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Truth from Fiction: Historian Carlo Ginzburg on Unintentional Evidence

carlo-ginzburg-talkLast Monday, April 18, 2016, Professor Carlo Ginzburg delivered the Eugene Lunn Memorial Lecture titled Unintentional Revelations: Reading History Against the Grain.
The room was understandably packed with professors and graduate students from history and language studies departments eager to hear the scholar whom professor of law, and of science and technology studies Mario Biagioli introduced as “the best historian of his generation.”
Previous Lunn lecturers have offered their latest projects or topics of mutual concern (such as Robert Darnton’s discussion of open access publishing). Professor Ginzburg addressed himself to the nature of the historian’s craft.
This was a move away from his anthropological study of tiny Italian-Alpine villages to an intellectual history of necessarily more elite and literate thinkers. Ginzburg drew a dotted line from Marc Bloch’s formulation of historical understanding through nineteenth-century Italian thinker Alessandro Manzoni back to the antiquarians of eighteenth-century Europe. In each of these eras, he found a distinct appreciation for unintentional historical evidence that persisted in spite of the parallel growth and permutation of modern skepticism.
In drawing this long thread, he departed from the approach for which he is most famous: the intense, “microhistorical” study of anomalies such as led to his discovery of an irreducible residue of oral culture in such works as Night Battles and The Cheese and the Worms. His focus instead was on approaching evidence that is more often in plain sight but overlooked: fiction. In so far as historians are like detectives – that is, they read what the evidence was never created to convey – he argued that fiction provides a clearer picture into the worlds of their authors than sources that pretend to objectivity. Thus he seemed to conclude his argument where many other humanists begin theirs: that a fictive source is by no means false.
In describing the power of unintentional evidence, Ginzburg brought us right to the threshold between scholar and subject where we have to ask ourselves about the unintended evidence our own scholarship will offer to future study. Just as Allessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed says as much about the author’s nineteenth-century Italy as about its subjects’ seventeenth-century Italy, what will our scholarship reveal about twenty-first-century intellectual activities?
In this way, even though his subject is the irreducible residue that the past leaves for the diligent historian, Ginzburg’s talk provides a stirring foreword (however unintentional) to this week’s discussion in the Surveillance Democracies? Mellon Sawyer Seminar that will consider the residue left by the scholar herself. In this lunchtime talk in 1301 King Hall on Tuesday, April 26, science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson will discuss how every individual’s internet activities makes them contributors of data to an interlocking system in which they are forced to become, in effect, the managers of a personal hedge fund which tries to manage life risks placed on them by the privatization of risk. He will also explore some democratic resistance strategies for counteracting this enclosure of individuals’ futures.
Taken together, these talks on unintentional evidence demonstrate the fertile ground that new communication technologies (from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg) have opened up for humanistic research, as well as the importance that there be scholars standing by to ask those most awkward of humanistic questions: why, and to what end?
Rachel Reeves, History PhD, Mellon Public Scholars Program Manager 

This page was last updated: April 25, 2016



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