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History today is at the crossroads of many disciplines

A conversation with Dipesh Chakrabarty, a professor of history at the University of Chicago. Interviewer: Povilas Andrius Stepavičius

October 7, 2019 - Dipesh Chakrabarty Povilas Andrius Stepavičius - Hot TopicsInterviews

Photo Columbia GSAPP (CC) www.flickr.com

POVILAS ANDRIUS STEPAVIČIUS: What is the purpose of history in the 21st century? Is history still a teacher of life?

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: History does not teach in the way that Machiavelli would have thought that history was a teacher. He could delve into history – read Livy, for instance – to see examples of good statesmanship that he thought would help rulers in his own time. That was an age when politics was equated to the statesmanship and the character of ruler, so one could gain from studying instructive examples from a much older period. We don’t read history like that anymore. When we historicise, we put ideas and people back in their own contexts, something that Machiavelli as a reader would not do. Besides, in the 20th century, especially in its second half when, in the Anglo countries at least, what was called “social history” dominated and was favoured over political history, history absorbed a lot of sociology – mainly of the Marxist variety – and construed politics more in terms of group, class, or national interests, and underplayed the influence of the individual actor or statesman. History, as a discipline, became a soft version of sociology though with more of an openness to the individual and the contingent that “social science,” especially in its American version, would allow for.

But this has also declined with the decline of social-scientistic Marxism. The 1970s and 80s saw a rising division between humanistic and “scientific” Marxism – as shown in the one-sided quarrels that the great English Marxist historian E. P. Thompson picked with the French Marxist philosopher Althusser – but that also subsided with Marxism leaving a residue of common sense, as historians got increasingly involved with gender, sexuality, post-colonialism and subalternity, materiality, neuro-history, and other various subjects. They also moved away from the national context in which history was mostly studied. Global and connected histories became the rallying cry of the late 20th century. The 21st century has seen the addition of big history and deep history to this list, signifying the increasing importance of the deep past in understanding the human present. History and historians are today at the crossroads of many disciplines: we are trying to see how everyday experiences may be related not only to the intermediate-level abstract structures we create as analytical and heuristic devices – such as the idea of global capital or the institutions of capitalism – to ideas derived from evolution, neurology, big data, Earth science, global warming, the idea of the Anthropocene, and so on. This does not mean that the old interests have all vanished, but that some strong new interests are visible as well.

In your work and research you demonstrated that the dominating Eurocentric view in history can be inaccurate. Why is it important to distance ourselves from this view and what are we leaving behind of our understanding if we continue to see history in this way?

It is not so much inaccurate as it is seriously incomplete. I tried to show that many European thinkers (such as Marx or Weber) have been globally influential. This would not have been the case if they were wrong or inaccurate in any obvious sense. It is more that their thoughts regarding humanity were often incomplete as their statements and philosophies were based often on historical experience of imperial and Christian Europe. That is why I said that there was need for non-European peoples who had been deeply influenced by European thought to “provincialize” that body of thought, that is to say, to find out both the sense in which this thought was particularly European and also how others made this thought their one’s own by engaging in the politics of translation.

Although discussions about advantages of non-Eurocentric view of history is quite well-known in the world, however, in countries like Lithuania (i.e. small both by territory and by population), the view to history is not only based on a Eurocentric world-view, but also aimed at national feelings. In Lithuania, we can say that we have an Lithuano-centric view of history. Could this point of view cause problems in our understanding of history, our mentality, society etc.? Or maybe it can co-exist with the broader view of history and, thus, give us a better understanding of the past and present?

Of course, you run the risk of being blindly nationalist, something that can give rise to versions of racism, lack of cosmopolitanism, chauvinistic feelings, and so on. You need to know your own history deeply but also about its connections with other histories and other peoples. We are a one huge human family, internally divided but connected too. So I would say that nation-centred histories need to be supplemented or challenged by our readings in world history, global history, larger histories of the modern world, the history of modern empires, ideologies and capitalism, and so on.

