Most people have a pretty good idea of what history is. It seems straight forward and unproblematic. History is “what happened.” History is made up of the events that matter: wars, revolutions, the signing of peace treaties, the invention of this, the discovery of that. These significant moments are turns in the great road of time. The day the world changed is a day to be remembered and recorded.
But who is remembering? Who is recording? How do we know what an event actually means? It most certainly can mean different things to different people. How then can we think of history as what happened if the only way we know what happened is through people- fallible, biased, forgetful and full of agendas (even well-meaning ones).
Let’s divide the topic in two: history (little “h”) is the past- and all that it contains- EVERYTHING that has ever happened. The second History (big “H”) is what we remember, what we write down, what we say and believe about history. This History is made up of our stories, it is an approximation and an attempt to know what is ultimately unknowable unless it is experienced in the moment. Since we can’t really get at the first without the second I’ll be using the word history as a blending of both- trying to get at “what happened” while attempting to remain fully aware that the history I read (or write) is always dependent on my sources and on my own interpretation.
Many people believe history repeats itself. This is an ancient view. The Greeks and the Hindus (among others) held to a cyclical theory of time: “the eternal return”. Others have seen events as wholly unique, made up of many factors that can never come together in quite the same way more than once. Mark Twain found a middle path between these two ideas when he said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.
There are after all many kinds of repeating cycles in our lives: celestial and seasonal, familial and cultural. But when it comes to history can we say the same?
Almost two centuries ago when Charles Darwin first put forth his theory of evolution some historians also adopted a model of progress and ever-increasing order when they looked at the processes of human culture, government and art. Just as nature was perfecting her creatures through trial and error, so man was perfecting himself through civilization and science. This is a form of teleology and it is something that nearly all contemporary historians reject.
Change does happen, forms alter and are augmented through time- but are they getting better? Are we learning from the past? If we are learning what are we learning about? Are we learning about the past and how things were then or ourselves and how we are now?I think it’s sensible to assume we are doing both.
It is important to ask these questions because they are so rarely asked by people outside of the history profession. There is a certain “taken-for-grantedness” when we use the word history. We assume we can understand the past and that there is really one right way to do that. History doesn’t write itself- people do! People are bound up in the threads of their cultures and in their own specific ways of communicating. This doesn’t mean we are doomed to never understand the past, it simply means we must be cautious, humble and aware of what we are asking when it comes to the old question: what happened?
History has a history too!
* Much of what I consider in this blog will relate to the history of objects aka “the history of material culture”. This illustration is an example of how we usually think about the evolution of technology- we learn more and things get better. Since the seventeenth century most people in the Western world have placed their faith in the powers of rationality and of science. It seems obvious that technological developments become more refined over time. Yesterday’s modes of communication, production and transportation pale in comparison to today’s.
While the history of a prosthetic device, such as an artificial leg or arm, seems to be evidence that inventions become more efficient over time, when we widen the scope of our inquiry to larger, broader technical systems we may begin to wonder. Few would argue against the obvious fact that the artificial limbs of today by far exceed the artificial limbs of the last century in ease of use and in their resemblance to real limbs. But what are the side effects of the science and the technologies that allowed such a device to come into being? Think of the pollution and environmental side effects of mass production and consumption of plastic goods that we all use on a daily basis. Can we decouple these two: 1.) the increase of technical efficiency and the easier life so many of us lead (including those who have benefited from such things as modern artificial limbs) and 2.) the effects of mass systems of technology, science and production of which these things are a part?
Obviously humans can and do learn from their mistakes, they learn from their predecessors. But very often a certain technology, a certain “triumph of science” is seen apart from its context. The benefits of something are not always calculated as part of a larger equation- are not always understood as being connected to other issues. This sensitivity to changing form in relation to its place and its time will be another key focus of this blog.