U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Is Called History at the End of Modernity? (Part II)

[Note to readers: this is the second in a four-part series of guest posts by James Livingston. You can read the first installment here.]

What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?

by James Livingston


In view of this unsettling conclusion—unsettling, at least, to me—I can now ask three more practical questions about the study of History as we know it. First, what is the point? Second, what makes us think there’s a difference between the past as such and interpretations of the past? Third, if there is no difference, how do we adjudicate between rival interpretations of past events—how do we decide that one is better than the others?

What is the point? Is there a usable past, a question that already presupposes that the past as such is unknowable, and so must be subdivided according to our present purposes? I used to think so. I ‘m not so sure anymore. The cultural function of the modern historian, I used to say, is to teach his or her fellow citizens how to learn from people who differed from us due to historical circumstances, which include the range of plausible ideological or intellectual commitments. We “go back” to the past in the hope of equipping ourselves with the experience, and perhaps the wisdom, of those who have come before us. We “come back” to the present with a wider range of choices, accordingly, because now we know not what to think but how to think differently, by adopting assumptions about the human condition from the past that our fellow citizens probably cannot share.

I’ll set aside my doubts about a usable past for a moment. We don’t study history if we’re not interested in the impending future, that is, if we don’t think our choices in the present will shape it. Instead, we’ll get old-time religion—the kind that comes before the Reformation, the kind that comes in the form of resignation and retreat from the profane world—or we’ll indulge in conspiracy theory; both of these attitudes toward history typically relocate agency from the realm of the possible, which is the region of the political, to the prerogative of the supernatural or, what is the same thing, the unidentifiable “powers that be,” who are god-like in their omniscience.

Insofar, on the other hand, as we get interested in the impending future as a political issue subject to our choices, we’ll acquire a stake in identifying the problems and deciphering the possibilities of the present. If we see real possibilities for progress in our present circumstances, we’ll get even more interested in that impending future—more optimistic about solving those problems. But the only way to see the possibilities and to identify the problems of the present is to study the past.

In other words, we study the past so that we can shape the future. Our hopes for the future, and our fears about it—our political assessment of the present—will determine our approach to the past. And vice versa. Having political commitments in the present requires us to do history. Notice that, as a result, our study of history prepares us not for “the” future, but a future.

It follows that conflict about the meanings of the past is normal and necessary in the conduct of modern historical research and writing—different interpretations are built into this intellectual edifice. Why would anyone bother to reconstruct it if there weren’t a moral to the story being told, a lesson to be applied, to be enacted, in the present? Which is to say, why would anyone construct a story out of meaningless sequence—for that is what real events feel like—if the moral was not in doubt before the telling of the story?

But, as Hayden White has asked, if real events don’t possess the formal attributes of stories—they don’t, and they can’t—what can the past as such mean to us, except one damn thing after another? Press on that notion a little harder, and the question becomes, what is an event? Something for which adequate documentation exists? OK, if that’s the case, if what we can treat as historical reality (real events) is determined by documentation, what do we say when we realize that documentation itself has a history? Then isn’t it permissible, nay more, isn’t it necessary, to say that historical reality is itself subject to change? Wasn’t Friedrich Nietzsche right to claim that the world is a fable, and every historical truth just another interpretation?

So our question now becomes, can there be an order of events in the absence of an order of ideas? Hans Robert Jauss, one of the founding fathers of the “new literary history” in the 1970s, thought so. Here’s what he proposed in the inaugural issue of the journal devoted to what came to be known as reception theory (whereby readers’ assumptions became as important as authorial intention): “In contrast to a political event, a literary event has no lasting results which succeeding generations cannot avoid. It can continue to have an effect only if future generations still respond to it or rediscover it.”

A real event, by this accounting, has lasting, unavoidable effects without any documentation or subsequent inscription, while a literary event has no effects absent its reception, restatement, recuperation, in writing. The order of events—is it the past as such?—continues to unfold, and continues to determine the present, without intellectual intervention, without an accompanying order of ideas to make sense of it. In sum: Of course our interpretations of the past change, but the past as such does not.

Consider now William James’s proleptic retort to this metaphysical realism (he said it in 1906, long before Jauss thought to write, pragmatically, about events and ideas). “Day follows day, and its contents are simply added. They are not themselves true, they simply come and are. The truth is what we say about them.”

Experience follows experience in what seems a random sequence, in the life you live in your own way, as you move from hour to hour, then day to day, and so on unto years of what you know are meaningless episodes, but all the while you know that your self is somehow intact, that you can, if necessary, construct continuity and significance from these raw materials. Why do you think that? How?

