Recently my students and I have been discussing questions such as historicity, historiography, and objectivity. Central to this exploration was our focus on the fiction-fact dichotomy. Indeed, one of the questions that emerged as we prodded on was whether we should hold fiction and fact in such stark contrast. The discussions were deeply fruitful, and this post is a very short summary of what transpired.
Writing History and How History Is Written
There is of course the oft-repeated but altogether true adage: History is written by the victors. But even this overlooks the sociopolitical clout of the dominant, of the victors. For instance, a significant part of domination involves ensuring compliance from the subordinated. This involves forcing the subordinated to accept fabricated versions of history, among other things. That is, the subordinated may not just be forced to accept a valorized version of history but they are also typically restricted from contesting this version. To this end, those in power tend to rely on legal and coercive measures to stifle any resistance.
Over time, versions of history compiled for the benefit of the dominant become institutionalized and even appear in textbooks. In some instances, history aids the transformation of dangerous, violent personalities into generous, other-regarding benefactors–as is the case with Cecil Rhodes, and indeed with colonialism in general.
How then can these versions of history–compiled to be popular and dominant–claim to be fair and objective? In fact, the trouble lies in the fact that the socially and politically dominant largely determine conditions of fairness and objectivity–not just in relation to historiography but also in terms of broader contexts, such as conditions of scientific objectivity, rationality, and, by extension, criteria for what qualifies as fact and fiction.
The Fiction-Fact Question
Central to this inquiry is the suggestion that the truths we produce are necessarily partial–even scientific truths. Admittedly, this is a contentious claim, but it allows us to think fruitfully and critically about fact and fiction.
In other words, it is impossible to produce all-encompassing truths. No matter how comprehensive an account, it will necessarily be limited and partial. The limitations are mostly imposed by our own cognitive finitude as well as by our biases, especially biases we are not aware of. This is not in fact a bleak account of what it is to produce truth and knowledge. If anything, it illustrates the importance of constant critical scrutiny, a quality without which progress–especially scientific progress–might become endangered.
It must also be noted that this argument does not suggest that it is futile to try and present a complete, comprehensive picture of a given issue or phenomenon. On the contrary, it argues that we ought to try and present as accurate an account as possible, and to do that, we must acknowledge that the truths we produce can only be partial. Which means we must also call “objective” methodologies into question. Doing this means ascribing importance and legitimacy to methods and techniques that fall beyond the scope of the scientific method. Oral history is just one relevant example in this context.
Ultimately, it is essential to ask what happens to marginalized voices–both in the context of history and more generally. Why do some voices get marginalized, and some amplified? These are some of the most elementary questions we should be asking when appraising works or accounts that claim to be historical.