on deep history and the brain: red herrings of metaphysical bugbears

Red herrings of metaphysical bugbears—this idiomatic whirlpool describes somewhat too well the back and forth sallying of paradigms in the human sciences. One recent addition to paradigm shifting, mind-blowing books (as a genre, not an adjective) , On Deep History and the Brain begs us to reexamine the presuppositions of History and to include a long longue durée within its precincts.  This long addition to history will be “deep history” beginning in Paleolithic time and measured by changes in human consciousness and an ambitious archeology of the Brain. The opening part of the book, where we reexamine the presuppositions of all history, contains fascinating hermeneutical expositions and yes, red herrings of metaphysical bugbears, which deserve our consideration.

The first hermeneutical device employed by Smail goes by the haunting name of a ghost theory.

The resistance to deep history does not necessarily come from my students. It comes from me. It is rooted in paradigms, in discourses, in the nameless things that one of my advisors liked to call “ghost theories,” old ideas that continue to structure our thinking without our being aware of their controlling presence.

There are “historiographical, epistemological and theoretical obstacles” which need to be dispelled. But the problem with “ghost theories” is that while they structure our discourses, we don’t actually subscribe to them.

Since arguments for the exclusion of deep history circulate today in the form of ghost theories rather than cogent intellectual positions, it is difficult to know quite how to expose them. There is no smoking gun. There are no figures from the past to demonize or poke fun at. One must gather together the wisps of a ghost theory giving the whole an intellectual coherence it never had, before one can set about the task of dismantling it. The whole enterprise smacks of setting up a straw man. And what do we gain by exposing the resistance to deep history. Why not just get on with it? But one might just as well ask why historians of women thought it necessary to explore the historiographical grip of patriarchy even as they undertook the task of writing a women’s history. Histories, like all products of disciplinary knowledge, are made in the context of what their own frames will allow. It is the frames that one must stretch and bend.

One of the more telling methodological paragraphs I’ve read recently, this account of ghost theories makes explicit many of the presuppositions of contemporary hermeneutics. In asking “Why not just get on with it?” Smail doesn’t think that the answer he gives is question begging at all. He thinks that we need to expose and deconstruct various tired old clichés and schemas in order to shift to new ones. There are frames of history. They need to be stretched. In order to do this, we somehow need to see the limitations of the old frames. So we need to create psuedopositions which caricature our methodological predecessors in the name of a paradigmatic shift. Note the problem—“There are no figures from the past to demonize or poke fun at.” The normal progress of the human sciences is only assured by poking fun at the old fogeys. If you don’t snicker under your breath at Scholem’s overarching narratives, laugh at Hayden White like other bad relics of the seventies, and think that even Hegel embodies (to quote Smail) “the masculine desire for recognition” then you probably aren’t part of the club. We need to laugh at the old fogeys and if they don’t exist, we will create them by dint of an extensive archeology of knowledge!

The Ghost lurking secretly beneath history turns out to be none other than the Ghost of religion. A red herring of a metaphysical bugbear if I ever saw one, the Ghost of sacred history conjures up less a malevolent disciplinary fiend and more a compulsive desire to deconstruct latent metaphysics that no one knew about or cared were there.

Sacred history located the origins of man in the Garden of Eden, and this is where the general histories of late antiquity and medieval Europe began the story. In the eighteenth century, proposals for shortening the chronology proper to general history began to circulate, as the new fad for catastrophism brought historical attention to bear on the universal deluge.

…Although the flood itself has long since receded in historical consciousness, the sense of rupture, a legacy of sacred history, remains.

OK. So we all have this subconscious religious bias that tells us that History either began in the Garden of Eden or after the flood. Pillorying the secularization of the Garden into the assertion that “History begins at Sumer” Smail asks “Can we really blame our students and our fellow citizens if they confuse the Garden of Eden with the irrigated fields of Mesopotamia?”

One problem with this sacred schema arose from conjectural histories. People like Hobbes posit a state of nature which doesn’t seem to correspond to any story in the Bible. One way of reconciling conjectural and sacred histories was via catastrophism, with the flood.

This, the crucial compromise, allowed conjectural history and economic stage history to be reconciled with sacred history. Sacred history provided historians with at least three catastrophes—the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Universal Deluge and the destruction of the tower of Babel—that could be said to have returned humankind to a primitive condition. The ascent of man, as predicted by theories of progress, could begin from any of these…Of these, the Deluge loomed largest in this historical imagination.

With the dissolution of the power of sacred history by the proof of the earth’s antiquity, a lot of the motivation for these narratives should’ve fallen away. Why doesn’t deep history exist despite the best efforts of science to prove that history goes back farther than the deluge?

An especially important catalyzing event was the invention of writing….By the nineteenth century…the invention of writing was beginning to figure prominently in historical accounts…Writing in this view actually put civilization on the move and created history out of the historyless Paleolithic.

The transposition of metaphysical bugbears takes place via the privileging of writing. Sacred history will continue to be the “frame” for historical narrative. Despite running out of excuses like the Deluge and the Garden, Sacred history still gets to stick around, since history will commence with the beginning of writing. Smail argues that we need to consider all sorts of new “documentary evidence” from DNA to brain history.

I am struck by the flexibility with which we are able to deconstruct various metaphysical bugbears at odds with one another. In Of Grammatology Jacque Derrida famously pointed to a metaphysics of presence called phonocentrism. This idea, which is actually not very old, coalesces around the notion that we have tended to bias the immanence of speech over the derivative nature of writing. According to Derrida, the human sciences, especially philosophy and linguistics, are shot through with malevolent phonocentrism. Now, in 2008, Smail needs to argue for the exact opposite metaphysical bugbear—we all privilege writing too much! It seems like whatever pragmatic or heuristic placeholder gets to exist sub specie aeternitatis as a newly metaphysicalized bias that undergirds everything. Is this really the most productive way to engender paradigm shifts? Hans Blumenberg came up with the idea that secularization means positing a hidden dimension of meaning to everything modern. In light of Derrida, Smail and so many others, we need to add a caveat. The hidden dimension isn’t very well hidden.

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