The Conceit of Convenience

Technical fields that deal in the past – such as history and archaeology – have a necessary compression that takes place. It is an unavoidable conceit of convenience. (As far as I know, this is a new term I thought of in the car this morning.)

What do I mean by conceit of convenience? 

When an archaeologist says that a piece of pottery is from such-and-such a century BC, that is a conceit of convenience. There are assumptions and extrapolations made about materials lying above and below the strata in which the pottery was found, as well as the style and fashion of the pottery itself. There is no way to be absolute about the date of the pottery, but a date can be asserted in a general, speculative way.

When a historian says that one event led to another event, the historian probably does not know the complete chain of related events that occurred to result in this single event. Many times, the participants in these events are unaware of the repercussions of their actions. History is a long chain of butterfly effects. Very few people know the implications of their actions beyond the immediate circumstances. (Read more Bradbury if you do not know what that means). So, historians must concede to convenience. We describe events in terms and sequences that were not readily apparent to the participants of those events.

The danger of the conceit of convenience is that many times readers do not realize the necessity of this kind of shorthand. Readers assume that the historian or archaeologist has the omniscient perspective of a fictional narrator. Therefore it is tempting to come to an incomplete conclusion based on what is written or presented. Readers draw analogies – if such-and-such caused this, then this must always be true – but the conceit of conveniences deals in probabilities, not certainties. Just because a piece of pottery looks like another piece of pottery, that does not mean their is no chance that they are from very different times.

Think about trying to describe something as 20th century American. In 1909, 20th century meant telegraph messages, the gold standard and horses stabled in Manhattan. Men still wore jackets with tails on them, and Britain ruled most of the planet. In 1999, 20th century meant emails, faster-than-sound airliners and the burst of the dot.com bubble. We fought wars with bayonets in 1913 and laser-guided bombs in 1991.

Time moved no slower in the 3rd century BC than it does now. People’s minds were just as capable as they are now. Therefore, we must be careful not to fall into a modernist trap and believe that things change quickly now but they did not change quickly in the past.

In reality, history and archaeology are very imprecise by their very nature. Both writers and readers need to acknowledge the conceit of convenience as they dialogue.

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