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Alexandre Leskanich discusses the validity of history, interrogates the importance placed on ‘historicizing’ and argues that the production of history is itself capitalist.

Martin L. Davies, How History Works: The Reconstitution of a Human Science (Routledge, 2016), 194pp.

Everyday language abounds with clichés that serve to reinforce conventional patterns of thinking, not least in regard to history. The following example is illustrative. The Times front-page headline of March 29th 2017 eerily declares that ‘the eyes of history are watching’. Its accompanying photograph depicts Theresa May signing the Article 50 letter confirming the intention of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union; supervised – the historical oversight is explicit – by a dour daub of Sir Robert Walpole casting what is described as ‘a stern gaze’ over proceedings. The Orwellian allusion to inescapable surveillance is disconcerting. A vague promise of vicarious historical redemption, or at least the promise of a future sentencing, hangs over the scene. Presumably, the overall effect is meant to illuminate the added weight and gravitas only history (as a substitute God) can bestow. Naturally it is nothing but acquiescent to the prevalent conception of history’s value. But quite how and whether history actually makes sense is doubtful. Martin L. Davies’ incisive book aims to adumbrate the consequences of this most disappointing and deceptive ‘mysterium’. It counters the rote reiterations of fealty to history that find expression throughout human thought and behaviour.

In his earlier critiques of history as a technology of existential management – Historics and Imprisoned by History – Davies asked what history does in a world historicized: a world effaced by history yet preconditioned to defer to it; a world where ‘instinctively, automatically, thought concedes cognitive priority to history’. In How History Works, the most effective expression yet of his ideas, he further clarifies how it works from a pragmatic, phenomenological perspective. As such, he prioritizes knowledge derived from immediate consciousness. History, by contrast, has no such basis. It works synthetically, its engineers blind to its ramifications. So the issue comes down to what history has to show for itself: what a world permeated with it is most adept at producing, affirming, preventing, occluding. While conventional opinion sees in history the primary means of comprehending our contemporary situation, deferring to it automatically, Davies contends it is nothing natural or benign. He excoriates history because it affirms the way the world is – ‘it works the way the world works’ – and since the world isn’t working, it is a liability.

how history works

There is an elemental distinction between the past (what happened) and history (knowledge of what happened) that is often elided. Certainly history is not – cannot be – the past: it is a symbolic construct that aims to stand in for it; a capacious conduit. Necessarily it falls short since the past as it was the way it was, as it was in and for itself, is irretrievable. Indeed, the past was only ever partially accessible to those who experienced it as their present. Still, much of the theorizing that goes on about history is concerned with how truthful history is in its representations of the past. It is insular, directed toward questions of disciplinary theory and practise of relevance only to practitioners. Concerned with the question of what it is – which positions history as a ‘natural’ phenomena – theorists neglect what history does in and to our everyday life. Although profligate when investigating historiography and history’s epistemological status, less time is spent thinking about the valence of history in society at large. And if such thinking does occur, it is often deferential, if not blatantly reverential. Whether alleging the utility of history’s ‘lessons’, its salience as a purveyor of contemporary understanding, or simply its expedience for affirming one’s identity – to know who history says one is -, history is rarely framed as less than an existential imperative. And beyond the fact that this catechism accrues a certain status to historians themselves, it’s easy to see why.

For a world impelled to give history precedence consequently incurs the production of vast quantities of historical knowledge in the form of scholarly monographs, articles, and edited books; the creation of television documentaries detailing historical episodes, characters, and other miscellany; the production of historical dramas so adored by the television, film, and theatre industries; the popularity of the historical novel as a genre in literary fiction; the proclivity to reconstruct and reproduce historical events and objects to flog on the mass market; the pilgrimages to sites of ‘historical memory’; the proliferation of material and intellectual detritus to which is assigned historical significance; the recourse to history to establish, coordinate, affirm, or deny various forms of identity. Further, historical knowledge is so ubiquitous, so banal, that everyone can claim to possess the barest modicum of it. This panoply of historical knowledge is assumed to have purchase on contemporary events, as the tiresome historical analogies in the media demonstrate. The idolatry of the historicized world is revealed, too, in the rhetorical locutions so beloved by politicians: e.g. imputing the existence of an ‘arc’ to history; of being on the right ‘side’ of history; believing history will ‘judge’ a particular course of action favourably; or urging (their actions to the contrary) that the ‘lessons’ of history be learned – even though, as Paul Valéry once wittily remarked, history can teach nothing because it provides examples of everything.

Imputing to history intellectual and moral authority, these instances of what Davies calls ‘history-focussed behaviour’ rest on a central presumption: that history has a capacity to inform immediate consciousness of its situation, of its meaning. History can be applied to anything, and it can show anything. What doesn’t, or couldn’t, or wouldn’t eventually have a history? What won’t, eventually, be rendered historical? Historical explanations, accounts, and narratives seek to incorporate every conceivable aspect of reality into a story of some kind; hence to ultimately relegate whatever happens to history. Already culturally and cognitively established are the conditions that would encourage its production: the unimaginable volume, the irreducible complexity of events happening all over the world and at a speed which defies comprehension. Since the human mind is sandwiched between a past it cannot retrieve and a future it cannot know, what, if not history, can make it all make sense? What, if not history, could accommodate and organize whatever happens in terms of what already happened? Its cognitive persuasion seems universally vindicated.

