Over the past few years, the intellectual historian Mark Salber Phillips has been developing an interesting train of thought about historiography, genre, and distance, where he argues that distance constitutes one of the fundamental parameters of historical writing. (For those with access to Project MUSE, some of these articles can be found here, here, and here).
For Phillips, distance can serve both synchronically (as a stylistic option for writers in historical genres) or diachronically (to characterize the dominant paradigms and genres of history-writing at a particular point in time).
The generic dimension of Phillips’s argument has always seemed pivotal to me, because by viewing genre as historically conditioned, it transforms genre “into an instrument of historical investigation.” This seems to me a basic assumption that literary scholars have held for some time, but well worth applying to historical and other kinds of writing as well.
Genres . . . are necessarily responsive to each other as well as to the social conditions that frame them. In this way, they form larger groupings or systems, which are themselves historically conditioned and variable. Accordingly, as authors innovate and the conditions of knowledge and communication change over time, genres undergo a process of revision that registers new relations of authors, readers, and disciplines (Histories 213).
Phillips transforms history from a single, continuous, unified category to an ensemble of genres with its own stratifications, its own highs and lows, its own contradictions. This is clearly an empirical advance on earlier, more idealized notions of history and history-writing. Moreover, it gives a very plausible account of the significance of the “minor” genres for registering the newest, most innovative forces at play at a particular moment.
First, building on the idea that genres are contrastive and combinatory, I want to argue against the customary assumption that history is a single, stable, and rather decorous literature and suggest instead that it is best understood as a cluster of overlapping and competing genres, “low” as well as “high.” The result is a much more nuanced and flexible picture of historical thought—one that is better able to accommodate the range of methods, ideologies, and rhetorics that make up the practice of any given era of historical writing. And since the so-called “minor” genres often give us the best evidence of the force of new agendas or the demands of new audiences, a genre theory that pays attention to the full range of historical writing is much better able to capture the sense of new directions in thought or practice.
It seems to me that anyone trying to write a literary history of the late 18th century, with all its experiments and one-offs, would have to use an explanatory scheme like Phillips’s to account for this period’s peculiar character.
But thinking about genre as a communicative practice in the 18th century naturally raises the question of how it works for our own writing: to what extent does professional literary criticism enforce its own strictures on behalf of “distance”? How might distance be understood differently when we move from the various genres of literary criticism to historical writing? And how does distance organize the highs and lows, the major and minor genres of our canon of criticism?