Is The Past Another Country?

Katerina Gregos

If there are two defining and symbolic dates in recent history that have marked the world and collective memory for subsequent years, one would be 1989, and the other, 2001. For many people, the day on which the Berlin wall fell was one of perceived optimism and hope; the day on which the twin towers collapsed was dystopian as it was shocking, and marked the beginning of a period of regression and counter-Enlightenment policies in the name of “safety and security”. It is now twenty-two years after the demise of “real socialism” and ten years after 9/11; post-1989 euphoria has evaporated and post-9/11 fear and pessimism persist, fuelled by the banking crisis (2008 is also a key date in this respect, and may prove to be much more momentous than 9/11 in the long run), economic instability, continuing conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and the rise of the right wing in Europe. In these last twenty years, momentous political and ideological shifts have taken place, from the demise of socialism and the collapse of ideological “certainties”, to the consolidation of global capitalism and neo-liberalism, and in some cases, the rise of nationalism and xenophobia. 

At the same time, Western consumerist culture has increasingly become the desirable norm in the “planetary casino” of the global market economy (to borrow an expression by philosopher and economist Cornelius Castoriadis) and there has also been a momentous shift in the representation and perception of reality itself; technology having dramatically altered the way in which we conduct our lives and experience reality. But has there been time to truly evaluate and understand that which is our elusive present? Do we possess the clarity to anticipate the future aside from the usual blind optimism or rhetorics of catastrophology? According to the recently deceased historian Tony Judt, we are living in an unpolitical age of forgetting, one in which there is a prevalent belief that “the past has nothing of interest to teach us. Ours, we insist, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent”;1 it is a world where we seek “actively to forget rather than to remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion”.2 He goes on to say: “In the wake of 1989, with boundless confidence and insufficient reflection, we put the twentieth century behind us and strode boldly into its successor swaddled in self-serving half-truths: the triumph of the West, the end of History, the unipolar American moment, the ineluctable march of globalization and the free market… The problem [with all of this] is the message: that all of that is now behind us, that its meaning is clear, and that we may now advance—unencumbered by past errors—into a different and better era.” 3 

A generation of politicians and citizens who are oblivious to history are turning the twentieth century into a “moral memory palace”, he argues, sacrificing history to both myth making and denial over memory. This not only has disturbing implications for the future of democratic governance but also leads to what he calls the “misidentification of the enemy”.4 Burgeoning ignorance and amnesia is proving, he argues, calamitous, with the clear prospect of worse to come. 

A fairly recent case in point would be the war in Iraq. During his time as Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in his drive to defend his motion to authorize the war in Parliament, failed to mention Britain’s previous invasion of Iraq in 1914, which was carried out in order to protect its oil interests in the region. Had the British public been informed of Britain’s previous adventure there, the situation would have been better illuminated and would or might have brought sharply into focus the risk of insurgency and continuing instability after the invasion, quite possibly changing public opinion and the political consensus on the war.5 In his book Why History Matters,6 historian John Tosh argues that New Labor’s whole political machine was built on amnesia; amnesia that facilitated this very dangerous venture. He warns of the precariousness of hiding historical facts for political purposes, using over-simplified historical analogies to justify public policy decisions, or hand picking arguments to suit courses of action, and advocates the return of the function of history in the public sphere. He goes on to say that “active citizenship in a deliberative democracy stands in much greater need of historical knowledge than is generally recognized” 7 and that “thinking historically has a crucial part to play in the intellectual equipment of the active, concerned citizen”.8 Finally he suggests that our world would be better governed and administered if a better understanding of the past were available to decision makers and the public. 

While acknowledging the problems that history as an academic discipline is plagued by, as well as the problematics of historiography and the fact that history may be abused, manipulated or distorted, this paper advocates the importance of history as a tool for furthering knowledge and awareness, supporting the belief in the social use of history, as well as the important role it has to play in battling amnesia, selective memory, forgetfulness, and our culture’s short attention span. 

