Monday, 23 May, 2011


Ocassionally one has to write essays/papers for undefined, unimportant reasons. These papers are long and winding and interesting only to the professor who corrects them, or maybe not. But having written them one needs outlets other than in the classroom. Hence the blog comes in handy, for every piece of writing banal or not that is ever written and to satiate the Id, Ego and Super Ego.

Not having any history is like having amnesia. If we did not know history we would have very little sense of identity, of our roots and origins and why we are the way we are. History helps us understand past circumstances that have created the present situation and more importantly how it might affect the future. One can understand cause and effect, of how important ideas and events played out and more. History is the key to understanding civilizations which is the key to understanding the society we live in today.

As Innis's erudite dissertation on Empires and Communications so clearly highlighted, the link between topography that gave rise to mediums of communication and how communication mediums in turn played a pivotal role in the development of societies, contributing to the rise and fall of empires in ancient civilizations. Each new medium, created a paradigm shift in the social conditions of the empires and gave birth to a new age of mankind, starting from papyrus to the present age of the printing press. This study makes it easier to speculate and predict the future of our society which is increasingly being defined by the internet. History gives us an anchor so we do not have to begin all over again.

Being a complex web of interacting events that took place in the past, by taking a step back and viewing history on a vast canvas we can identify patterns that have shaped our society. History therefore gives a point of reference to our existence. People can clearly understand how things are related to one another. We now know that while paper was invented by the Chinese in 104 AD the printing press was invented several centuries later in 1440 by John Gutenberg in Germany. The Bible being the first book that was mass printed and distributed would explain the quick spread of Christianity across different parts of the world as compared to the rest of religions, which in turn explains the Christian influences present in the laws and policies of today.

In the case of India a similar analogy would explain the influences of upper caste Hindus in the structuring of our society even today. The point is that unless we know the foundation of our society we cannot question or probe the accepted beliefs and social norms that we live within. To quote Gombrich, “you have to know what you are fighting against.” History helps us make the changes that need to be made.

Another important function of history is that it creates value. Without understanding the world we cannot understand the context in which we live. Every word written or article published, every creation of mankind relates to the past and aims at the future. So to appreciate what exists today one must know the conditions in which it was created. When I first saw an example of the paintings of the Impressionists, while admitting they were eye catching and beautiful it was still difficult to understand the exalted position that the Impressionist movement holds in history. It takes a look into the history of art for one to know that prior to the Impressionists, European painting was muted, conservative, conventional and covered in dusty browns and blacks, it is only then that one can appreciate the path-breaking technique of the Impressionists, the vibrancy and explosion of colour and movement in the paintings of Monet, Degas and Renoir. While originality does exist and is certainly a very important aspect of creation, even originality has meaning only within history. History helps in creating value and meaning in society.

History also gives us a sense of community as we share a common inheritance, be it linguistic, racial, national or with mankind as a whole. We can understand what it means to be in somebody else's shoes. We can better relate to the atmosphere and situation during the battle of Thermopylae to the World Wars, to understand the conditions of people during the slave trade and repression in history and then to be able to relate them to British colonization and the fear of persecution. We can get a better idea of what is was like to live in China during the Cultural Revolution or what it means to be an American. History defines people and places and enables them to understand one another through those definitions of culture, community ,language and race.

Lastly history is a question of curiosity and pleasure. L.P Hartley said that 'the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' The past attracts us, we want to know of the time of Kings and Queens and how they lived, of great Statesman and priests and what they said and also of the common laborer and his life in ancient Egypt and what he endured. These stories fascinate us and unleash imagination. History inspires.

Considering that the uses and reasons of historical writings are manifold and have an impact on our thinking and actions it is crucial to understand the ways in which history is written and interpreted. The recorded version that we usually read is that of the survivor,the mightier, the one who was loud enough to be heard. What then happens to the lesser voices that lived through the same time? As a journalist especially it is extremely important to get a 360 degree view of any subject, including the past. Questions such as

-Who wrote the text?

-Who were they writing for?

-Why were they writing the text?

-When did they write it?

Hence social scientists try to see through the various methodologies by which history has been documented down the ages, so one may in future be able to record and analyze historical writing as objectively and truthfully as possible, free of manipulation and influence. Authors such as Joan Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob in their book 'Telling the Truth about History' point out three types of 'intellectual absolutism' that help better in understanding why the past is remembered the way it is.

The Age of Enlightenment , beginning in the early 18th century was a time when Religion gradually gave way to Science. An empirical method of collecting evidence and writing was favoured over narratives based on faith alone. The word of Scientists gained precedence over the word of religious heads. Historians using a value neutral methods acted as 'passionless investigators' and wrote history based on proven facts. The downside of this method was that it was a fragmented view of those times and conditions as it disregarded subjective viewpoints.

As the Age of Enlightenment gave way to a post modern society that focused on development, historians accepted that to objectively document history one must pay attention to the social circumstances that guide the actions of men and women. A study of this kind was more complex though as it meant that everything was viewed relatively, also, studying social conditions generated a huge amount of data to sift through. The post modernists also laid emphasis on words and the constraints of language which might create linguistic biases in historical writings. Many a times history is manipulated through the way the writer uses language and the true taste of that time is lost.

The last kind of absolutism that influenced historians is that of nationalism. History began to be recorded by keeping nation building in view. To give them a sense of identity historians wrote about present conditions while keeping in mind their place in comparison to the rest of the world. This breed of historians considered themselves to be 'practical realist' The authors also highlight natural science and human sciences, the verification of which come with similar challenges, except, in the case of human sciences the challenges are more as it is not a study that can be done in isolation, human nature being influenced by a myriad of circumstance.

In recent times we have alternate opinions and various people trying to rewrite history through their views and perspectives. We have the Revisionists who deny the Holocaust and proclaim it as a Zionist propaganda to gain sympathy, then there are the conspiracy theorists who have their own elaborate explanations about everything from the death of Princess Diana to Area 51, but history is not only based on perspectives and opinions but hard facts and such evidence that has survived the test of time. The survived evidence in itself may create a bias but in a much lesser degree than theories based on pure speculation.

In spite of all said and done, as the American historian Carl .L. Becker once said, “ All historians, even the most scientific have bias, if in no other sense than the determination not to have any.

Yet we try and persevere as each of us is part of history in the making.

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