History, or Histories?

What if you were asked to write a historical note on the street that leads to your home?

As the teacher in her commanding voice doled out pieces of historical chronology, we drowsed in our chairs with an overdose of information. It was hard to connect our present state with the ossified world of ‘facts’. Nonetheless, we had to sit through it. Kings, whose names required a special talent to pronounce, came and went by. Empires dissipated, and others emerged instead. Revolutions unmade states, and wars destroyed countries. As the teacher laid history before us like milestones, we were confused - to what end?

We all have had this experience at school. History, as was usually taught, appeared insufferable. As one event displaced another, it felt pretty much like a journey, albeit a boring one. The malady was symptomatic of a larger misunderstanding, which perceives history as written in stone. History, it sees, as a series of established events, to be read and remembered. We must consider - Is that so?

What if you were asked to write a historical note on the street that leads to your home? If you take the lead from the way history was taught, your historical account would be obvious. You may jot down the chronological construction of the street. The contractor who built it. The sum that was allocated to it. The material that was used. The year it was built, and the years following when the street was renovated. With little effort, you will sketch a fairly accurate account of the street. However, we are right in asking - Does this qualify as ‘the history’ of the street? 

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, deconstructs the notion of building from dwelling,

We do not dwell because we have built, contends Heidegger, but we build and have built because we dwell, that is, because we are dwellers. 

To the aforementioned question of qualifying as ‘the history’ - the reply would be a resounding yes! But, only if you confine history to its physical construction. However, if we care to bring ‘dwelling’ into the picture, how differently would we paint the history of the street! All those who have habituated and belonged to the street carry its history in their memories. This history is not situated in the cement bags used to build the street. This history, to the contrary, lies in the consciousness of all those who have lived through it - Children who have played in the street, with innovative rules to circumvent its peculiar geography; Elderly who have lived their entire lives around the street. For whom the street represents a world that is safely tied to its moorings; People who have seen it carpeted with snow and then thawed into spring; rains that gushed through it, and summers that shone on it; The local stores which coalesced people into unending discussions, from international politics to personal brawls - All have stories to tell. The former history was frozen in time; ossified and dead. The latter is rich; multifarious and alive. Were we to include it in narration – And we must! We shall not have ‘history’, but ‘histories’ of the street.

The widespread perception regarding history, though, remains the former. Meanwhile, scholars keep digging into uncharted territories of the past, and make us realise, more and more, how vibrant and dynamic history is. We realiSe that we do not simply chronicle. We narrate. As numerous the narrations are, so are the histories. History is not stacked facts about the long dead kings. It is a continuous process of discovering and re-discovering our human lineage; through the unraveling of our multifaceted past. It does not only state what happened. It also uncovers why it happened, the way it did.

These dimensions of history have led to various sub-fields and methods. Marxist tradition is not satisfied by a mere repetition of events. It peeps into the political economy of societies to unravel the bedrock on which the edifice was built. Intellectual history tries to trace an idea through its evolution. So we would have scholars like Quentin Skinner who trace the genealogy of the state through the usage of the word, over centuries. Cultural and Social history looks at the other end, by tracing the reception of these ideas in popular practice. So Robert Darnton, an American historian, would bring out the popularity of the evolutionary Encyclopaedia, in 18th century France, from the booksellers' records. Roger Chartier, a French historian, would move a notch further by attempting to find not only the intellectual but the ‘Cultural origins of the French Revolution’. While introducing the purpose of his seminal work – The Making of the English Working Class – E.P. Thompson would write, 

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan… from the enormous condescension of posterity.

He intended to let them speak for themselves. Similarly, subaltern and postcolonial studies expanded on the works of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci coined the term subaltern - to denote not only a class under economic tutelage, but also under the cultural hegemony of their employers. Gyatari Spivak; literary theorist and feminist critic., hence rightfully questioned - Can the Subaltern Speak? Ranajit Guha, an Indian historian, answered yes! But, we must allow them to. As the torchbearer in this pursuit, he challenged the ‘elitist’ reading of colonial India into the strictly compartmentalized binaries of nationalistic vs. colonial forces. This he professed was done at the cost of subsuming the multilayered nature of resistance among peasants, tribals, and workers; under the overarching discourse. Edward Said, Palestinian American scholar, in similar ways performed a surgical task of deconstructing ‘essentialist’ history. Building on the works of the French philosopher Michael Foucault, he argued that the Orient existed only in the mind of the Orientalist. An entire system of studies was invented to fabricate a divide, in essence, between the East vs. the West. Said countered the legitimiSation of colonialism on the pretext of these purported inherent values. Traditional literary history, in the meanwhile, was devoted to tracing the history of literature in a particular language, over time. Literary historians like Sheldon Pollock deciphered a better way. Rather than have literary history, they considered a more nuanced approach – ‘Literary Cultures in History’. This looked at literature as not being frozen in time. Rather, it saw history/society and literature as dialectic; which interact to produce literary cultures. How certain texts emerge, how they pass into the popular imagination, and how these are received and consequently evolved by their audience – were questions that reshaped our understanding of literary artifacts and their role in societies.

I must add the very obvious. The sub-fields are far many, and the scholars, worth mentioning, even far more. However, I have only made a slight attempt at portraying how the fascinating aspects of our multi-layered past are being unearthed. It is certainly time for it to percolate. History, as we know it now, is not a congealed form of events; one passing another. It is a narrative, a story. It is multifaceted, multifarious, and multilayered. It is philosophical in its roots and varied in its fruit. We must understand it then - not as history, but as histories. We must see in it our pasts, and the material for the construction of better futures. E.P. Thompson, in a debate, thundered thus,

History is a cultural form within which we fight...For we are historians because we know that the past is not dead.

Shafakat Hassan Mirza is currently a research fellow at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali.

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