What is history?

22/10/2014

E.H. Carr covered this a while back. So there’s no need for an extended essay. However, The Internet linked me to an interesting piece in New York about the perils of predicting how the present will sit in the history of the future.

The fact is that we can’t write history while we’re in it — not even that first draft of history that journalists aspire to write. While 2014 may have a shot at eternal infamy, our myopia and narcissism encourage us to discount the possibility that this year could be merely an inconsequential speed bump on the way to some greater catastrophe or unexpected nirvana. This was brought home to me when, in a quest for both a distraction from and a perspective on our current run of dreadful news, I revisited 1964, the vintage American year that has been serving as an unofficial foil, if not antidote, to 2014.

Frank Rich, ‘Nothing you think matters today will matter the same way tomorrow‘, New York, 21 October 2014, 8.00am EST (accessed 22 October 2014, 10.40am BST).

Immediately, a couple of things jump out. The first being that “we can’t write history while we’re in it”. The author, Frank Rich, might have a point here. However, there’s a question over when history ends and the present begins. There’s a strong case to be made that what happened this morning is already in the past, and therefore the realm of history. My own work falls into the domain of “Contemporary History”, which can often include analyses that take into account events yet to play out.

Second, the idea of an “inconsequential speed bump”. Is history “one fucking thing after another”? A series of events, marking the ebb and flow of human evolution? While steering away from the word that makes historians go into anaphylactic shock – progress1– there is a tacit idea that history is somehow the story of how we got from A to B; how some things got better and other things got worse; but ultimately it’s the story of how things that exist today came to be. That isn’t, necessarily, how historians approach their subject. Change over time is often an important concept in giving meaning and context to our work, but we often write about things and people that don’t exist today. Or if some remnant of them does, we make it very explicit that the “feminism” of the 1890s was a very different beast to the one of the 1990s – and that to attempt to trace a hard lineage from one to the other would be to impose presentist values of what “feminism” “really” “is”.2

Ultimately, this is the point we definitely agree on. It is certainly difficult to “write history while we’re in it”. History relies on context. It is the contextualisation of the past which allows us to even begin to understand events and the lives of people who lived there. That context might include what happened before and what would happen after – but this is not always so. Sometimes it will require greater understanding of the cultural, social and political situation and how it may have impacted upon our subject matter. Sometimes it will require rejecting presentist labels and attempting to redefine certain concepts using the values of those who would have understood them at the time.3 These things are incredibly hard to do when one has an incomplete set of sources (the events haven’t finished yet), or one is far to close to the subject matter at hand to be able to take a step back and reinterpret this history with a different conceptual framework.

As the piece shows, reading back to the 1960s to try and explain the present’s exceptionalism (in this case, how exceptionally bad today is), is just terrible history. It has to ignore so much of the context of the time that it risks painting an unrealistic picture of our society. Unfortunately, it is a common reaction to troubling times. The rise of UKIP in Britain has relied upon nostalgic visions of a past society in which England benignly ruled the Commonwealth, marriages lasted forever, and people knew their roles in life. This was never the case. Any historian of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries – and in that I include “anyone who has read a book” – can tell you what twaddle this vision is. But it resonates as an easy explanation for the supposed problems of the present, and a template for a better future. That we lack the tools as a society to question it says a lot about the state of history education in this country. We might teach kids facts, but we’re certainly not teaching them how to weight and evaluate evidence. I believe scientists are having a similar whinge right now.

At the same time, we shouldn’t be afraid about beginning to write histories of the present. Our problems usually stem from trying to “predict the future” or placing today in the grand chronology of stuff what happened. By using historical context to place some of the trends, events and people of the recent past within a larger explanatory framework of human activity, we’re just doing our jobs. And showing how today is just as historically constructed as the past.

  1. The glossary entry on “Progress” explains some of my misgivings about the term.
  2. Yes. The scare quotes are necessary… ahem.
  3. Ethnography.
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