Notes On the ‘Why’ of Doing History

In thinking and talking about the work of history as a discipline, I have long enjoyed using the metaphor of ‘inhabiting’ a given past, but it has often occurred to me that I ought to build upon and expand from that metaphor, to develop an argument or an explanation—I am not sure what word works here—for why history matters, how one encounters the past, and what that does in one’s life, work, being. Here are a few thoughts towards that end, essentially my own thinking out loud, for which I ask your indulgence and, perhaps, participation should you feel inclined.

In the work of historical encounter, especially, I think, in the work of encounter with individual and collective lives in the past, one expands one’s own self, you become richer and deeper and are able to see the contingency of the present and the multitude of possibilities inhering in the past and in the flow of human history. There is a sort of loneliness and poverty that afflicts someone whose knowledge begins and ends with his contemporary world, in which the only emotions imaginable, the only configurations of self conceivable, the only moral universe explicable, the only languages comprehensible, are those of one’s own narrowly circumscribed present. What is more, one does not even fully grasp one’s own present: for all of those things—emotions, sense of self, morality, and so on—are expressed in and through us because of the work and being of past worlds. And whatever genealogies extend backwards from our particular presents at some point intersect with or overlap or contrast with other genealogies, other worlds of the past, spread out across this earth. We are now living in a historical moment in which our tools and our manner of life, at least in the post-industrialized nations, allows us an unprecedented ability to delve into the past and to encounter great sweeps and depths of the human experience. At the same time, we are perhaps more than ever in human history constrained by our governing and prevailing ‘inner technics,’ by our ideologies, by our habits of thought from looking beyond the narrow boundaries of the present or of what is familiar and safe.

Yet people long for these sorts of encounters with the past, they long for both the stability of connecting with long traditions and the dynamism and vitality that comes from stepping into streams of time and practice longer and larger than ourselves. Not unlike previous periods in modernity, false encounters with the past, and manipulative iterations of nostalgia and propagandized memory so often end up being the means whereby people try to ground themselves in history or seek encounters with other, past worlds. Such means can range from mostly benign indulgence in nostalgic media or advertising campaigns to recruitment into resurgent authoritarian leftist or rightist movements which promise the recovery of some lost golden age, whether it is one of the power of workers or the unity of the nation. Unsurprisingly the time horizons on such nostalgic endeavors is rarely very deep, the twentieth and nineteenth centuries providing the usual frames of reference, even if colored, on the right, with vague appeals to ‘tradition’ and to deeper pasts.

History by itself is not sufficient to give people a sense of meaning or to ground them in connection with others and with deep pasts and traditions. In some ways the discipline of history runs counter to any political project that would seek to use the past for justification, in fact, for the discipline of history rightly done reveals a dynamic and contingent past, looks at the inner logics and developments of traditions and ways of life. Rather, history offers a space for encountering the past in its complexity and wonder (and, to be sure, terror and darkness), of enriching one’s self through stepping into other worlds and out of one’s own, expanding the bounds of what is imaginable. History erodes the feeling of loneliness and of a crippling ‘autonomy’ by revealing the interconnections and interdependencies that all humans, ourselves included, partake of. We inhabit, for a moment and of course partially (but this is always true for us) the lives of others, encounter their fears and dreams and catch glimpses of how the world looked through their eyes. What we may then do with the knowledge—a knowledge that is, or at least should be, multifaceted and not easily described—so gained is not dictated by the knowledge itself. There is no political program determined by deep encounters with human pasts. Rather, any political program or cultural ambit or whatever else that we may embark on in the here and now ought to be informed by, situated within encounters with and awareness of many human pasts, with persons in the past, an experience and knowledge which may then help lead towards wiser, more human, more emphatic and adroit, actions and policies and works of life.

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