Pan-historiography: The challenges of writing history across time and space

Debra Hawhee, Christa J. Olson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

12 Scopus citations


What does it mean to practice "pan-historiography"? We pose this question as historians of rhetoric, each of us in the thick of researching and writing histories that spread across a vast expanse of time-one an examination of how topoi of indigeneity helped shape national identity in Ecuador over more than a century (Olson); the other a consideration of animals in the history of rhetoric that spans the multicentury, multinational, and multicurricular life of the progymnasmata (Hawhee). Our respective projects have attuned us to the intricacies of what we term "pan-historiography": writing histories whose temporal scope extends well beyond the span of individual generations. Pan-historiography can also refer to studies that leap across geographic space, tracking important activities, terms, movements, or practices as they travel with trade, with global expansion, or with religious zealotry. Though neither of us embarked on our current studies with the specific goal of pursuing pan-historiography, the process of shaping them has convinced us that wide-ranging histories, in their very expansiveness, make unique contributions to rhetorical studies and, as such, merit specific methodological reflection. Our move to theorize pan-historiography is all the more pressing since, in the course of mapping out our own pan-historiographies, we have noticed that such expansive histories run counter to a disciplinary trend. That is, histories in rhetorical studies seem to be moving away from broad-based ones, like George A. Kennedy's many historical bird's-eye views (for example, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times, A New History of Classical Rhetoric, and Comparative Rhetoric) or Jeffrey Walker's Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity, and toward more restricted or focused histories.1 It is far more common these days to see book-length rhetorical histories bound tightly by a short span of dates or by the lives of particular figures than to encounter texts that explain or explore the rhetorical histories of a concept or cultural group.2 And yet even scholars who focus on one or two decades might well skate across a continent, even an ocean or two, in the course of their history telling; similarly, claiming larger relevance for specific histories often requires drawing parallels across time and place.3 Our field's histories have a tendency to spread. The move to restrictive, specialized histories may well reflect rhetoric's coming-of-age as a discipline. Historians of rhetoric have begun to move away from disciplinary histories and have access to a number of more-or-less comprehensive histories of Western rhetoric. They are thus free to detail the contours and textures of a particular moment or place. The move toward narrow rhetorical histories also-perhaps relatedly-corresponds with a spike in historiographic scholarship, much of which, of late, focuses on archives.4 Or, more accurately, on "the archive," a methodological and theoretical focus that lends itself to specific histories and carefully targeted scopes. We open with this broad sketch of the state of history and historiography in the field to situate our own sense of the lingering usefulness of those histories that sprawl across long stretches of time and/or space and multiple archives, and the concomitant need to share methods and cautionary tales pertinent to writing such histories, to take preliminary steps toward a pan-historiography. From here, we would like to consider the rationale for pan-historiography, examining what expansive histories might have to offer rhetorical studies today. We do not wish to consider the merits of panhistoriography over and against more focused histories; rather, we believe the two work in tandem to provide comprehensiveness as well as depth. Indeed, a guiding assumption of our reflections is this: The expansion of the wide-ranging histories we are working on necessitates the contraction of more focused histories, and vice versa. In this way, disciplinarity breathes and moves through its histories, by turns zooming and hovering, simultaneously posing big-picture questions and fine-grained ones. We suggest, therefore, that this moment of contraction toward predominantly close-range histories is a perfect time to consider the possibilities of expansion while also tapping into the insights of the narrow history, particularly the deeply textured contributions of archival work. We will assert the usefulness of sprawling histories by examining two central theoretical and methodological complications posed by pan-historiography and the potential dividends yielded by dwelling with those complications. After a brief section laying out justifications for the choice to span, we will consider, first, the risk of ahistoric skating across time and culture that thematically organized studies can pose, and second, the challenge of working with multiple archives of varying scales and types of materials. We will close with reflections on how the strategies of pan-historiography can allow diverse archival materials to, in a sense, move. That is, by taking a wide scope, both of us strive to attend to that which is necessarily absent from or barely present in archival, documentary materials: bodies, habits, activities, or what performance theorist Diana Taylor calls "repertoires." Underlying our discussion of widely flung histories, then, is a broader question: How can pan-historiography meet its own challenges and enliven its materials to create animated histories, histories that bear down even as they expand? A robust treatment of these questions and complications is, anyway, our goal. Our discussion, therefore, will meld theoretical and methodological inclinations: we will share our concrete approaches to and justifications for expansive histories and examine the conceptual orientations underlying and emerging from those historiographic practices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTheorizing Histories of Rhetoric
PublisherSouthern Illinois University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9780809332113
ISBN (Print)0809332116, 9780809332106
StatePublished - 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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