‘Do we we spend enough time reading historians for how they write? Not their methods, or their arguments, but simply how they put a sentence together.’
This is the question I asked in a short post on ‘Radical Grammar‘, which appeared yesterday in Rachel Moss’s new mini-series on ‘radical historical writing’ on History Workshop Online.
It is a short post, which is fine by me. I like short writing, and think that short forms are strangely devalued by academic historians, especially considering how fundamental they are in many different ways to what we habitually do.
Book reviews, dictionary entries, abstracts, and blog posts are the beating heart of our scholarly exchanges. After all, we actually read these forms.
Perhaps we read them more than we read whole books, or even articles.
But short forms are always defined by what they leave out. What did I leave out of this post?
So many things. I wanted to point to a general principle – that we can use and abuse grammar in radical ways – rather than attempt to catalogue the many different possibilities of subversive sentence forms.
And I mentioned just a few examples, many of which are associated with the History Workshop tradition.
But more than this variety, what I regret leaving out is the implications.
Radical for the sake of radical is meaningless.
Radical grammatical forms are only meaningful in the service of some radical purpose. In the post, I celebrate historical writers who have had fun with breaking conventions, but what I wish I had done more clearly is spell out what purposes our choices of grammar serve.
I’ll just mention two examples, both to do with verbs.
The first is the active vs the passive voice. The choice to activate your sentences, to make someone or something an agent in history can in itself be a radical act. It recognises responsibility, even guilt, and it enshrines agency in grammar itself.
It’s why Joshua Adams argues against the use of the passive voice when reporting on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter protests.
The other example is from Sarah Knott’s recent memoir-history, Mother.
In a postscript to the book, Knott explains how the unconventional forms she has chosen serve the functions of the book. She calls these forms ‘verb-led, based on anecdote, and composed in the form of a first-person essay’ (see 263).
Being ‘verb-led’ is a form of radical grammar, in a similar but distinct way to the point about active vs passive voice. As Knott points out, focusing on the verbs of mothering, the doing of mothering, is a way to recover mothering as a multiple and contested set of activities, and not simply an essentialized identity, the ‘imperious, scolded, sentimentalized institution of Motherhood’ (94).
Given the role of motherhood and essentialism in the public fights over gender and sexuality, the very choice to focus the writing of her history on this particular part of speech is a radical act in itself. The noun of Motherhood essentializes caring for children as an activity for which an (essentialized) woman has responsibility. The verbs of mothering are a reminder of the historical and potential diversity of gendering and mothering.
Every history has its own potential to use grammar in analogous, but differently radical ways. This can be – as I hope the original post expressed – joyful.
But it is not vacuous.