The messiness of it all

History is messy. Nothing ever fits perfectly. The evidence never quite matches the theory, and the theory is always in need of new evidence if it wants to survive. The historical record is there, but what does it mean that it’s there? Is it accessible, meaningful, approachable by virtue of its being-there? 10 historians approach the same evidence differently and reach 10 different conclusions, not necessarily concordant with one another. The easiest thing to do within history as without is to name things, to proliferate concepts and multiply the labels. Though not everyone can agree on the labels, everyone can create new ones. We can’t agree because things are messy. The remains are messy, and that is what makes relics rich in meaning. Take away the messiness and you end up with ideology, the least messy of all, above scrutiny and below criticism.

The past is messy and for this reason, the history method will never account for all that is accountable. The honest historian will acknowledge the messiness of the traces, crisscrosses in the snow, and understand that findings are provisional, subject to change, waiting for the next train to take them to the next stop, where everything may turn out to be different.

History has emancipated itself from rhetoric, from cold reporting. It needs to complete its emancipation from an expectation that things are neat and waiting to be discovered. The historical source, evidence and record is a monument of messiness, an invitation to wrestle with meaning and challenge the historian’s core beliefs.

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