Grainy History

Against the Grain
To work against the grain is to ask what other stories are covered over and silenced by the records we possess.

How (such a history asks) do we get beyond the confident narrative of the victors, the story that makes how things are now seem inevitable, just, immutable? How have women expressed their desires and intentions in societies that denied them the right to have points of view? What can we say of what workers thought of their bosses, slaves of the people who enslaved them?

This approach goes at least as far back as Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940), where Benjamin advised the historical materialists to “brush history against the grain”, to tell other stories about the past. High stakes, Benjamin points out: “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” (

This is a way of thinking about power and historical narratives that continues to exert a strong attraction for many historians, including me, historians interested in the lives of ordinary people, their contributions to the Great Events, but also their own ideas about what mattered in their times.

Along the Grain
The humanities are hungry for new ideas, and to write against the grain now sounds as quaint to some ears as the robot-butlers and hover-cars of fevered 1950s imagination.

(As if historians have not learned how unwise it is to laugh at the “past”).

How (we now complain) could we write against the grain, when the sources do not exist, when those that do refract power structure laid over power structure, censorship over forgetting?

But if not against it, then what?

Is “along” the grain (see Stoler, Bewes too neat, contrary for the sake of being contrary? What do we gain by thinking with colonial powers and repressive regimes? On the one hand, to read “along the grain” accepts Benjamin’s simple premise that history has A grain. Yet, on the other it says that the pressing task is not to get caught up in the project (perhaps impossible) of reading against it, but instead to think seriously about what this grain is.

On what stories did the victors build their palaces?

I like this more as I think about it more. The idea that their stories, too, are contingent, that their narratives have to be made to work. The historian starts to ask how, makes power dance, unmasks the man hidden in the chess-playing automaton.

But while our attention turns away, what becomes of the workers, the women, the enslaved?

Perhaps (I think to myself) the historian should look to where the grain meets and distorts.

Perhaps (I realize) many already have, in books on “witches” and their confessors, or tricksters and the systems they tricked, or doctors and the patients who refused to be sick on anyone’s terms but their own.

Knotty history, where the brush strokes meet.

But grainy history could be something else again. Not against, not along, not even the structured mess of mingled strokes, but another meaning of “grainy”.

The dictionary knows the sense that Benjamin brushes against, and Stoler along:

“Resembling the surface grain of wood”.

But it knows others as well.

“Of a voice or sound: rough, gritty.”

Promising already: rough history? Gritty history?

I’ve seen some of that. Choose your adjective: risky, underprepared, challenging, exciting? Like all schools of history, the grainy historians might be represented by fewer or more good examples, depending on how much grit you can stomach. There is space in my reading for the kind of history I wouldn’t take home to meet my parents.

The dictionary offers more.

“Consisting of grain-like particles; granular.”

More risk here than even in the rough and gritty. Who wants to be a granular historian, the historian of this village, this moment, this tiny atom balanced on the pile? Yet what is history, if not these grains? A grainy photograph is both unclear and imprecise, yet stylized and striking.

Grainy: at once disintegrated, even pointillist, and yet also and inescapably, a style with implications, the predominant direction, the guiding force, power.

What better symbol for our time? What better symbol for its historiography?

And what greater risk of indigestion in the age of grain intolerance. The question is whether the brushes we wield spread paint, or sweep dust?

4 thoughts on “Grainy History

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