Do you say to yourself, well, my interpretation of the past—my past—has changed, but the past as such hasn’t changed? Probably not, because all you know of your past is what you can tell yourself about it, which is what you can do about it. In that sense, you say, following Sigmund Freud, that the story you tell in retrospect about what you know of your past—the story that is always already false because you couldn’t have remembered it, anyway—is all you have to go on.

This condition is what I call history at the end of modernity. We say, our interpretations of the past change, but the past as such does not. How would we know the difference? How would we know anything about the past—or any reality worth our attention—in the absence of our verbal and visual representations of it?

E.H. Carr famously compared the past to a mountain that doesn’t change its shape regardless of how many different and yet equally factual accounts would be produced by different perspectives on it. But is the distinction so obvious? Has the past itself not changed because the documents have, and with them the moments we can plausibly name events? When W.E.B. Du Bois cited the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and then again in Black Reconstruction (1935), to claim that the crucial event in the end of slavery was the seizure of freedom by the slaves themselves, before, during, and after the Civil War, did it matter to historians? To the larger American population? Did what Du Bois called the General Strike—when a half million slaves fled the plantations for the Union Army lines—become an event?

No, it didn’t. But then it did. The civil rights movement changed the past, which is to say it changed what we could tell ourselves about it, what we could do about it, how we could respond to it. When the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional, it was ruling in favor of Du Bois, and of an ingenious new history of segregation devised by a renegade Southerner, Comer Vann Woodward, whose great book of 1951, Origins of the New South, demolished the notion that White Reconstruction was a success.

Nietzsche and James were right, the world is a fable. But what follows from that? That any interpretation is admissible—anything goes, that’s just your opinion, but if my opinion upsets you, let’s not talk about it? There’s no right and wrong here, no better or worse, just difference?

Assume for a moment, with Nietzsche and James (and Carr), that there is no body of fact independent of our representations of it, absent our models or methods, because prior to these representations, we couldn’t know what the facts are. Assume, in short, that there are no facts without values and their corresponding purposes. Does incommensurability necessarily follow, because my facts and yours can’t be the same—because we must argue past each other, as if we inhabit parallel universes? Quite possibly. Certainly that is the state of our political discourse. But there is a way beyond incommensurability, or “relativism” as it is named and condemned by everyone over the age of, say, 40. It goes like this.

I can’t prove that my account of the same historical event is better than yours by appealing to the facts my model produces. You have your own facts, produced by your model. No, I can prove my account is better only if it contains and completes yours, because I have been able to show how your account raises questions it cannot answer on its own terms, and why my account can do so.

But this is painstaking work. It means you can’t reject or dismiss arguments about or from the past, it means you can’t just walk away from fundamental disagreement with those whose ideas seem inane, insidious, or just outdated. You have to explain their ideas as historical artifacts—why they once made sense, but also when and how they stopped making sense. Otherwise you have implicitly claimed that rival accounts can be safely ignored; which is to say that you have accepted “relativism,” mere opinion, as the state of the historical art.

“These ideas as historical artifacts”? To establish commensurability with the past—to make political discourse in the present something more than a question of who controls the organs and outlets of opinion—you have to be responsible to it, and for it, precisely because you know that “the truth is what we say about it.” You have to situate these past ideas with all the care you would bring to the reading of a poem, more even, because a poem, no matter how long or bad, is always more verbally disciplined and compact than, say, a pamphlet or a treatise or a speech or a monograph.   You have to begin with the assumption that we have little or nothing in common with people from the past—or with our fellow historians—and then propose a way to translate their concerns into yours, and ours.

But isn’t that to assume that the cultural function of the modern historian is to teach his or her fellow citizens how to learn from people with whom they differ due to historical circumstances—which circumstances, again, include the range of plausible ideological or intellectual commitments then and now available? Isn’t that to begin by acknowledging our differences rather than to proceed as if the past and the present are the same? Isn’t this also to assert that the difference between the present and the future will be determined by social movements of the people, not kings and warriors, nor gods and demons?

These were statements when I started this lecture. I have now used the very same words to pose rhetorical questions. Why? Or, in keeping with the topic at hand, what happened?

[Next: Part III]

14 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Reading this series by Livingston is one of the most exciting intellectual experiences currently on the internet. Many thanks.

  2. Fascinating, it is always good to return to Nietzsche, White, and company to rethink the conventions of historical discourse. One thing it’s always important to remember about Nietzsche is that he wasn’t an absolute relativist: on the contrary, his works are full of historically based, prescriptive observations founded on his idyosincratic wager on human perfectionism.

