History Is What's Happening
(one of the greatest musical recordings of all time)
No matter when or where you're reading this, even if it's ten thousand years after I wrote it, or more:
The most important history to study and understand is the history that's happening right now. Whatever's happening right now, when you're reading this, in your world, in your galaxy. Call that Group A.
But you can't really understand the history of Group A, unless you understand its context. The next most important history to understand is the history that you need to understand in order to understand Group A. Call that Group B. Quite likely, this is the history that happened immediately before Group A, but not necessarily. It's quite possible that you're living at a time when laws that are hundreds of years old are still in effect, when governments that are hundreds of years old still exist. Or other social forms, social customs, social hierarchies that are centuries old may still exist.
And you can't really understand the history of Group B, unless you understand its context. The history that you need to understand in order to understand Group B, we can call Group C. And so on. Indefinitely.
Frederic Jameson's imperative: "Always historicize." Yes, but with one caveat. While it is imperative to understand history, we must at the same time acknowledge that the understanding of history centers on the present. History has become reified when it is no longer a history of the present. Now there is a new present, which means there must be a new history, centered on this present. And already, that present is over, and we must recreate history anew. What mattered before for understanding the previous center of our historical map may no longer matter. Events that were crucial to remember before may now be safely forgotten, or at least put aside. They have lost their importance. On the other hand, this new present may make other events, long forgotten, suddenly relevant again.
Karl Marx was writing a history of his present, a history of the class conflicts and labor struggles that were raging in the nineteenth century, for which he had to activate, for the sake of context, the French Revolution and its aftermath, the Glorious Revolution of the 17th century, categories developed by ancient Greeks and Romans, the entire development of theories of surplus value, Shakespeare, Balzac, Dante, the Bible, and so on. (He even gave the formula for this: "self-clarification (critical philosophy) to be gained by the present time of its struggles and desires.") For you to create a history centered in your present will require the activation of other historical events, processes, forces, and so on.
And what about the other half of that history, the history that is centered around your present - the history of the future? Isn't this, too, is a necessary context for you to understand your present? Context you lack, however fortunately or unfortunately. People living after you will have this necessary context, but by then it may no longer be relevant in the same way for their present. And so history is doomed to be incomplete, our understanding of our present skewed and biased by our ignorance of the future that gives it meaning.
Must it always be this way? I began this essay with the implication that it would always be true, even if people were reading 10,000 years from when I write. But maybe I'm wrong. Will there come a time when history is not what's happening? I think of James Joyce's line, that "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Will we ever wake up?
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