Singular histories: three analogies

Contact histories that rely for their frisson on the absurd—or singular—nature of the encounter that constitutes them, like Anne Salmond’s Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti (Penguin, 2009), are “singular histories,” that is to say, strange histories and the history of singularities.

  1. They are “strange” like strange matter: they take their matter to be out-of-the-ordinary (i.e., non-atomic—or meta-physical), elementary (i.e., non-divisible—and thus foundational), and extremely dense (i.e., historically weightier than ordinary matter—or historiographical).
  2. They are the history of singularities, those points where historical matter is infinitely dense, i.e., at which the historical function by which data becomes “historical” takes an infinite value.

Salmond’s singularity is the encounter that took place the day the first British ships landed at Tahiti: the Tahitians had just farewelled their gods for the winter, and their gods, in the form of Wallis et al. on the Dolphin, heralding Cook and the Endeavour, materialised off the shore, apparently fulfilling a prophecy made by the local priest Vaita:

The glorious offspring of Te Tumu / will come and see this forest at Taputapuatea. / Their body is different, our body is different / We are one species only from Te Tumu. / And this land will be taken by them, / The old rules will be destroyed / And sacred birds of the land and the sea / Will also arrive here, will come and lament / Over that which this lopped tree has to teach / They are coming up on a canoe without an outrigger.

“It began with a moment of pure bewilderment” indeed (The Trial of the Cannibal Dog [Penguin, 2003] 39-40; the moment is reiterated on the same page of Aphrodite’s Island [Penguin, 2009] 39).

Aphrodite's Island Cover

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In short, such histories reduce ad absurdum the historiographical ruse to produce history from myth: they reconstruct the past built on such “facts” as exist, attributing to them retrospectively what can be drawn from coincidence and retroductive logic, and structure them in the form of a teleological narrative, thereby ending up right where they started: now, here. It is, in fact, a denial of history.

It is a genuine ruse, from ruser, O.Fr. “to dodge, repel, retreat,” from L. recusare, “deny, reject, oppose,” from re-, intensive prefix, + causari, “plead as a reason, object, allege.” In other words, this denial involves special pleading for a kind of  causality that is, in fact, a rejection of causality.

This doesn’t make singular histories any less persuasive: they appeal to that popular fallacy, the credo quia absurdum, “I believe it because it’s absurd.” This is a misquote from Tertullian, who actually wrote “credibile est, quia ineptum est” (De Carne Christi 5.4). Translation? “It is believable because it is improper”—improper in several ways: meaningless, inadequate and tasteless. Apt. To address only the last, Salmond’s history, however well-meaning and balanced it might seem, is tasteless in its upshot that fate played into British hands, instantiating the maxim that history is always written by the victors.

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Interestingly, Tertullian probably drew on Aristotle’s repertoire of topics—or ruses—for orators, one of which is based on the claim that an argument from probability can be drawn from the sheer improbability of a story, i.e., some stories are so improbable that it is reasonable to believe them (Rhetoric 2.23.22; 1400a 5ff.):

Aristotle from the Rhetoric on argument from the improbable

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In fact, such singular histories are literally absurd.

The modern sense of absurdity is figurative, from M.Fr. absurdité, from L. absurditas, “dissonance, incongruity,” from absurdus, “out of tune, senseless,” from ab-, intensive prefix + surdus “dull, deaf, mute”; thus, “out of harmony with reason or propriety.”

They are out of harmony with the world’s music, which is atonal, not tonal, or even serial. Such harmonies that emerge are strange music, orders out of chaos, and as such can only be transcribed, not composed.

(For a counterargument from evolutionary theory, see Geerat J. Vermeij, Historical Contingency and the Purported Uniqueness of Evolutionary Innovations,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103.6 [7 Feb. 2006]: 1804-09.)

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