The Modern Good Life, Part 2: History and its (Ab)Uses

My brother was a history major 10 years before I ever was, and I distinctly remember one weekend when he was visiting from university and asked me why we (as a people) study history. “Because we need to know about the past so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future,” I answered, quite proud of myself. (Not the most inspiring answer, but I was 8. Give me some credit here.) I think he was impressed too – little did he know I would grow up to write a nerdy history blog! Ha HA!

What I said then is not a novel idea: historians have long advocated the necessity of knowing about the past in order to inform our decisions in the present, and justifying those decisions once made. And everybody loves history, because they love the stories of overcoming great odds, or seeing how much things have changed (or, indeed, stayed the same), or thinking about how with one small shift things could have been very different.

But we tend to forget that our fascination with the past is unique. Other worldviews don’t see it this way. To the followers of many Eastern religions, and humans from most of human history, the past was just a series of fluctuations around the same human constant. I’ll go back to John Gray’s Straw Dogs to where he argues that attempting to make sense of history and giving history meaning that has the potential to inform the present and future is just a “Christian folly,” part of Christianity’s central, mistaken assumption that humans are different from other animals and can direct our lives. “History” was never before considered cumulative, or linear, but cyclical. It was not studied. It was not important. It was as much an unknown as the future. And it certainly did not direct anybody’s actions in the present.

There is a concept within the discipline of the “silent referent,” a particular narrative or idea that acts as the standard against which something else is measured. The narrative is usually the European, Marxist master narrative that charts the “progressive” transition from a feudal, mythical, communal past to a capitalist, secular, modern present. This narrative is celebratory, teleological, and complete. It wraps us all up in the confidence that we have trod a good path that has ended in a happy, modern present. [More on this in my next post.] The idea of the “silent referent” is often used in postcolonial history, most notably in a landmark book by Dipesh Chakrabarty titled Provincializing Europe. Chakrabarty argues that Indian history needs to escape from this master European narrative in which it was never a part and can never measure up.

We would all do well, I think, to take note of his caution. I’m not sure even we can measure up. We run the risk today of being so tied to this celebratory history we have told ourselves that we can barely function without referencing it, or live outside of its temporality. The silent referent of our lives today is the past.

Perhaps this is a simplistic statement. It is natural that the future we imagine for ourselves is a direct output of the past we have experienced. We can hardly imagine anything else. (This is why aliens in movies look like small, green people.) But our high regard for preserving our history – even if it is largely unconscious – is unique to our species, our culture, and our age. We live very historically contextualized, temporized lives. The title of this blog (elitist meta moment alert!) is an ironic note that even those who are trying to escape “time” or “history” by adding the prefix “post-“ to things are still temporizing themselves by saying that we are in the temporal phase that comes after it and thus reinforcing the idea that linear time is of paramount importance.

There are two traps in particular that we might fall into: overspecialization, and overgeneralization. The first can occur when we endlessly analyze, categorize, and pull apart the past in an attempt to preserve it for future generations. This kind of history in the end takes everything from the past as equally worth preserving, with no distinction (historians specializing in German shoemakers from Frankfurt between 1522 and 1523, take note!). Wallowing in the “good old days” is a recipe for disaster, especially because even the most objective historical narrative has a bias and an angle. Nietzsche wrote about this tendency in The Genealogy of Morals, warning that it can effectively prevent any innovation or aspiration for the future.

I have written before about the dangers of over-specialization: information overload leading to a societal inability to discern what is really important, and even paralysis by analysis – the inability to do anything for fear of breaking too strongly with the past. This is exactly what Nietzsche was talking about. Individuals become slaves to history and cannot act outside of or without it. Is this, perhaps, some of what plagues us today?

Maybe. I do suspect we as a population need to be wary of those who seek to ‘preserve’ a traditional way of life, or go back to it – and I don’t mean that we should stop the trend of going back to 80s fashion before it really takes off. I mean that factions arguing for “traditional family values” or established religion carry mistaken and destructive beliefs that contribute to our present woes.

However, I think we are more often slaves to the past in a different way, and another that Nietzsche considered problematic: overgeneralization. This is the kind of history that seeks out role models and teachers from the past when we feel unable to find them in the present. And it can, in excess, create typologies to serve as standard scripts for the present, which, as Herr N. wrote, “generalize and finally equate differences” and as such it does a disservice to the past in masking its historical (and geographic) particularities.  Think of how many times you’ve heard “the worst economic climate since the Depression” or “the largest deficit we’ve ever seen” in the past two years – is this contextualization helpful? Does it help to know that Hillarycare failed in 1993? It isn’t 1993. How many other unchecked assumptions about the past are we dragging around and using as props to justify not changing or trying something new?

History is an anchor, and a necessary one, but it can also be a deadweight that prevents us from moving on. Being tied to the past, afraid to spend more money because we have never spent so much before, unwilling to make bold moves in favour of merely speculating over our downfall as a society doesn’t serve us well because we have no script that prepares us for the present. History never repeats itself, except in overwhelmingly general terms.

There is much to learn from the past. We can find the human characteristics that will inspire us in the present – perseverance, ingenuity, humility, and many more – but not the right political or economic blueprint for the future we’re trying to build.

Previous post in this series: The Bias to Action

Next post in this series: The End of Progress


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