History is more than the past

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David H. Mould and Kazakh warrior chief.

I’m one of those academic misfits, a committed generalist. I’m interested in many disciplines, as long as they don’t involve equations and statistics. I graze happily through the fields of the humanities and not-so-quantitative social sciences, snacking on everything from anthropology to comparative religion. Please don’t box me into a discipline, certainly not a sub-discipline.

In today’s competitive academic world, this might be professional suicide. But I earned tenure in an earlier era when grazing (I’m sorry, I meant to say “interdisciplinary exploration”) was still acceptable, even valued.

My first experience of having to make a disciplinary choice came at the age of 15. At my not-so-distinguished boarding school on the Surrey fringe I had to choose between my two favorite subjects—history and geography—for A level because the school scheduled the classes at the same time.   I chose history, a field which, depending on the sources you use, can be as inter-disciplinary as you want to make it. I studied geography furtively on my own, learning all the capitals of Francophone African countries. I dozed off in pure mathematics (the substitute for geography) and received a well-deserved D grade.

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 18.20.56I’ve always enjoyed reading the work of scholars who did not have to make disciplinary choices. My most profound influence was David Lowenthal‘s The Past is a Foreign Country. Lowenthal brings together history and geography (he has post-graduate degrees in both) with philosophy, political theory, literature, landscape architecture, communication and so much else. He gave me two key insights about the nature of history:

  1. “History is less than the past.” History can never recover “more than a tiny fraction of what has taken place” in the past. What we know is limited by “the immensity of the past itself, the distinction between past events and accounts of those events, and the inevitability of bias.”
  2. “History is more than the past.” It is a selection, a curating of the past, always shifting in meaning, shaped by contemporary values and perspective. It is always a story, the French histoire, the “imposition of plot upon time.”

Howard Zinn made history much more than the past in A People’s History of the United States. In trying to counter versions written by the victors, he created his own story and plot, a narrative filled with the testimonies of those people—Native Americans, immigrants, socialists, activists–whose experiences and perspectives were not reflected in mainstream accounts. Of course, it’s impossible to include all who have been neglected by history. But Zinn challenged us to expand our view of who to include in the historical cast of characters.

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 18.26.16As Paul Thompson puts it in The Voice of the Past: Oral History, “All history depends ultimately on its social purpose.” That’s why it’s been handed down by oral tradition-bearers and official scribes, taught in schools, recreated in historic sites, documented in film and television. More blatantly, writes Thompson, the social purpose can be “justification for war and conquest, revolution and counter-revolution, the rule of one race over another.” And when there’s no history available, you just go ahead and cook one up.

History cuisine is thriving in the republics of Central Asia as they try to forge new national identities separate from their Soviet past. As I traveled through the region (usually on the pretext of teaching or doing research), I began to understand how this history is linked to geography—the crazy-quilt pattern of national borders imposed by the Soviets to divide and rule—and to religion, ethnicity, economy, literature, culture and contemporary politics. If I had been a specialist—researching kinship ties in the Kazakh Middle Horde or rhyme and meter in the Kyrgyz epic poem, the Manas—I don’t think I would have grasped the big picture.

Since independence in 1991, the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, each of which inherited the artificial borders of a Soviet Socialist Republic, have been trying to create a usable past—a collective narrative with a timeline and gallery of heroes—to build national unity. Everywhere, this has involved renaming cities, towns, and streets, erecting statues and monuments, creating museum displays, and rewriting school textbooks. In Uzbekistan, historians did a land grab, claiming that anything that ever happened within the borders of present-day Uzbekistan was the country’s historical property. This makes it possible to depict thousands of years of “Uzbek” history. In Kyrgyzstan, which has almost no written history, there are more gaps to fill. That did not prevent the government from celebrating “2,200 years of Kyrgyz statehood” in 2003.

Most of these are official, often government-sponsored narratives—precisely the kind of history that Zinn, Thompson and others despise because it reinforces existing power relations. But they would understand the history-making process. In Central Asia, history is as much about the future as about the past.

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 18.31.49David H. Mould is a professor emeritus of media studies at Ohio University.  His most recent book is Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016). 

The photograph featured at the beginning of this post, of the mountainous region of Kyrgyzstan, is copyright of the author.

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