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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

History and Commitment: A Miniature Manifesto


[I went to the International Congress on Medieval studies at the University of Western Michigan, Kalamazoo ('The 'Zoo' to its afficionados) last week where I participated in a session entitled  Burn After Reading: Miniature Manifestos for a Post/medieval Studies (A Roundtable).  You can read the full line-up here and another of the Manifestos (the other history one) here.  Here is perhaps the most inspiring of all.  Below is my own effort.  Thanks to Eileen Joy for inviting me to take part in a very interesting and enthusing session.]

                       Item: Rankean History is dead.  
No one will pretend it is possible to tell history as it really was
But no one has seized the implication of that
Its empirical ghost remains, although simple factual accuracy sets the bar pretty low for a historical project
Is the cry ‘Rankean History is dead: long live Rankean history’?
Or is it time to explore again the pre-Rankean idea of history as philosophy teaching by example?

Item: History is not ‘relevant’
History does not tell us ‘how we got here’
History’s value lies in:
                                             i.            not believing what you’re told;
                                           ii.            understanding that the world didn’t – and doesn’t – have to be like this: there are other ways of doing things
                                          iii.            Ethical and political stances are implicit in both; to which we must be committed
History has no monopoly on these; what sets it apart from other arts, humanities and social sciences might uncontroversially be said to be its focus upon concrete situations and completed actions
And yet it is there that lies the aporia we must explore
      Fuck reality; fuck endings

Item: Historical narrative is a series of temporal spaces defined after the event, enfolded, closed up, by the process of narration – of completion – of concretion
These spaces are the un- or pre-symbolised pre-historicised temporal Real
History must open up these spaces, not just to look at the causation of the event that marks its closure
History must open them to a more attentive - yet critical - listening, which is a listening to our writing of the past as well as to the voices of the past 
Such listening avoids subordination to the usual demands of historical narrative
It escapes the inevitability - the contingent necessity in Zizek's words - of history; where every letter really does arrive at its destination
In these spaces everything was still to play for
because people frequently didn’t know what they were playing for – they were usually doing something else
         History is what happens while you're making other plans
These are the spaces of the radically undecided
Here, the aims of the actors do not necessarily decide the outcome,
Here, things no longer possible remain possible
These are zones of pure chance and encounter

Item: Opening up these spaces makes us rethink historical narrative
                              This makes the historical narrative inescapably ironic
                             It is not the ‘what if’ history beloved of the Right, where a different throw of the dicedoes abolish chance
                              It understands what happened by exploring what didn’t


We furnish a better guide to ethical and politically committed action in the present by restoring to the past its once possible impossibilities

4 comments:

  1. Man oh man: that is the sort of bracing tonic we need for the times in which we live. I'm especially fond of "fuck reality; fuck endings."

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  2. Ha. That was a last minute addition developing the 'fuck happy endings' from the previous session!

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  3. This reminds me of Benjamin's "Theses on History" - are you familiar? Basically the idea that history is sort of one continuously-present and unending event; there's an interpretation that puts it onto a blank linear progressive scale, and that interpretation is one that serves whatever power is dominant. Benjamin's version of historical materialism is about opening up that time, making lost time present, as both better inquiry and emancipatory project.

    Here's a link to the Benjamin. It's really an amazing piece in my opinion that's been influencing my thinking about history a lot lately: http://marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm

    I liked your manifesto.

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  4. The more I think about it, Benjamin is really really really apropos to much of your thinking on history as unfinished, radically undecided, etc.

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