Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Narratives of History

"Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa" by Sebastiano Ricci

It is said that the ancient Greeks were in the habit of remembering historical developments that unfolded over long periods of time in the terms of a single melodramatic event, and a great man to whom it can be attributed. With this in mind, it should not come to one as a surprise to learn that the Iliad and Odyssey took shape over two millenniums, and that there is very little historical evidence to substantiate that Homer had existed at all.

To us moderns this might sound rather quaint, despite the fact that we are deep to our wastes in a very similar notion. But whereas the ancient Greeks were aware of the distortion involved in their tradition of commemorating history, we are simply not. This can be easily demonstrated by asking a sample of random people about who invented, say, the telephone, and one can be assured that she will be met with "Graham Bell" as the most recurring answer.

In reality though, there is very little in common between the monstrosity that came out of Bell's lab, and the device our societies can't function without today. Furthermore, our good inventor here had a most modest vision in mind for the telephone, where it was to be used only by post offices, for the purpose of informing one another of the letters and parcels inbound. Had he had his way... but luckily we don't have to bother with imagining the consequences, as no one ever is allowed their way with history.

I would venture to claim that this applies to all human endeavors equally, and not even science, an enterprise the mentioning of which evokes the images of individuals changing the course of humanity single-highhandedly, is exempt from this statement. Newton's proverbial quote about his standing on the shoulders of giants is but a droplet in a profusion of gratitudes expressed throughout history by indebted scientists towards their predecessors and collaborators. 

Moreover with a close perusal of any colossal development within science, one will always find more than a single individual standing behind it. For instance, we have Newton and Leibniz developing Calculus, Darwin and Wallace elucidating one mechanism of evolution, and Einstein and Lorentz formulating a theory of special relativity, each in every story working simultaneously and independently. However, it is always the case that one sinks into oblivion, while the other reaps eternal glory.

Put alternatively, in the mind of the majority, history is perceived as a mere register of a few great men's deeds, despite this being a most atrocious crime of distortion. And, contrary to the impression that might have been imparted here so far, it is not even the register of collaborative deeds. If anything, history is the unintentional product of many tiny actors each tugging in a different direction. Predictably, our anthropocentric tendencies will reveal themselves here in the act of assuming that an actor is by definition a human being.

As unflattering of our human pride as this may sound, historical actors can be, and are often, inanimate. Actually inanimate actors are what delimit the space of possibilities within which we humans can fumble around to realize one historical trajectory over another. They are innumerable, but to the end of helping one to develop an appreciation for what they might be like, it can be mentioned that institutions, dominant modes of thought, technologies, natural disasters and plagues have been quasi-constant fixtures on the stage of history - one can argue with some force that the first three of these are nothing but extensions of human will. However, sociologists have been, for a while now, utilizing the exceptionally fecund explanatory powers of theories that treat them as actors independent of human agency. Whether or not this goes beyond being a mere theoretical trick that corresponds to nothing real in life is left to the reader's discretion.

Why is it then that the public still have such a naive conception of history? You'd often hear explanations to the effect that by adopting this approach to the subject, an individual is trying to communicate something about herself. If, for example, she constantly expresses an affinity for Ghandi, then she is probably trying to signal a peaceful but resolute personality, whether or not she really has any of these traits. As true as this may sound, it does not explain the origins of such narratives, for after all when it comes to their production, the public are mere consumers that exert no sophisticated demand that might change the quality of the product.

There is another line of explanation implicit in the popular quote that history is written by the victors. But this claim is not exactly accurate. It is only that some documents of history are written by victors, as historical narratives are written and rewritten all the time. This malleability is endemic to the work of the historian, since she is often faced with a large number of accounts on any past event that she might wish to reconstruct. Naturally, some of these accounts will not jibe, and it is here that the historian exercises her agency in formulating history. Does that mean, as some advocate, that all historical narratives pertaining to a certain episode should be treated on equal footing? Of course not. If a historian bases her version of the story on the account of a hagiographer, instead of a less subjective source of information - such as some well preserved logs of economic activities - then all the worse for her. But why is it that she often chooses the former type of sources over the latter?

Generally speaking, writers are natural-born introverts whose elegance of mind attract them away from the dross of daily life. There they build themselves domains of unique experience to reign supreme over. Most historians are of course writers, who are constantly attempting to break away from the present - one can tell without going through the previous chain of reasoning that a person who dedicates her life to the study of the past is at least a bit tad disgruntled with the present. In their attempt to escape, they romanticize the past in ways that make it a reflection of their own egos and a justification for their unattained aspirations.

So if you ponder upon it, how can this be achieved if they acknowledge the role of droughts in central Asia and certain martial technologies, among other actors, in the vacillation of power around the Mediterranean throughout history, instead of attributing all of that to an unceasing clash between the wills of some nobilities? Granted, starting from the latter half of the past century we start seeing inanimate actors appearing in the credits roll of history. However, for the most part, these are only accorded minor roles, or are antagonized in a dramatic storyline where humanity always emerges triumphant. But perhaps to do otherwise is to forsake one's own present only to live in somebody else's. Probably not worth the trouble.