No doubt, the deference to history demonstrates a world already saturated in historical knowledge; already drilled in historical propitiation; already conditioned to think in terms of historical precedents; already predisposed to look for reasons for the way things are in the way they were. It deflates immediate urgencies. Hence the ‘immediately pragmatic attitude’ Davies advocates. He condemns the entire apparatus of history as a defunct assemblage of discursive devices. Inveighing against its coercive designs, he exposes its conspicuous capacity to produce redundancy. As first and foremost a technology, historical knowledge displays a ‘disciplinary-managerial’ function: it offers a means of managing reality from the ‘academic standpoint’ while affixing it with the incarcerating ‘administrative gaze’. As a technology it comes to define reality itself. For the administrative capacity of the ‘categorical coordinators’ historians deploy is startling, lending a convincing veneer of credibility to their explanations. These he divides respectively into ‘structures of coherence’ (e.g. ‘age; epoch; era; period); ‘dynamic forces’ (e.g. ‘evolution; forces; process; trajectory; trend’); and ‘stabilizing components’ (e.g. ‘origins; precedent; product; roots; tradition’).

This flotilla of terms is designed to make things coherent; a system of symbolic abstractions synthesizing meaning. But since historical knowledge is repeatedly shown to be redundant, constantly superseded, these repeated failures incite the hope that even more historical knowledge might achieve comprehension where 2000 years of production has hitherto failed. It generates the perfect pretext to keep producing more, especially through the hegemony of capitalism as the central ‘historicizing principle’. Since capitalism’s role is to render obsolete whatever it produces, it has to produce more history that must then be superseded. Hence the forms of waste generated by the historicized world proliferate with extraordinary speed. To compensate, yet more history is produced, resulting in a vicious, if vacuous, cycle. Suggesting an encroaching saturation point, there has been a recent return to fashion of ‘big history’ and the longue durée. Having been reliant so long, the only thing left to do is up the dosage: to aim for more comprehensive historicizations, more comprehensive historical categorizations, frameworks, and contexts.

Yet history still won’t make sense: only the impression of sense. The historicized world, after all, is the world that has been shaped by history; whose occupants are knowingly, necessarily dissociated from how it once was; who see the world through historical knowledge, through how the world used to be; a world that frantically ‘keeps historicizing itself’ but is irrefutably faced with how it now is, how it evidently oughtn’t to be. War, theocratic terror, totalitarianism, genocide, suicidal atomic weaponry, ecological crisis, economic malfeasance, the iniquity of capital distribution (the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a disproportionately influential minority), the ideological malaise of liberal democracy amid burgeoning dissatisfaction – all evince a condition of despondency, of dismay at what history has produced. Evidently, human action has already destabilized (historicized) the very principles that might ideally have made history make sense, such as ‘being, essence, mind, causality, substance, rational order’. Reliant on the assumption that language has an immutable affinity with its referents, the loss of faith in language to reveal reality deals a mortal blow to history’s aspirations to veracity and comprehensiveness. Conceptions of unity and completeness, of accessing a given or future order in human affairs, collapse into the ephemeral fluctuations between order and disorder, or of ‘advent and supersession’ as Susan Sontag wrote. Many times over, history has superseded itself, destroyed the sense it previously had made of things and hence has long forfeited its capacity to make sense of what happens. Its ability to identify what is with what was, and of what was with what is, fails to convince. In the end, the meaning to which historical knowledge aspires relies upon metaphysical ideals that are used to concoct it; to lend it a semblance of rational necessity and unimpeachable authority. Yet these ideals, particularly identity, causality, and sufficient reason, are themselves already functionally compromised. The explosion in technology and demography, the incalculable speed at which things occur, erases any capacity to comprehend what happens in terms of what already happened. The knowledge history uses to comprehend what happens is inherently moribund.

Of course, this won’t be admitted. History in its disciplinary form remains a well-staffed machine, the apotheosis of managerial hubris, and attended by an administrative clique devoted to its consecration. They operate an illimitable technology for producing order. Historians arrogate to themselves an illusory capacity to make things make sense – even though no one knows how much sense makes sense, how much more meaning something needs in order to be finally meaningful, or how many more reasons one would need in order to have ‘sufficient’ reason. What something means, comes down to what it means for history; the sense something has comes down to what sense history can give it. This situation summarizes the current climate of historicization that grips consciousness. In its collective veneration, contained within the imperative to identify, to remember, to represent, to re-enact, in short to render unto it utter and increasing devotion, history is unmatched. Positing that it subverts immediate experience, shrouding the mind in ‘pre-emptive occlusions’, Davies mercilessly reveals the ironic diminishment of sense that confronts a world replete with history as its predominant technology for producing it: a technology that induces the existential anxiety it is meant to allay. The sense it purports to make is painfully defective.

This brilliant, intellectually exciting and invigorating book ought to be read, although to call it accessible to the general reader would be inaccurate. It lets us see the world differently. This timely meditation is a reminder that to historicize is to superintend one’s present capacity to comprehend their situation. Any effort by historicized consciousness at emancipation comes at a price. It means forsaking the transcendental crutch of history and confronting the destitute situation it attempts, ultimately in vain, to obscure. For holding on to history in the end reduces to clutching at thin air.


Alexandre Leskanich read history, philosophy, and political theory at the universities of Leicester, Edinburgh, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is currently a PhD student in the department of Modern Languages , Literatures, and Cultures at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching the political and philosophical ramifications of the ‘Anthropocene’ as a contested categorisation in planetary history.

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