Erasing historical events

{Above, David Copperfield makes the Statue of Liberty disappear]

While some of my very favorite texty types are predicting the future, we might reflect on our more traditional role as commentators on the past.

Five years ago when my partner and I were beginning our PhD’s we sat at a restaurant table with some of her fellow graduate students. While waiting for our meals, these new graduate students went around the table talking about their goals. One intended to write a definitive history of this or that aspect of the past, one intended to write an untold history, and so on. But one of these “PhD’s to be” said something I will never forget: He intended to erase a historical event. He intended to disprove a key aspect of the past that all of us understand to be part of the historical record.

He was inspired by the recent work of Michael Johnson, the Johns Hopkins historian. In a book review (of all things) Johnson examined several pieces of recent literature about the Denmark Vesey slave rebellion. This is one of the most important of Southern American slave rebellions. Revisiting the original sources, he proved that this famous rebellion — on which scores of books have been written, and grants and tenures awarded — never happened. The whole thing was a conspiracy dreamed up by slave owners, most likely to suppress any possible future rebellion. When I learned about this whole affair, I thought it was one of the bravest acts of contemporary history writing; and hearing this student dreaming of repeating this act in his field tapped into my own desires to radically rethink the past.

I am writing about this affair because this is an activity that I find so inspiring but laughable within architectural history and the history of architectural theory; you cannot make a building disappear (although David Copperfield did a great job of it when I was a kid)! Perhaps some elusive figure like Villard de Honnecourt never existed or some famous carriage ride that launched an architectural theory in the 17th century never occurred; but so what? The erasure does not register on the same scale.

But the moral of the story is not that we should necessarily strive to erase history. That is also silly as a goal, and also a bit irresponsible. What this teaches me is that we have to remain on our toes; we have to register every paradox from every archival source; we have to be willing to be frightening (we should not turn down writing book reviews!). We also might let the impossibility of historical erasure within architectural history (particularly modern architectural history) register in works of historical production. We might pretend to exaggerate those purposeful erasures of the past that are rediscovered; or we might exaggerate those past events that almost happened. It’s much easier than what was staged at Hopkins; but it’s the least we can do while reminding ourselves of larger goals.

For more on the historian’s role in a time of crisis, see this.


  1. Dear David,

    I’ve been following your posts about predictive practices with great interest. I appreciate being a “favorite texty type,” even if perhaps prediction is frowned upon in this space. Your posts have inspired quite a bit of thinking, given your definitions of the role of the historian, about what these texts then say to other academics (i.e. social “scientists”, geographers, etc). I also must have some kind of an identity crisis, as should be expected. I mean, I was and in many ways still am an architect (and architects inherently imagine futures, which shouldn’t be confused with predicting them but certainly there is an element of that). I also write histories of places but I’m not nor would I ever call myself a historian. As a geographer (or at least a “candidate” to be one), should I repress desires to predict? In fact, don’t geographers need to predict in order to operate in society or, that is, in order to fulfill a social responsibility? Why would that not apply to historians also?

    As far as I could tell, the writing above seems to implicate your colleagues within the history discipline, so I won’t assume that they should apply to geography (or anthropology, sociology, architecture…; some clarification in that regard would be certainly welcome). Nevertheless, I also think that once we start throwing up these disciplinary boundaries, then we might as well forget about experiments in any discipline. What else might experimental geography or experimental htc be if it doesn’t somehow borrow from others. (As an example, what else is Trevor Paglen’s own brand of geography if not some creative borrowing from traditions of landscape representation, ethnography, and performance).

    What seems to be underneath my own identity issues here has to do with the idea of ‘science’ in the social sciences, an issue that historians don’t need to worry about. While the historian can and, if you’re correct, maybe should refuse to engage in gazing into crystal balls, the rough idea of science is that there is some imagined future in which hypotheses are tested. An example from the phycial sciences is global warming. Scientists have made cautious predictions about it for a long time. Some in their own community go as far as to say that those predictions were even too cautious and have given too much ammo to the warming deniers. In other words, physical science maybe has made too cautious a prediction to actually impact the future in significant ways. Scientists are supposed to yoke closely to their evidence and that traditionally allows only a near-future prediction. But the unprecedented changes in our environment have perhaps forced physical scientists into another more theoretical practice as social agents for alternative futures. And maybe that’s something else that experimental historians can chew on when considering their role in the present.

  2. dlgissen


    First, I really wish I had listened to your earliest warnings about how much mental energy and passion blogging takes. Your work and a few others inspires much of my own excitement about this particular site, even if it is chewing up so much time! But it’s all worth it — right?

    You know, after I wrote the earlier post about predictions, I did think that geographers and other social scientists are more equipped (and most important, trained) to speculate about the future. When I was writing the earlier post on predictions, I was not thinking of your work directly, and I should have mentioned that and added more subtlety to the argument. When I wrote the earlier post I really had in mind the practices of historians (both social-historians and architectural), who use historical analytical techniques (and data) to gaze into the crystal ball – I think it’s a slippery slope.

    As for the last points, as someone who is trained in the humanities and social sciences this is something I think about often. I do not necessarily think the science part of our backgrounds has to automatically be equated with the instrumental/predictive aspects of historical data. There are, I think, other possibilities that are (exactly as you say) interdisciplinary. For me, the geographical training enabled me to pull things from certain archives that I think a more traditional architectural historian would find weird and out of place.

    But as for the very last points, I think your choice of global warming is an apt one. I do think, and I guess I agree, that crises enable us to suspend disciplinary strictures, and force us to predict. But I think that is also the danger; I recall being inspired by David Harvey’s labeling of environmental crises as a crisis without clear boundaries or predictive limits. That frightens me when the environmental crisis is used as a framework for big disciplinary and academic realignments.

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