Lessons of History

Christopher Tomlins, December 2010

In virtually his last words before fleeing Paris in the summer of 1940, Walter Benjamin wrote of “the current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century.” He continued, wryly, “This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” Aristotle to the contrary, knowledge did not begin in wonder. Nor was the subject of history a past always left behind. Anything was possible and history is always with us, its subject the constellation formed by the conjunction of the past with the present that recognizes that past. Nothing worth the name “knowledge” could be gleaned from a view of history in which humanity ascended an irrevocable path of progress toward the future.

Benjamin’s attempt to escape occupied France failed and he died by his own hand on September 27. Ironically, the brutal war that followed blotted out his view of history. “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” he had written. “We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight.” But if you had asked Americans and their allies returning from the war to give one reason for fighting it, their answer undoubtedly would have been that they aimed to prove that the things Benjamin and millions like him had experienced were indeed the exception; that fascism had become, as such, “a historical norm”—consignable to the past.

In 1989 came the fall of the Berlin Wall, another moment of wonder and reinforcement of the view that history was about a past that could be left behind. That year a young American intellectual, Francis Fukuyama, became famous for writing of the end of history: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such.” Western liberal democracy was humanity’s final social and political form, Fukuyama argued, to which all others were prologue and past.

Now, 20 years after Fukuyama, 70 years after the death of Walter Benjamin, we are perhaps more aware how little historicism’s ideal of “progress,” of leaving the past behind, resonates with the realities of contemporary life. We live at a moment—endless war abroad, serial crises at home—in which the past has never been more of a brooding presence in American life.

What conception of history do historians have to offer for this moment? I think there are three, partially (particularly the second and the third) overlapping, none especially satisfying. They conform, broadly, to two of the three archetypes of history of which Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in 1874 in the second of his “untimely meditations”—the monumental and the antiquarian.

The first (the monumental) is the narrative history that has become something of a staple of nonfiction publishing. Narrative history represents history as edifying stories drawn from the past. As Gordon Wood describes it in a recent issue of Perspectives on History, narrative history attends to the exceptional: “individual personalities … unique public happenings.” By their very nonrecurrent nature, the individual and the unique are easily consigned to the past, from which they can be appropriated at will to offer homiletic advice to the present.

The second conception of history currently abroad is that recommended by Wood himself in response to narrative, history as science. As Wood characterizes it, scientific history is like a coral reef, based on the premise that “historical knowledge is accumulative and that the steady accretion of specialized monographs will eventually deepen and broaden our understanding of the past.” The spirit of scientific history is objectivity—the capacity to know the past as it really was, and ever more completely. Because the phenomena studied by the scientific historian are recurrent (for example, human behavior) rather than exceptional, they are less easily consigned to the past—they lure the historian toward “presentism.” To sustain the possibility of objectivity, therefore, scientific history insists on the absolute temporality of all phenomena—its watchword is “context”—from which follows a rigid distinction between past and present, a temporal cæsura, which underscores the absolute difference of the past. In Nietszche’s terms, this is history in antiquarian mode—a past venerated for itself from which facts are harvested and fashioned into statements “true to the past” whose only subject is what was.

If the second conception describes a form of historical practice that we might term “simple accumulation,” the third can be termed “complex accumulation.” Complex accumulation is also attuned to the ineradicable difference of the past: its watchword is “context” too. But unlike simple accumulation, complex accumulation treats all past phenomena as radically underdetermined. Far from an accumulated reef of essentially similar phenomena, historical knowledge is deeply vulnerable to multiplicitous variation that constantly intrudes upon the historian’s capacity to generalize. Complex accumulation defeats virtually all forms of causal explanation, because complexity means no consensus can be established on means of disciplining evidence (that is, theory, or “science”). In place of simple accumulation’s intimations of predictability, complex accumulation substitutes indeterminacy—an utterly contingent past.

One might imagine indeterminacy could be disciplined by contextualization—the commitment to the temporality of phenomena that complex accumulation shares with scientific history. Unfortunately that is not the case. As a historical practice, “contextualization” means the placement of subjects in relation to one another within the medium of historical time. Temporality is manifested in the modalities of organization historians employ, notably periodization. But periods are subjective constructs that vary from scholar to scholar and subject to subject. They may be entirely chronological (as in the Oxford History of the United States: 1763–1789, 1789–1815, 1815–1848, and so on), or they may be intended to create relations of likeness and difference among distinguishable phenomena (for example, “The Age of Discovery”). Both periods and subjects vary unceasingly as research constantly expands the universe of potential subjects, producing ever greater complexity in relations among temporally located phenomena.

