That construct we call “the present ” has never been more demanding on me than it has been over the past 3-4 weeks. I’ve been writing about history for this blog since January 2007, but I can recall only a few weeks that have been as demanding of my present consciousness as the past month, but especially the past 72 hours.
It’s not that my historical work and historical mindedness haven’t been churning. I’m always trying, to some extent, to process the present in light of the past. Those subconscious mechanisms have been at work, and encouraged, since I began graduate history coursework in 1997. Once developed, historical thinking is an analytical mode that cannot easily be disentangled from one’s present.
Yet I worry that my view of the present is nefariously constructed by my knowledge of the past. I wonder if my field of vision is too linked to past processes of change gone wrong. I wonder if history prevents me from seeing the potential of the present. I wonder if history is some kind of blackthorn-tinted glass that makes the shadows of the present even darker than they are. Has history inclined me to permanent pessimism? Or has a pessimistic and critical state been fed by history, theory, and philosophy?
On the last, on my philosophy of history, I am indeed a loose adherent of Critical Theory, broadly speaking, in its most humanistic mode (with evolving elements of Habermas and Gramscian thinking, but with little emphasis on Freudian psychology). When I have theoretical questions in history, I often look for first answers in that intellectual paradigm. Other traditions inform my critical thinking apparatus, but the default historicism and negation of CT informs how I compare, contrast, and weigh a historical situation or ideology. So yes, I see things darkly—though hopefully never in a easily caricatured Adorno-esque mode, with attendant stilted prose.
On the present, or “the now,” are my commitments making me too pessimistic in relation to the just completed presidential campaign? I can see how it would be easy to become a caricature of those commitments. Indeed, there seems to be some evidence for pessimism in the rhetoric and actions of certain figures—especially, for me, a certain segment of Trump’s followers (but some of Clinton’s too).
Apart from me, how does recent and distant history apply to that future, and how does it matter for intellectual historians? Are we in a new “now,” a grammatical disjunct from past trends? If not, what stream of the past have we renewed in 2016? Or, to paraphrase another, what ideological trash stream is being fed to us now?- TL