Friday, March 24, 2017

Global History & the Trends of Historical Study

Is global history still possible, or has it had its moment? – Jeremy Adelman | Aeon Essays

This interesting article prompted me to some reflections on the nature of history: 

1. History has a history. Most people tend to think of history as the story of wars, governments, leaders, and various adventures and big events. But all knowledge comes from the past. Everything we now experience comes to us from the past. Every topic has a genealogy. Thus, history as a discipline has changed through time. 

2. History has fashions. Don't rush out to a meeting of historians to get ideas how to dress; you'd end up embarrassed. Pros in NYC, Paris, and Milan are the place to go for clothes. The fashions that I'm speaking about here are intellectual, not a matter of raiment. Historians, like about every other discipline, are subject to in infatuation with the new and novel, to a new generation striving to find something different, unique from the work of their elders. 

3. Adelman's (and other "globalist's) interest in expanding the scope of history is valuable. Whether it's nations or groups that have not been as prominent on the world stage or who have suffered at the hands of others or those who simply have not come within the spotlight of history so far, plumbing this unexplored aspect of our past is a sound enterprise. Is each area of interest equal? Of course not. What is of interest, what is significant, is in the eye of the beholder. It's up to the beholder to convince others that a topic belongs in the spotlight. And opinions will vary between contemporaries and between generations. Some fashions will stand the test of time; others will fade to the side. Time sorts it out. 

4. The past is one humongous block of fixed events. We can never know the past wholly or finally. Just as our everyday reality must exclude most of the world that comes into our minds, so it is with history. We must sift through the records that the past leaves behind. For although the past is fixed--events of the past don't change--not all events leave a trace. Think of the bulk of your day and how little you recall of it and how little you miss that inability. As in one's life, we must decide what in history--our collective past--merits knowing and recalling. 

5. No one approach suffices to capture the past. There is no Rosetta stone of history. Neither world systems nor dialectical materialism nor the dialectic of master and slave nor any other theory that might be applied to history can be complete, can capture the whole. History, like reality, is too messy. 

6. What history can do is change its focus. The focus may be like a telescope searching deep into the past seeking to discover the most significant events, the historical equivalent of the birth of stars and galaxies. Or it can focus like a microscope on the minute details an event. No one focus can claim primacy. One can turn from Big History (that starts with the Big Bang) to the course of empires to five days in London in May 1940. All can be useful and fascinating. 

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