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The Present and the Past
Sam Fallon, “The Rise of the Pedantic Professor”
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “Beyond the End of History”
Priya Satia, “Why Do We Think Learning About History Can Make Us Better?”
Vanita Seth, “When Did Racism Begin?”
David A. Bell, “Two Cheers for Presentism”
Joan W. Scott, “History is Always About Politics”
It is no wonder that the hills are alive with the sound of presentism. Absent a serious space for reflection, debate, and deliberation in or on the actually existing present, it becomes easy to claim that my history is bigger than yours, or more ethically relevant, or more marginalized. In this weaponized sense everyone is in the history business, and it is only in the relative calm of graduate programs, annual meetings, journal submissions, and the recruitment of professional historians that the soothing hum of sources, chronologies, periods, and methods can still be heard.
The weaponized present is always lurking. In the swamp of presentism, the right controls the “Make America Great Again,” anti-diversity, pro “boys will be boys” spaces. And the left controls the equity and diversity portfolio and the history for justice spaces. In between, the liberals are on life support, since the unbearable lightness of their historiography could not carry them from the Greeks and John Locke to John Rawls and Charles Taylor.
So, these are bad times for the past but great times for what I call “pastism” — weaponized history, history as “ism,” the go-to common ground of many voices from both right and left.
As a vulgar form of “historicism,” pastism tends to create a false democracy between high and low cultural expressions. It thus undercuts the real importance of avant-gardes, tastemakers, innovators, and other elites in the making of all societies, past and present. It therefore occludes the workings of power, while claiming to contextualize it. Andrew Sullivan gives us an example of this in his gushing 2018 review of Jill Lepore’s mammoth history of the United States, These Truths. Lepore’s conceit — that a special preoccupation with the truth characterizes both the historian’s craft and U.S. history itself — becomes a springboard for Sullivan’s avalanche of exceptionalist statements about American history. Here, high-brow exceptionalism disguises low-brow American nationalism, and thus undermines genuine innovations in American political history.
Exceptionalism is the ground on which liberals join with the right, whose idolatry of their version of the past is invariably at the cost of some imagined enemy. A perfect example of Trumpist pastism is the 1776 Commission, established to correct what he regarded as the historical distortions of the left. Sullivan and Trump are both fact-hunters, and both share the pastist drive to make American history great again.
The idea behind the new historicism in literary studies was hardly new, but it struck a chord. It was a transposition to literary criticism of an old idea in sociology, first seeded by Karl Mannheim, Arnold Hauser, and the compulsively doctrinaire Georg Lukács, and later by Pierre Bourdieu, Lucien Goldmann, and Raymond Williams, among others. Their shared idea was that formal expressions in art, philosophy, and even political theory could be read as products of their sociological, hence historical, contexts. No text was an island, in this way of thinking.
This form of reading spread to the field of history through the influence of two related but independent French sources that combined to encourage a false democracy of traces, sources, and archives. The first, more obvious, impetus for this trend was the French Annales school, whose idea of histoire totale swept marginal and quotidian actors in the past onto the same page as the great kings, battles, and events of traditional history. This move was complemented by developments in French sociology, inspired by Émile Durkheim and carried through by his pupil Maurice Halbwachs and more recently by Bourdieu, that treated memory, habit, and tradition as collective social constructions.
Together, these French trends helped to create the sense that no fact, person, or event in the past was unimportant in making the fabric of pastness. In lesser hands than those of Marc Bloch and Durkheim, histoire totale and “collective conscience” opened the doors to a promiscuous interest in any and all pasts, a gold rush for the archives of the ordinary. Among serious historians, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou (1975) and Michael Loewe’s work on everyday life in early imperial China (1973) are early examples of what became a staple genre for historians and for the trade press as well. The gradual morphing of principled historicism into indiscriminate pastism is not hard to understand, especially as the recourse to history becomes available to anyone with a laptop and a Twitter account.
Pastism reverses Jonathan Culler’s aphorism about context: “Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless.” It encourages us instead to believe that since context is meaningful, all contexts are equally meaningful. This is an unconscious mirroring of the fetish of New Criticism, that the close reading of the smallest internal elements of a literary text can be the key to its overall interpretation. The interest in context among professional historians was never intended to relativize all contexts. It was intended to enrich the older norm of criticism, to amplify the mutual illumination of a trace and its relevant surrounds and to assist in the piecing together of the relationship between numerous, often fragmentary, sources. It was initially a serious way of recognizing that all sources and traces belong to social processes of remembrance and recall.
Alas, these wholly legitimate reasons for valuing contexts opened the door of the public sphere to the idea that since all claims to being wounded or unheard are equally important, all histories are equally valid, thus all contexts and all sources. At first glance, in the age of social media and what in India is referred to as WhatsApp University (where most learning is generated through mobile telephony and social media), this might seem to be just relativism 2.0. But it is not the same as relativism, which is generally a tolerant and inclusive impulse, a kind of folk anthropology. The new form of pastism is instead aggressively self-promoting, since it often operates on the zero-sum principle that if my past deserves attention, yours must be suppressed or marginalized.