The speed with which events occur, are transmitted, consumed and then brushed aside nowadays entails that our understanding of the present is now, perhaps more than ever, temporary and ephemeral, not to mention partial. How do we cope in today’s hurried, information overloaded, perpetually networked, Blackberried, i-Phoned and i-Padded society which ceaselessly demands instant gratification? One could say that to a great degree, our culture seems dominated by “presentism” or “short-termism” — the tendency to focus on the narrow conditions of the moment — and to uncritically embrace modernity, technology and progress as being a boon to society. This no doubt fosters amnesia and selective memory, not to mention ignorance. In the maze and wake of information overload and global event saturation, it now seems even more important to recall history and past events as a key to unlocking contemporary identities and psyches, and positing visions of the future. As the veteran Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (arguably one of the greatest historians of our time) has unequivocally put it, “History alone provides orientation and anyone who faces the future without it is not only blind but dangerous, especially in the era of high technology”.9

Though the present is often envisaged as being utterly divorced or cut off from the past, we tend to forget that, in reality, the past is a “collective continuity of experience”.10 In the continuum that constitutes time, “The past is a permanent dimension of the human consciousness… to be a member of any human community is to situate oneself with regards to one’s past, if only by rejecting it… For the greater part of history we deal with societies and communities for which the past is essentially the pattern for the present”.11 It now appears that for the first time, we have begun moving further and further away from this idea. 

The Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew has termed this increasing prevalence of historical denial “Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder” (HASDD).12 He maintains that this "disrespect for the long-term past produces two serious intellectual disorders. First, the delusion that what is newest is necessarily most advanced—not a proposition which anyone with even an outline knowledge of the thousand years which followed the fall of the Roman Empire would take seriously… And second, the belief that interpreting the past and forecasting the future require an understanding only of the recent past… This kind of intellectual parochialism has, for example, led to the common belief that globalization is an off-shoot of American capitalism rather than a product of a long and complex interaction between the West and other cultures."13

In light of this situation, it is thus perhaps an opportune moment to reiterate what in fact should be obvious: that the concept of history plays a fundamental role in human thought. It invokes notions of human agency, change, the role of material circumstances in human affairs, and the putative meaning of historical events. It raises the possibility of learning from past events. And it suggests the possibility of better understanding ourselves in the present, by understanding the forces, choices, and circumstances that have brought us to our current situation. 

Indeed, as numerous thinkers have maintained over time, it is necessary to understand what has come before in order to understand the present as well as posit visions for the future. An understanding of history—or histories, as is perhaps more correct a term—is paramount as it entails an understanding of social and cultural being. David Cannadine, professor of history at Princeton University, explains the function of history as a discipline that “makes plain the complexity of human affairs, the range and variety of human experience, which teaches proportion, perspective, reflectiveness, breadth of view, tolerance of differing opinions and thus a greater sense of self knowledge”.14 By extent, it is a truism to say that one can only really know who one is, if one knows where one comes from; it is no coincidence that so many people who have suffered displacement due to personal circumstances customarily try to trace back their origins or find their roots; like the adopted child who eventually wants to find out who his or her true parents are.

The Hegelian notion of history as an inevitable form of progress or development that, in turn, is related to the idea of the perfectibility of humanity—was shattered by the violence and “Total War” of the twentieth century, to borrow the title of Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint’s homonymous, germinal book. Moreover, those who were quick to proclaim “the end of history” (Francis Fukuyama included) and who hastened to announce the victory of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government have had to adopt a more moderate, reserved stance about their sweeping declarations in the light of the rise of authoritarian non-democratic powers (even if they appear in “quasi-capitalist” guise), nationalism, xenophobia, and radical Islam. These are also reasons why John Tosh advocates “that we need to pay more attention to teaching people to think historically. That is to say, to grasp what is the nature of understanding the past in a historical sense, and the ways it could be useful, in an open-ended way” because the difficulty with all these agendas whether national, religious or otherwise is that they are “closed agendas” with only “one outcome in mind, and that’s a denial of what history can primarily offer”.15 

Apart from the fact that arguing in favour of the “end of history” seems a rather myopic view to take, as it does not take into account the passage of time and historical circumstances beyond our own lives, it also completely ignores the unpredictability of historical events. Who could have possibly imagined what happened on 9/11, for example (except for Hollywood blockbuster action film directors?) It also does not take into account the millions of people all over the world who do not enjoy the comfort and relative security of a secular free market democracy. True, it can be argued that democracies are probably better at dealing with poverty but, on the other hand, as Jacques Derrida has pointed out (in response to Fukuyama), never have violence, poverty and inequality affected as many human beings in the history of humanity as now. One cannot speak of history in such absolute, mono-theoristic terms as those of “the end of history” simply because, to quote Alexander Herzen, the father of Russian socialism, “History has no Libretto”. The future, Herzen maintained, was the offspring of accident and willfulness. There was no libretto or destination, and there was always as much in front as there was behind.16

