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The Purposes of History

July 7, 2010

I’m currently reading James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak, which I think is brilliant. I think this bit is rather well said:

This phenomenon of the “good old days” is, of course, socially created for the explicit purpose of comparison with the current situation. (164)

As in any history, assessing the present forcibly involves a reevaluation of what has gone before. Thus, ideological struggle to define the present is a struggle to define the past as well. … [These villagers] have collectively created a remembered village and a remembered economy that serve as an effective ideological backdrop against which to deplore the present. (178)

15 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2010 4:51 pm

    So few realize our perceptions of the past rarely touch upon reality. A white middle class man recently said to me that women and men should return to their historic roles.

    He smugly took a swig of his beer. I answered. The earliest civilizations where domestication occurred appear to be led by females. Ancient idols and depictions of leaders are of women.
    (A Turkish site called Catul Hyuk, spelling may be wrong.)

    A religious person said to me, “the end is near”, then named war, famine, disease (AIDS) as reasons why. Since he was Protestant I paraphrased Luther who had said the same things, and named the same reasons, except the plague was the disease of his day.

    Thanks for the post, it inspires thought.

  2. July 8, 2010 2:05 pm

    There is much ideological power in nostalgia.

  3. larry c. wilson permalink
    July 9, 2010 10:23 am

    There’s nostalgia, chronology, and history. Try not to confuse them.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 10, 2010 8:48 am

    Please Larry, do enlighten us as to the differences!

    Since the classical idea of objectivity is dead, the sharp differences drawn between history and, say, propaganda don’t make sense anymore.

  5. larry c. wilson permalink
    July 11, 2010 3:15 pm

    No need to be snarky.

  6. larry c. wilson permalink
    July 11, 2010 3:17 pm

    The idea that objectivity (classical or otherwise) is dead is just a philosophical conceit…and hardly a new one at that.

  7. July 12, 2010 7:59 pm

    in full snark, I must add that Scott’s entire oeuvre is pretty fantastic, and his most recent tome, How Not To Be Governed: an anarchist history of Southeast Asia is going to revolutionize my field of the history and anthropology of Southeast Asian religion.

  8. July 12, 2010 8:00 pm

    also, because I don’t have a better place to send this, I wonder about the Blogging Author’s response to this article, which was just forwarded to me:

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 13, 2010 6:32 am

    Very interesting story, Erik—not the least of which because I know people who live in that area of Ohio.

    My initial read is that the research doesn’t demonstrate much; I’m not surprised that Evangelicals can list “economics” as a big issue facing the nation, especially since that’s a really poor county.

    But my guess is that most Evangelicals will read the situation using a common sense, libertarian styled story: economic problems are caused by laziness, greedy (cheating) CEOs, and government interference.

    The more progressive Evangelicals named at the bottom of the story (like Jim Wallis) probably have few followers in the midwest (although I know a few there, and it’s possible they’re growing).

  10. July 13, 2010 10:48 am

    Thanks for weighing in; I’m in agreement, but my reflexive separation of religion and progressive politics (let alone revolutionary ones) is so strong that I often find it useful to ask for other responses. My sense is that while religious institutions may occasionally lend decisive weight to progressive politics, they cannot be counted upon to do so, precisely because of the authoritarian nature of religious institutions. Over the long term, the interests of the institution will always re-align with conservativism and reaction.

  11. July 13, 2010 7:50 pm

    Erik — why do you think Scott’s new work will revolutionize the field of history/anthropology on Southeast Asian religion? Just curious.

  12. July 14, 2010 12:54 pm

    @Cris – I plan on writing up a lengthier review at some point soon on my site, but briefly, Scott’s argument finally, crucially, manages to turn much of the perception of relevant and central evidence in the region on its head. Instead of separate culture areas in the lowlands from the Mekong Basin through Central Asia, with pockets of remnant ‘highland’ cultures in mountains, Scott forcefully describes the region’s mountainous corridor as the defining feature, and highland cultures as ones of historic and political opposition to lowland cultures. None of these arguments are particularly new – in this, Scott’s book is largely a popularizing effort – but because of Scott’s erudition, clear writing, and long reputation of excellence, it’s already having an enormous effect on those working in the field, with multiple sessions at most major disciplinary conferences of relevance to SEA dedicated to discussions of the book or its themes.

  13. larry c. wilson permalink
    July 27, 2010 9:10 pm

    Nostalgia generally is the uncomplicated yearning for the world of one’s childhood. If one’s childhood was painful or somehow unsatisfactory, then the nostalgia is shifted to some past period that the individual is able to romanticize by not digging too deeply into the details of that past.

  14. larry c. wilson permalink
    July 27, 2010 9:13 pm

    Chronology is the listing in date order (When?) of What? Who? Where? and How?

  15. larry c. wilson permalink
    July 27, 2010 9:19 pm

    Now, of course, there is no agreement among historians (professional or otherwise) as to the definition of history or its purpose. For me it is simply a story well told. Every historian has a story to tell with a thesis they want to convince the reader to accept as the truth, or at least an approximation thereof. What is truth?, he asked. The answer is whatever works for the reader or listener or viewer. What do I mean by “works”? Read William James.

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