Revenge of the Barbarians.
It is of great use if History is not written by historians, but anthropologists. If not anthropologists entirely, the service of a few will definitely make the endeavour more productive and the end product acceptable to the wider public.
Of course, it would be a great mistake to compartmentalise learned men and women into these express categories of historians and anthropologists. In hindsight, my own predisposition in favour of anthropology might be behind this thought. Still, considering the maladies that plague our society just because of historical illiteracy is making me put forward this suggestion.
History is presented as a boring distraction (albeit a compulsory one) since high school. Even while teaching the subject, the student is left at dark on the need to master it. Understanding history and reading human cues is an essential social capital, if you are to succeed in this chaotic world. While the elites understand this clearly, other classes ignore this vital link that completes one’s education. Truly, it is high time that we update the pedagogy of the oppressed. Serious challenge to the social order will come only from those who are exploited by it. But if they are deprived of this privilege, they won’t even register the mysterious ways of insidious exploitation.
Further, if you don’t know how humanity reached its current position, how to do you propose to take it forward?
The argument that the rules of the past doesn’t apply anymore is farcical. The rules might have indeed changed, but the set of conditions that lead to the evolution of these rules doesn’t change. How a king acted at one point of time may be unreadable with respect to today’s values. But the psychological aspects, power dynamics, his space for maneuver and other constraints etc are readable and a materialistic as well as non-materialistic interpretation is possible.
Please note that this isn’t a critic of historical method or an insult to the rigour that define the work of historians. Also in no manner that I consider anthropological thought superior to history. My stance here is a bit more nuanced. I believe that the popular appeal to history has suffered due to the loss of humane expression in popular history. This becomes even more important in today’s world, where social media has replaced books and formal education as the source of historical understanding.
In most parts of the world, a constructed history is replacing conventional history in popular memory. As people use social media at the privacy of their own self, they are continuously fed capsule sized bits of an historical imagination. They sit as sinks of this never ending stream of information, metamorphosing into foot soldiers of many a dangerous ideologies.
Particularly striking is the return of a set of ideas that the world buried for good long ago. The world espoused liberalism post second world war not out of a new found love towards it, but under the insistence of a hegemonic power. That the US believed in the power of liberal democracy as a bulwark against “regressive” nationalisms is no accident. At the core of this belief was not utilitarianism, but the protection of their own national interest. The “liberal” world order was built around “free trade”, an innovation instituted and pioneered by the British. This “free trade” as preached by the British across the globe in defence of their empire would latter transcend space-time to reach us as the foundational value of the latest wave of globalisation.
I use the term “latest wave of globalisation” because we are currently witnessing a push towards de-globalisation. This is no accident. This serve as an illustration to my own understanding of history. That history is not a stagnant backwater, but a somewhat rigorous brook. It may have bouts of effervescent interest, but also stretches of uninteresting platitudes as well. History takes shape as a response to the current popular interest. Granted, written history and the work of historians is somewhat objective. But this constitutes only one segment of the larger body that is history. Only a short sighted historian would refute this claim.
For example, while looking at the past, we get to see only “visions” of historical subset. The materials remains that we stumble upon are mostly written/created by a dominant section of society. Even in terms of capital (better tools, resources etc) required to preserve their legacy is not available to everyone. Most historians agree to this. But what they lack is extending this logic to the times to come. If we could understand this abstraction, nature of history becomes clearer to us.
Say, all the books of today is lost tomorrow. History survives though the umpteen digital archives that is distributed across the globe. But an average individual is more likely to read the bits of historical references that appear in his social media feed. His worldview is formed around this. Suppose the filter bubble he forms part of is built around an ideology that actively promotes animosity towards a particular section of people. Now, when he interacts with the society, this prejudice is expressed. This ideology serves as a magnet around which a set of people coalesce to get an agenda executed. As they stay more and more vocal in their social circles, these views slowly gain currency.
That these circles will expand based on the social requirements of the time is a well demonstrated fact. Success of an ideology arise out of the economic or materialistic condition of the time. The notion that state patronage could promote an ideology is farcical. What happens is that an ideology that is beneficial to the state or ruling class shall win state patronage and undergo accelerated expansion. We cannot normatively determine the merits of these ideologies. The material benefits that accrue plays a significant part. But the non-material aspects like self actualisation potential, spiritual quotient etc will indeed contribute to the long term sustainability of this ideological project. Elaboration of this concept shall be done in another article.
Slowly, this ideology comes to power. Or rather, the elites are constituted by people who swear allegiance to this ideology. They modify past history to enhance their legitimacy. Then, they erase present symbols that invalidate their ideological stance. If not express invalidation, a challenge to their ideas will suffice. Demolition of mosques/temples by new rulers is a recurring theme in history. This example cited here shows that history keep getting modified according to the conditions of the present. It is commonsensical that different versions of history exist in the society. But their potential to influence present and future differs. It is directly dependant on the amount of social and economic capital held by its subscribers. My submission is that historians shouldn’t ignore this crucial aspect while writing history.
This is not a call to sacrifice objectivity. My roots in empirical science forbid me from even suggesting it. I would rather stand with objectivity and “cold” scientific method. But is it possible to effectuate such historical writing without slipping into the orbit of what is called “positive propaganda”? (a rubbish term, for all communication from the state is propaganda subject to information content and relevance).
These series of articles are an attempt to solve this paradox and create a framework for learning and teaching history. Many people have attempted putting some of these ideas into practice with varied amount of success. I will document some and present my ideas here. Keep updated.