cloned from a cell and an ovum, Vertosick makes this comment: �These findings prove beyond all doubt that the mammoth differences between a muscle cell and a neuron are neither genetic nor permanent. Muscle cells and nerve cells are, quite literally, simply the same cell, each temporarily portraying a different role in that elaborate stage production known as the body. The chromosomal makeup of a cell defines its genotype, while the actual appearance and function of a cell defines its phenotype. A cardiac muscle cell and a nerve cell taken from my body are of one genotype, but express very different phenotypes. Differentiation is a quantum thing. In the mature organism, a cell can be a muscle cell or a bone cell, but not something in between. Differentiation has no shades of gray. Moreover, once a cell commits to being a muscle cell, it usually stays a muscle cell forever.�

Of course, the analogy is imperfect, but it seems to me that the autonomy of the local is not an autonomy that is compounded from gender, class, race, etc., but is phenotypic � it expresses the macro-historical genotype in such a differentiated way as to justify the idea that it is an immersive whole, without justifying a nihilistic attitude towards higher, emergent historical structures.

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