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On history

Continuing an occasional series on the useful things grad school taught me, here is what I learned about how we construct history –

  1. when you read history books, you get it completely backwards
  2. every generation has to reconstruct their history all over again. Actually no, scratch that, every individual reconstructs it for themself.

Both of these realisations are very simple but have far-reaching implications.

  1. (assuming good will and an honest attempt to grapple with archival data rather than straight up propaganda-writing ) The act of constructing history starts out a little like the act of constructing science: you notice some phenomena and try to find a cause for them. This engages the pattern-matching part of your brain – you look for behaviours that seem reasonable to you, run through a list of explanations you’ve previously accepted for why things happen, and look for other observers who agree or disagree with your ideas.

    But after that, constructing history is nothing like constructing science. First, because you can hardly ever test your theories – in fact, the phenomena you’re trying to explain aren’t even repeatable. Second (here’s the novel part) because your search for causes runs backwards in time, and that’s the proper, honest direction in which to talk about your construction work, that makes your work evident and lays bare the present conditions you are trying to explain. Science gets to hunt for causes, then test, confirm, and predict effects from those causes, so it can run its models backwards and forwards in time. But history does not, so the habit of telling historical stories forwards inevitably buries the work and the assumptions that informed your pattern-matching. It presupposes that all your constructing is correct, so when you stand back to admire the whole cathedral you’ve built, you can point to the spire on top (the present) and assert the foundations (past causes) are strong… when in fact you’re just looking at the building upside down, balanced precariously on its tip and anchored firmly in a ground of suppositions, unsupported assumptions, and beliefs, that stretches out in every direction beyond your view.
    tl:dr: write and teach your histories backwards.

  2. (in the best possible cases) Every historian has stood in their present and constructed a past to explain it. They have mostly trained to do this by reading the backwards constructions of previous generations of historians and then agreeing or disagreeing with them. So there is a genealogy of backward constructions at work. Whatever a previous generation of historians thought of as an obvious inference gets reproduced by successive generations until a sufficient community comes along with different philosophical assumptions or categories, at which point it becomes suspect.

    One result of this is that it’s enormously difficult to uncover the history of an idea because as long as that idea or something that looks sufficiently like it to get a pass has held, one finds historians who will assert that it’s true or take it for granted. In fact, searching for the singular root/source of an idea at all is probably misguided – it’s likely to have been floating around in society for a long time before an observer decided to write it down and base decisions off it. Another result is that there’s no general consensus, as there is in the sciences, on when to discard an idea that no longer looks credible. Pieces of that idea can always be recycled back into service if they look useful for present purposes.
    tl:dr: always be suspicious of long-period phenomena. They’re probably not what they seem at any particular point in their apparent continuity.

I was recently in a conversation about colonialism and the idea of Europe. We tend, these days, to use the phrase “European Colonialism” as shorthand for a system of economic and political domination currently mostly spearheaded by the US but seemingly, superficially based on previous efforts mostly by Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. There are some problems with this equation of US imperialism with prior forms of colonialism, but when it comes to the oppression of peoples in Africa or Asia the shorthand seems useful. But then comes the question: “where does this idea of Europe come from? Why did Europeans do this to other peoples and how did they draw lines between who should colonize and who should be colonized?”

And the question is only really relevant, it only really makes sense, in the backwards construction of history. Let’s say you do a linguistic analysis of your archives and you decide that “Europa” was first used to describe a distinctive social entity (rather than a geographical region) during Charlemagne’s empire, somewhere around the 9th century. Now you have some evidence of the existence of an idea of difference a thousand years ago, which you can relate to a forward series of varied phenomena:

– the governing of the Holy Roman Empire;
– The Crusades, where borders between Christendom and Islam were repeatedly defined and contested;
– The conquest of the Americas and the Renaissance, where Italians “rediscovered” that they “had been” the Roman Empire and where French and Englishmen learned that they were the intellectual descendants of Romans and Greeks (whoever they were) (and probably not the literal lineal descendants as Geoffrey of Monmouth had claimed).
And most importantly, the idea that Europeans formed an oecumene dedicated to oppressing Africans and Asians, which we find in a few history textbooks and a lot of tweets published today.
Now you know why there was a European club, why it didn’t include the Ottomans or Japanese, and how it was fundamentally tied to the unifying European ideas of Christianity and Latin grammar. Drawing a rough outline around Charlemagne’s empire you find a rough correlation with the list of national origins that have at some points informed the idea of “whiteness.”

