Friday, April 19, 2013

Naming the nameless

In Hermann Hesse's novel Journey to the East,* the protagonist/narrator, "H.H.," contemplates writing about what to him was an incredible, lost experience.  He has great difficulty doing so, and he says the following [p. 47]:
I imagine that every historian is similarly affected when he begins to record the events of some period and wishes to portray them sincerely.  Where is the center of events, the common standpoint around which they revolve and which gives them cohesion?  In order that something like cohesion, something like causality, that some kind of meaning might ensue and that it can in some way be narrated, the historian must invent units, a hero, a nation, an idea, and he must allow to happen to this invented unit what has in reality happened to the nameless.
Perhaps I risk jinxing something by saying this, but I have just finished this process for my dissertation.  Over the last few days, I have had six copies of the 582-page monstrosity printed up and have given a copy to the members of my committee.  If my defense, in May, is successful, I shall soon receive my PHD in history.

There have been peaks and valleys along the way, and I have on several occasions considered giving up altogether.  But intellectually speaking, one of the most difficult parts has been determining what it all means, what are its bounds, what is is "about."  It is certainly "about" some things that are at least rouglhy definable--coal dealers, antitrust laws, city-coal ordinances, prosecutors, trade associations, newspaper magnates, mayors, unions, presidents, and (I swear it's true) gangsters--but over the last few months, as I have written my introduction and conclusion, I have been forced to decide the larger, big question issues:
How does what I wrote contribute to the field of history?

Why should anyone in their right mind even read it?
These questions are supposed to be related.  Historians read the works of other historians because those contribute to a "historiography," something often defined as "the history of history," but perhaps is more usefully conceived as "a conversation among those interested in the past about the past."  Non-historians might also be interested in "historiography," too.  They (along with, perhaps, historians) can also have additional reasons for reading the works of historians.  Some of these reasons are a desire to engage a story, to learn about a specific event or to specific facts, to be seen as the type of person who reads history, or to look for the unexpected and expand one's knowledge.

But the principal goal in a dissertation is to establish how it contributes to the historiography, along with, perhaps, a stab at demonstrating how marketable it is generally and demonstrating the ability to undertake a long-term study using primary sources.  And I have had to establish my dissertation's relationship to the historiography as I constructed my introduction and conclusion.

My grasp of historiography is weaker than it should be.  I really have only myself to blame for this.  I simply haven't devoted the time I ought to have in mastering it.  Neither is the historiography requirement a "gotcha requirement," a mere technicality and "last hurdle" before a good student can get her or his PHD.  From day one in graduate school, we are impressed with the need to learn historiography.  Knowing what other historians have done--what they've studied, what arguments they make, who they agree and disagree with--is part and parcel of professional history and most non-research-oriented grad seminar (in other words, almost all graduate courses stress learning the historiography).  So the requirement that I make my dissertation relevant to the historiography comes with the decision to write it and with the decision to finish grad school.

So like H.H.'s historian, I have had to look at my work from over the past five years or so--the time from when I finished my prospectus to now--and decide what meaning to attach to what I've done, to decide on how to name the nameless.  I have had to look at the story I have written and determine what it is bound by and what it signifies.

That's a hard thing to do.  Why, for example, should I begin my study in the 1880s and why should I end it in the late 1930s?  On the one hand, the answer is easy.  Because I am studying antitrust, the 1880s are a "logical" starting point because most state-level (in the U.S.) antitrust laws were enacted during the 1880s and 1890s, Canada's federal-level law was enacted in 1889, and the U.S. federal-level law was enacted in 1890.  The late 1930s are a good stopping point because that's the era of the New Deal (in the U.S.) and the Canadian variants of the New Deal (there was a brief, and abortive, federal New Deal in Canada, but what I focus on are the provincial-level "little new deals," especially the one in Ontario implemented under the province's "Industrial Standards Act" of 1935).  And the end of the 1930s comes with World War II, and since I'm too lazy to go into wartime economy (World War I was a bear to figure out and I simply didn't want to go into the weeds of wartime price controls, etc.).

And yet, these starting and stopping points are not as obvious as they might seem. For the starting point, I can't help but notice the many, many antecedents to what eventually became antitrust statutes (and in some cases, antitrust provisions of state constitutions).  These antecedents included laws and legal doctrines against conspiracy, the evolution of incorporation laws and corporation practice, common-law prohibitions against "restraints on trade" and common-law and statutory prohibitions against practices known as "forestalling, regrating, and engrossing" that formally date back at least to Queen Elizabeth I and informally date back even farther to the time of the Black Death in Europe.  In fact, some of the principals underlying antitrust go back to attempts by Emperor Diocletion in the Roman Empire to institute price-controls.  In further fact, they also arguably go back to the institution of "government" and the state itself, if one supposes that the (or "a") primary purpose of government is to regulate the terms of business competition.

