Sunday 21 October, 2018

Towards Histories of Our Times: An Invitation

History writing can be be approached at three disciplinary planes –philosophical, literary and of course historical. For a philosopher the main interest area is the ways of knowing and constructing the past and the implications of ideas deployed therein.

 This naturally involves consciousness about the ‘methods of historiography’ viz. how to adjudicate testimony and evidence; in want of which history will become a fiction or a work of literature.

To situate the history of a particular space in a particular time-frame and with a particular purpose may involve a deliberately chosen/created context and a mode of narrative. The final product of such historiographical process is debated not because of the facts presented through it, but because of the selection of the factors like time-frame, subject of narrative, purpose etc. which form (or are according to) the agenda of writing history – quite often there may be a very well conceived and sophisticated agenda (political, communal or whatever) at operation prior to conceiving the history itself. For a good ‘politics of history’ one has to have a good sense of selection of the factors shaping the history. On the same account, for a philosopher, a statesman and for a historiographer all history is contemporary history.

So, for a pertinent historiography, one’s choosing a particular method (eg. empirical method) for history must portray the intended purpose to be served by it. This kind of honesty would give a critique a right space for framing counter-arguments and constructing alternative histories; and also a right platform for appreciating a work of history. The clarity about the intended purpose would also determine the method to be adopted for the purpose.

Howsoever, when we choose empirical method, it should be made clear as in contrast to what or in comparison to what method the chosen method is more compatible or apt, though much care is needed in adopting the empirical method because it may sometime portray the ‘world of history’ to be the ‘world of science’ – the view which has been contested.

By focusing on the structures and strategies of historical accounts, Hayden White came to see historiography and literature as fundamentally the same endeavor. As in similar tone in India, KC Bhattacharya rendered all the evolution theories (in science) as a work of literature. There is no ‘ideal narratio’ for Frank Ankersmit, because ultimately there is no ontological structure onto which the single ‘correct’ narration can be correspondentially grafted. Keith Jenkins exhorts an end to historiography as customarily practiced. Since historians can never be wholly objective, and since historical judgment cannot pretend to a correspondential standard of truth, all that remains of history are the congealed power structures of a privileged class.

With these thoughts, I wish to approach the process of History writings which began in the nineteenth century at least at two levels, identified as popular (in various forms) and academic (official, “scientific” and verifiable) histories. Working on the Hindi intelligentsia of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries I came across to materials which suggest that the history meant various things to people in a complex way. So far, the writings of the past (including my own) are often mired in discourses of secular and communal, which overlook the many strands of ideas and cultural practices which sought to vindicate that instead of such binaries, there were constant bouts of competition, collaboration and assimilation creating spaces between the communal and the secular.

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