History in the Comic Mode, or Always Admitting That We May Be Wrong

Professor Caroline Walker Bynum describes the Institute’s School of Historical Studies not as a history department in the traditional sense, but rather a school that “offers the study of phenomena from a historical perspective.” In “Perspectives, Connections & Objects: What’s Happening in History Now,” an article in the Winter 2009 issue of Dædalus, Bynum writes about the application of theory to historical scholarship, particularly the great shift during the past four decades toward cultural history—a linguistic turn influenced by French intellectuals and American an­thro­pologists, especially the late Clifford Geertz, founding Professor of the Institute’s School of Social Science.

“This cultural or linguistic, poststructuralist or postmodern turn is usually understood to hold that language does not reflect the world but precedes it and makes it intelligible by constructing it: in other words, there is no objective universe independent of language and no transparent relationship between social organization and individual ­self-­understanding,” according to Bynum. “Such awareness entails, for historians, the realization that the categories and periods they use are expository devices that need constant reformulation exactly because they are always based in political and social assumptions that may, because inherited, be very hard to detect.”

Bynum’s own work as a medieval historian has played a considerable role in this shift. She has influenced scholars by advocating a style of historical scholarship, which she calls “history in the comic mode,” that acknowledges that evidence will always be partial and analysis inconclusive. First proposed in her book Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (Zone Books, 1991), “a comic stance toward doing history is aware of contrivance, of risk,” according to Bynum. “It always admits that we may be wrong. A comic stance knows that there is, in actuality, no ending (happy or otherwise)—that doing history is, for the historian, telling a story that could be told in another way.”

A recent festschrift in honor of her work, History in the Comic Mode: Medieval Communities and the Matter of Person (Columbia University Press, 2007), was presented to Bynum by her students of the past ­thirty-­five years, including a number of former Institute Members and Visitors, at a conference held at Princeton University in 2007. According to the volume’s editors, Rachel Fulton and Bruce W. Holsinger, who were graduate students at Columbia where Bynum taught from 1998 until her appointment to the Faculty of the Institute in 2003, her most influential lessons extended beyond particular subjects, such as her work on women, the body, food, and religiosity, for which she is well known, to the larger arena of method. Her “comic mode,” Fulton and Holsinger explain, has encouraged her students to “revel in the compromises, coincidences, and wild improbabilities of the past that we can in fact see, if all too provisionally, through our sources, while at the same [time] enjoying the contingency and plurality of the approaches we bring to our understanding of the past.”

In her recent Dædalus article, Bynum evaluates the current state of historical writing against the anxiety voiced in the mid-1990s about the direction of scholarship in the field, articulated perhaps most acutely in the volume What’s Happened to the Humanities? (Princeton University Press, 1997). What she finds today is history writing that is stronger and more sophisticated “exactly because the insights of the linguistic turn have been absorbed and utilized.” She discerns new emphases on connectivity, transitions, material culture, objects, and “deep structures,” but sees them as owing “more to the absorption than to the rejecting of the ­so-­called linguistic or cultural turn.”

Of greater threat to historical scholarship than the “culture wars” of the 1990s, according to Bynum, are the crushing expectations for ­over-­production at most American universities. In her essay “The P Word,” published by the American Historical Association’s Perspectives in October 2007, she laments the increasing use of the word “project” by historians and suggests its abolishment. “‘Scholarship,’ ‘research,’ ‘work’ are ­open-­ended activities; they are something one is, almost by definition, always in the middle of. When one does research or engages in scholarship, one meanders, following the sources where they lead,” she notes. “A project, on the other hand, has a beginning and an end. It comes with its conclusions already drawn and its chapters outlined.”

Addressing the increasing demands to produce in academia, Bynum proposes in Dædalus that historians extend the perspective inherent in the “comic mode” to their professional practices. “If we could really understand what we undertake as historians to be by definition partial and discontinuous, forever redone and in need of redoing because of our own cultural ­situated-­ness, we––all of us, young scholars and old––would be able to slow down,” Bynum suggests. “If there is no goal at the end of the race––that is, if the point is the running not the goal––why sprint instead of stroll (especially if sprinting damages our knees forever)? No longer pressured to read everything, consider everything, account for every new turn and twist of scholarship, we would recognize that each of us is––and can be—only one perspective. Accepting the fragmentary and necessarily partial nature of our own contribution, we might become more truly collaborative––that is, more open to using, even seeking out, work different from our own.” ■

Sparking Cross-Disciplinary Conversations
Caroline Walker Bynum, who studies the social, cultural, and intellectual history of Europe from the early Middle Ages to the early modern period, has created the paradigm for the study of women’s piety that dominates the field of medieval studies today and has helped propel the history of the body into a major area of premodern history.

The breadth of her influence was the topic of a panel discussion at a conference on women and religion at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in April 2008. The session was convened by Drew Gilpin Faust, the President of Harvard and a historian of the American South, who called Bynum’s 1987 book Holy Feast and Holy Fast (University of California Press), a study of the religious lives of medieval women, “a touchstone” for younger scholars. Bynum’s latest book, Wonderful Blood (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), which examines the religious significance of blood in ­late-­medieval northern Germany, won the Award for Excellence in the historical-studies category from the American Academy of Religion in 2007.

According to Bynum, among the many ways that the Institute is exemplary is in the amount of free time it provides to scholars and the opportunities it enables for ­cross-­disciplinary interactions. “There is a real need for people to have the opportunity to talk to each other,” says Bynum. “At the Institute, there are surprising interactions and energy between fields.”

Since February 2008, Bynum and Professor Piet Hut of the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies have organized a series of ­twice-­weekly “After Hours Conversations,” in which members of the Institute community gather to listen to a ­ten-­minute presentation by an Institute scholar, followed by a period of questions and discussion. Recent topics have included ­human-­rights precedents in Chinese tradition, the coevolution of human immunity and the flu virus, and the potential importance of the Large Hadron Collider for theoretical physics.

Kelly Devine Thomas is Editorial Director at the Institute for Advanced Study.