January 26, 2009

The Uses of History: Meditations on the Production of Historical and Anthropological Knowledge

"If colonial history has been written, the 'history of colonization' remains yet to be written along the lines of a new vision, one resolutely attentive to the local peoples for whom colonization constitutes an important aspect of their history,"

Ndaywel e Nziem

All philosophies and theories of history are in the end, also anthropologies. Now it is true, we cannot insert ourselves into the lives of the historical actors of the past, which is why history occurs at the intersection between current events and collective memory (both archived and oral). What are the "social loci of our knowledge production"? History is not merely done or told, it is done for someone or to someone.

This is why I think it important to examine the ontology of our historical knowledge, because I see that this is so much of what the colonial project developed into. I salute our desire to define our terms precisely, but I also believe that this desire to do so using language, in other words to try and abstract an idea of colonialism from its effects, it interrelationships, its lived experiences, is to push the Sisyphean boulder. At some point, we must, if our work is to have any relevance, leave the shoals of postmodern deconstruction and hesitation, and venture out into the ocean. Certainty is an unattainable goal, but uncertainty is not a refuge.

Indeed, to do as I have suggested is as much a project of personal ethnography as it is a historical project. It is to question the underlying foundations of our knowledge production, to examine the very grain of our categorizations, and to turn the lens of historical consciousness upon ourselves. While we are engaged in such a task, we also, MUST ask ourselves about our own social position. We have yet to truly consider ourselves as beneficiaries, in a sense, of colonialism, or how our position in this university shapes the discourse we present. To those fashioning their dissertation or engaged in the other grueling work of acheiving their Ph.D., such questions perhaps pose useless distractions from the pressing need to theorize and draw conclusions. But unless they are answered precisely, history becomes a game, a playing field on which to experiment with our personal tastes and interests. For one interesting, if revolting, example of this fascination with 'history' as object of distraction is the blogspot called Return to Darkest Africa

I wish to ask us: How can we hope to recover those histories of colonizer and colonized, the context in which they occur, and the 'life-worlds' of both sets of actors, if we have not turned an analytical lens on ourselves, our own categories of knowledge, the way in which we inhabit either (or perhaps both) category (colonizer/colonized) in ourselves. We have to interrogate what Foucault called our 'episteme'--the standards of acceptability that shape our discourse, the conventions of our representation.

This brings us back to another question I posed: Why study comparative colonialism? I suggest that the answer to this question will determine a great deal about the discourse we generate on the topic. I imagine some might say we are engaged in this work to sharpen our brain, to understand a particular historical field better and thus to deepen our analysis of it. But that still leaves the question open of why: What uses will it serve? Is history history for history's sake? My answer, which I share with Thucydides, is that history is useful to those in crisis as a guide for action.

This is where some of the distinction emerges between postcolonialism and postmodernism, though both share some of the same critiques of meta-history. While post-modernism and post-colonialism share the resistance to 'totalitizing narratives', post-colonialism asks us to remain committed to a struggle, a specific SITE of historical interpretation, while post-modernism has (in my view) not decided this question.

This is why, in spite of his historical limitations, I would rather read Frantz Fanon than Fred Cooper. I believe colonialism is one aspect of what Cedric Robinson calls, "a dangerous power set loose in the world." In my view, even if there were notable exceptions-- interstices of opportunity for particular groups within the incomplete hegemony of the colonial project(s)--overall colonialism entailed a very dramatic lessening, something that has been stripped away or taken off balance.

The intellectual output of postcolonial scholars like Fanon, Cesaire, Dubois, C.L.R. James, Martin Delany, and Cabral (to name a few of the most prominent in the Atlantic world and Africa) emerges from crisis, and is marked by a concern to serve as a historical witness against totalizing projects, in doing so it provides the possibility of the consciousness to resist rather than simply serve the dominant powers of the age. Their theories, diverse as they are, do not invite uncritical acceptance, but rather passionate engagement, while their practice ought to inform the way we think about the uses of our historical knowledge. The practice of personal ethnography will inevitably change, or if not change, then clarify, the way we 'practice' history.


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