In this section we will list, describe, and define terms that are commonly used in discussions of history or films about history and that may provide useful lenses through which to view our subject.  Please suggest or contribute other terms to include here.


As defined in the structuralist theories of Hayden White, emplotment is the tendency of historical documents to enact certain cultural ideas (plots) at the expense of historical accuracy.  Textual representations of history, from primary sources (e.g. Herodotus) to secondary, tertiary, and other derivative works (e.g. historical novels, textbooks, anecdotal history) are consequently not “retellings” of the same set of historical events but a complex strata of cultural perceptions in which the original event (“what really happened”) may be lost.

Consider a modern textbook’s discussion of the American Revolution.  Not only is there a tendency on the part of the textbook to enact contemporary “plots” (comedy, romance, satire, and tragedy)—to see the American Revolution as, by virtue of its military success, an unqualified resolution to extant social and political problems (as per a comedy in which the resolution of the principal conflict engenders a resolution of secondary dilemmas)—there is also a tendency of the primary sources (letters and documents written at the time of the Revolution) to enact other plots.  A letter written by a Revolutionary soldier at Valley Forge might enact a “tragic” plot, systematically including and excluding details to the effect that the story of a noble army facing insurmountable odds is produced.  Consequently, every “layer” of historical representation (primary sources, secondary sources, etc.) carries with it a set of cultural expectations from which the history itself cannot be divorced.   (nze2)

Related topics:  Ideology, History as Text.

History as Text:
As distinct from history as a set of objective historical events, “history as text” refers to retellings of actual events in a particular medium (e.g. a history textbook, a historical movie or novel, a verbal, oral or religious history).  This is of ultimate importance because textual representations of events are not the events themselves: they are subject to significant (and even intentional) omissions, biases, and miscellaneous lapses in accuracy.  Moreover, several sets of literary theories suggest that these distortions are of a greater extent and magnitude than modern readers suspect.

For example, theories on the misrepresentation of history (as a consequence of its textual existence) generally assume that historical narratives are shaped by a dominant political or social discourse.  A Feminist historical analysis, for example, would look for areas in which a historical text assumes, promotes, explains, or participates in the systematic subjugation of the female to the male.  Likewise, Marxist historical analysis focuses on the role of economic systems in the construction of historical narratives, generally assuming a cultural apparatus (ultimately defined by economic relationships) is self-promoting at the expense of objectivity.  In a similar fashion, a Postcolonial analysis of history considers the role that colonization (and its corollary economic and racial systems) plays in determining exactly how (and why) an event is recorded.   (nze2)

Related Topics:  Emplotment, Ideology.

As defined by Louis Althusser, Ideology is the property of a society or culture which supposes, and systematically promotes, certain ways of interpreting relationships between social elements.  This is primarily the type of cultural logic that supposes relationships at the level of “of course” or in the guise of “common sense,” e.g., a railroad strike might be blamed on greedy executives in a certain culture or subculture because (“of course”) workers only strike if they are treated unfairly.  Of course, Ideological beliefs are generally not rationally consistent and can often be self-contradicting or insoluble (e.g., “Money doesn’t buy happiness, but I’m unhappy because I don’t have enough money”).

While it is not necessary that all members of a culture participate in a specific Ideology, all cultures and subcultures are partly defined by the Ideologies they inevitably participate in and actively promote—the latter through Ideological State Apparatuses: institutions or devices which promote a specific set of Ideological assumptions (e.g. schools, television shows, printed media).  These institutions “enforce” Ideology by promoting certain cultural and social practices through systems of subtle and complex rewards and punishments— e.g., movies: greedy and selfish businessmen are routed by a noble coalition of politicians, lawyers, and petty criminals; children out-think adults; animals are more insightful than people.

Consider the following uses of "ideology" as a term and their relation to the definition proper in these Soundbites:

190)  I am urging value-laden historiography. . . . What kind of awareness moves people in humanistic directions, and how can historical writing create such awareness, such movement? I can think of five ways in which history can be useful. . . . 1. We can intensify, expand, sharpen our perception of how bad things are, for the victims of the world. . . . 2.  We can expose the pretensions of government to either neutrality or beneficence. . . . 3.  We can expose the ideology that pervades our culture -- using "ideology" in Mannheim's sense: rationale for the going order. . . . 4.  We can recapture those few moments in the past which show the possibility of a better way of life than that which has dominated the earth thus far. . . . 5. We can show how good social movements can go wrong, how leaders can betray their followers, how rebels can become bureaucrats, how ideals can become frozen and reified.  (Howard Zinn)

216)  Power and ideology attempts to fix the meaning of images and languages.  (Stuart Hall)

247)  Personal ownership of the past has always been a vital strand in the ideology of all ruling classes.  (J. H. Plumb, qtd. in Nash, "American" 144)

338)  Let me start with the ideology of nationalism. . . . The nation is the source of all political and social power, and loyalty to the nation overrides all other allegiances. . . . Human beings must identify with a nation if they want to be free and realize themselves.  (Anthony D. Smith 74)

463)  Historians must always strive toward the unattainable ideal of objectivity.  But as we respond to contemporary urgencies, we sometimes exploit the past for nonhistorical purposes, taking from the past, or projecting upon it, what suits our own society or ideology.  History thus manipulated becomes an instrument less of disinterested intellectual inquiry than of social cohesion and political purpose.  (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. 47)    (nze2)

Related topics:  Emplotment, History-as-Text.