Clio's Battles: Historiography in Practice

Clio's Battles: Historiography in Practice

Clio's Battles: Historiography in Practice

Clio's Battles: Historiography in Practice

Synopsis

To write history is to consider how to explicate the past, to weigh the myriad possible approaches to the past, and to come to terms with how the past can be and has been used. In this book, prize-winning historian Jeremy Black considers both popular and academic approaches to the past. His focus is on the interaction between the presentation of the past and current circumstances, on how history is used to validate one view of the present or to discredit another, and on readings of the past that unite and those that divide. Black opens with an account that underscores the differences and developments in traditions of writing history from the ancient world to the present. Subsequent chapters take up more recent decades, notably the post-Cold War period, discussing how different perspectives can fuel discussions of the past by individuals interested in shaping public opinion or public perceptions of the past. Black then turns to the possible future uses of the then past as a way to gain perspective on how we use the past today. Clio's Battles is an ambitious account of the engagement with the past across world history and of the clash over the content and interpretation of history and its implications for the present and future.

Excerpt

The weight of the past is heavy and insistent, at times brutally apparent, but frequently more prone to insinuate and influence. This weight is presented as positive – offering continuity and lessons from experience; and yet also as negative, indeed, a curse. As an instance of the latter, empowerment through grievance is especially damaging, in particular, locating both grievance and empowerment in a misleading, as well as destructive, historical context. Linked to this empowerment is the prevalence of “history wars,” disputes about how to present the past, which are the heavily historicized equivalent of the American “culture wars.” These disputes take the “could” of academic discussions about how the past could be presented, and turn it into a “should” of how the past should, indeed “must,” be explained. in this context, the past becomes a validation for the present and, as such, a matter of great significance. History, whose muse is Clio, is thereby made the ammunition of politics, and this ammunition is potent precisely because the past serves as the basis for ideas and practices of identification.

This use of the past is contested and, therefore, there is a variety, even confusion, in this book. This variety reflects not only these “history wars” but also, more broadly, the Janus-faced character of the past, as, at the same time, the solace of continuity and the sore of grievance. Moreover, whether or not they are affected in these cases by politics, memory and history vie as interpreters, each able to take the approach of continuity or that of grievance. in the following study, I focus on some of these aspects of what is, at once, the kaleidoscopic variety of readings offered of the past and yet also, more narrowly, a tension between readings that . . .

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