In light of these developments it hardly seems a coincidence that, in recent years, an increasing number of artists are trying to recapture this historical sense, to re-claim its importance and are making work that refers back to history, dealing with notions of time, memory, and bygone events. The work of these artists, such as Yael Bartana, Lene Berg, Matthew Buckingham, Andreas Bunte, Chto Delat?, Omer Fast, Johan Grimonprez, David Maljković, Vincent Meessen, Deimantas Narkevičius, T. J. Wilcox among others, demonstrates a keen desire to connect with and understand the past in order to make sense of the present. As a result, historical and archival research and representation are now a prevalent tendency in some areas of contemporary art. This use and re-use of documents and archives not only sheds new light on important or overlooked aspects of historiography, but also makes cultural and historical attributions shift, highlighting the variable mechanisms of memory and reception.

Likewise, in film and video practices, many strands of historical reference have emerged, as these media are among the most appropriate for the deployment of narrative strategies that historical subject matter invariably relies upon, and because lens-based practices are, in any case, records of things that were registered in the past tense. Perhaps it is the collapse of erstwhile steadfast ideologies, belief systems or political certainties, and the demise of the utopian quest that has caused artists to look back in time, to search for “sheltering perspectives”. In the early and mid-twentieth century there seemed to be a vision of how to advance in the future, in art as well as in politics, something that cannot be said of today. In Eastern Europe the “return of history” 17 — to borrow the title of Robert Kagan’s recent book—in art practice probably relates to the fact that history was violently repressed and historical representation was banished during Communist times, whereas in the Western world the renewed interest perhaps comes from the critical realization that history has tended to be increasingly tied to the leisure agenda, and the entertainment and culture industries and hence has been subjected to commodification, romanticization, nostalgicization, and spectacularization (as opposed to being seriously studied). Despite the abundance of “history as light entertainment” and its consumption in the form of theme parks, museums, heritage sites, and costume dramas on TV and in cinema, it is doubtful whether these forms contribute to historical knowledge or awareness; moreover they clearly have been inadequate to forge a historically well-informed public. Historian and art historian Ludmilla Jordanova suggests that, “if we want to change public cultures connected with history, the ways in which it is presented currently need to be reconsidered”.18 It is within this light that “the artist as historian” has a role to play.

This interest in history and historiography stems from a need to formulate an understanding of the present, from a demand to find meaning in the present and, in some cases, from a desire to imagine the future. Walter Benjamin talked about the “vanishing point of history” as always being in the present moment: “The past carries a secret index with it, by which it is referred to its resurrection. Are we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before? Is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today? ... If so, there is a secret protocol between generations of the past and that of our own”.19 So, in effect, this retreat to the past is not an escape from the present but rather a way in which to confront or comprehend it. Like Benjamin’s view of the historian, many contemporary artists “record the constellation” with which their “own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one” 20 with a view to addressing present day realities and concerns. 

For some, contemporary art history may in retrospect appear “frivolously, irresponsibly obsessed with the past” and that the current interest in historiography is escapist indicating art’s “inability to grasp or even look at the present, much less to excavate the future”.21 I argue the opposite. It is extremely irresponsible not to be interested in the past, for if we are to be able to “grasp or even look at the present” or “think or simply imagine the future” we can only do so with the benefit of hindsight. We need more history, not less, and it is careless and dangerous to disregard it. In contemporary art we all-too-often see this problem emerge in the shortcomings of art education, for example — the ignorance of students who don’t have a past knowledge of art history that they should; works being blindly churned out without knowledge of their genealogy and what has been done before. The current interest in history is not something we can dismiss as one of those “trends” that occur in contemporary art; it is a serious intellectual pursuit of diachronic value. 

The importance of history is of course inextricably tied to the importance of memory. This “historiographic turn” in art is not a mere trend as I have suggested above, but something that is rooted in the historical circumstances of our recent past. Nor is it an entirely new phenomenon that arose in the post-1989 era. In his essay, “The Artist as Historian”, Mark Godfrey points out that already at the end of the 1970s, “There are an increasing number of artists whose practice starts with research in archives, and others who deploy what has been termed an archival form of research”.22 He goes on to elaborate on the two strands that exist within this genre of artists using history: on the one hand, there is a pre-occupation with the “history of mediums and forms” but more importantly, his main point about the “artist as historian” concerns methodology. To that I would add the freedom to engage in what Roland Barthes called “the constant opposition between the discourses of poetry and the novel, the fictional narrative and the historical narrative”.23

