[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?