    One thing I do wonder about this post is the use of the word modernity, and why the allusion to the end of modernity. What would happen to this model if we bring deep history into the mix? For example, in One Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity, the musicologist Gary Tomlinson is positing a coalescence/continuity based history instead of a revolution-based history) of the human as a cultural animal, focusing on the evolution of musicking capacities and beaviors, going back 80K, 100K years, and even beyond. I found his radical reframing of modernity–as the emergence of a set of hierarchized social practices, language, musicking, and abstract cognition (“thinking at a distance”) that connect to the present as a “generation of limitless difference”–as quite liberating, as a way out of the endless bickering that comes out of establishing the modern as the rise of x, y, and z, as as secular or not, language-centric or not, Eurocentric or not, etc. etc. Tomlinson’s argument connects with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s theory of the anthropocene, how, as he says, “Anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history.” I find myself grappling with the implications of theories based on the anthropocene for my work and for my understanding of the ideas and ideals of human history and modernity. If anything, they seem to subvert many of these conceptions–which are after all romantic conceptions, linked inevitably to romantic historicism.


  3. Excellent work. I agree. The commensurability we seek is a by product of our engagement. In other words, views are made commensurable by the act of engaging them. Therefore, we do not need commensurability to engage, but we need to engage to be commensurable. This reflects an important basis in historical thinking- understanding arises from engagement and placing subjects in context. This also means placing ourselves in context. It is thinking historically about the past and the present, the present and other views in the present, and the connections that bring them together.

  4. Thanks for these comments. I’d like to think I agree with Mitch, Kahlil, and Wes, but to say that is self-serving. Certainly engagement is the condition of commensurability! And certainly modernity is, and ought to be, a contested category. The cultural continuities in human experience traced by “deep history” are not in doubt (although the tonal-harmonic music that gets codified in the 17th and 18th centuries represents a break with the past). Still, it’s very late in the record of that experience when crisis becomes the norm and change is no longer assumed to be deviation from the ways things are supposed to be. When that attitude toward the difference between past and present becomes commonplace, when “revolution” no longer means revolving, the modern world has arrived. I don’t mean that “progress” and revolution are the insignia of modernity, only that before the late-18th century almost no one could take them for granted; within a century, almost everyone could. That is what’s modern about us.

    • Thanks for elaborating, James. On the one hand, the 19th century literature scholar in me wants to agree with your definition. On the other hand, thinking beyond the case of Gary Tomlinson, the work of scholars like Bruno Latour and Manuel de Landa has shown us to at least question the conventions that drive us to define the modern in the way you do here. I ask myself, utilizing the very ideas in your post about the arbitrariness and constructedness of the event, wouldn’t we be able to problematize how we construct the notion of “crisis” and, perhaps more importantly, the romantic wager on a “self-consciousness” of such “crisis”?

      By the way, I am sure Tomlinson would agree with you regarding tonal-harmonic music as a break, but he would also say that the continuities are broader, more expansive. Part of the beauty of deep history is that it illuminates how dozens of thousands of years ago the elements of what we deem now as “culture”–again, another romantic concepto–were very much in place.

  5. Hmm. I don’t think events are quite random, nor do I think our choices about whether or how to narrate what we call the past are arbitrary. Events aren’t random because each choice made now determines what might be done or thought later. Our choices about the usable past can’t be arbitrary, because we have canons, traditions, conventions, etc., to observe and to subvert (either way, it’s not arbitrary). And of course human beings have always had culture. That doesn’t change the fact of cultural change, or the imperative of periodization that finally accompanies recognition of that fact. This imperative, I’m suggesting, is a specifically modern phenomenon–not something anybody would want or need to take seriously until, say, the 17th century, as a narrative urge that excludes God from the action.

    • Thanks again for your response. Yes, without a question, events, historical transformation, etc. are not wholly arbitrary, that’s not what I was suggesting, perhaps I wasn’t completely clear. But there is a degree of arbitrariness, levels of randomness in how we imagine these notions, particularly in connection to logics of causality, and how they then become conventions that we take as granted: which “facts” and “events” we privilege as elements of periodization, which ones are silenced or made invisible, in shaping our particular “fables” of the world. How we shape these fables and periodize them is connected to not only to our epistemological and ideological orientations–and the community of discourse that is articulated through them– but also to deep seated affects and sensations in how we envision the past and our relationship to it, of continuity and/or difference. It is interesting to me that what is being privileged in your comment as the bearer of modernity is the imperative to periodicize, but maybe that shouldn’t be surprising coming from a historian. It’s an argument that reminds a lot of Koselleck’s theorization on the emergence of crisis, critique, and revolution, and James Chandler’s work on romantic historicism in England in 1819, one of my favorite books on romanticism. Now, what I am really curious about is the use of “end” and what it signals us towards.