Artistically speaking, to borrow images, stories, practices and aesthetics from the past is often to create different narrative methodologies and build bridges with the present, but also to raise awareness of alternative or marginalized narratives; narratives that have been swept aside in the wake of History with a capital “H”. As Fernand Braudel—the foremost French historian of the post-war era—has observed, this “histoire obscure de tout le monde” is the history towards which all historiography tends at present.24 This is no coincidence given that for the most part History has always been written by those in power; the “winners”; or those at the forefront of ruling class politics.25 These so called “grand” or “master” narratives — and the myths and “barbarism” they often perpetuate and sustain have not only been promulgated by ruling class politics but also, in modern times, by the media and culture industries. In that respect, Braudel’s contribution to post-war historiographic practices, like that of the Annales school, has been indispensable, as it has helped to further the study of history on those aspects of it, which have been brushed aside, repressed or left unsaid. 

While historical events are often seen as being perpetually consolidated, one never knows what the outcome will be further down the road. Braudel therefore argues that it is only through study of the longue durée that one can discern structure, the supports and obstacles, the limits man and his experience cannot escape.26 The longue durée is “an experimental approach to the theoretical reconstruction of long-term, large-scale historical change” which “represents a temporal rhythm so slow and stable that it approximates physical geography.” 27 He used the longue durée approach to argue in favour of historical social science and the plurality of historical time, as well as to stress the slow—and often imperceptible—effects of space, climate and technology on the actions of human beings in the past. The media in particular and political opportunists of sorts have been oblivious to the long-term effects of various historical parameters, promoting instead the idea of “event history” which Braudel finds lacking in time density. The Annales historians, grass roots history, and “history from the bottom up” 28 have, to a certain extent, alleviated this “barbarism” of omission that Benjamin refers to. 

The other problem that plagues the historical scholar is the persistence of deep-held myths about the past, selective memory and the effects of these on collective consciousness. These can be better grasped on the micro-level, in terms of family and personal life, for example. “When it comes to families, there is frequently little consensus on the key story and their interpretations. There may not even be a shared account about the nature and timing of key events. People constantly make myths that take deep roots and use existing myths that relate to their past.” 29 The practice of writing history is indeed not an easy one, as it is marked by questions epistemological as well as moral; from the authoritative or subjective voice of the historian to the voiceless position of the subject may stem a whole host of misunderstandings and misrepresentations. How “objective” can the recounting of history be anyway, and whose “History” is it? At what point does truth collapse and fiction take over? 

Roland Barthes posed the very important question: “Does the narration of past events… really differ from imaginary narration, as we find it in the epic, the novel and the drama?” 30 True, the historian must organize her own discourse and in doing so may sacrifice objectivity. Barthes defines the historian not so much as a “collector of facts” as a collector and relater of signifiers; that is to say, “s/he organizes them with the purpose of establishing positive meaning and filling the vacuum of pure, meaningless series”.31 Braudel, on the other hand, pointed out that history does not exist independently of the historian’s perspectives and that the historian intervenes at every stage in the making of history. All these considerations are in one way or another related to two fundamental questions in the philosophy of history: Is there a fixed historical reality, independent from later representations of the facts? Or is history intrinsically constructed, with no objective reality independent from the ways in which it is constructed? 

Whether one subscribes to the objectivist, empiricist, positivist or structuralist view, in this writer’s opinion, there is truth in both the aforementioned statements. The event did happen but we get different stories of it. There is an outside reality outside the reality of language and what is in our heads. To illustrate my point: the twin towers did collapse; there is no doubt about that. How this fact is subsequently interpreted by different parties is another matter altogether. 

History, therefore—as well as the study of it—is a matter of maneuvering slippery, complex concepts. History does not only mean the past but it is also an account of the past, for we do not just want to know what happened, but also how and why. We might ask, what is the purpose of history? Do we study it for its own sake; do we try to find out the truth about the past; do we try to comprehend where we came from; do we try to understand why a particular event happened; do we want to discover historical laws, or do we wish to justify present actions? While historical events are occurrences, history is manmade. It involves matters of authorship, availability and reliability of source material, the interpretation of it, personal interpretation and bias. Historical knowledge is real, because there is material evidence that certain events did occur. But it can be relative as well, because the evidence might be interpreted differently by different historians and in different times. It is objective insofar as there is physical proof of the existence of a past, and it is subjective insofar as there is an historian involved who establishes the narrative. History, much like artistic practice, “is not a cut-and-dried set of arguments and facts; it lives through debate and argument”.32 The “End of History“ has ended, if it ever began.

