Politics of History

In all these past months, since the summer holidays, the diaries of French literature professor Victor Klemperer (1881-1960) have been my evening reading matter. I have followed him observing life in Germany under nazi rule from 1933 on and am presently witnessing his witnessing, in 1957, his own growing confusion on political life in the DDR, communist eastern Germany. From all his notes one thought of his is central to me: that we can never understand history. As he says it: we cannot understand it when we are living it, because then the distance to interpret what is happening fails us; and we cannot understand it from a distance, because then the actual observations fail us. His one goal in life seems to have been, besides all his other ambitions in work and in his personal relations, to overcome this paradox, as he was always dreaming to rework his diaries in encompassing memoirs, which should combine the distance of looking back and be fed from the proximity of his notes. He only completed his memoirs untill 1918 – but from hindsight his diaries, thanks to his younger second wife, who made it possible to have them published more than 30 years after his death, seem even more important for us, who live with the heritage of those days.

His was a real paradox, as the impossibility to understand history is only that for one man or woman, but when we understand knowledge as a common possession of human beings, it is possible to make something from the (near) real-time observations of a good chroniqueur and the interpretive power of us, who come after and look back. Still this does not mean that history can be an objective science. The hermeneutic aspect can never be overcome, not only because it is impossible to reach the objective understanding that Klemperer was striving for, but also because history itself is always a force in the political life as it unfolds uncessingly. Here we should acknowledge the importance of the revolutionary view Nietzsche put forward in his 1874 study On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. According to him, history has three functions for life: a monumental one, an antiquarian, and a critical one, of which the last-mentioned is of course the most interesting. We need it, because, in order to be able to live, human beings need the to be able to drag history before the court, torture it, and judge it. This is not just a destructive process – Nietzsche keeps his eye on the possibility of the arrival of a ‘true civilization’ – which is not a eschatological necessity, but something humans need to believe in, I think. As a preparation for this arrival, again, we need (in Nietzsche’s words) an ‘increase in honesty’ – an honesty which will bring down hardened cultural constructions which do not serve life anymore.

The great deconstructive/destructive process in understanding history in our times seems to me to deal with the double helix of modern western belief in rational and technological progress and it’s accompanying oppression of every culture (and the people who live in a culture considered as such) which it deemed non-rational and technologically backward. An indispensable read in this respect forms the work of Sandra Harding – who has aimed to understand ‘modern science’ from the colonialist and masculinist frameworks which were at work in them: ‘It turned out that these two great processes marking “modernity” – the emergence of modern sciences in Europe and European expansion – provided crucial cognitive resources for each other as well as economic and political ones’.

In the end, however, criticism was not the final goal for Nietzsche, and history will have to move beyond the criticism of colonialism and imperialism – for the benefit of life. A thorough and creative attempt to do so can be found in an even more recent work, which inspired the title of this post, The Politics of History in Contemporary Africa, by Michael Onyebuchi Eze. The trail he leaves in this work, as he moves through such questions as postcolonialist politics, the problematic of the ‘Invention of Africa’ and of finding a perspective beyond that of the ‘other’ of eurocentric thought, proves his work to be a worthy recreation of this Nietzschean dream: to try to press for more honesty in search of a truer civilization, while searching to ‘[…] “relocate” African historiography in a manner that would open spaces for fresh air, fresh perspectives.’ This search is not only of interest for those who ‘have an interest in Africa’, but for all those who have an interest in history as such, not ignoring the political forces that are at work in it, but critically examining them and taking responsibility for the collective task to create more civilized political goals in dialogue with the past.

