The Ethics of Representation at Play – Part 1

By Adam Chapman
Image: Jared Craig, Unsplash.

Ethical practice is important to historians. From the earliest days of our history education we are told of the care with which we must treat evidence – that it is our duty to those in the past to ensure we don’t purposely or selectively misrepresent the traces that they leave us. Similarly, we ensure our ethical practice by carefully aligning with the strict rules of plagiarism, ensuring our reading is as broad reaching and fastidious as possible in order to meet our obligations to contemporary colleagues by acknowledging their work.

But the ethics involved in historical representation itself are perhaps considered less often. This is something that should be a focal point of the work of those historians who subscribe to at least some of the ideas of postmodernism. This may seem to be a controversial statement. But, to clarify, I do not mean to say that the postmodernist historian is somehow naturally a more ethical scholar than those that work according to different epistemologies. Rather, I mean to point out that postmodernist epistemologies, due to their emphasis on the subjectivity of historical representation, place an extra degree of responsibility on the historian.

To illustrate this point, allow me to construct a useful straw person in the shape of a historian I’m not sure really exists anymore – the naïve, Rankean, pure empiricist. For this historian, their ethical duty is solely to finding the story of the past. From this epistemological perspective, the historian’s role is to act as no more than a mediator between the past and present, passing forward a history that remains somehow untarnished by the subjectivities, biases and values of their yet too-human hands. As such, for this historian, the only ethical duty is to evidence and the allegedly recoverable, objective truth it contains. This perspective therefore claims to elide any need for ethical choice on the historian’s part because the past speaks for itself, with the empiricist historian merely acting as its conduit.

Of course, as postmodernist theory has long argued and as most historians now accept, this notion of a bias-free historian mediating a recoverable past is far too idealistic. As Alun Munslow put it, the belief “(a) that we can separate ‘the self’ from ‘the historian’, and (b) that some historians can do a better job of it than others can and, as a result, they will be ‘more objective’” (2007, 40) rapidly becomes problematic when taken to its logical conclusion. By comparison, from a postmodernist perspective, historical representation is a subjective process that involves differing perceptions between different historians, grounded in different life experiences, power relations and ideological, epistemological and cultural contexts. This of course explains how two historians can be confronted with the same body of evidence and yet produce very different narratives, and of course, how one truth can exclude another.

But there is also a more active component to this, in that historians must also constantly make subjective decisions when constructing narratives about the past. An obvious example is found in the temporal structures of such narratives. Where, for instance, will this narrative begin and end? Where should the historian create an artificial temporal division in what is, in reality, an unbroken chain of causal relations that runs throughout the human past? More ephemerally, but no less relevant, historians must also constantly make decisions about things such as values, meaning and interpretation that are at least always partly subjective.

Historians Making/Representing Decisions

So, by what criteria should such decisions be made? Certainly, there is a desire to serve the people of the past by attempting to communicate something meaningful about their lives wherever possible. If we are honest, as Hayden White famously argued, there is also a necessity to serve the demands of narrative: the need to write histories that are appealing, that structure the drama, tragedy and knowledge of the past in ways that are assimilable to readers (and, in fact, those doing the writing!). But inevitably many of these decisions will also be guided by the criteria of our ethics and the ideologies with which they are entangled.

For the empiricist historian, this is a problem. For them it would be totally outlandish to suggest, as Beverley Southgate (2006) does, that historians should make moral choices about what they want to see their history leading to in the future. For the empiricist, this would be allowing the demands of the present and the biases of the historian to cloud the past, edging dangerously close to persuasion and rhetoric. But history is always a persuasive and rhetorical pursuit, for this is the very nature of narrative. All narratives wish to convince us of something. All of them point to particular cause and effect relationships and highlight some as more valuable, desirable or significant than others, and they frequently do so in explicitly moral terms. And Southgate’s idea may not seem so strange when we consider a practical example. Think, for instance, of the important progress made by the increased concentration on postcolonialism (HGN’s next quarterly theme) in historical scholarship. This desire to reconsider whose voices have been heard in our history, to allow those silenced by power and oppression to finally be represented, is of course driven by a particular set of ethics. Most obviously, a hope that readdressing the balance in our histories now might lead us towards better, more progressive, outcomes in the future (and hopefully the present).

No history can possibly represent everything of the past. All have to draw a content boundary, a limited story space, within which the narrative will be told. Every time we decide what to represent from the mass of the past, we do so in accordance with our ethics concerning what we should represent. And this is just one of a multitude of decisions that are involved in the construction of any historical narrative, many of which will be guided by often unrecognised ethical criteria. As Munslow puts it, “By merely writing a story we are destined to make ethical decisions” (2007, 41). The question then becomes whether we are willing to reflect on this fact or simply ignore it. For the postmodernist historian the answer to this question is obvious. Anyone that acknowledges the subjective nature of historical representation and therefore the inevitability of decision making as part of this process, simultaneously acknowledges the important role of ethics in the historian’s craft because ethics are inherently bound to choice. Their very purpose is to help us to act well in making decisions.

The postmodernist historian attends to these inevitable ethical and ideological biases and seeks to reflect on them as far as possible. But more importantly, they acknowledge their existence, refusing to subsume them in the language of authority and objectivity that Barthes (1967) termed the ‘discourse of history’ – that way of writing which seeks to remove the historian (and thus the self) as a presence within the text. More than this, postmodernist texts may even aim to purposely destabilise the authority of their representations in order to highlight their status as precisely that: necessarily reductive and subjective representations that cannot possibly hope to capture reality. Techniques for this might include, for example, first-person reflection on the process of constructing the representation, the highlighting of uncertainty, or the deconstruction of narrative conventions. To make history in this way is to emphasise the limitations of our own perceptions and our inability to escape our values and biases. It is to acknowledge the beautiful and troublesome human frailties that lie at the heart of all history, both in terms of its production and as its central topic. None of this means that the postmodernist will find a greater truth than their empiricist counterpart. But they will at least make the audience aware of the power structures inevitably at play in their representation and the ways in which authority and ethical and ideological subjectivity combine with evidence to produce all historical narratives.

But how do these ideas relate to games? Well, I am afraid, with the bottom of the website rapidly approaching (and us having not yet paid for a basement here at HGN Towers), we have reached the limit of this week’s post. But please come back next week for part two, where I will show how popular perceptions of the ethics of representation have an extremely important role in how history is included in games. I will also be looking at a couple of the controversies surrounding the more diverse histories found in some recent games – a topic that is inherently concerned with the ethics of what and whom we choose to represent from the past.

But at the risk of sounding like a crumpled-raincoat-wearing, cigar-smoking detective, ‘just one more thing’ before I end this post. A huge thank you from all of us here at HGN to those of you that attended our last discussion panel. We have had to increase our Zoom license just to keep up with demand! If you missed it, don’t worry! Generous people that we are, we now have the video of the event up on YouTube, which can be found here.

As always, thank you for continuing to engage with the HGN. It is, you, our community of readers and viewers, that makes this whole exercise possible and worthwhile.

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