  • 1. Judt, Tony, “The World We Have Lost” in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, Walter Heinemann, London 2008, p. 2.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Judt, Tony, “What Have We Learned, If Anything?”, The New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 7, May 1, 2008.  See also: www.nybooks.com/articles/21311
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. For more on this repressed history see: Jack Bernstein, The Mesopotamia Mess, InterLingua Publishing, 2008. Bernstein argues that the similarities between the British invasion and occupation in 1914, and the current U.S. experience are remarkable and that there were many lessons that U.S. politicians and military could have—and should have—learned before the 2003 invasion.
  • 6. Tosh, John, Why History Matters, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2008.
  • 7. Tosh, John, “Why History Matters,” transcript of speech at Birkbeck College, London, 28 May, 2008, www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-79.html.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Hobsbawm, Eric, “Looking Forward: History and the Future”, in On History, Abacus, London 2007, p. 69.
  • 10. Ibid, p. 27.
  • 11. Ibid, p. 14.
  • 12. Andrew, Christopher, “Intelligence analysis needs to look backwards before looking forward”, in History and Policy www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-23.html
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Cannadine, David, “Making History Now”, History Today, Vol. 49, July 1999. See also: www.questia.com/googleScholar.qst?docId=5001275704 For further reading: Cannadine, David, Making History, Now and Then: Discoveries, Controversies and Explorations, Palgrave Macmillan, London 2009.
  • 15. Lawless, Andrew, “History Matters: Interview with John Tosh”, November 2008, www.threemonkeysonline.com/als/why_history_matters_john_tosh_interview.html
  • 16. Stoppard, Tom, “The Forgotten Revolutionary”, The Observer, Sunday 2 June 2002 (“Features”, p. 5).
  • 17. Kagan, Robert, The Return of History and the End of Dreams, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008. Kagan argues against “the end of history” and the idea that liberal democratic ideals and market economics have proved illusory stating instead we are witness to the re-emergence of the great autocratic powers, along with the reactionary forces of Islamic radicalism, forces which threaten to weaken the world order. See also: Sanger, David “Democracy, Limited”, New York Times, May 18, 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/books/review/Sanger-t.html
  • 18. Jordanova, Ludmilla, “How history matters now”, History and Policy, www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-80.html. The paper is an expanded version of a speech given by Ludmilla Jordanova at the launch of John Tosh's book, Why History Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) at Birkbeck College, London, on 28 May 2008.
  • 19. Benjamin, Walter, “On the Concept of History”, www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. Roelstraete, Dieter, “After the Historiographic Turn: Current Findings”, e-flux Journal #6, May 2009. www.e-flux.com/journal/view/60
  • 22. Godfrey, Mark, “The Artist as Historian”, October, vol. 120, Spring 2007, p. 143.
  • 23. Barthes, Roland, “Discourse of History”, translated by Stephen Bann. Comparative Criticism, 3 (1981): pp. 7-20. See also: http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/barthes.htm.
  • 24. Braudel, Fernand, “Une Parfaite Réussite”, reviewing Claude Manceron, « La Révolution qui lève », 1785–1787 (Paris, 1979), in L’ Histoire 21 (1980), p. 109.
  • 25. Benjamin, Walter, “On the Concept of History”, www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm.
  • 26. Braudel, Fernand, On History, translated by Sarah Matthews, University of Chicago Press/Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1980.
  • 27. Tomich, Dale, “The Order of Historical Time: The Longue Durée and Micro-history”. Paper presented at “The Longue Durée and World Systems Analysis”, Colloquium to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Fernand Braudel‘s Histoire et Sciences Social: La Longue Durée, Annales E.S.C., XIII 4, 1958, 24–25 October 2008, Fernand Braudel Centre, Binghampton University, Binghampton, New York, p. 2-3.
  • 28. For further reading: Hobsbawm, Eric, “On History From Below”, in On History, Abacus, London 2007, pp. 266-286.
  • 29. Jordanova, Ludmilla, “How history matters now”, History and Policy, www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-80.html. The paper is an expanded version of a speech given by Ludmilla Jordanova at the launch of John Tosh's book Why History Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) at Birkbeck College, London, on 28 May 2008.
  • 30. Barthes, Roland, “Discourse of History”, translated by Stephen Bann. Comparative Criticism, 3 (1981): pp. 7-20. See also: http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/barthes.htm.
  • 31. Ibid.
  • 32. Lawless, Andrew, “History Matters: Interview with John Tosh”, November 2008, www.threemonkeysonline.com/als/why_history_matters_john_tosh_interview.