In April, the New York Times ran an op-ed interviewing “8 conservative men” who (according to the Times’s social media) all came to the conclusion that “this is not the America I remember growing up in.” The so-called newspaper of record had, in other words, determined that these men were subject to what Merriam-Webster calls an “ongoing and indefinitely continuing progress of events and existence.” That time exists is apparently newsworthy, at least to the Times.
The eight men agreed that things changing over time was Not Good. And if the practice of history is the study and analysis of change over time—I would suggest that it is—what should historians make of the fact that few seem to like change over time, at least when it happens to them? Even if many would reject the argument of those eight men and applaud recent changes to cultural attitudes on race and sexuality, they still generally do not appreciate the ever-increasing (or, worse, decreasing) number of gray hairs on their heads. I know I don’t. Further, if the above definition of our discipline holds, then “history” itself is res gestae, as it says on my degree—things that have occurred. Occurred, perfect tense. A completed action. In addition to stumbling on the concept of time, by declaring the end of what had come before, our Times opinion-havers were thus engaged in the very act of making history. They cut “the America I remember growing up in” off from a continuity with the present. It is over, it is past—it is perfect.
If it is often convenient for groups to confuse history with nostalgia, perhaps it is because the space between the two concepts is smaller than historians are comfortable admitting. But the fact that both history and nostalgia are formed through the creation of artificial breaks in the continuous flow of time—by periodizations—is an observation on which I would like to dwell. It is one that is frequently and casually brushed aside. In That Noble Dream, Peter Novick calls periodization a “regulatory fiction,” cautions his readers of the “artificiality of periods,” assures them that he himself is aware of their convenient lie, and then lets the subject drop.
Periodizations, a thread Perspectives will be examining this year, have become ruts in the road that serve to guide our thoughts. Periodizations help determine the structure of academic hiring practices, of history departments, of which history and whose history students learn and remember. Periodizations can delegitimize and exclude, particularly when coupled with other instruments of oppression. In my own field, some scholars have observed that an insistence on premodern Europe as a white space restricts Blackness to modernity and denies it the “authorizing length and depth” of history. And this observation is predicated on a periodization, a division of European history between modern and premodern that the entire world must observe, and that occurs roughly but inexorably around AD 1500. The regulatory fictions have rules.
When Alice is in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty scornfully insists to her that when he uses a word, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” Alice responds, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” Humpty Dumpty retorts, “which is to be master—that is all.”
As readers, we object along with Alice that Humpty Dumpty’s use of language, making words mean whatever he wants them to mean, is in fact abuse of language. As historians, we would react similarly to Humpty Dumpty posting a job advertisement for a “historian of medieval Europe, 1700–1900.” It makes no sense. Was the search committee he chaired trying to please all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, or a dean, or had they simply taken leave of their senses? No matter how eminent that committee, regardless of their book awards, distinguished chairs, or 70-page CVs, the historians on it cannot declare the French Revolution to be premodern. We must then ask the question, Which is to be master, historians or their periodizations? It is wishful thinking to suppose that the answer is “us.”
Leland Renato Grigoli is editor of Perspectives on History. He tweets @mapper_mundi.
Tags: From the Editor
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