Re: In re Davenport (2), aka "History is dead?"

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Wed, 13 Mar 1996 17:28:28 +0900

At 4:49 PM 96.3.12 +0900, John McCreery wrote:
>Clyde Davenport writes,
>"Have we not lost the sense of being in the midst of living
>history and so try to recreate the (dead) history of the
>past in the present?"

>As I read this, I am puzzled. Who is this "we" that
>Davenport is speaking of?

A good question, since the "we" voice in writing is
often a rhetorical ploy to draw the reader into identifying
with a pre-existing collectivity (which may though be
nothing more than the writer's assembled opinions).
However, in the context of what I wrote immediately before
and after the above sentence it is clear that I meant
"people in the late 20th century" or "we moderns
(or postmoderns)."

>I grew up, as I've said before, in Virginia and
>was schooled in institutions that reminded me repeatedly
>that I lived and walked on hallowed ground where the first
>English-speaking settlements were founded, and great
>battles of the Revolution and the Civil War were fought.

OK, so I admit that we are taught "history" in school, but I
never liked this kind of history found in books in part because
it was so much a recreated history, or in fact an invented history.
This is slightly off the point, but why was it that you were
taught nothing of the "history" of the people who were there
before the first English settlers arrived (and so little of what
the First Peoples' history was and has been after the English
settlers, etc., took things over)? Also, (in my experience) the
treatments of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War that we
get in primary and secondary schools are on the whole superficial,
and ideologically biased. It's meant to make us good patriotic
citizens, but not to help us to understand what our historical
tradition is in its many guises (as I'm sure the feminists
will also tell you).

Actually, I think that one long-standing feature of our American
culture has been its forgetfulness of history. We have looked to
the future, and not the past, in part because we know that we
have a rather ugly past. Also, we came to America to get away
from Europe, so we have not been overly interested in importing
the European notion of history. This in part explains the
"historical" weakness of communism in the U.S., since Marxism
merely continues (albeit intensifying) the European notion
of history as linear progress to some goal.

>My grandfather drove the mules when his family moved
>from one town to another in Missouri. My parents
>experienced the Great Depression and WWII.

My family has had this kind of situated history, too. But when
we speak of the "end of history" we are not talking about this
kind of experience of things happening to us personally, or to our
ancestors. The "end of history" concerns the end of history from
a more global political or cultural point of view. If you want to
use you parents and grandfather as examples, this is all well and
good. But you should reveal how their reaction to these events in
their lives were conditioned by the grand metanarratives in the
"history" in which they found themselves in. For example, in the
Great Depression were your parents socialists, New Dealers, or
some other species of political animal? In WWII, did your
parents believe that we (Americans) were fighting to rid the
world of fascism? Etc.

>I myself am able to remember
>the in-bound tracers in news footage when John Cameron
>Swazey reported the Inchon landings in Korea, the news of
>Sputnik, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin
>Luther King, the Nixon visit to China,

Here you find yourself influenced by the new medium of TV
in your historical imagination. TV makes it seem as if you were
right there in seeing "the in-bound tracers." Your "images" of
the other events were also no doubt influenced by TV (which is
not to say that you didn't read the newspaper, etc., but your
knowledge gained therein was contextualized through
the images you received from the boob tube).

>the introduction of the fax machine and PC.

Ah, the march (it's not dance, it's drill) of technology!
The speed of progress, and history becomes ever more
rapid, dizzying, blinding.

>As someone who did fieldwork and still
>has friends in Taiwan, not to mention a daughter in
>training to become an officer in the U.S. Navy, I read news
>of Chinese missile launches in the straits of Taiwan and
>maneuverings of U.S. warships in the waters near Taiwan
>with a keen personal interest.

Bringing up China also brings up the issue of how the
Chinese have a rather different sense of their own history
than that which Europeans or Americans have had (but may
no longer have any more, at least in the same way). For a
time in the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, it seemed
as if the Chinese were going to destroy their sense of
having a unique historical past. But this background of
cultural history was too resilient to be destroyed by one
communist leader (who unconsciously behaved in the grand
style of a Chinese emperor of old). But it is possible that
today's hypercapitalism will succeed where communism had
failed. At any rate, the economic dislocations occurring in
China today through market reforms are quite frightening in
their political implications. A war could be useful to give
the vast numbers of unemployed people something to do.

Also, to understand the relation between Taiwan and China,
and the fierce pride which China takes in insisting that Taiwan
is not independent (which strikes the Western observer as
patently counterfactual), is only possible if you cast off the
baggage of our own Western intellectual past and come to see
things from the viewpoint of Chinese civilization and culture
(albeit in its present seemingly Marxist guise). That the U.S.
wants to get involved in this difficult relation is worrying.
Having lost the Cold War (here I mean not the "lost" of "winning"
and "losing"--Hey, we won, didn't we?--but rather the "lost" of
"misplaced") as a guide for policy, we have been left free floating
in our political destiny. But politicians abhor a vacuum so
perhaps they are trying to reinvent a new scenario to replace
the one we lost.