This is, of course, a big feature of MAGA-style right-wing discourses, whose main purpose is to create histories of the wrongs that some person or group has suffered in order to attack far more justifiable claims by historically minoritized groups. This style has earlier models, such as in the work of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, funded by the CIA in the 1950s, whose main purpose was to debunk socialist histories and voices around the world. This sort of pastism is frequently narcissistic and self-aggrandizing, thus not really relativistic at all. Its slogan might well be “My past or no past.”
Alas, this style is not confined to the right. It has become part of the official milieu of such disciplines as my own — anthropology — whose public life has become a battleground between genuine relativists and weaponized pastists. Left pastism, meanwhile, can be seen in the interminable efforts, over the past century, to show that my Marx is better than yours, on the basis of some fragment from the Grundrisse or Marx’s doctoral dissertation on Democritus, alleged to offer a fuller context than the one adduced by one’s opponents. In short, pastism, whether of the left or the right, tends to elevate contexts over meanings, whereas contexts were originally meant to serve debate over meaning.
I have encountered this in my own career, as one of the early figures in the American academy to attempt a theorization of the cultural dimensions of globalization. I experienced then what I have elsewhere I called a “rush to history” among my critics, which I would today see as exemplifying pastism. The motives that animate this rush to history, or, more precisely, this rush to historicize, are complex. They include: (a) a political worry that allowing for the possibility of newness at the level of the global order may place us too close to the corporate hype about the global; (b) a disciplinary worry — especially for those concerned with retaining the critical edge of cultural and social approaches to globalization — that losing the historical perspective on globalization will mean giving up the high ground in relation to the “harder” social sciences (political science, sociology, economics); (c) an investment in earlier critiques of world-system, empire, modernization, development, etc., that seem threatened by the combination of order and disorder that characterize the current global situation.
There is another difficulty for professional history in dealing with globalization. This is the challenge of the new, the unfamiliar, and the contingent. Writing the history in and of the present is always a frustrating business (owing mainly to the problem of the Owl of Minerva). The concern with periods, eras, ages, epochs, and other chunks of archival time is not a mere artifact of historical method. It is intimately tied to the teleologies of the Enlightenment, to the narratives of progress, to various deep prejudices about nation and modernity, and to an insufficiently theorized link between periodization, teleology, and the nation-form in the making of history, as an ideology of explanation and as a professional practice.
One may go a step further and suggest that the worry about the new, the emergent and the incomplete is not only about the vulnerabilities of periodization but something deeper still: a panic about contingency. In one sense, contingency is what historians seek most fully to represent and encompass, even in the age of “history as social science.” Yet the thorough discrediting of history as mere narrative, of event-history in whatever form, has had, for all its virtues, one substantial cost: a distrust of contingency itself. Insofar as globalization is a monster of contingency, a machine for producing ever new instances, events, and archives ahead of its interpreters, it represents contingency without an identifiable archive. And that is surely a source of some sort of panic. Herein lies another source of the rush to history, which is one professional face of pastism.
Pastism, in the form of Greenblatt’s contextualism, reverses the error of presentism. In doing so, it echoes a sometimes-overlooked aspect of the approach of Leopold von Ranke, who is widely regarded as the father of scientific empiricism in the historian’s craft. Ranke believed that historians should write about the past “as it actually was,” but he also saw God’s hand in the self-definition of all past epochs, and thus failed to recognize that every archive, or source, or trace, is surely a product of the presentism of one or more actors in any given past. So, the Rankean injunction against presentism in fact runs against the grain of all archives. It is a crypto-Christian tendency, which implies an omniscient God, a God of small sources, in whose benign and all-encompassing gaze every trace can be a doorway to truth and no fragment need be disqualified as a bridge to the gift of eternal life. This democracy of traces and fragments also shapes Christian homiletics, where no statement in the Bible is too trivial to serve as the basis for a sermon. And homiletics is never far from proselytization, and can easily be put in the service of making my past better than yours.
In this sense, what I am calling traces should not be confused with visions, plans, scenarios, predictions, projections, or any other conscious efforts to envision the future. Traces of the future are unconscious, untheorized hints about future possibilities embedded in the midst of the daily life of ordinary people, and across a range of sites, practices, and scenes. The challenge for the historian and the anthropologist is how to recognize these moments or signs or hints in what they encounter in the archive of experience or the textual archive, without the benefit of hindsight about the moves toward the not-yet that succeed and those that fail.
Many examples of such traces of the future can be found in the field of public architecture, where important buildings and monuments were commissioned through competitions, which generated designs that are fully realized though never built. This archive of the unbuilt contains hints of future buildings. In a completely different intellectual terrain, the famous heresies of the European medieval period, in their combination of textual fundamentalism and apocalyptic aspiration, might be seen as archives bearing the traces of later developments within European socialism.
In other words, traces of the future are those signs that mark the not-yet of a desirable and achievable future. The trace may indeed never become actual, so this is not a matter of success versus failure, of the gap between desire and reality. It is like an X on a crime scene that marks the spot where routine is subverted by the imagination, where the possible is brought into a form of proto-existence.
The biggest problem with pastism, then, is not its default partisanship, its hidden theology, its indiscriminate appetite for contexts, or its hostility to newness. The biggest flaw of pastism is its presumption that all signs from the past are only signs of the past. This flaw prevents us from recognizing both the presence of the past and, worse, of traces of the future that can sometimes be found in the past.