What is history?

what is history

As the liberal government kicks off another distraction in the culture wars over the school curriculum, it might be worth reflecting on what is history.  Minister Christopher Pyne has said that the curriculum needs to focus more on ‘Western Civilization’, which it undoubtedly already does.  What Pyne really means by this, is that he wants the curriculum to gloss over the negative sides.  Sitcoms, genocide, slavery all could not have come from this great abstract concept. 

 Also the eponymous IPA have weighed into the debate, bizarrely stating that parents should decide what is taught. Secreted within this debate is the debate over what is history?  What do we do when we study history and how?  This is important not so much due to the school curriculum, but the control of past facts in order to justify the present.

 Firstly, there are a few basic ontological assumptions within what we mean by history.  History consists of human actions within humanly embodied institutions and structures. By this I mean that there is no super human meaning, agency of progress in history.  It is a set of events driven by concrete causal processes and individual actions.  Therefore, historical explanation depends on causal-structural reasoning and interpretation of actions and intentions.  It is therefore both causal and hermeneutic.  A legitimate historical goal is to identify causal mechanisms within historical processes, which are dependent on the actions of historical actors situated within concrete social relations.

 But this should not be understood to imply that there is one uniquely true interpretation of historical processes and events. Rather, there is a perfectly ordinary sense in which historical interpretations are underdetermined by the facts, and there are multiple legitimate historical questions to pose about the same body of evidence. Historical narratives have a substantial interpretive component, and involve substantial construction of the past. But, not all historical knowledge is expressed in narratives. Rather, there is a range of cognitive structures through which historical knowledge is expressed, from detailed measurement of historical standards of living, to causal arguments about population change, to comparative historical accounts of similar processes in different historical settings.

It is impossible to tell the whole truth.  There are not enough historians, nor books that can show the everyday reality of all peoples, from the king to the peasant. Therefore history is always going to be relative, dependent on the historian.  By extension, history can not be ‘neutral’, and like that of political views, being ‘neutral’ is tacit support of the ruling regime and ideology.  To be ‘neutral’ in history is akin to giving a beggar and a millionaire the same piece of bread.  The condition of the recipient is dependent on what is just. As historians, it is our job to look for the many truths in compiling an overall truth, one which is not beholden to the current liberal capitalist myths.

 In our modern times the debate around history is connected with nature of our democratic system. Social control rests on the consent of the governed, everyday control is through a set of rules, a fabric of values passed on from one generation to another by the teachers of society. In essence the rise of democracy is the shift from force as the manner of ruling, to that of deception for keeping society the way it is and the discourse of history plays a large part in deciding which rule by consent we end up with. Orwell summed it well in his too frequently cited 1984, ‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’

 It was in Nietzsche’s 1874 text On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life that the question of not only how we could obtain knowledge of a past, but “that the power of the past to enforce its claims on the future always forms a threat to the project of modernism” became prominent.  What Nietzsche was arguing is that the necessity for history is a danger in itself. But for him also, history should be used to direct society towards the proper usage of history, which would fulfil its function of serving life, and to add to him, not just the life of the ruling elite but of humanity as a whole. As if he is talking to the modern day neo-conservative he wrote that

“monumental history is the theatrical costume in which they pretend that their hate for the powerful and the great of their time is a fulfilling admiration for the strong and the great of past times. In this, through disguise they invert the real sense of that method of historical observation into its opposite…Their motto: let the dead bury the living”

 Further working in this tradition the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote in The Archaeology of Knowledge that the historians’ job is to reconstitute not large ‘periods’ or centuries, but ‘phenomena of rupture, of discontinuity.’ Instead of presenting a monolithic version of a given period, Foucault argues that we must reveal how any given period reveals “several pasts, several forms of connexion, several hierarchies of importance, several networks of determination, several teleologies, for one and the same science, as its present undergoes change: thus historical descriptions are necessarily ordered by the present state of knowledge, they increase with every transformation and never cease, in turn, to break with themselves”

 This type of historical work is in direct repudiation of empirical and positivist historians that viewed historical facts simply as information that could be ordered to produce an objective picture of the past that magically could be independent of human opinion and the current ideological paradigm. As the historian EH Carr argues, this view is inherently flawed, because historians selectively choose which “facts of the past” get to become “historical facts”, or information that the historians have decided is important, for example the extollation of ‘Western Civilization’.  As an example Carr noted that millions of humans crossed the Rubicon river, but only Julius Caesar’s crossing in 49BCE was of historical fact.

In reality, history is an unending dialogue between the present and the past and the nature of our present ideological paradigm determines what is considered important in history and why.  In this domain, the right wing cries of the domination of ‘cultural Marxism’ in the education of history shows that this is one terrain in which the left has actually gained some ground.  The conservatives would only make this cry if they were scared of the enemy.

What I am not calling for is for history to have a common political cause, other than the advancement of human knowledge and the bettering of human society.  An obvious story here is Stalinist historians fabricating history in the attempt to help create a pure communist state, hoping that in the end history would absolve them for their omissions and lies.  But this is only another case in instrumental value being the value of which history is beholden to.  This is also the case in the fabrication of events for the war in Iraq also has an effect on the study of history, distorting the research results from the start. Both are the use over use of instrumental reason to create an ideologically driven outcome.

But for example, when C. Vann Woodward wrote The Strange Career of Jim Crow he looked at instances of equal treatment for the black population in the South in the 1880s.  Not so much because this was indicative of the treatment at the time, this was simply not the case.  However, when he wrote it in 1954 a large part of the population believed that racial segregation was so entrenched and so natural that he wanted to destroy this myth.  This case is indicative of good history because it moves temporally through the past, present and future.  Historical writing is at its most true when it simultaneously speaks to what it was in the past, the conditions of the present and what should be done in the future.

Therefore, the way we study history is important, not so much because it can counteract unjust force directly, but because it can counteract some of the force that makes illegitimate government force, legitimate.  Those who command the more obvious forms of power (government, the very wealthy) also try to command historical knowledge.  And academics are not free from criticism either.  Universities are the playpen in which those favored by the hegemon of society are invited to play.  They fit existing social structures through the ‘socialisation’ of people in education which follows orthodox lines.  That is not to say that historians of value do not exist within our elite structures, but the orthodox still has control by nature of its very form. It is not a devilish plot, but simply the replication of a well oiled structure.

 History is so very connected with our present and how we see the future. And the philosopher, Karl Popper wrote, “There is no history of mankind, there are only many histories of all kinds of aspects of human life. And one of these is the history of political power. This is elevated into the history of the world.” It is this very struggle over past, current and future political power which the study of history really is.  And depending on how we want to see our future, it is a struggle that is necessary engaging in. To go back to the Nietzschean formula to ‘do’ history from a perspective of serving life, we need to recognise the historical claims of the exploited and oppressed in connection with the exploiting and oppressing to realise a better humanity.


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