A house of mirrors


3. a. Faith, trust, confidence. (Cf. TROTH 3a.) Obs.
b. Belief; a formula of belief, a creed. (Cf. TROTH 3b.) Obs.

If the Oxford English Dictionary says so, who am I to disagree. Scientific communities arrive at “truthiness” through social negotiation. It is not consensus. Battles for credibility and some empire building decide who is silenced and who is conferred authority. We get winners and losers. We get convention and we get dissent. Communities reconfigure alongside the intellectual controversy, some will go in and some out, some distant and some close.

Do we have truth in the history of economics? We have a few programs that promise to interpret the historical record in a single sweep, such as the Graz-Rome and the Notre Dame-Nijmegen. But it seems unlikely that any of them will succeed in shaping our community. Instead we are fragmented in little specialties, experts on some authors, periods, or themes, which mostly do not communicate. Beatrice and I will share a desire for a more encompassing history of economics, less feudal. In her suggestion that we “find THE four histories of such and such event,” I read openness to have many historians piecing the mosaic of their work to compose a broader and more complex view of the past.

As I enter the house of mirrors, I am expected to apply my understanding of scientific communities to my own. So I should be calling for truth, to distinguish convention and dissent and regulate insiders and outsiders. But gazing at my disformed reflexivity, I am not sure this image I see is me. For me what makes a good history is not its explanation of how WE got here. Good history is not the history of the big white men and the “important.” I suggest that our truth lies not in THE narrative but in the ways we write them. Any “THE four histories of such and such” will exclude the n-4 histories of such and such. I feel committed to defend the historical record of that destruction. Volumes and volumes are still being written on the French revolution, not because we are still looking for THE histories, but because we indulge in changing the questions and always finding in that record something fresh.

With aimless curiosity we should reshape our community.

8 thoughts on “A house of mirrors

  1. The metaphor of the house of mirrors provides an interesting perspective on the discussion at work between Beatrice and Tiago. As some of you may know, in classical hollywood movies (1940s-1950s) mirrors are symbols of mental disorder and more specifically fragmented personalities, sometime to the point of multiple personality disorder. It is a traditional stylistic device used in noir movies. One classic example is the climax of the Lady of Shangaï (a Orson Welles movie) where the house of mirrors is broken, the bad guy dies and everything returns to order. How does it inform the present dialogue between Beatrice and Tiago?
    I would say that Beatrice, even if she admits the possibility of different interesting perspectives on one subject nevertheless sticks to the classical rhetorics: there is right, there is wrong, in the end the complexity offered by different perspectives/voices can be resolved in one storyline that synthesizes all the others and those who can not be synthesized should be rejected (when the mirrors are broken, these reflections just disappear).
    Tiago is more on the modern/post-modern side (how come I am not surprised by this) exemplified in the hollywood industry by neo-noir movies such as Matrix, or for those like me who likes classic references, Point Blank by John Boorman. In these movies, it is not clear anymore if one can separate truth from lie, right from wrong. What you have are different perspectives that can be interpreted in different ways without one clearly emerging as better than the other. In the end, what you have is only interesting stories.

    PS: In Point Blank, Lee Marvin is a gunmen working for a big anonymous company who is assaulted at the very beginning of the movie, but he does not die and he goes on a retaliation mission of his own to kill the one who ordered his killing. He goes to his contact inside the organization, force him to give the name of his superior, then kill him. He does the same with his superior, then with the superior of the superior, climbing up to the top of the organization to get to the one “who gives orders”. At the end of the movie, just as you thought he killed the chief of organization that ordered his death, you flashback to the beginning of the movie and see that in reality he has not really escaped in the first place but simply dreamed the movies just before dying. What is interesting is that the movie is sufficently ambiguous to let the viewer choose its own interpretation (and indeed in a remake with Mel Gibson Payback, the gunman does not die).

  2. I’m wondering…isn’t it possible to define “truth” without notion of wrong or right?
    Anyway, I confess some kind of schizophrenia here. I may be prepared to accept, while sitting in the audience of a conference, that there is no right nor wrong stories (because I don’t care, which might be a bad reason), but I cannot WRITE a story without convincing me before that I’m telling the truth.

  3. Beatrice,
    the problem is that you do not make a difference between what you believed is true and Truth. When I am writing an historical piece, I am convinced that what I am telling is true, meaning that it tells something which is relevant from a historical point of view and based on facts that can be verified independently by a third party. However, it does not means that when discovering another fact, or another interpretation technique of the facts I had in the first place, my narrative will go unchanged.
    Let say I am in 1986, writing an full-fledged analytical history of the Chicago school of economics, from 1955 to 1985, I will probably insist on certain aspects (monetarism, macroeconomics) that struck me as more important if only because my potential readers believed it is important.
    Now let say, that I am writing a second edition of my book in 1992, I will certainly devote an important chapter, probably two chapters to microeconomics, Becker style.
    The fact that I am telling a different story of the same object, does not mean that I am schizophrenic, but simply that I have changed my vantage point or perspective. In both instances, I am convinced that I am writing a true story (defined as above), but there is no invariable Truth to be found. Now, consider not the same person at two different times, but two different persons writing on the same subject at the same time, but in two different academic or geographic settings (or with two different educational background or life experience), don’t you think they will tell stories that are not perfectly alike, and probably largely different. Do you think one is true and the other is false? I (and Tiago) don’t.
    Hence, the fact that you need (as everybody I guess) to be convinced that you are writing a true story does not mean that there is no other true stories. At this point, what makes the difference between these true stories is simply the interest their readers developed in them and whether they find them convincing or not, now or in the future.

  4. Is HET some kind of tarantino movie ?

    Did Quaid (in Total Recall) dream all these exciting adventures in Mars ?
    Great questions.

    HET is definitely fun !

  5. Thank you Loic for making me aware that the right way of thinking is to think that there is no right nor wrong stories. I feel I’m becoming a bit more postmodern each day.

  6. We want better histories, the issue is how to think about the comparisons and how to make the comparison improve on our practices. I think there is a role for the cooperative and the assembling, the four histories. I don’t think there is a teleology. And my concern is that having this grand aim is not even a useful fiction. I think it might remove us from the record, while I would like to move closer.

    I guess I need to turn to film noir, maybe there is a methodology there.

  7. I believe that in matters of narrative, historians can learn a great deal from the techniques of movie makers (and TV dramas) as well as literature (as Beatrice makes clear in a previous posting). Think for example of Robert Leonard’s paper on Morgentern published in the JHET and republished in the annual supplement of HOPE on biography and compare it to the plot of Sunset Boulevard (1950), in which the dead is telling the tale. Personally I always find a great inspiration when reading novels (in particular of the noir and science-fi type) or looking at movies (Hollywood 1930s-1970s are my favourite but I also like Japanese classical cinema), even if I cannot point of a particular example where I consciouly emulated such or such plot. It is more an essential though hidden part of my own inconscious process of creation (if I can call it like that).

  8. One of my latest discoveries is the series in the PARIS REVIEW of interviews with writers about how they work (both Roy Weintraub and David Warsh suggested this to me in the same week). It is interesting to note the absence of method. Hunter S. Thompson retyped the Great Gatsby several times over, to get the rhythm of it. Anything goes.


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