“Contingencies of Historical Representation” Janet Atwill

“Contingencies of Historical Representation” Janet Atwill

Atwill claims all histories embody specific cultural contexts and institutional exigencies. In her article/taxonomy, however, she illustrates that the contingencies of historical representations is different in various genres. In semantic genres, for instance, contingences may frame a text, but are not part of its narrative (102). In the pragmatic genre, on the other hand, a historian foregrounds a particular institutional debate or theoretical perspective and thus explicitly acknowledges both the rhetorical and historical nature of his/her account (102). Pragmatists also foreground their theoretical orientation so readers are aware that writers are aware of the rhetorical choices they are making. As Atwill notes, this foregrounding can’t entirely expose the dense web of values and practices at work in any history; however, foregrounding our assumptions and intentions at least signifies to our reader that a “history” is always partial and strategic. In the syntactic approach to representing history, Atwill explains, the author foregrounds the construction of both author and audience. She explains that Vitanza and other subversive historians attempt to resituate author and audience on a different discursive, ideological, and epistemological plane. By explaining these various theories and histories, Atwill hopes to multiply our terms for discussing historiographical method—a move Enos calls for and that the other scholars we are reading right now attempt to do as well. By identifying these terms, Atwill also hopes we will begin to interrogate our own historiographical assumptions and rules of discourse—a stance Berlin, White, and others hope for as well. Atwill like the others know we must first define the functions of histories before we can alter them. In this sense, she like others attempts to provide tools for creating new methods for writing history—methods which will alter both our present and our future.

Atwill’s discussion of textual exemplars is particularly useful. Atwill explains that canons, as well as theories and methodologies, “’incorporate’ the values of a disciplinary community, reinforcing the community’s own referential status by reproducing its values and affirming its practices” (104). Drawing on Kuhn, Atwill further explains that when “particular histories of rhetoric no longer answer a community’s important questions, or when new questions arise, these histories will either lose their status as exemplars or be reconstituted to answer questions a community has found more pressing” (104). These points are useful for me because they help me better understand just how writing history is contingent on specific cultural values existing at specific times. It also explains how when we rewrite history, we rewrite our present because we bring our own values and questions to the table, which in turn allows us to discover new understandings of the past which affect the way we understand our present and as Berlin notes, our future as well.

Stylistically, I like the way Atwill begins with a concept derived from another discipline and applies it in order to address a pressing issue in our own field. We need to draw more on theoretical concepts from outside our field to enrich our own theories, methods, analyses, etc.


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