Since we can talk about changes of understanding the spatial part of history, could we also be talking about changes in understanding historical time? How different perspectives of historical research can influence understanding the conception of time in histories of different countries, nations, societies and so on? Why is it important to think about that?

There is a tension between the time of historical chronology – often seen as a straightforward laying out of a series of dates that follow one another on a linear calendar – and the various experiences, both secular and religious, of time that inform human action. Vanessa Ogle has a very interesting book on the development of global time that has to do with the rise of the modern world. But humans in their thoughts and practices inhabit multiple ideas about time. In the 1980s and 90s, because of the prevalence of such currents of thought as postcolonialism, postmodernism, and because of the rise of indigenous histories, there was much discussion about the nature and limitations of the discipline of history as it has developed in the West. Hayden White’s work in the early 1970s gave rise to a serious discussion about history as a form of writing. At the same time, the coming of micro-history (in the works of Natalie Davis and Carlo Ginzburg) and the Indian series, Subaltern Studies, also reinvigorated discussions of historical or the historian’s methods of knowing the past.

Today’s world is marked not only by constant and fast changes, but also by an understanding that human-kind has become one of the major factors shaping Earth’s destiny. Is manthesole actor in this play? How we can answer this question and how it may shape our understanding of world history?

Humans have, through the expansion of global capitalism and the incessant drive towards economic growth that we appear unable to wean ourselves from, created an environmental crisis of planetary dimensions. But I think it would be wrong to think of humans as the sole actor in this. We are also learning about how human actions impact on the planet and trigger some processes that are planetary in nature and that help in the maintenance of life on the planet. So one could talk of the planet itself – a dynamic system of interlocking relationships – as a co-actor. And you could complicate the picture. Animals we keep and whose lives we have industrialised also produce greenhouse gases (such as methane) in considerable amounts but would you consider them co-actors? They are so in an immediate sense but surely they owe their numbers to our organisation of the food industry, so the responsibility devolves on our lifestyles and life choices.

What can we learn from the history of non-human species or such research as history of climate, etc.?  Maybe we are entangled in an anthropocentric worldview?

The history of man-animal relations or even of human-non-human relations is increasingly becoming a popular topic of research, particularly in environmental history. This has been happening since the rise of the environmentalist movements of the 1970s but it is now becoming more mainstream. I have a colleague who just produced a book on imperial use of animals in British India and a former student who recently published a book on the human relationship to insects in the tea gardens of the Indian state of Assam. So, yes, the non-human is coming more into focus in new versions of human history, and our usual anthropocentrism is getting challenged.

What do you think will be the future of historical research? Will historiography be dominated by works from “big history” or “deep history”? Or maybe historians will work on fully digitalised extended research in which they will analyse various fantastic questions about past and present? Or maybe, just maybe, the profession of historian will become too complex, because all today’s historical sources will be digitalised and owned by private companies?

I don’t think big history or deep history will as such dominate humanist histories, but there will be more conversation among these sub-disciplines and that humanist historians will be more aware of developments in the former two fields. Their methods are, after all, quite different: original research in big or deep history requires some training in scientific methods and even in laboratory work (as archaeologists routinely have to do). Textual historians do not have that training, though there could be collaborative work, as already happens between archaeologists and textual historians in cases where both artefacts and texts are available. Digitisation of sources will, of course, happen and there are already complicated legal issues affecting the life and ownership of e-mail communication (does Gmail own my letters or I do?). So yes the nature of archives is changing directly before our eyes.

Future historians will have to supplement their skills at reading written sources with new skills of reading films, audio-visual materials and the digital media. History may change its form – maybe future historians will produce multi-media accounts of what they have to say – but will human interest in human pasts decline? I don’t think so. Humans are constitutionally interested in their pasts. It is one way we explain our lives and the present. And the more global and planetary crises deepen, people will want to know what got us here. So history, in whatever form, will remain important as an explanatory mechanism.

Dipesh Chakrabarty is a professor of history, South Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is The Crises of Civilization: Exploring Global and Planetary Histories.

Povilas Andrius Stepavičius is a PhD student of Early Modern European History at Vilnius University.

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