Nietzsche’s work On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Lifeoriginally published in 1874, can be accessed online: https://archive.org/details/Nietzsche-AdvantageDisadvantageOfHistoryForLife

Michael Onyebuchi Eze’s Study The Politics of History in Contemporary Africa was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010

Victor Klemperer’s Diaries and Memoirs I read in their original German version. They are also partly available in English

Sandra Harding wrote Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialisms, feminisms, and epistemologies, Indiana University Press, 1998

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1 comment
  1. Angela Roothaan thank you for the commentary! You make me think of Hegel’s ever timeless critique against historicism: “We learn from history that we have learned nothing from history”. I read the piece with much gusto and just as I was about to write down the word “paradox”, I was confronted by that word in the next sentence that followed. Your critique of the Western modernist tendencies in understanding of history is very refreshing although I must admit that we must recognize the likes of Herder in Germany, who on the contrary argued that it is not rationality, but language as an embodiment of culture and tradition as key conditions for humanism. Similarly, the opinions of Voltaire and Leibniz vary when it comes to China, while Schlegel offers a different view on India. We do not want to fall into the entrapment of generalization. In France, the dominant opinion differs from the view of Descartes, Voltaire and Montesquieu. The dominant view during the French Enlightenment was the fascination with the noble savage who signified the good “natured” man as symbolism of universal reason; for uncorrupted by religious superstition and independent of court civilization the noble savage was still able to fashion a reasonable social order. I completely agree with you that historical writing is almost always a political project but – and this is a crucial qualification – it does not deny that history can be objective. Somewhere else, I have argued:

    “…Most significantly, the virtue of humanizing African historiography need not constitute the end of history in Africa. Humanism as a history is just a metaphor. It might have served useful purposes in the contemporary socio-political imagination of Africa as it relates to question of identity, subjective rehabilitation and even nation building, it nevertheless possesses a character of ideology – it is responding to particular crises within an epoch. The authority of history lies in its unfetteredness (not chained to ideology) and objectivity to context from whence it gains epistemic legitimacy. Such epistemic legitimacy enables history to assume the pose of an impartial narrator while retaining a timeless status as a moral compass of human society. History does not take sides; it is truthful as in mathematical truth irrespective of whose ox is gored. Humanism as history is only a metaphor for an ideological formation of a new response to black experiences during colonialism, apartheid, slavery, etc. Humanism as history does not speak with the authority of history; it is not independent of subjective formations or innuendos that inspires the humanization of these black experiences. History as history springs into being by the very fact of human existence and does not need ideological permutations to become real.
    Humanism as history is a dead-end historiography. But histories do not die even as they reach mythological maturity. They could lose their immediacy and facticity, but they still represent presence. And even as myths, they become operative as in historical address. Evolving into mythological or philosophical truths, history retains in its character an essential element in the course of these permutations – objectivity to context. It is for this reason that history gains credit as an impartial umpire in human affairs; a referee in the genealogy of human experiences.

    Humanism is a culture, a process, and something we can learn through inter- culturality. Our theory of humanism should be a vision, a predisposition towards an inter-subjective affinity; that we are nourished though the presence of a different other; a recognition of this “other” not as a threat but an enrichment to my humanity. Humanism is not a virtue that is exclusive to a particular culture or society. Where our vision of what constitutes a human person might bear incidental differences, our vision of a shared humanity, a good that we all ascribe to is something we can learn from each other. This is the point of relevance in which humanism becomes a cultural practice. Being cultural means that it can be learned as a virtue. It can be cultivated. We can imbibe this peculiar way of life.

    Why do we do history with humanism? History unveils to us the various contexts in which humanity have struggled to arrive at contemporaneous vision of humanism. In history we learn of the failures and success of this gravitation towards an admissible understanding of man acceptable to every epoch. We try to avoid the mistakes of the past and advance a new sense of human kind that can deal with the mistakes of the past while offering a promise for the future. This is the limit of culture as an epistemological repertoire of humanism. Historicizing these different understanding of humanism in different cultures opens way for intercultural dialogue. We are also enabled to conceive a universal understanding of humanism that is dependent on interculturaltiy. The predisposition is not only to recognize a different other as an autonomous, human being with “natural” rights, but we are also open to recognize his/her own culture.”
    The quote comes from my Essay “Humanism as History in Contemporary Africa” Taiwan Journal of East Asian Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Issue 16), Dec. 2011, pp 59-77

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