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.

The Incident at Nabi Samwil

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The mosque-shrine of Nabi Samwil, now split between Muslim Palestinians who use the above-ground mosque, and Jewish Israelis, who control the tomb-shrine itself. The figures atop the structure are members of the IDF.

i. I am standing, a few miles north of the Holy City, on a rise of ground that slopes off to one side towards the Jordan River, on the other towards the Great Sea. Like every rise of ground in this angry and holy land, it is covered over by a vast sea of the past and present commingled and churning. When the Crusaders crested this hill they could see the walls of their goal, or so the story goes, though today we can see only the ever expanding sprawl of modern Jerusalem, rising and falling over hills where a few decades ago there were only olive trees and flocks of sheep and goats and little villages. But we are not looking out over the rolling hills that spill out, east and west, from along the invisible Green Line that divides—in theory at least, one that that grows less relevant day by day—Israeli and Palestinian territory. We are watching, my friend and I, in transfixed anger, a momentary act in the interminable drama that plays out on this hill and in so many other places in this land, day after day after day, the long ugly drama on endless repeat. As the sun sets over the great corrupting sea to the west, I find myself right in the thick of that drama, feeling emotions to which I am unused and which terrify me even as they shoot through my body and heat my blood. I clench my fists, fight back hot tears, fight back the urge to pick up a stone and crack someone in the head. Instead I curse under my breath, tell M. that I am going back to the car, and hurry down the hill to the rental, parked precariously on an incline. I climb inside, grab the wheel, and weep angry tears. M. follows close behind and we drive off in bitter silence, processing what we’ve seen and felt and how very ordinary it is for this land.

ii. I was staying for several days in an Airb&b rental on El-Wad street, one of the main arteries of Jerusalem’s Old City, in an apartment being rented out by a French archeology student whom I never met. M. was staying there as well, while taking Arabic lessons. We had spent this particular day taking a break from the Old City and its tensions, the strain of soldiers on every corner with heavy weaponry slung in front, the constant watch of cameras on every other rooftop, perched above the street, the heaviness that percolates through the air, the loud silent confrontation of the settlers’ bristling rooftops. I could not then and cannot now imagine what it must be like to live here as a resident, to have this be your reality every day and night. After a week it was too much for me. Perhaps you adjust. Perhaps you bottle it up until it snaps. During my stay I wondered more than once what I would do were I in the place of a Palestinian Jerusalemite, or an Israeli settler. I don’t know, but I can speculate, and it’s not very pretty.

After picking up our rental car, at an agency down the street from the King David Hotel of lore—every block, every stone here has some world-historical significance, it gets old really, and I’m a historian—we cross through the Separation Barrier into the West Bank, then through another checkpoint, past a settlement, eventually winding down to Ein Prat National Park, our main destination for the day. Like almost everywhere else here it goes by at least two names—in Arabic it’s Ayn Farar, close, but not quite the same, as the Hebrew. Unlike most places around this city, though, it is an island of calm and coexistence. Apart from a couple of Japanese tourists who arrive as we are leaving, we are the only foreigners. Israelis and Palestinians—more of the latter than the former, at least today, it seems—are enjoying the cool waters of the springs and creek cutting through the desert, or are out hiking along the steep wadi, or enjoying a picnic in the eucalyptus groves planted during the British Mandate (growing alongside the ruins of a Byzantine church, in the shadow of a still functioning monastery inhabited by monks of Eastern European extraction…). There are no guns or uniforms or political slogans in sight. The settlements that cling to the ridgetops in this part of the West Bank are invisible, having receded behind the crags lining the wadi. We climb into caves used by late antique hermits, trail gazelles up a hill to a village site dating back, so they say, to the late Neolithic, sink into the marvelous papyrus reed jungles that hug the course of the stream. The conflict is far away, and here, at least, we feel as if there are possibilities open beyond merely tracing new permutations in the never-ending struggle.

iii. We spend the rest of the day exploring, down to Jericho, motoring into town past the languid Palestinian Authority checkpoint, get a bite to eat, and try to find an Umayyad ruin. We end up by the Jordan instead, at a site claimed to be where St. John baptized Jesus, but which today is dominated by a looming Israeli military instillation and mine-seeded zone, a parking lot full of tourist buses, and gaudy new churches across the holy river on the Jordanian side. It’s a strange and vaguely disturbing scene, and I remark that I feel like I’ve scene it all in a dream. Continue reading “The Incident at Nabi Samwil”

Nationalisms, Globalisms, and Their Alternatives

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A symbolic depiction of Ukrainian nationalism, c. 1920

While the world probably doesn’t need any more commentary on the recent American election, I’d like to offer some anyway, though in a way that looks at happenings beyond the US to the rest of the world, where we see related patterns unfolding according to local particularities and conditions. While the US is its own case, it is also part of an interconnected world, the ties of global capitalism, human movement, globalized classes, elites, and political structures, and other things working to move American realities in directions broadly congruent with other, often quite different, parts of the world. My thoughts here—which are reflective of the halting directions my political thought have been taking as of late, but should not be interpreted as final or fully coherent—are springing off an article by Jonathan Haidt from back in the summer, but which is rather prescient and worth reading in its own right. What follows here, then, are three interlinking thoughts precipitated by, but in some cases sharply diverging from, Haidt’s article.