For the end point, "World War II" is also in some ways arbitrary.  In my study of Ontario (i.e., Toronto as an example of what happens in Ontario), I actually get into the early World War II years because that's around the time that the Industrial Standards Act becomes important for the coal dealers I study.  (Keep in mind that Canada entered the war just a few days after Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939, while the U.S. entered the conflict formally only after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, although Roosevelt had begun positioning the U.S. to enter the conflict at a much earlier date.)

It's also arbitrary because the coal dealers I study didn't simply adopt different interests or concerns right when the war started, never to look back.  Coal remained and remains and important part of the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) Canadian economies, although it is worthwhile to note that throughout the twentieth century, householders' reliance on coal for heat and energy decreased steadily, especially when it comes to use of coal in household furnaces.**  Antitrust didn't disappear after World War II, either, and although one of the principal arguments of my dissertation is that there was never an antitrust "movement" in most meaningful senses of the word "movement," there was still--and there is still--much agitation in the name of "antitrust" or, more broadly, "antimonopoly."

Still, in my study, I had to place a limit somewhere.  And in writing my intro and conclusion, I had to justify those limits.  And I've chosen to do so along the "easy" reasons I cite above.  My point is, though, that there's no true limit to my study.  (However, I wouldn't be surprised if my committee insists that a "true enough" limit would be, say, 250 pages and not 582!)  I had to, in a sense, impose an arbitrary starting and stopping point.  I had to invent a "unit" of time--a period that scholars of U.S. antitrust usually call the "formative era" (c. 1890 to c. 1914) and the post-formative era of "associationalism" (1910s-1920s) and direct government regulation in the 1930s.  The obvious program for the latter is the temporary suspension of antitrust laws under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, but I also consider later innovations to be just as important even though I focus on the Recovery Act (I'm referring, for example, to welfare-state programs, to the AAA, to the Wagner Act, and to the Robinson-Patman Act).

There are other limits that I have placed on my dissertation while writing it and that I have had to justify in my intro and conclusion.  One is, for lack of a better term, spatial.  I look specifically at what I call two "markets" for coal--Chicago and Toronto--and I define "market" as a site of regulation.  So, I look at how federal, state and provincial, and city and county regulations affect the way members of the coal industry (primarily coal retailer, but also sometimes operators, miners, wholesalers, and teamsters) compete(d) with each other.  Another limit is industry-specific:  the coal industry as opposed to industries that aren't the coal industry.

I won't go, here, into my justifications for looking at this industry or at those sites--or "markets"--as opposed to other industries or other markets.  Neither will I go into my conclusions about significance, other than to say I see a very disturbing tendency among the subjects I study to invoke antitrust in the service of exacting arbitrary punishments on people who are unpopular.  But my point is to note that I have had to place names and limits on what I have studied.

There is a certain mystery to historical study that cannot be fully grasped or elucidated.  I cannot "capture" the past in my study--all I can do, really, is study it and place limits on it, and analyze--or more accurately, offer suppositions about--the meaning of those limits.

To return to The Journey to the East, H.H., toward the end of the novel, finds that the great, mystical experience he has undergone--a journey to the east as a member of some inchoately defined "League"--has been narrated by at least two other persons in addition to him.  And although his story and the other two stories recount the same events, their constructions on the meaning of those events vary so widely as to call into question the whole enterprise of narrating the past at all.  H.H. reads these histories as part of a challenge offered to him by the "League" of which he had been a member and wished to rejoin.  He needs to consult the "League's" files about himself.  And what he finds is the gradual effacing of his own self into the image of the "League's" president, who, depending on how you are inclined to interpret Hesse's work, may indicate a Christ-figure or a Buddha/Enlightened One figure (or some other construct).  This is the loss of the ego, the surrender of all stories, back to the timeless and boundless and nameless.

And that, I think, is the true lesson we take from history.  It's a lesson in humility and demolition of the ego, of our attachedness to the ephemeral world and the fluid past.  I'm under few illusions that my dissertation is a great epic--it's one of scores, perhaps hundreds, to be finished in history this year alone, and it's one of thousands to have been written in history over the past decades.  And all that is assuming that my dissertation is passed by my committee, something about which I'm hopeful but also something I don't wish to assume too soon.  But it has been an exercise in finding and naming the nameless, and in reflecting it all back again to that which cannot be named.

*Hermann Hesse, The Journey to the East, trans. Hilda Rosner (1932; translated edition, New York:  The Noonday Press, 1956).

**Coal is still important because it can be burned in energy producing plants, which provide the energy to heat, or more frequently, to provide electricity to households.

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