In Debate: The Return of History

Moira Pérez PhD

“Die Tradition der Unterdrückten belehrt uns darüber, daß der Ausnahmezustand in dem wir leben, die Regel ist. Wir müssen zu einem Begriff der Geschichte kommen, der dem entspricht.”

Walter Benjamin, Über den Begriff der Geschichte, These VIII.

On March 2022, a few days after the first strikes of the Russian army on Ukrainian territory began, Time Magazine published a special issue on the topic with the title “The Return of History”, subtitled “How Putin Shattered Europe’s Dreams”. As a backdrop, the cover featured a full-page, almost black and white photograph of a military tank with six soldiers looking straight into the camera. Although the phrase was most likely meant metaphorically and is obviously hyperbolic, the cover did express what seemed to be a widespread sentiment: something important had changed, and (Western) Europe was confronted with a reality it had deemed long gone, or at least, safely restrained.
For those of us attentive to discourses around history, however, this cover – as many comments and declarations by analysts, journalists and politicians which followed a similar pattern – tapped into fundamental questions about how events are framed in specific temporal and spatial narratives.

What are the assumptions that make such framings possible? What are the criteria that organize the pace and turning points of our idea of history? What can we, as philosophers of history and theorists of history, contribute towards a better understanding of the current scenario?

A number of premises are needed to support the suggestion that History (with a capital H: a grand narrative that organizes important events along a linear timeline which is often thought to “go somewhere”) “returns” with the rolling of Russian tanks over Ukraine. Identifying them can advance our awareness both of the theoretical uses of temporality and spatiality, and of the practical circumstances we are now in. Most evidently, there is the idea that at some point History had gone away, ended or halted, which is why it can now “return”. Additionally, there is also the suggestion that its comeback happens with these particular events, in this space and time. This is not just any return; it has a specific timing, a direction, and a vehicle: it happens in the form of a military tank that enters European territory. Of course, both assumptions are connected, and loaded with our (“Western”, for lack of a better word) cultural conceptions of history, time, and the political. History, apparently, is something (a specific set of things, most notably military conflict) that happens to Europe, in European territory, and in the form of armed conflict between States. Within this understanding, whenever this combination of factors does not take place, then History is not happening – until it returns. This reproduces the focus on conflict that dominates hegemonic humanities and social sciences which, as Ewa Domańska (2021: 156) has pointed, is at the expense of exploring “collaboration, coexistence (…) and friendship” which could provide ideas and impulse to project a different future. It also entails a sharp temporal divide between before and after such a turning point, which conceals whatever there was in the past that is still in the present, and whatever there is in the present that originated in the past. Ties are cut with whichever forms of violence occurred during the alleged “halt” of History, both in terms of historical continuity and of accountability.

It would be wrong to assume that since the title refers to “history”, then we are only talking about time. To a certain extent, time and space are undistinguishable here, as our periodization and temporal figurations (when does a historical event begin or end? When is something seen as a crisis and when as a long-term process? Who has a history and who doesn’t?) are contingent on, among other things, where we are placed in the map (Bentouhami, 2015; Castro-Gómez, 2010). Confining an event (such as a war) to a certain geographical area, even if it has global actors and implications, may mean that it is displaced to the past, and therefore dismissed as alien and unimportant. This is what gives sense to the idea that History “returns” with the rolling of Russian tanks into Ukraine, even though tanks (including many ushered by the West, where the headquarters of History seem to reside) have been rolling in many other places around the world for many years. Ultimately, maps and timelines are two sides of the same coin.

The apparently simple statement on the Time cover entails not only questionable assumptions, but also a number of concrete implications. After all, knowledge – including historical knowledge – is, in Joan Scott’s words, “a way of ordering the world”; its uses and meanings are “the means by which relations of power – of domination and subordination – are constructed” (1999: 2). Against our common-sense understanding of history as ’everything that happened to humanity in the past’, historians and theorists of history know well that history is in fact a situated, disputable and dynamic selection and weaving of certain events that we (or our community) consider important, based on the questions that unsettle us in the present. At each given moment, a society upholds an array of conceptions of where it comes from and how it came to have it its present shape. Some of these understandings are hegemonic, other marginalized; they can be more or less coherent with one another and permeable to mutual influence, but they all serve the purpose of sustaining an identity and an understanding of what we can (and cannot) do in the present and the future. Suggesting, even if metaphorically, that history was not happening while entire nations and regions were struggling for their life, is confining them to the realm of the disposable or less-than-human, where History does not take place. It also means dispossessing them of their historical agency, as what they do (including their resistances) is not enough to lift them from the sphere of nature or passivity to which Western conceptions of time and historical events have confined them.

Marginalized subjects are not only stripped of historical agency, but also of their epistemic agency, a gesture that is at the very root of the issues I have addressed so far. Who gets to define what constitutes history and what does not? Who gets to tell when History begins – or “returns”? What subject positions have had a say in this, where are they placed, and what are the implications of it for the frameworks we currently have to understand History, the past, and our relation to both? The international division of intellectual labour, marked by an unequal distribution of epistemic agency, results in the epistemic – and, particularly, hermeneutical – primacy of certain social groups, which are dominant in the social and cultural disputes on the meanings of History, historical events, and actors – in short, on what is noteworthy. Such primacy is intertwined with and reinforced by other kinds of power, such as political and economic, and in turn reinscribes hierarchies of value, agency and the political.

As philosophers of history, we know that the ways in which we understand and narrate the past have profound consequences on our perception of who we are (and who are “others”), what we can or cannot do, and where we are going. In scenarios such as the one we are currently witnessing, our discipline can contribute to the identification and analysis of the disputes around representation that are also weaponized in the conflict, and the role that our temporal and spatial figurations of history play in the politics of the present.

© Moira Pérez PhD

Moira Pérez is researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, Argentina, and currently a Fellow at the Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie in Hannover, Germany. Her work focuses on the interplay between violence and identity, and brings together contributions of narrativist philosophies of history, queer theory, and decolonial and postcolonial studies, among others.

Literature

  • Bentouhami, Hourya: Race, cultures, identités : une approche féministe et postcoloniale, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2015.
  • Castro-Gómez, Santiago: La hybris del punto cero: ciencia, raza e ilustración en la Nueva Granada (1750-1816), Bogotá: Editorial Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, 2010.
  • Domanska, Ewa: Prefigurative Humanities, in: History and Theory, 2021, 60(4), 141-158.
  • Scott, Joan: Gender and the Politics of History, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
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