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Journal Article

RETHINKING HISTORICAL DISTANCE: FROM DOCTRINE TO HEURISTIC

MARK SALBER PHILLIPS
History and Theory
Vol. 50, No. 4, THEME ISSUE 50: Historical Distance: Reflections on a Metaphor (December 2011), pp. 11-23
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41342618
Page Count: 13
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RETHINKING HISTORICAL DISTANCE: FROM DOCTRINE TO HEURISTIC
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Abstract

In common usage, historical distance refers to a position of detached observation made possible by the passage of time. Understood in these terms, distance has long been regarded as essential to modern historical practice, but this conception narrows the idea of distance and burdens it with a regulatory purpose. I argue that distance needs to be reconceived in terms of the wider set of engagements that mediate our relations to the past, as well as the full spectrum of distance-positions from near to far. Re-imagined in these terms, distance sheds its prescriptiveness and becomes a valuable heuristic for examining the history of historical representation. When distance is studied in relation to the range of mediations entailed in historical representation, it becomes evident that the plasticities of distance/proximity are by no means limited to gradients of time; rather, temporality is bound up with other distances that come from our need to engage with the historical past as (simultaneously) a realm of making, oí feeling, of doing, and of understanding. Thus for every historical work, we need to consider at least four basic dimensions of representation as they relate to the problem of mediating distance: 1. the genres, media, and vocabularies that shape the history's formal structures of representation; 2. the affective claims made by the historical account, including the emotional experiences it promises or withholds; 3. the work's implications for action, whether of a political or moral nature; and 4. the modes of understanding on which the history's intelligibility depends. These overlapping, but distinctive, distances—formal, affective, ideological, and conceptual—provide an analytic framework for examining changing modes of historical representation.

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