Or do you? Maybe instead what you’ve done is uncover a backwards-construction by a particular previous generation, built to justify their current exigencies and political alliances and social distinctions. It might all make sense backwards as a supporting idea for power relations in, say the US in 1930, but it would probably make a lot less sense for people in Europe during, say, the 18th century. Because if there was a unified European effort to subjugate Africans (and one can find plenty of evidence to support it) it was somewhat overshadowed, for Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries, by incessant wars between European nation states and Christian sects bent on destroying each other and stamping out each other’s ideas. From about 1560 to about 1620, Christian (Catholic) Spain repeatedly attempted to exterminate the Christian (Protestant/Reformed) Netherlands, while writers in the Netherlands literally labeled Spain “the Antichrist, enemy of all mankind, the Devil incarnate.” The Portuguese king Manuel I reportedly sent sailors to southern Africa looking for a mythical Catholic king with which to fight the Muslim Ottomans, while the Catholic French king Francis I allied with the Ottomans and sheltered their fleets in his harbors in order to fight against various Catholic Italian states. In this context, the enslaving of Africans looks more like an economic technology, deployed by multiple warring states in their struggles for survival against each other. We can counter-argue that there are degrees of difference – that Europeans, even if they would fight among themselves, would trade African slaves to their nominal enemies. That they would unify against Africans as they did in Haiti in the 1790s. But to do that, we have to read selectively and ignore countering voices – by which I don’t just mean the long history of abolitionists but also the enthusiastic slavers who just hated their next door neighbors more than anyone else in the world. Maybe what we’re doing, by reading these histories forwards, is smoothing over the differences between them and privileging some previous interested parties, who worked to make their own situation look natural and explicable.

(…to be clear, I am not seeking to jam an oar into histories of racism, or colonialism, or imperialism. I am absolutely not seeking to justify or support any particular political position here, nor to excuse, nor to cast doubts on the present claims of any people regarding the proper respect with which they should be treated. Racism sucks, we should try to live up to the words and not the actions or lifeways of universalist Enlightenment theorists. Let us be equal and thoughtful and respectful to one another. And right there, that’s how it’s impossible to separate the construction of history from its political uses in the present.)

And maybe the project of trying to delaminate the previous generations of history-construction is itself misguided, because those previous laminae were determinedly fused together by their creators for their own purposes: one misreads them by trying to separate them from their genealogies. And how would you know when you’d done it? When you’ve isolated the innovations of particular historians at particular times? After all, they might just be picking up ideas that had been floating around for centuries, but nobody thought it was necessary to record them.

tl:dr: when Michel Foucault writes about the “genealogy of knowledge” he really is thinking of ideas loosely arranged in family trees – that is, not the same idea with the same meaning reproduced from generation to generation, but rather separate generations of ideas that identify themselves as part of a tradition, whether we would agree with their identification or not, and that maybe emphasize some of their ancestors more than others.

tl:dr tldr: history is a slippery form of fiction writing, constructed always to support some philosophical position. Even if you try to make it something else, some reliable documentary guide to human thought, it’s actually impossible to write that because you’re predisposed to notice the patterns you know.

  1. Skerples
    July 26, 2020 at 12:14 am

    Excellent article.

    I will add that most historians can’t help but project their stories forward in time too, intentionally or not. “The situation faced by [past entity] is similar to the one faced by [present entity].” A little flag on the spire of the cathedral.

    And since all sufficiently vague predictions will eventually come true, historians tend to look wiser and more credible in retrospect if they put in a few predictions.

  2. Wiwaxia
    September 12, 2020 at 6:21 pm

    Your comparison of history to science is interesting as a student of a historical science (geology) . Not all sciences have the luxury of testable or repeatable phenomena! The geological mantra is “the present is the key to the past; the past is the key to the future” (the original quote is from the great uniformitarian Charles Lyell, I don’t know who first coined the corollary) which sounds very similar to what you and Skerples are saying. On the other hand, I imagine that the relationship geologists have to the work of previous generations of geologists is closer to that of experimental scientists than that of historians.

    The other insight from geology that seems relevant to human history is that the past didn’t go anywhere. You are standing on it in the most literal possible sense; the past is all that is keeping you from falling into the mantle (which is, itself, the past). Geological terminology repeatedly and deliberately conflates the physical rock record with past time. (For my favorite example, the terminology of the geologic timescale: the Jurassic period is the span of time during which the rocks of the Jurassic system were laid down — note that the span of time is defined by the span of rock, not the other way around! — and we say “I am working in the Jurassic of Utah”, present tense.)

    The political “use” of history in the present seems similar to me, at least as a non-historian. Not only are people using their present political circumstances and needs to understand the past/constructing works of history to serve those circumstances and needs, that past is still *here* in very literal, tangible ways (the human geographies created by colonialism most obviously, but I think more subtly too).

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