From the International column in the October 1999 Perspectives

History under Debate in Spain

Teofilo Ruiz, October 1999

Sponsored by the autonomous government of Galícia, Spain, and ably organized by Carlos Barros, a professor of history at the University of Santiago de Compostela, the second meeting of "History under Debate" met in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, from July 14–18, 1999. Scheduled to coincide with the Holy Year Pilgrimage (which occurs when the Feast of St. James the Greater—July 25—falls on a Sunday), the conference was held against the backdrop of Compostela's enchanting medieval streets and of thousands of pilgrims pouring daily into the city to pray at the tomb of the Apostle.

The achievements of History under Debate II can be measured by referring to the first congress, which was also held in July and in a Holy Year, six years ago. In 1993, History under Debate I attracted a roster of distinguished historians from England, France, the United States, Russia, and other European countries. By active participation or by paper submissions, scholars such as the late, and much missed, Lawrence Stone, John H. Elliott, Robert Darnton, Jacques Le Goff, Perry Anderson, Ricardo García Cárcel, Peter Burke, Roger Chartier, the late Bernard Le Petit, Paul Freedman, and others gave the conference an illustrious and exceptional pedigree. The atmosphere was heady indeed. Historians engaged in passionate debates on the place of history, on the decline of methodological centers (I recall a lively discussion on the future of the Annales school and of the École des Hautes Études), on the challenges of the linguistic turn, and, most important, on the direction the study and writing of history was to take. Proceedings of the papers were published soon afterward, and they make for salutary reading. Lawrence Stone's presentation, with his fabled directness, set the course for historians in the 21st century.

The second meeting was altogether different, and the differences are telling. They bespeak shifts in the role of history on the eve of the millennium and expose the quandaries we face as historians in defining what we do and how we do it. This is not to suggest that one gathering was superior to the other. Each event had a contribution to make, and to have sought to replicate the conditions of the first meeting would have been difficult.

With the exception of Jacques Revel, the president of the École des Hautes Études, History under Debate II featured no superstars. Most participants were younger, and western Europeans, including Spaniards, were fewer in number. More to the point, a strong showing of Latin American scholars, mainly from Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, and Mexico, joined by counterparts from India, New Zealand, China, North Africa, and Slovenia, brought into evidence a more heterogeneous representation of historians. Their papers, concerns, and debates signaled a dramatic change in how we talk and think about history.

The conference had many panels and roundtables. But they all made it patently clear that one center or dominant paradigm can no longer be said to hold. Instead, a myriad of approaches and methodologies were given ample play and scrutiny. Sessions were devoted to broad reviews of 20th-century historiographies and to reflections on what historiographies might look like in the future. Among the latter, proposals ranged from using semiotics and reconsidering biography to undertaking new disciplinary avenues: environmental history, the "new" political history, transnational history. Despite these multiple directions—or perhaps because of them—an element of nostalgia was detected as well. Or, as Carlos Barros put it in his plenary speech, there's a harkening back to the stylistic power and hard-nosed research of the great 19th-century historical narratives.

Several sessions dealt with the harsh realities—harsher by far in Europe and Latin America than anything we experience in the United States—of academic employment and generational renewal. The older scholars more often than not defended the status quo. The new generation of historians in the majority often showed impatience or lost their tempers. Some Latin American historians—mainly from Argentina and Cuba—presented papers that were inscribed in a rigid Marxism of yesteryear. For those who remembered the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was a bit of déjà vu all over again.

At the same time, a widespread and deeply felt belief was expressed in the role history and historians can play in the day-to-day affairs of the world and in solving some of the ills and conflicts that beset us. Present in the papers and discussions was the sense that history matters and that historians hold an important place in politics and international affairs. That sentiment was refreshing indeed, especially considering how rarely we historians in the United States take part in political struggles.

History under Debate II brought up vividly the problems we face as historians. On the one hand, we lamented the demise of historical centers and paradigms; on the other, we rejoiced in the possibilities that multifaceted histories and the end of hegemonic centers make available. Significantly, only a few papers in Compostela in 1999, as opposed to 1993, addressed the impact of literary theory and postmodern thought. This may indicate the passing of these approaches, or a delay in their reception in parts of the world. What it does show is that, confronted by numerous critical challenges, many historians are at a loss in this vast sea of methodologies and approaches. We are, it appears, very much on our own, and striving, though not always successfully, to define the contours of history today.

In retrospect, History under Debate II gave a forum to historians who are often absent from international conferences. In Spain, which is often mired in ferocious localism and in which there is an ongoing debate on the respective roles of local and national histories, the meeting provided a broader vision of history, one that encompasses a host of perspectives and geographical vantage points. The young Spanish graduate students in attendance could only benefit from such exposure.

If nothing else, this meeting became a setting for the discussion of history's stakes by a group of historians not easily classifiable by nationality, gender, age, ideology, or methodological practice. There were no pronouncements ex cathedra; neither was there any consensus or agreed upon plan for the future. Perhaps this is as it should be. Even as I reminisce, preparations are underway for the next conference. History under Debate III will certainly be as different from the one just concluded as this one was from its predecessor. And it may show us, with greater clarity, what history will look like, or indeed what kinds of history will be written, at the dawn of the new century.

—Teofilo Ruiz teaches at UCLA.