Between History and Histories: The Making of Silences and Commemorations

Article excerpt

Between History and Histories: The Making of Silences and Commemorations. GERALD SIDER and GAVIN SMITH, eds. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 310 pp.

This collection of articles examines the intersection between anthropology and history by focusing on the politics of commemorations. The twelve articles, written by anthropologists and historians, consider how the past is silenced and appropriated by contending social groups who seek to institutionalize particular visions of history. They call attention to the complex ways in which the meaning of the past is constantly shaped and reshaped in the present within broad fields of power and relationships of inequality. The volume is not concerned simply with remembering or forgetting. Rather, it explores the relationships between commemoration and silence as a process of struggle that is tied to the competing claims of diverse and unequal social groups.

The contributions move beyond analytic approaches that juxtapose multiple histories. associated with the local and ethnographic, to broader, more official history tied to social systems. The collection demonstrates that plural histories emerge both within the context of broad social processes, that is, "history," and in opposition to them. Most interesting, however, is the editors' assertion that histories also take shape against what is locally known and understood. This observation leads the editors and some of the contributors to an exploration of the antagonisms within culture. These antagonisms, they argue, shape the relationships within, as well as between, classes, and they are key to conceptualizing the organization and reproduction of societies.

Gerald Sider's article examines the contradictory ways in which "history" and ethnic "tradition" emerge in the process of class formation among Native Americans. Sider demonstrates that ethnic history is simultaneously a means of creating distance from elite control and oppression and deeply implicated in the process of domination. Social struggles, he concludes, necessarily emerge against both the dominant society and aspects of people's "own" culture. In a similar vein Gavin Smith analyzes the struggles of Peruvian peasants to claim their lives, beliefs, and practices against the efforts of more powerful intellectuals and government bureaucrats to produce their history for them. He shows that intellectual efforts to explain an event or clarify a story may inadvertently impose closure on the processes by which people debate, modify, and understand histories that are always open-ended.

Unlike the cases discussed by Smith and Sider, where local people struggle against dominant groups to partially claim "their own history," Gadi Algazi's analysis of village assemblies in medieval Germany details how even a semi-autonomous tradition is completely denied to peasants. In this extremely interesting piece Algazi shows how tradition is an arena of peasant oppression directly linked to their confrontational relationship with the lord. During highly ritualized yearly visits, the lord required village representatives to state and agree to the laws that delineated his rights, and that specified the rights and duties of peasants. These laws were based on peasants' coerced recollections about "custom," which could be discussed only in response to specific questions from the lord.

Sumit Sarkar's article on colonial India continues the discussion of antagonisms and ruptures within 'culture' laid out be Sider and Smith. Sarkar rejects what he refers to as simplistic "impact-- response frameworks" that homogenize and flatten the experience of colonialism for indigenous peoples. He is particularly critical of currently fashionable discourse analyses that assume a total, seamless colonial hegemony and a uniform indigenous culture. He then provides a fascinating analysis of a court case that brought individuals of different castes, classes, and genders together and demonstrates that neither colonialism nor local history are understood the same way by everyone. …