Periodic Themes and Ghostly Threads
Perspectives on History’s recent thematic issues, for which staff solicited articles on a precise topic, have prompted positive responses from our readers. They start conversations. But every issue can’t have a theme—there are too many articles that we wouldn’t be able to publish. A theme can just as easily exclude as it can include.
From September 2022 to May 2023, Perspectives will begin an experiment to find a middle ground between inclusivity and structure. This publication year will be loosely organized around two words, or threads. A thread is light and often tenuous, a concept or topic that can be used to relate ideas rather than bind them. A thread is intended to prompt a reader to ponder the scope of an idea, rather than to mark its borders. Threads are words that are good to think with. For the next year, Perspectives is especially (but not exclusively) interested in pitches for 1,500-word articles with something to say about periodization, ghosts, or both, insofar as these words pertain to the study and practice of history. These threads were chosen with care and a concern for the interests of our discipline, but they were also imagined capaciously. We want authors to play with their definitions and explore their limits. Here are some starting thoughts:
Periodization is so ubiquitous to the practice of history that we often forget to notice it. Periodization divides history from the present. And periodization divides history itself at singular, atomic instants, dates fixed in collective memory that have come to mark transitions from before to after: 476, 732 (or was it 733?), 1492, 1776, 08:16:02 on August 6, and 9/11. Periods are an organizational tool, true only insofar as they are useful, but they are not merely convenient. They have their own rules: the Meiji Restoration cannot be medieval, and Viking raiders cannot be modern. Historians use periods to define and delineate their work, and periods come to delineate and define historians. But at what cost?
Ghosts are historical specters, uncomfortable legacies that haunt the present. We are all haunted to some degree by our ghostly pasts, and it won’t do to run screaming—there are too many around. Spirits can inhabit battlefields, statues, and museums. But co-existing with those legacies, some dressed in white sheets, is not simple. How and when should children be taught about historical horrors? How do institutions move from an acknowledgment of a problematic past to incorporating its legacies into present actions? Can they? Or should they? How, in short, do we live with our ghosts?
These are not riddles. There is no fixed answer to the meaning of either word; their meaning can only exist with respect to your answer. They are, as I said, good for thinking with. Send us the thoughts they help inspire.
Two themed issues will show our own interpretations of “periodization” and “ghosts,” for which we also seek pitches for 1,500-word articles. The December issue looks at an unusual historical period—one that has not in fact occurred. “Histories of the Future” will focus on science fiction and fantasy, which are deeply connected to history. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a “feigned” history, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred linked present and past with a skip back in time. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Frank Herbert’s Dune used the fall of Rome (as related by Edward Gibbon) to describe the future. These and other works still loom large in popular media and popular consciousness. How does history relate to our imagination of what has not yet come to pass, and why?
In March, we consider “Ghosts of the Past.” Teaching divisive concepts—engaging with uncomfortable aspects of the past—has been in the news recently, but there are other discomfiting legacies with which historians must grapple. Certain voices, long dead, still whisper within our historiographies. Sometimes, entire fields have been framed in opposition to the work of a single scholar. What legacies dominate your area of interest, and are you in need of an exorcist?
Leland Renato Grigoli is editor of Perspectives on History. He tweets @mapper_mundi.
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