All Writing Is Re-writing

The idea that all writing is rewriting is a popular adage in the world of literature, and it certainly holds true for historians. As they piece together the events of the past and create narratives that make sense of it all, historians are in effect re-writing the past in a way that helps us better understand the present. But what does this really mean, and how does it impact our understanding of history?

First, let’s consider what it means to rewrite something. In the context of writing, rewriting is the process of revising and editing a draft until it is polished and ready for publication. This involves making changes, adding or removing material, and generally improving the overall quality of the work. When historians write about the past, they are essentially doing the same thing. They are taking raw data in the form of primary sources like documents, artifacts, and testimonies, and crafting a story that we can understand.

But why do historians need to rewrite the past in the first place? One reason is that the raw data of history can be incomplete or inconsistent. For example, different sources might offer different perspectives on the same event, and historians must weigh these perspectives against each other to create a coherent narrative. Additionally, some sources might be biased or unreliable, requiring historians to sift through the evidence to determine what is fact and what is fiction. Through the process of rewriting, historians can create a more accurate and comprehensive picture of the past.

Historians have the task of reconstructing the past and interpreting it in a way that makes sense in the present. However, this process is not as straightforward as it may seem. The past is not a fixed and objective reality but rather a complex and multidimensional field of virtualities, potentials, and possibilities. In other words, the past is a Deleuzian multiplicity that can be re-written from various perspectives, depending on the conceptual tools and discursive strategies that the historian employs.

From a Deleuzian perspective, the past is not a linear sequence of events but a rhizomatic network of connections and becomings. The Deleuzian rhizome is a non-hierarchical and non-linear mode of thinking that emphasizes the creative potential of difference and multiplicity. It is a way of thinking that challenges the traditional binary oppositions and dualities that have dominated Western thought for centuries, such as subject/object, mind/body, nature/culture, and so on.

All historians re-write the past from a Deleuzian perspective, they adopt a rhizomatic mode of thinking that emphasizes the diversity of perspectives, the complexity of interactions, and the contingency of events. By imposing a course in events, they recognize that there is no single objective truth or interpretation of the past but rather a plurality of subjective and situated perspectives that are shaped by historical, cultural, and ideological factors.

Some have argued that historical events and processes are not determined by fixed and universal laws but rather by contingent and context-specific logics. We identify four logics of historical explanation: eventful, conjunctural, structural, and cultural. Each logic highlights a different aspect of the past and requires a different conceptual framework and methodology.

For instance, the eventful logic focuses on the contingency of individual actions and the unpredictability of outcomes. The conjunctural logic emphasizes the interdependence of various factors and the emergence of new configurations. The structural logic highlights the patterns of power and inequality that shape social relations. The cultural logic emphasizes the meanings, symbols, and values that inform human behavior.

Moreover, historians are not simply passive observers of the past, but active participants in shaping our understanding of it. They make choices about what stories to tell and how to tell them, and these choices have real-world consequences. For example, a historian who writes a biography of a famous historical figure might influence how that figure is remembered and celebrated in popular culture. This can shape our understanding of the past and our cultural identity in the present.

In conclusion, the idea that all writing is rewriting holds true for historians as well. Through the process of re-writing the past, historians create a narrative that helps us make sense of the world we live in today. While this process is necessarily subjective and influenced by the needs of the present, it plays a critical role in helping us understand our own history and identity.