One, while right now the dominant options are either liberal ‘cosmopolitan’ globalism or some form of nationalism, within the framework of nation-states (whether more autonomous or more directed from supra-national entities being at question) and of some form of globalized (if not globalist) capitalism, those are not in fact the only options. To give but one example, Continue reading “Nationalisms, Globalisms, and Their Alternatives”

Some Reflections on the Aftermath of the American Election

Political ideologies are deeply toxic, psychologically destructive things. Their function is fairly simple: they allow people to navigate the contours of states and industrial economies, and they offer the surest routes into the ‘core’ of such entities. They map the terrain. But in so doing, they also preclude all other terrain. Modern ideologies, even when they incorporate ‘extraneous’ elements, reduce all other forms of identity and meaning and value into a homogenized, internally bound whole. When these ideologies encounter insurmountable incongruity, or outright collapse, the damage to individual psyches and emotional well being is enormous, as all the erasures of identity and personality come to light in the gaping wound left by epistemic collapse. The subject is left confused and troubled, anxious to rediscover the surety that was there before.

In the American context, liberalism—here understood in the American vernacular rendering, though the broader sense should be kept in mind—is the primary, or perhaps, strongest vehicle of this totalizing effect, of this subsumption of all else into one overriding, all-structuring political and ideological identity and generator of meaning and social value. Conservatism by its very nature lacks systematization, and requires the existence of other values, other traditions, other forms of life, to give it meaning—even if all those other things are themselves deeply deformed and distorted by the effects of modernity (and in the American case this is especially true). Over time, it is true, many of the identities and traditions and forms of life which flow into conservatism have themselves become artefacts of ideology, integrated into the logics of the state and its political, value, and linguistic systems, albeit in often erratic and unpredictable ways (the current political disruption being one such effect). But the multiplicity of identity and meaning among conservatives remains, if only in tatters—not necessarily healthier or less damaging psychologically, but perhaps with slightly more openings out. Perhaps.

For liberals, however, everything tends to be reduced to political identity, Continue reading “Some Reflections on the Aftermath of the American Election”

Notes Towards a Theory of Modernity, and Other Things

The following are some thoughts and outlines of theory that aim at encapusalating some of my developing thought on human social order, the dynamics of historical change (particularly in the modern world, as we call it), and so on, which do not really ‘fit’ into my own academic work, but which lie behind how I think about the pre-modern world and my role as an observer and shaper of historical knowledge, which is always knowledge intimately tied up with the present. These are quickly assembled thoughts-out-loud, but I hope they prove of interest and use to the reader who takes the effort to navigate them.

1. On Discontinuities and Disorder: One of the problems that particularly marks our age—by which I mean the last half century or so, though with extensions backwards through the era of Western industrialization—is the problem (which is also a potent problématique) of radically discontinuous time scales within conjunctive social, political, economic, and ecological systems and processes. While technical advances and developments, be they in socio-political organization, economic systems, or actual technology, have moved many aspects of life on this earth into incredibly high-speed trajectories, they have been unable—and are most likely necessarily unable—to effect such transformations across the board. In fact, many of the most salient and vital processes, systems, and exigencies remain on time scales similar to or the same as during any period of post-agricultural revolution human history, and in some cases—particularly ecological and geological aspects—pre-human time scales. If our technics allow, for instance, for rapid, unpredictable socio-political disintegration, it is not clear that they encourage symmetrical forms of re-integration and re-formation, processes which are slow and unsteady, and which tend to require periods of relative stability and, crucially, extended time scales. One of the results of these discontinuities, I think, has been the rapid cyclical processing of global history, with periods of incredibly rapid formation and development along many metrics, followed by equally incredible periods of collapse and destruction. The succeeding periods of re-integration and re-building tend to automatically have the seeds of their dissolution built into them, accelerating the cycle. Of course, different societies have had very different responses to this process due to vastly differing historical circumstances and contingencies, but all societies have been subject to it, and it is possible that we are seeing, in this very historical moment, convergences towards a single unitary period of dissolution, with no clear route forward afterwards. Technics are growing more and more integrated and rapid, obliterating many quotidian time scales, yet proving incapable of shoring up or replacing many of the social systems, ecological processes, and interpersonal relationships that they are helping to either obliterate or destabilize. We are faced with a situation in which stable, resilient systems are necessary more than ever, but the tools and exigencies at our disposal increasingly trend in the very opposite direction.

2. What I am Trying to Do: The sort of theoretical position, the philosophical-political vantage point I am seeking in what I think and write, is a stance that seeks, Continue reading “Notes Towards a Theory of Modernity, and Other Things”

Poems, Sarajevo, Late Summer

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Three poems written during my week-and-a-half in the capital city of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Prose and photographic reflections on my summer in Istanbul and, much more briefly, Sarajevo and Belgrade, to follow at some point this fall. Photo above is from the eastern edge of the city, looking back to the west, the Hadžijska Mosque in profile.