  6. Jim, do you not confuse matters here by lending a double meaning to the term “the past”—using it, at times, when “history” is the apt term? Assume (as I think both you and I do) that the study of the past is the study of events that occur before the present moment. These events—”the past” properly understood–are brute realities. We study, know about, these events only by way of the traces they have left us. The outcome of such study is (fallible) knowledge of the past, history. At times here, you treat “the past” (brute reality) and “history” (knowledge about that reality) as if they are synonymous, but clarity requires that we distinguish them. All that we know of the past is history, but not all of the past as yet is or even can be history (that is, known). There are events in the past, we may reasonably assume, that have left no traces, and hence cannot serve history. Some events leave “documentation,” but not all. Those that do are subject to history (and historians). Those that don’t aren’t—but they are no less real for that.

    Can we know the truth of the proposition I am asserting here—that the past exists independently of our knowledge of it, that the past and history can be differentiated? Not with certainty (knowledge is not certain). That the past does so independently exist is rather an indispensable assumption of historical inquiry. The past is that which we endeavor to know something about, however feebly; assuming that it exists independently of our inquiry is what gets our inquiry off the ground. This is an assumption that we have no good reason to doubt, and, until such genuine doubt arises, we should not doubt it. Moreover, the successes of inquiry that proceed on this assumption enhance our confidence that it is true. Skeptics work up what C.S. Peirce called “pretend doubt” (about the reality of the past, among other things), but the rest of us can safely ignore it.

    The past does not change (Carr was correct), but our knowledge of it—history as warranted assertions about the past–does change. The civil rights movement did not change the past; it changed history. Because we often sloppily use the terms “the past” and “history” interchangeably, we may doubt the steadfastness of the past or (less often these days) the inevitable mutability of history. Past events do exist independent of our representations of them, but we know about such events only by way of such representations and the sense they help us make of the traces that the past has left in its wake. Because the inferences to be drawn from these (often ambiguous) traces are, more often than not, subject to dispute, here is where we historians fall out and the fun begins. What we share are the traces, the evidence (in this sense, my facts are your facts). We differ, insofar as we do, in the inferences we draw from them.

  7. Thanks, Robb, for this thoughtful response. When you write, “Past events do exist independent of our representations of them, but we know about such events only by way of such representations and the sense they help us make of the traces that the past has left in its wake,” I think we’re close to agreement. Yes, all we know about the past is what we’ve said and done about it.

    But then I realize that we mean very different things when we use the word “event.” From your standpoint, events are whatever has occurred “before the present moment.” From my standpoint, not all occurrences are events, because some are significant and some are not, and their significance is a function of remembrance, a product of retrospection. You say, “These events—‘the past’ properly understood—are brute realities.” I say, there are no such realities, except in the vast, non-narrative wastes of annals and chronicles: past events as they appear in modern historical consciousness and writing are artificial creations of the present. That’s why, and how, we distinguish between a “usable past” and the past as such.

    When you assert “the truth of the proposition . . . that the past exists independently of our knowledge of it,” and go further to say that turning this once-hesitant truth into an indispensable assumption “gets our [historical] inquiry off the ground,” I have to wonder what’s at stake, philosophically and methodologically. Do you mean to claim that we weren’t there, in the past, alongside the figures we write about, and so must treat their times as objects of curiosity, then knowledge, that are necessarily separated from us?

    I can grant you that claim, no problem. It actually amplifies my argument with respect to the acknowledgment of difference between past and present as the animating principle of modern historical consciousness. But it’s clear that you’re trying to reinstate the distinction I have here moved to adjourn, between the past as such and interpretations of the past—between “the past” and “history,” as you put it. Why? Again, what’s at stake?

    A body of historical fact independent of our representations of it? What would that look like? Who would not be bored by it?

    I’ll draw on our own disagreements to illustrate the point of these questions. William James and John Dewey were pragmatists. That’s all you and I agree on when it comes to this crucial moment of American intellectual history: my facts are not your facts. Indeed, you have suggested that my claims about these figures are unwarranted assertions, that is, uncorroborated by the historical evidence—by the available documentation. The events that I think are crucial in the careers of these pragmatists, by which I mean their intellectual innovations, don’t appear in your accounts of the very same careers. And vice versa.

