Why, and How, History (Sometimes) Matters

I do not generally consider the kinds of history I do, either academically or for the wider public, to be especially ‘political’ (in the ordinary sense of the term at least) nor driven by a concern for activism. My own ideological and philosophical profile has become much more convoluted and much less clear over the years- in part because of the challenges my study of history has presented to many of my earlier presuppositions- and while I do not imagine that some pure ‘objective’ stance exists from which to do history, I do aim at letting the past in all its complexity and heterogeneity guide my own approaches as much as possible.

Of course, the fact that I do not put a great deal of energy into shaping the political profile of my scholarship or its possible political and cultural uses does not mean that my scholarship isn’t politically charged or that it might not make a difference (not necessarily predictable) in a given political or cultural situation. My focus on Islamic history arose in no small part out of the context of post-9/11 America and even more so the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s. I hoped that my scholarship, and perhaps also the whole tenor of my life, could act as a corrective, a sort of reparation even, for what my country had done and was doing to people across the Islamic world. That wasn’t my only motivation, to be sure, but it was- and is, in modified and I would like to think somewhat more sophisticated form- a part of why I embarked on the path upon which I still find myself.

The political potency and even importance of the sort of scholarship that I and many others in history, religious studies, and other disciplines do was driven home today with the horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch upon Muslims praying the Friday prayers. Last night, before the news had broken about what was happening on the other side of the world from me, I posted the following tweet, a rather casual observation about medieval artistic patterns in Iraq and points north into the Armenian lands:

On the surface this is not an especially ‘political’ observation. Late medieval Armenian art, even to a relatively untrained eye, displays many differences from earlier periods, with many components that appear ‘Islamic,’ even if the exact analogues in non-Armenian art are not always clear. It seems likely to me that the 13th century Maqāmāt painting tradition revealed in the Baghdad manuscript above can be connected to the 15th century Armenian Gospel and similar productions, as part of a shared cultural sphere that extended through the Jazīra into the Armenian lands and west to Syria, a shared sphere that can be seen in many other instances of art and architecture.  ‘Armenian’ culture more broadly, in medieval and early modern periods alike, is marked by creative interaction with, and active integration within, the ‘Islamic’ cultures in which Armenian communities lived, creating a complex cultural world that cannot really be reduced to ‘Armenian’ or ‘Islamic’ or ‘Arabic’ or any other homogeneous-sounding appellation.

What does this have to do with the fascist terrorist in Christchurch? While the mimetic (in more than one sense) culture of online fascism is itself quite complex and notoriously slippery, it is very clear that the terrorist (possibly terrorists) in Christchurch, and their political kin elsewhere, draw upon a very particular ‘narrative’ of history, particularly Islamic history. I hesitate to call it a coherent narrative since it is really more an emotionally-charged bundle of stories, sentiments, memes, and fragments of narratives, images and moods. It does not depend so much on a structured account of history as an overall mood or sentiment, one in which ‘Islam’ is a looming and deadly mass, consuming and leveling all before it. Islam and everything non-Islam are imagined only in terms of conflict and violence and terminal struggle. The Christchurch terrorist emblazoned his weapons with verbal images of some of this imagined history- the Armenian genocide, the fall of Acre- which summon up images of stark conflict, of zero-sum interactions. There is no room in this historical imagination for ‘Islamized’ Armenian Gospels, or, say, the role of Muslim troops in the wars of the British Empire. He did not invent these images, nor did he devise the historical narrative of which they are a part. Rather, they have been put together by various actors, mostly online, and exist in the ethereal space of (mostly) social media. Given the right circumstances and agents, they can have real power, as today’s events reveal.

Which is why, I want to cautiously argue, presenting alternative images, alternative narratives, such as the very sort I suggested- rather offhandedly- on Twitter right on the cusp of the terrorist in Christchurch bringing his own historical narrative to bloody life. Now, the historical narrative I presented has the advantage of being true, or at least inclining towards historical truth, constructed carefully and as the result of much research and analysis. In the online world of meme and image and mood, however, if we’re being honest, the possession of historical truth or something like is not necessarily an advantage. What counts is the degree to which certain moods and imaginaries and narratives can capture people’s attention, structure their sense of what is real and what matters. Good historical scholarship, because it captures historical reality better and more fully and hence more powerfully than the manipulations of fascists or other ideologues for whom history is nothing more than raw material for politics and socio-cultural struggle, can put forward images and narratives and moods that can stand in opposition to the tendentious ones of fascists and others.

In other words, this machine of historical scholarship may not kill fascists, but it can create different emotional and imaginative spaces, one that can neutralize the narratives and emotional spaces that feed fascism (and other ideologies, too, I would add, such as militant ‘Islamism,’ itself a fascist-like tendency). ‘Public history,’ whether that means tweeting, writing books for a wide audience, participating in community events, giving lectures, or whatever, puts the narratives and spaces that arise from scholarship out into the wider world, where they can potentially have very real power. It would be naive, of course, to imagine that historians can somehow by themselves stop the next mosque shooting, or prevent ISIS from re-organizing. These movements and tendencies are multi-causal and complex, like everything in human society. However, I do think that we- self included- as historians, particularly of Islam, have a role to play, that even small things like presenting different images (sometimes quite literally), of making worlds and realities visible that would not otherwise be seen by the wider public, that such things can make a cumulative difference.

 

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”

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.