However diverse their practices and methodologies of placement may be, historians’ commitment to contextualizing and periodizing subjects still suggests a form of common engagement. The production of an expanding universe of subjects and of complex relations among them satisfies the purposes of professional history as a mode of production, both by continuously producing “new” history (and new historians), and by occasioning necessarily endless argument among practitioners over the contingencies of placement—the proper contexts for history’s subjects, their proper relations. Meanwhile, the cæsura that amputates past from present acts as the necessary condition of effective historical-intellectual activity, creating the distinct historical subject on which to reflect, with which to converse. Scientific historians may disagree with complexity’s stress on the past’s indeterminacy. But in both cases, historical method begins by putting the past in its place.

To normalize history as the study of the past is an entirely understandable condition for engagement in historical practice, but not a necessary one. Perhaps because I am a historian who has spent an entire academic career outside history departments I have learned to feel the challenge of “relevance” from colleagues—sociologists, economists, political scientists, anthropologists, legal scholars—who ask from time to time what lessons history teaches. Recently I completed a book that, in research and writing, has occupied me for the better part of 15 years. One would think that 15 years of work would uncover some lessons if they were indeed there to be found.

My book is about how America as we know it first came to be. It is a history of the expeditions that founded colonies, of the work that built settlements, and of the law and politics that gave civic identities to inhabitants. It begins with the first landings of Englishmen on the mainland and continues all the way to the Civil War, because that has always seemed to me to be the most extraordinary moment of American history—a moment not when history ended, but certainly one when it was interrupted.

I can, of course, find lessons in my history for today—lessons about the misery and injustice that come of a colonizer’s destruction of established ways of life, about the sheer bloody hard work that building anything new requires, lessons about the centrality of ideas of freedom and unfreedom to American civic identity, and about the cruelties of laws, customs, and institutions that deprive men and women of freedom’s substance. None of these are lessons we can afford to leave “behind” us. Still, none of these lessons from history actually teach us anything about history. They are lessons the way metaphors are lessons—examples, telling tales. They are inert. What gives them life? What gives them bite on our lives?

Readers will have noticed that I am drawn to Nietzsche’s archetypes of history. Nietzsche’s third archetype is the critical one, an antidote to the monumental and the antiquarian. Instead of the past appropriated to inspire the present, or accumulated and preserved for its own sake, it is the past interrogated, judged, and condemned to free the present from the past that stands prior to it. In this way, critical history serves life. Its enemy is scholasticism—“knowledge not attended by action … history as a costly superfluity and luxury.”

One might embrace critique as the purpose of history. Many have. Critical history’s stress on the immediacy of past to present, its rejection of knowledge not attended by action, assail the cæsura that preserves the pastness of the past, circling us back toward my starting-point, Walter Benjamin’s last words on the concept of history. Nietzsche’s ultimate objective, however, was philosophical: to overcome the past. Benjamin’s was not. In a state of exception that he recognized as unexceptional, Benjamin dwelt instead on the conditions of possibility for the formation of a knowledge that could confront his present, knowledge formed precisely at the intimate conjunction between past and now. Here, in the moment of present recognition, lay history—the “true image” of the past.

This was the question—of the past’s “true image” and its creation—that I pondered more than a year ago as I tried to end my book. What had I—for 30 years a trained, professional, academic historian—learned about the creation of truth from the work I had undertaken? As I pondered, I found that I was not actually thinking of the events—the American past—with which I had shared 15 years of my life, on which I had lavished all the varied methodological expertise of which I was capable. I was thinking instead of a moment in the late George F. Kennan’s Sketches from a Life, in which Kennan, staring into a Wisconsin snowstorm, imagines his long-dead father. “Were these chasms of time and death real ones?” Kennan asks. “Was there not a unity and a fellowship in the sensing, the living of this moment? Was there not a tapping of his hands in the dry crackling of the snow against the window?” And he imagines a response. “The moment is indeed the same. This is the same snowfall. The ninety intervening summers are as nothing.”

Past, present, and future compose no natural order. Their temporal lineage (“one damn thing after another”) is an artifact of our own invention. The past becomes meaningful to us only when it forms a conjunction with us now, not because the past is pliant, so that we can make of it anything we wish for a present purpose, nor because it is oppressive and grasps our future, but because it is fragile and easily lost, so that it can be known “only at the instant it can be recognized.”

Truth lies in the moment of conjunction, not “in the past,” for the past of itself has no truth, nor falsehood. Both lie rather in the moment of recognition, in the knowledge—history—created at that moment. We can wall ourselves off from the past, or amputate the past from ourselves and declare it irreducibly passed and so open for study. But if we do we run the risk that once again, perhaps sooner than we might like, we will find ourselves suddenly standing amazed that the things we are experiencing are not after all tucked away behind a cæsura in a safely sequestered past, but still possible.

Christopher Tomlins is Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California, Irvine. His latest book, Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580–1865, was published in September 2010 by Cambridge University Press.