The Historians' Dilemma

We have an ambiguous relationship with history. We did genuinely suppose that history had ended, with the collapse of the Soviet Union - and yet we claim to be making history all the time, with every speech made, every feature upgraded and every ribbon cut. Between the two, it's possible to come up with an explanation about the two kinds of history: The faceless force of time that shaped our lives, ideas and civilisations seem to have lost its potency - or at least so we believe - and our newfound technological prowess has given us the opportunity to shape the future and fashion departures from History, thus make history. The History with the big H are therefore purged from the school curriculum and increasingly from the universities. Unemployed historians now take comfort that the popular history as a literary genré seems to be exploding, keeping the bookstores and public broadcasters - those two should have been history by now - alive and kicking.

Therefore, when History makes a comeback, in the form of a pandemic stalling the world, locusts bringing back the spectre of famine or even the prospect of a real war between two nuclear armed rivals, it's somewhat disconcerting for us. Our lives have been pampered by peace and cocooned within a commercial society, so much so that our modern prophets can speak comfortably about the better angels of our nature. We have come to believe that the violent force of History belongs to the fringes - in Palestinian Refugee camps, at the barracks of Xinjiang, in the depths of Tora Bora or over the Sahelian expanses of Mali - and not within the scope of our neat, predictable lives. We are, therefore, shocked when it shows up mid-town. Our comfortable assumption that bad things happen to queer people is shattered; we, at different turns, discover our individual helpless 'minoritiness'. History knocks our door now and it reminds us of one of the most perceptive misquotations: There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.

What is a Historian to do at this moment of history? They may feel quite out of practise, as nothing of import hadn't crossed their desk for quite some time, and quite out of focus, as academic fashions and funding priorities driven them into the marginals and the specialities. With the forms of society settled, imagination firmly domesticated with mortgages and the hopes and visions of progress outsourced to tech billionaires, they never expected to be called upon again to big questions. At best a bestseller, at best a literary prize, at best an academic chair if they have done well: TV personality is as far their public engagement could have gone. But they are now waking up to History just like everyone else right now. It is like one of those terrifying dream moments when they feel naked in a public square, without their voice just as everyone turns to them for some answer. Of course, they have been in the news and their fortunes have ebbed and flowed with the rise and fall of one political sentiment or other; but they have totally forgotten about how to be in charge of the future. They are now called in, like the historians of an earlier, forgotten, generation, to tell the future and guide the public into it.

They may feel clumsy, they may feel totally inadequate, but there is no escape. That's what History does to its students - lock them in, demand of them a voice! It feels them with dread, with the knowledge of terrifying repeatability. And, yet, they can draw no comfort - or lessons - from the past of their profession, from a time when sage historians were looked up to and their words counted. They are dealing with a different reality altogether, with a storm-surge of conspiracy theories, with attention limited to 280 characters! No one cares for the truth, unattainable as it is, but they must come up with clear and unambiguous formula that solves everything and everyone can understand. They ought to, in other word, capture and tame History with a big H within the straitjacket of history with a small one.

Let's call this one-handed history! This new narrative leaves no space for anything being on the other hand. Anything equivocal will be mercilessly treated as a mistake and will be turned against the argument; the stewardship of the future will be stolen by those who would rather create history. The scholarly humility must give way to polemical hubris, methodical integrity must be sacrificed at the altar of intention. There is justification in carry this out in name of public education, to satisfy the demands of the role imposed upon the historian, for being the prophet that the people desired of them.

But there lies the historians' dilemma. Of everyone, they are the most acutely aware of the problems of prophecy. They should be awry of appropriating the visions of the future, of arrogating themselves beyond the analytical, into the normative. Reasonable doubt isn't a professional hazard for the historian, it's a rite of passage, fundamental to the scholarly claim of the trade. The abruptness of the moment of History is just what all those practitioners, who studied, doubted and debated, who gave the full measures of their devotion before us in the house of history, prepared us for. For all fragmentation of our experience, there is that central truth of experience that every historian will know - that History never ends, even if we fail to perceive it. Its dramatic moments are at once dramatic and only mere specks of the expanse of time, its purposeful designs only hold within themselves endless and unknowable complexities of interactivities of natural, social and personal world, of realities and ideas, of desires and dreams, of agencies and limitations. The Historians' job, even at this crucial hour, is not to reduce complexity and box it into easy capsules of history, but rather to devote themselves to the intricacies of our very existence. The historian's popular engagement, no doubt important, must rise above popular entertainment; that, and only that, would allow them to keep their tryst with destiny.




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