New Historical Temporalities
The old axiom about history goes something like this: history, or more precisely the discipline of history traces change over time, tracking the key indicators of that change and inferring something about a given society from the data. It used to be that the historian charted history as progression, to demonstrate the old evils of the past and their steady transformations. This ideal of progressive history started to crumble in the 60’s with the rise of cultural and social histories as the primary modes of critique, unburdening the historian from his (unfortunately most likely his) elitist vantage and locating the impetuses of change at the bottom as well as at the top. What could also be termed the egalitarian turn of the 60s carries into today in which a kind of postmodern supposed self-awareness reminds us of the bad old way of doing history and instead clamors for a scholarship that assails the progressive narratives of the past. Their day of reckoning has finally come, tear down the walls of discipline, nation, and identity and thou shalt be liberated. And yet. It persists. Are we truly unmoored from the linearity of antiquated historical analysis? Or is it simply a self-assuring ruse made to reaffirm the continued radicality of the academe in an age of corporate take over in the university system? Beyond the politics of neoliberalism and its intersections with higher education, I believe there is a more fundamental problem plaguing the discipline of history, a more noxious, cantankerous ailment that we supposedly cured years ago. The progressive narrative of history has not disappeared, in fact it has grown stronger in its subtlety. We now take for granted the ridiculousness of a progression toward inevitable world peace, gender equality, economic stability, etc. and yet the latent beast still rears its ugly head unendingly. This is not invisible. There is no conspiracy on the part of the JAH or OAH or any governing body of historical inquiry. Yet, it is so normalized as to evade question or concern.
One could then pose the question about discipline, is this a problem relegated to history? Is english, or American Studies, or political science hopelessly foundering in the muck as we are? To an extent the answer seems to be yes. For while the transformations of the 1960’s undermined the loci of analysis for historians as well as some of their theoretical bases, it held in place and even concretized the idea of history as a critical analysis of the past and solely of the past and even more as an analysis of the past necessarily some distinct and distant amount of time removed from the event. As if to be too close to the event (in whatever way really, temporally, racially, etc.) was to undermine one’s credibility in understanding. Yes, here i refer to the heinous head of objectivity that we supposedly assailed years ago. Our post-structuralist kinsmen and kinswomen instructed us to herald the ways of subjectivity! And we listened. Or at least those of us who could bother with theory did. But it was not enough, and the perils of proximity remained. Sure some of the old maxims fell by the wayside, inverting themselves even (while past histories sought kinship with the participant observer, today it seems that one can only do the work of “their” group, i.e., women must study gender, gays and lesbians must undertake queer theory, etc., so that we have come to a point where it becomes obvious what one “does” by their socio-cultural background, in and of itself a frightening reification of stable identity). Yet, time (ironically) remained a constant. If one wishes to publish a work of history or engage in historical analysis it must be located (importance of location!) in the past, some 20 years or so. If one wishes to do “contemporary” scholarship that is the work of some other discipline (in an era of interdisciplinarity! And at a time when these specialized disciplines are falling by the wayside in record numbers!)
So what is my problem with this system of scholarship, then? Besides the obviously problematic of factionalizing scholarship (gender studies, african american studies, etc) It also degrades the quality of analysis being put forth. To be blunt for clarity’s sake, History is not linear. History is not progressive. History does not solely reside in the past. History is impacted by its own ideas of the past, present and future.
Here then, is the crux of my plea. While the discipline of history still yearns for a paper-thin dimentionality I seek a history of multiple axes, not only of identity (a problematic I will delve into later), but of temporality. Those historical actors of the past we are so keen to interrogate, to get at “what life was really like for X, in insert year, in insert location” do not dwell only in that time or place, nor is our conception of them stable today. History must become (as it always already is) an assemblage of numerable pasts, presents, and futures, a sea-change that undermines the very ideological basis of the discipline itself.