    What follows from this standoff? I don’t think you’ll want to insist that your facts are better or more voluminous than mine. E. H. Carr warned us off that gambit long ago, in the great book we both cite. We both know that the past we call pragmatism isn’t independent of our knowledge of it—our arguments about it—and can’t be, just as the past we call Marxism, or feminism, or liberalism isn’t, and can’t be. Our interpretations constitute each as an object of knowledge.

    What, then? I’m reminded by this exchange of how much my way of thinking about history owes to psychoanalysis, particularly the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. “The finding of an object is in fact a re-finding of it,” Freud says in the third essay. Just so with respect to that elusive, in fact unobtainable, object we designate the past and mark off from our stories of how we found it. The purpose of modern historical consciousness as I have described it here is not the disclosure of the past as such, but the discovery of ourselves in the present and as participants in the future. So conceived, the past as such is what we know we have lost, and what you think we can restore with enough time, enough documents, enough energy. But this lost object is not what we will “rediscover” in the archive: it can’t be, because it never existed to begin with, except as what you call a trace.

    There’s more to say. But this is enough of a beginning.

    • You are correct, Jim, in saying that I used the term “event” to mean any past occurrence. I understood you to mean the same. But if you confine “event” to past occurrences deemed by those in the present to be “significant,” then you mean something a good deal more selective than I took you to mean by the term and that I meant by it. If one deems a past event to be significant then one is engaging in a very important act of history-making/historical consciousness: deciding which past occurrences are worth representing and interpreting and which are not. So if “events” are those past occurrences to which we in the present lend significance, then I fully agree that “past events as they appear in modern historical consciousness and writing are artificial creations of the present.” I would only add (as perhaps you would not) that what we deem significant past events existed independently of such an appearance, and as such constrain the “artificial creations” (such as truth claims) that venture to explain or interpret them.

      In suggesting that you should not want to confuse the “past” and “history,” I was trying to rescue you from an indefensible idealism that I did not think you wished to entertain. That is, the view that there is no reality independent of our knowledge of it, that human beings not only construct their knowledge of the world but entirely construct that world itself. This is what is at stake philosophically in my distinction between the past and history. At stake methodologically, is a concern for the pressures and constraints that the past (as a now unobservable brute reality that leaves behind evidence of its occurrence) exerts on history (that is, our representing, interpreting of the past). Unlike laboratory scientists who can replicate the events (in my sense) they study, we have to rely (like other historical sciences such as geology or paleontology) solely on the traces left behind by our events, which we cannot reproduce. Those traces, our evidence, are seldom such that they strictly determine the inferences we draw about past events but they do limit the plausible inferences we may draw.

      What I mean by a trace is a residue left behind by some past occurrence, which I insist did occur (and in that sense, exist). If you and I are interested in the same past occurrences, say to use your example, the writing of William James or John Dewey, then we both look to the same traces that that writing left behind. This is all I meant in saying that my facts are your facts. We read the same books, essays, letters, and manuscripts. When you make an argument about what James or Dewey was up to as a philosopher, you provide me with a footnote or some other guide to one or another of these shared traces upon which you have made the inferences upon which your argument rests. I then evaluate the plausibility of the inferences you have made from these sources. As you say, in this particular case, I have found some of your inferences implausible, and have offered an alternative set of inferences from our shared traces that I find more plausible. Then we argue about it, submitting our disagreement to judgment of the wider community of inquiry to which we both belong.

      “We both know that the past we call pragmatism isn’t independent of our knowledge of it—our arguments about it—and can’t be, just as the past we call Marxism, or feminism, or liberalism isn’t, and can’t be. Our interpretations constitute each as an object of knowledge.” I agree. All I am saying is that we do not constitute such objects of knowledge out of whole cloth, but rather do our constituting (our “history”) under prior constraints imposed by real occurrences (the “past”) and the evidence of their occurrence that they leave behind.

      With you, I think history is useable for “the discovery of ourselves in the present and as participants in the future.” But it is also abusable, and when abused, akin for these purposes to the worthless intelligence tailored to what a spy thinks his handlers want to hear. History is not a fable; it is tethered. In the last part of your lecture, you seem to me to be trying to escape the conclusion that it is completely unhinged, and you advance a criterion for estimating one historical account to be better than another. I applaud this effort. All I am suggesting is that in making this effort you also take to heart the response of Richard Rorty to those who accused him of denying the significance or even the very existence of a reality independent of our constructions of it: “We can never be more arbitrary than the world lets us be.” Adapted to the present discussion, this would read “Our history can never be more arbitrary than the past lets us be.”

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