Friday, 22 June 2012

The past is a distant land

There is the past and there is history and in-between there lies the historian though this is no longer simply the preserve of historians whatever academe suggests. The argument goes as follows. People in the past left traces, wittingly or unwittingly, of their lives and experiences in the form of sources material that historians trawl to obtain the evidence that forms the foundations on which they built their construction, reconstruction or deconstruction of the past. The aim in this process is to get ‘as close’ as possible to narrating and explaining what actually happened in the past and, as a result, to establish some sort of true meaning of the past.  Others suggest that historians are story-tellers involved in an essentially literary activity interrogating texts to construct their view of the past.  Let me be clear, I do not see myself as a historian in a postmodernist context, not because I object to the postmodernist perspective even though it is frequently expressed in language that hides more than it reveals but because I am not convinced that postmodernism had added much that is valuable to the practical ‘craft of history’.  Few if any historians today would claim that their work is the definitive answer or that they are doing more than expressing their own view of what happened in the past.  They do not seek ‘the truth’ but merely seek to explain what happened recognising that their explanation will itself be subject to review and revision by others.  In that respect we are perhaps all postmodernists!

The problem it seems to me lies less in what historians do but their failure to address the issue of what the past actually is.  At one level, the past never actually existed.  People do not live in the past, they live in their presents with all the chaos that this implies.  Neither did people in the past live in history; they did not spent their lives thinking what the causes and consequences of their actions and thoughts would be.  Historians impose rationality on lives that are generally far from rational or logical.  It is historians who ‘make’ history with all the ambiguity that this implies and we interrogate history to provide an explanation for our presents…what Marwick called ‘history as a social necessity’.  Our views of our presents are partial and generally partisan in some form or another and so were people who lived a hundred years ago in their own presents and so on.  We/they cannot/could not ‘know’ that our actions could/did have particular consequences.  We look back to our pasts through the refracting mirror of our presents and our perceived (and invariably wrong) perceptions of our possible futures.  Unlike the newspaper announcing that next week’s fortune-tellers conference is cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, our hindsight and foresight are limited by our understanding or our presents.  The past may well by a distant land but so are/were our/their presents. 

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