- On Historical Distance by Mark Salber Phillips
There are many strokes of genius in Mark Phillips’s recent study, not the least of which is its focus on distance as a historical and historiographical phenomenon. Phillips begins by observing that in the study of history, “distance” has often been synonymous with detached clarity, a state achieved and managed by the sheer virtue of the passing of time. From the distant vantage point of the present, we presume ourselves poised to see the past more clearly. The idea that the past can only be seen—never mind understood—from a distance is so ubiquitous, so deeply entrenched in conceptualizations and practices of history, that Phillips’s choice to devote a monograph to its study seems at once both entirely intuitive and entirely surprising.
That we have taken for granted the fact of distance and rendered it a necessary, even a natural precondition for the study of history means, therefore, that we have as often failed to trace the specific forms distance can take. Those familiar with Phillips’s influential Society and Sentiment (2000) will detect once again his nuanced attention to the various strategies historians have used to position themselves to the pasts they study. In On Historical Distance, he groups these strategies into four categories: those we use to create, feel, act on, and understand history. In turn, such strategies align with history’s “genres, media, and conventions,” its “affective character,” its ideological functions, and its “fundamental assumptions regarding explanation and understanding” (6). These discrete yet overlapping categories allow Phillips to examine distance as a far more complex and constructed concept than it may at first appear. Alongside its counterpart, proximity, distance becomes a perspective that is as topographical as it is temporal. This is largely thanks to Phillips’s smart attention to distance as a metaphor and a form of mediation; in this study, distance skips between latitudinal and longitudinal terrains as it kicks up different historiographical paths in its wake. “[T]he plasticity of historical [End Page 363] distance,” Phillips observes, “produces richly variable designs” (9). These designs are both ideological and aesthetic. They are also deftly responsive to the cultural forces that shape the functions and practices of history.
Three sections constitute On Historical Distance. Part One, “Circa 1500,” examines distance as it appeared in sixteenth-century Renaissance Italy, specifically in Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories and his Discourses. Over the course of this section, Phillips charts the tension between chronicle and narrative in sixteenth-century historiography. Resisting the traditional claim that chronicling gave way to more robust and palatable narrative histories, he excavates the ways in which chronicles continued to exert influence on conceptualizations of historical distance and how, in turn, Machiavelli and his contemporaries manipulated these earlier traditions as well as their readers’ relationships to distance for political effect and affect.
Part Two, “Around 1800,” will likely prove to be the most rewarding part of this book for readers of Eighteenth-Century Studies. Comprising six chapters, this section—the largest one in the volume—examines a wide range of histories and historical genres from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. Although the work of David Hume looms largest, Phillips deftly maneuvers between philosophical and popular histories, considering the rise of statistics, literary history, and historical painting alongside developments in Enlightenment and Romantic historiography. Throughout this section, Phillips’s command of careful attention to a single text’s richness is as impressive as his ability to roam widely in works outside of history’s traditional disciplinary limits.
Thus, for example, Phillips articulates an array of gradations of distance in Sir John Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland, published in 1799 after nine years of collecting data from surveys sent to ministers in the Church of Scotland. Phillips convincingly shows how Sinclair draws on science and philosophy to craft a sense of scale, while using the literary historical modes of such writers as Sir Walter Scott, along with the localized interest in sentimental history and antiquarianism, to create a sense of proximity. In his chapter on literary...