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After an Evening at the Mejtaš Tekija

Do not ask for its use.
Let your eye drift, and settle, on the moon’s face.
Marigold and lavender, lingering.
The cool dark. In the distance, towards the sudden opening
Of the Miljacka, the pigeons sleep, and a dog barks.
One day, you will be. Taste: the love of God,
Evening coffee, how the streets wind to nowhere.
God, and love, and God.
How bright the flowers
Are tonight!

Tout est ailleurs

The secret of the world is not readable.
It cannot be traced in secret lines over the land
Nor lies it in rune and script, descried by
Skilled eye. There is no formula, no numbered
Code. Perhaps in all these things, and in the
Sudden dusk time flight of the swallow
You may hear the hints, if your ear is right
And the light of your eyes be good,
But the secret is not there. It is elsewhere.
All is elsewhere. When you know it
You will know, and you will not know. And that
Is all that can be said, after which
Let us keep silence.

Political Geography

Thin gray lines on the map, almost—almost
Indeterminate. Where men, and women, and children,
And loves, died, staking it. The realest of things,
And the least. Other lines
Get denser and wider as you get closer. These
Get thinner, until, at the place itself, nothing. Dig down
A few feet. You’ll find only the martyrs’ bodies,
Slipped into unmarked dust.

Thoughts, Occasional to the Day, and Unsolicited

Indulge me, dear reader, some of my out-loud thinking, taken from my common-place book, where I jot down, in a sort of haze of free-form association and reckless philosophizing, unbound by genre or affiliation, and often indirectly occasioned by the dreary roll of the day’s headlines, my scattered ideas and attempts to corral my thoughts and emotions into something coherent-ish, and, perhaps, of interest to others…

1. One knows not to indulge in O tempora tropes, knowing that one’s own age is ultimately not really all that different from any other. At every age there are madnesses at the center, and the madnesses of the periphery, the strange and terrible machinations of the human heart spilling out of the prevailing discourses and modes of behavior, at once shocking, at once emerging from what is normative and central.

2. It is best not to begrudge people their fantasies, their naivety, their willful, unreasonable optimism. If people were in the habit of dealing with reality, and not their delusions, it would be utterly crippling for most. Perhaps it is better to imagine a world in which things work out they way you imagine they will—by the time the time comes and they don’t turn out that way, the infinite flexibility of human thought and perception will not be perturbed, but will merely adapt its future-looking vision, untroubled by prophets proved wrong, cheery—or apocalyptic, cheery in their own way to our odd little minds—prognostication unfulfilled, and forgotten, new ones replacing. Human memory is akin to the cellular structure of our bodies: seemingly stable and self-reproducing, but constantly in flux, dying and being reborn to meet the passage of time, the perils and presses of biology, heading towards a biological end but a spiritual and historical afterlife and extension elsewhere and in others, transformed. Memory—particularly our memory of the future—is largely unstable and flexible, at once incongruent with the world as it is and yet malleable to what the world turns out to be, or what we come to remember the world having been. The material traces, the psychic echoes…

3. I suppose it makes me a conservative in the technical, and not the ideological sense, in that I no longer suppose—and in the back of my mind, I have never supposed—that history moves on some progressive, teleological line, without terrible (or wonderful—who knows) and fundamentally unforeseen feedback loops built into that movement, which can, in time or suddenly or both, send history into new and unexpected directions, directions that belie any talk of ‘progress’ or unidirectional (or bidirectional) movement. History, time, is a welter, and there is no telling how things will move, what will become.

Proceeding from this conviction—or, I would say, observation—is the congruent conviction that for many ‘problems’ there is in fact no ‘solution.’ If time, human societies, ecology, history, so on, are infinitely complex, malleable, their ontology at once visible and invisible to us, driven by logics and processes known only to God, as it were, then why should we expect our lives capable of division into neat moral binaries, or liable to neat solutions and resolutions? That is not to deny the possibility of moral certainty, in propositional terms, or even in a deep sense of the self before the world and God: but when we attempt to arrive at a ‘social’ morality, at a morality that is dispersed, woven into our human and natural ecologies in ways that preclude personal reckoning and analysis: then we enter territory for which ‘ambiguity’ is too mild a term.

Value judgments need not collapse utterly, but we are more in the realm of tragedy and comedy wherein the sheerness of the world, its apart-from-us-ness, is the primary operative reality. In the face of everything, then, what is best…? Prayer, sorrow, the momentary discoveries of good and gladness, small comforts perhaps, unless joined to a conviction, in the movement of prayer, liturgy, and the pin-points of sanctity, human and natural, that beyond our immediate, history-bound ken, there is God, there is an eternal stability in eternal movement, as unpredictable as that of this world, but in a movement of fundamental goodness and wholeness, moving Itself and us and all towards a fulfillment beyond, behind, our temporal knowledge, into an unending, ever expanding Completion.