The predicament of History

January 12, 2014

The predicament of History

In the Pakistani academic milieu, History as a discipline, and discourse too, is beset with an extremely narrow scope. It is usually reduced to a narrative of political events put in sequential order.

According to the reigning historical narrative, the political events are primarily caused by personalities -- thus making them a singularly important propelling agency for history to move ahead. So, the notion of the battle, ‘an event of history’, fought and won by the ‘King-General’ elucidates the general mode of history practiced in our country.

History course books at intermediate and bachelor levels highlight this perspective and the literati further endorse it -- as an autobiographical account of a few personalities. Therefore, common people are excluded from this historical gaze that remains obdurately focussed on lives and achievements of a prominent few.

This historiographical trend, which has followed and sustained here, was initiated by Leopold Von Ranke, a Prussian historian, through the British bearers, like James Mill, Sir E.M. Elliot and John Dowson, Lord Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle etc. They accorded sanctity to the ‘fact’ as the very essence of historical narrative. Thus, the aspiration to notch up ‘objectivity’ became the central concept of doing history.

This, however, was challenged vigorously by the Annales historians, post-Modernists and those who adhered to the movements like linguistic turn, such as Hayden White.

The discipline of history in Pakistan could not go through the similar stages of evolution as the western academic tradition. Thus, History in due course of time took an altogether divergent trajectory than the western tradition of history-writing. Consequently, History as a discourse is struggling to dig in its heels since it is divest of any theoretical anchorage or methodology

In fact, a historian of such a high stature as Peter Burke considers Alexis de Tocqueville, Marx and Gustav Schmoller as the first band of scholars that combined theory with an interest in the details of concrete historical situations. Hence, the foundation for inter-disciplinary scholarship was laid in the 19th century. History, as a consequence, came closer to sociology, anthropology and economic theory, particularly by the turn of the 20th century.

In European academe, social and economic histories found purchase by the 1920s, largely because of the work of historians with sociological inflection. The concomitant rise of the Annales School which had its theoretical underpinnings in the thoughts of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Auguste Comte propounded the notion of total history. German historians, like Karl Lamprecht, Marc Bloch and Otto Hintze, along with the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner launched an attack on traditional history. Turner said with conviction and extraordinary vehemence that "all the spheres of man’s activity must be considered, no one department of social life can be understood in isolation from the others."

Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre were the founders of the Annales School in the 1920s and also brought out the journal Annales d’histoire economique et sociale. They were relentless in their criticism of ‘the dominance of political history’. Their ambition was to replace it with what they called a ‘wider and more human history’, a history which would include all human activities and be less concerned with the narrative of events than with the analysis of ‘structures’. Historians could do that only if they learned from ‘neighbouring disciplines’.

That is exactly the advice for the young corps of historians. In fact, they should disseminate the same to others.

Quite conversely, we have a tangible disconnect between history and sociology which, in turn, is reflected in another disconnect between History and Pakistani society and geography. Most of History taught at colleges and universities has its geographical anchorage somewhere else like Northern India, Arabia or Central Asia. The corollary is that the tradition of studying regional histories or carrying out any research on those areas cannot take root.

Micro-studies of peripheral regions such as Balochistan or Waziristan are not considered tasks worth doing. District gazetteers and ethnographical reports of the British officers are the only sources for most of the smaller units of study, like districts or tehsils, which is indicative of the pathetic state of historical studies in Pakistan. Even provincial studies of credible academic rigour are few and far between.

Now, the works of philosophers, such as Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou and Judith Butler, are being used profusely for historical analysis in History faculties of all the major universities. The irony is that much of their thought, in one way or the other, is gleaned from the Marxist theory conjoined with concepts around the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and French philosopher Lacan. Bizarrely enough, both Marx and Freud are considered taboo in Pakistan. Marxist theory has contributed enormously in enriching the discourse of History globally. Writers like Gramsci, Althussar, George Lukas and thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School in 1950s and 1960s have used the Marxist theory to make sense of the Modern world.

But, in most of the Pakistani institutions, these figures find hardly any niche.

A study of European history is not deemed complete without Hobsbawm’s four volume history. The founders of Subaltern Studies were all thoroughly conversant with the Marxist theory and its implication on the course of history.

I think, the need of the hour is to diversify our reading of history instead of incarcerating it within the narrow confines of politics and monolithic ideology. One hopes that the young historians of Pakistan will take a lead in this by devising new courses and encouraging their students to engage with theory along with the archives which are in a pathetic state. I may suggest that they must get together and form a ‘Pakistan School of Historians’ with its own journal.

Pakistani historians ought to take charge of the discourse of history which trickles down to the general public. They can do this by publishing regularly to remain visible in the public sphere. That is extremely important. Otherwise, the Urdu columnists are too avid to appropriate history, which may leave catastrophic impact. An attempt by an Urdu columnist to erase Jinnah’s August 11 speech from the annals of history is a case in point.

The predicament of History