Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Designing the conceptual backbone

The historical is that which is not universal and not singular. For it not to be universal, there must be a difference; for it not to be singular, it must be specific, it must be understood, for that sends us back to the plot. (p.59)  
-- from: Paul Veyne, Writing History: Essay on Epistemology, Manchester University Press, 1984
There are various parts to put together correctly when giving a historical exposition of a topic of interest, for example, the life of Joseph Smith Jr. The problem then becomes how to implement what Paul Veyne is describing. The events themselves, as drawn from the sources that have been collected and handed down, e.g. in collections such as Dan Vogel's Early Mormon Documents (5 vols), provide the record of singularities.

We have to figure out how to extract the specifics from these, to get to the "anonymous plots" (p.59), as Veyne puts it, by which he means "slavery, concubinage, intermarriages, sexual motivations in the choice of a wife" (p.59). These plots are anonymous, because the singularity that is an individual cannot be captured.
... he [i.e. the individual, RCK] will only have lost his singularity [when being separated out into plots, RCK], about which there is exactly nothing to say. (p.59)
The problem for historiography then becomes to make the plots visible that explain the historical sources---Veyne had used an epitaph to drive his example---and reconstruct them accurately. Since each event is just one bead in the necklace that is the plot, we need to come up with a story for constructing enough of the surrounding beads to make the bead in focus understandable.

While Fernand Braudel's social time, including its cyclic constructions of boom and bust, and its long duration time, with its climate and geography and natural resources, make a good start for how to get the surrounding beads in place, there are missing aspects. A specific type that is missing are long range transformation processes, such as the development of modernity itself; technical or scientific innovations; the expansion phase of an empire; etc.

Clearly these are more difficult to manage; the whole point of Braudel's temporal categories is that they can drive expectations for what to find. Rapid land transport before the rail road is the horse, for Joseph Smith Jr just as it had been for Alexander the Great (cf. David W. Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848, Prologue).

But the spread of the rail road is a transformative process, and now we need to know time and place of introduction, and we need to keep an eye on aspects such as speed, and price of transportation, and frequencies and other attributes, which develop rapidly. What to find is now difficult to answer without a lot more information about where and when. Transformation means that the line of beads is as if spliced; one line comes to its end, and another begins, though they are connected and correlated. It is the same type of bead, but there are attributes---or attribute values---that have changed, possibly for henceforth.

The connection point to Veyne's example is most easily explicable in the plot involving motivations. Transformations affect motivations, because new choices are added, old choices are eliminated, and some choices are reframed. If all slaves are freed, what does it mean to be a freedman or freedwoman? What are the new marriage options?

After-thought: In some sense, this is one of the most persistent problems of the Joseph Smith Jr apologetic or hagiographic history that comes out of BYU Studies publications and similar: They are trying to preserve the singularity. Thus, the context gets lost, and things that were common or shared become unique about JS Jr. JS Jr was lynched, like many people before the Federal level was strong enough to enforce public order pervasively. JS Jr's family was ripped off when leaving Vermont, like many people were fleeced who had been forced to accept IOYs and debt notes because of lack of cash. 

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