There's just no talking with the past

This brief piece, based on a paper delivered at the 2012 UK Social Science History Conference, questions the merits of the common metaphor of communicating as a theorization of ‘doing history’. It claims that, following the rejection of the idea of objectivity in its most radical forms, the idea of conversing or communicating with the past has become increasingly important to explanations of what goes on in historical research, interpretation, and writing. The idea is not without problems of its own, however. Where it positions the past as if indeed somehow an active agent, able to converse with the historian in meaningful ways, the particularity of the past as past seems to deny that possibility. In order to understand the persistence of the communicative metaphor (even in the face of the obvious contradictions involved), the piece relates it to mistaken assumptions in historical thinking that continue to sustain it – namely that of conflating the past with history and that of confusing negotiations of personal memory with ‘experience’ of a historical past. In attempting to deal with these conflicting intuitions, it draws, among others, on a distinction between the creative imagination and any real access to the ‘otherness’ of the past. Ultimately – it will be shown – at stake in this debate is the capacity of the past to intervene on our understandings in any (disruptive) way.