The Deceptive Ease of Looking Back, Research Time, 03/12/2014

We don’t really know anything about the past, even the recent past. We think that we do, but that isn’t really the case. It isn’t that we delude ourselves that we perfectly understand the past and where we come from. I’m not going Freud-style with my thinking here. I’m just riffing about a particular idea that Cary Wolfe skirts in his What Is Posthumanism collection about the nature of history.

It’s an an essay called “Animal Studies,” where he examines some of the university system’s professional tendencies that have led to the proliferation of “X studies” disciplines. These remarks are almost marginal, occurring in some closing sections of his overall argument, casually tossed into a discussion to explain a Derridean idea that our sense of our own narrative is foreign to itself. But since he’s such a fan of Derrida, I’m sure he’ll have no problem with my getting some mileage out of an idea he discusses on the margins. 

When I read War and Peace, I was impressed by
Tolstoy's ability to combine the personal scale of
a single noble family with the grand historical
political movement of Napoleon's wars of
European conquest, the man Hegel called "the
World-Spirit on horseback." But Tolstoy still cut
away from the detailed stories of the people
beyond the noble class in those wars. Ostensibly
comprehensive history revealed to be selective.
Where we come from as a culture is often very clear to us. We learn all the basic beats of our countries’ social and political histories in the earliest years of our education. The foundation of our state, major waves of immigration and settlement, the chronologies of the major wars, as well as national and international political events. All this heritage is clear. 

But there’s a lot of our history that doesn’t make it into the history books or the canon of what’s self-consciously culturally remembered. I don’t mean history in that self-conscious sense here, how a culture in the present understands and knows its own past. 

I mean the actual physical causes that interact in the process of roiling time. Almost all of those causes were events that occurred to ordinary people, or that ordinary people created. Wolfe makes a peculiar point. Say 200 books from the Victorian era end up being remembered culturally in some, at least minor form. That’s barely half a percent of all the books that were published in that time. 

Here's another example. I was thinking to myself yesterday that I wanted to find some heavy rock music from the 1960s. I heard a 60s-sounding guitar in a store the other day, but it was heavier than most of the music I knew from the period. So I found this list online that someone who knows WAY MORE about music from this era than I do compiled of 158 heavy rock bands from the late 1960s. I had heard of hardly any. Now, I want to track them down. These were people who formed bands, made some kickass music, and disappeared from our knowledge of history. Yet their actions still contributed to the constitution of our causal history.

And now I really want to get into Atomic Rooster.

Wolfe’s point is that how we understand our own cultural narrative is actually incredibly selective, and has cut a lot away from consideration. We only remember in our history books a few centrally important narratives and chains of events; so much else has been forgotten about and disappeared without a trace in the present anymore, except for proliferating physical effects that effect indirectly and systematically a variety of events today, which will probably later be similarly forgotten.

This fact causes a lot of problems for many influential conceptions of history, particularly any philosophy of history that sees human historical existence as an ultimately unified process. Or at least as a process with a particular end point in mind. Let’s make the scope even more broad: any understanding of history as having any sort of simple organizing concept. 

So I’d actually like to hear from some of my Hegelian friends about this idea. Because when I first started this blog in July 2013, I was reading Georg Hegel’s Philosophy of History, had some good discussions on the subject with B, and some irritatingly dogmatic discussions on the subject with P. Ever since I first started reading Hegel in detail, in a graduate course I took during my Master’s studies going through The Phenomenology of Spirit, I found the goal of this central book in Hegel’s thought is laying out a conception of history that has a clear, unifiable meaning.

But if our understanding of our culture’s own history is so selective in its composition that almost all immanent social phenomena are cut away when we tell the story of a given era or historical path, then even a figure like Hegel who (along with his many, many, many followers and reactors) pitches his own historicism as a universal structure of humanity’s very temporality, then all these pretensions to the universal are a lie.

There is no one story to history of any kind. There is always more to be discovered beyond the neat conclusions of a historicism determined by a single set of concepts. We forget more than we have ever known. We never learn all there is to know. No matter how dead and dull we might think the past may be, there are always more stories to discover if you look.

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