Michael Ovens on the theme ‘Transitions, Fractures, and Fragments’

As a historian first and foremost, the theme for Ceræ’s second issue – ‘Transitions, Fractures, and Fragments’ – has resonated with me on a fundamentally historiographical level. Historiography in the twentieth century has seen the undoing of the great narratives of progress and division, or transition and fracture, that divided history into epochs such as the Classic, Medieval, Renascent, Enlightened, and Modern periods. The concept of modernity has been stretched back to envelop the Renaissance within the period of the ‘Early Modern,’ while the idea of the medium aevum – the ‘Middle Age’ or Medieval – has been steadily dismantled in order to show that it is more construction than reality. Even the division between construction and reality has been effaced, such that every perceived division has been argued to be in fact a construction, while the real – or rather, the Real – exists, if it indeed exists, forever beyond our reach.

These developments have been the result of some of our brightest minds labouring at some of our most intractable problems. Despite the scepticism of many towards the concept of ‘social constructivism,’ I believe it to be a useful paradigm that sheds light upon vast tracts of human culture and experience. The division of past time into historical periods may tell us more about the culture that crafted them than it does about the intrinsic reality that underpins them, but I don’t believe that means that we should do away with the concept of historical periods entirely.

Humanity defines itself through delineation, understanding objects and entities by virtue of the properties they do not possess as much as the properties they do. The Other is defined as being not one’s self; the past as neither the present nor the future; the marginal as not the major. The word ‘define’ can itself be understood as an antonym of the word ‘refine’, both of which originate from the Latin ‘finire’, meaning ‘to finish’. To refine is to remove impurities, to make complete again by returning to a primordial state of wholeness and purity; whereas to define is to make coarse, to expose the fractures and fragments which compose our world of sense and experience.

In order to try and understand the world, we must delineate it. Although many educated individuals understand that social constructivism and broadly-defined ‘postmodernity’ maintains the position that everything is constructed, there appears to be a certain degree of misunderstanding over what ‘constructed’ means. Asserting that a fact is constructed is not to assert that it is arbitrary, or of no greater value than any other constructed fact; to slip into metaphor for a moment, although all ships are constructed, a ship made of toothpicks and super-glue will be far less seaworthy than one made of engineered and welded steel. The claim that all facts are constructed is, at its heart, little more than the common-sense observation that human beings do not have unmediated access to the Real, and that every statement about the Real can therefore only be an approximation.

What does this mean for historiography and the debate over history’s transitions, fractures, and fragments? It means that although historical divisions are fallible and subject to revision, not all divisions are equally valid, and that these divisions are a necessary part of the human search for understanding. Historical periods are one small part of the ship of knowledge that we need to build to cross (or perhaps to merely stay afloat) the sea of ignorance. To advance human knowledge, we need to continue our division of history into periods like Antiquity and the Early Modern while recognising that these divisions offer only approximations and are therefore always subject to revision.

CALL FOR PAPERS: Ceræ is currently inviting submissions to its second issue, which is themed ‘Transitions, Fractures, and Fragments’. For further details, visit http://ceraejournal.com.

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