Touching the void: Affective history and the impossible

Emily Robinson

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    60 Citations (Scopus)


    This essay attempts to answer postmodernist frustration with the persistence of History. It argues for the importance of understanding the appeal of historical work, its pleasures. Without such an understanding, theory and research will continue to talk at cross purposes, the one insisting that the past is unknowable; the other unable to ignore the vitality of its sources. The contention of this essay is that historical research is an affective experience of such intensity that it has been able to withstand the challenges of post-structuralism and postmodernism and so continue with ‘business as usual’ (Jenkins 2003, 15). While the intensity of the archival encounter is not often admitted in print, it continues to motivate the efforts of individual historians. The abstractions of theory cannot intrude upon the physical experience of holding a piece of the past. It demands our attention. But the intellectual consequences of the physicality of the archival encounter need to be effectively theorised: what is the role of touching and feeling in the pursuit of knowing? The archive is the place where historians can literally touch the past, but in doing so are simultaneously made aware of its unreachability. In a maddening paradox, concrete presence conveys unfathomable absence. In the archive, researchers are both confronted with the absolute alterity of the past and tempted by the challenge of trying to overcome it. It is suggested that this impossibility underpins the attraction of the historical endeavour.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)503-520
    Number of pages18
    JournalRethinking History
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2010

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