History

By Stevens, Paul | English Studies in Canada, December 2004 | Go to article overview

History


Stevens, Paul, English Studies in Canada


Few words better exemplify what Raymond Williams means by a keyword than history. It illustrates how "important social and historical processes occur within language" as opposed to being merely recorded or registered by it (22). But it does this now in more complex ways than Williams suggests in the 1970s. In fact, at the moment, history signifies two radically different, albeit interrelated, processes or responses to the past, one thriving in everyday speech and the other in certain forms of academic discourse.

In everyday speech, despite or perhaps because of its assumed transparency, history is both a "binding" and an "indicative" word of enormous power. It binds in the sense that other words draw authority from it-social processes," in Williams's own phrase, for instance, become more grounded, ore difficult in challenge once those processes can be described as "historical." History doest his because it indicates a foundation or "transcendent signified" with which many people continue to feel secure. In quotidian politics, the evidence for this is overwhelming. World leaders, politicians, and journalists of every stripe routinely invoke it, albeit only when issues are felt to be of major importance. In today's New York Times (15 December 2004), for instance, commenting on the merits of Iraq-war recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Democratic Senator reflected, "I don't think history will be as kind to these gentlemen as the president was today:' Similarly, on the other side, defending his decision to assist the United States in its invasion of Iraq, as skillful a rhetorician as Tony Blair insisted that "history will be our judge:' In this use, history assumes a God-like role-it looks down on the actions of men and women, weighs the relative consequences of those actions, and issues "the verdict of history." Like Job's Yahweh, and for Blair mercifully unlike the Hutton inquiry, the wisdom of history is not to be questioned. Not only does this God-like history judge but, as Williams notes, it teaches. President Bush, for instance, feels sure that "history teaches us" that it is a mistake to appease dictators. It cautions those who fail to learn the lessons of history that they are doomed to repeat the mistakes, "the crimes and follies of mankind," that history so carefully records. History is in fact the final moral arbiter. It is always on the side of freedom and does invaluable work in producing moral clarity. In the case of the Iraq war, for instance, it indicates the shortcomings of present-day Islam with self-evident, self-authenticating assurance, for, as Richard Perle insists, contemporary Islam is "on the wrong side of history:" Being on the right side of history is then crucially important-for only by being there can second-term presidents and prime ministers hope "to secure a place in history."

History as it's used in these cliches is fairly obviously the vulgarized legacy of the Enlightenment. In Keywords, Williams is fully aware of the power of this discourse, the Enlightenment "philosophy" of history or what has come to be called historicism, but his analysis is strikingly unhelpful in enabling us to understand its present, early twentieth-century influence in quotidian politics. For what most interests Williams is very specific; it is the post-Second World War rejection of historicism's optimism. History in the late eighteenth century became historicism because it no longer simply meant a reconstruction or inquiry into the past; it came to mean a theory or process that comprehended past, present, and future-that is, a process that generally assumed "progress and development" and in its later Marxist manifestations implicitly promised to reveal the historical forces or laws that were shaping "the future in knowable ways" (147). Williams betrays the peculiarly post-war orientation of his own thinking by emphasizing his contemporaries' disillusionment with this process. He records attacks on historicism with more than a little sympathy: "It is not always easy to distinguish this kind of attack on historicism, which rejects ideas of a necessary or en probable future," he explains of Karl Popper's critique, "from a related attack on the notion of any future (in its specialized sense of a better, a more developed life), that is, from an attack "which uses the lessons of history . …

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