>This week I attended a Democratic party caucus in
>Tokyo and cast my votes for resolutions for the party
>program. As someone who works in the advertising
>business, I am constantly aware of the need to follow
>changes in Japanese consumer behavior and trade frictions
>between the U.S. and Japan. History is very alive to me.

What is this "history" of changes in consumer behavior and
trade friction between the U.S. and Japan if not the clash
between the old monopolist mode of capitalism (where each
country protected its own industries) and the transnationalist
mode where countries (and thus, too, "history" in the old sense)
lose much of their significance as independent entities? And
what is a certain patriotic expatriate U.S. citizen doing at a
Democratic convention held in a foreign country, but trying to
get information that will be useful to him in his work for a
Japanese advertising company? It's all a little difficult
for me to imagine what actually is going on here with all
the shifts of place and allegiance.

>Then I pick up my newspaper. I read about Bosnia, bombings
>in Israel, the fury of the Irish Republican army, the
>prospect of massacres in Burundi, battles in Chechnya, not
>to mention that business with China I mentioned above. All
>involve thousands, millions, perhaps even billions of
>people who care deeply about their history . It strikes me
>(and, yes, I am being deliberately bitchy) that only
>ostriches with their heads in sands of MTV could believe
>the proposition that history is dead. I do not count myself
>among them.

Of course, one need not pick up a newspaper since the
same information is beamed to your home for your own
private perusal. The news stories from every corner of
the globe rapidly (basically instantly) are available for
your viewing pleasure. What is left out is the "historical"
context behind all these struggles which would make the
positions of the various groups of participants more
understandable. TV is instantaneous and global, but by
this very fact it prevents us from being able to contextualize
the vast amounts of information we receive. In terms of
providing factual (cultural, historical, etc.) background
information, print media are more enlightening, but
recently many magazines and newspapers have adopted a
TV like approach of using a heavy emphasis on visuals
(in the type of graphic language used as much as in the
photographs) to the detriment of real analysis. [By the
way, the last time I watched MTV was two and a half
years ago when I visited my friend in the States.]

In closing, I would like to say that in responding to John
McCreery's reply I realized that we have many different
notions which we subsume under the same rubric of "history"
Our discussions would be more profitable if we didn't get
them confused. A tentative list would go something like this:

1. History as the things which we remember happening to us
directly, or which other people have told to us. I think this is
basically an anthropological (or ethnographic) notion of history.

2. History as the study of people's or ethnic groups. This, too,
is basically an anthropological form of history although
anthropological studies of this kind of history tend to leave
out the politics (and their history).

3. History as the history of political interactions between
different groups in one country. This kind of history will
necessarily always be biased as it will be written from one
kind of political viewpoint.

4. History as the story of countries and their interactions
with each other. This is the stuff of ordinary textbook
history of primary and secondary schools. It is also always
a biased form of history because there is no third-party
perspective to take in order to step outside the flow of
history in this sense. It's always going to be from a
particular country's point-of-view (or from the point-
of-view of a particular group within a particular country).

5. History as a more regional entity. Here we have things
like the history of Western civilization or the history of
Chinese civilization (the latter in an emic sense). Here,
the boundary of the nation-state is overcome, but this
overcoming of boundaries also has a political meaning
(colonialism, etc.)

6. History as critique. Here some theoretical perspective
is used to overcome the biases of (at least) some of these
other kinds of histories. Feminism and Marxism are two good
examples of this kind of history (although Marxism also has
its variant of "official Marxist history" which is a version
of #5).

7. True scientific (world) history. Here "science" is being
used in its good sense as a system of comprehensive
knowledge (and not in its negative sense of "scientism" which
would result in a history like that in #5). I think we have a
long way to go in this regard. All the "history" is out there, but
it has not yet been synthesized together into a coherent
narrative. There's just too much data (as well as gaps in
the data).

Concerning the postmodern sense of the "end" of history,
what is being talked about is the sense of history involved
in primarily #5. History loses its meaning as an ideological
guide. This is also what Fukuyama talks about: "The struggle
for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely
abstract goal, the world ideological struggle that called forth
daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by
economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems,
environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated
consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be
neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of
the museum of human history. (1989: 3)" (quoted in David
Ashley, "Playing with Pieces: The Fragmentation of Social
Theory" in _Critical Theory Now_, Philip Wexler, Falmer
Press, 1991, p. 83)

The end of history idea potentially also represents,
though, #6, history as critique. It tries to show us that
something is missing in our lives so that we will be able
to try to take action to change our situation.

Well, there are other things I could say here, but this
is already getting too long. And since I didn't bother
to do much in the way of research before writing this
(I just used my stock of knowlege at hand, which seems to
be the typical style on this list), I do not want to belabor
my hurriedly thought out points.

Clyde Davenport
Somewhere in Japan
3/13/96 or 8/3/13 (it is the eighth year in the reign of the Heisei emperor)