Report: The History Manifesto, April 20th, 2015

– By Sam Clevenger

Sam Clevenger is a Ph.D. student in the Physical Cultural Studies program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

On April 20th of this year, I attended a panel discussion at The Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. concerning a recent publication by historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s titled The History Manifesto. The work has caused considerable debate within the historical profession, raising questions about the theories, frameworks, and approaches historians employ in their professional practice and forcing scholars to reflect on the state of the field and its significance within the contemporary political moment.

To briefly (poorly) summarize, Guldi and Armitage argue that the historical profession has become increasingly specialized and focused on short time spans, a consequence of a larger, dominating movement within Western society toward to short-time thinking and planning. “We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characteri[z]ed by the shortage of long-term thinking,” Guldi and Armitage write. “Even as rising sea levels threaten low-lying communities and coastal regions, the world’s cities stockpile waste, and human actions poison the oceans, earth, and groundwater for future generations.”[1] For the field of history, Guldi and Armitage argue that such thinking can be remedied if historians return to French historian Fernand Braudel’s concept of the “longue durée” in their approaches to studying history. Braudel defined longue durée history as a history of long time spans (centuries of time), focusing on the enduring, slow-moving, or continuous “deep structures” of historical time, things like climate and economic cycles.[2] For Guldi and Armitage, a history field informed by Braudel’s longue durée would allow for the production of historical narratives that can not only transcend temporal disjunctures and assumptions of modernization, but also present stories more compelling and pertinent to the crises of today’s global society.

In his previous publications, Armitage has written of the operationalizing of longue durée histories through “serial contextualism” within a “transtemporal” framework, meaning an approach that simultaneously respects the contingency of context, links such contexts as “series” within a perspective of slow-moving history, and transcends temporal delineations often associated with models and frameworks informed by Western modernity and postmodernity. Such an approach allows histories to avoid falling into the trap of glossing over the specificity of context and the congealing of power within particular historical moments, while still having the conceptual capacity to focus on the enduring structures of time.[3] The advances in the histories of race, gender, sexuality, and nationalism are not neglected or overlooked, but are rather emboldened by through serial linkages to the durations of power in human history. Armitage’s formulation has been paramount to the return discussion of the longue durée, as the approach’s previous weakness in emphasizing context contributed to a decline in its use in the latter half of the twentieth century.

One of the more intriguing comments from the April 20th panel discussion came from J.R. McNeill, environmental historian at Georgetown University and author of the recent fascinating book Mosquito Empires, an ecological history of the Caribbean utilizing a framework focusing on the agency of disease, environmental, and non-human historical actors.[4] In his comments on the Manifesto, McNeill asked the important question of whether all time is equal, a crucial issue longue durée advocates still wrestle with. If historians are to employ a transtemporal framework for studying history, how are they to conceptualize the historical contingencies of particular serial temporalities? Does all historical time become simply continuous and flattened? Indebted as the field is to modern theories of German Idealism and dialectical materialism, such a question remains pertinent and unanswered.

I should admit, as well, that I went to this panel discussion having already been a proponent of Braudel’s and Armitage’s arguments. I do see the potential in focusing more on histories of long time spans, if only for the possibility of reconstructing histories built to capture the deeper structures of human society and to transcend frameworks of historical discontinuity. I left the event, however, unclear how both the proponents and critics of the History Manifesto were conceptualizing “politics” and “publics”. At various points it seemed the scholars and audience members were more generally concerned with the public respectability of the historical profession rather than a re-examination of writing histories as part of a new political project. At one point, one speaker spoke of meeting with senior officials in the U.S. Department of Defense about the long history of military strategy as an example of the potential longue durée histories afford historians in engaging with the public. This line of thought seems to flatten one’s notion of “publics” to mean simply becoming more respected in an array of non-academic venues, forgetting the need to be critically aware of the relation between one’s scholarship and how they are conceptualizing political praxis.

It is important to remember that as a French Annales scholar, Braudel ultimately developed his historical thinking through the insight of the Marxian materialist conception of history, though the subsequent emphasis on mentalités by Annales scholars was an important derivation from historical materialism. This lineage of historical thought has, since the publication of Marx’s writings, been rigorously implicated in the necessary relations between theory, praxis, and politics. Though it is exciting to hear contemporary historians speak directly to the analytical power and political potential of focusing on historical durations and continuity rather than an increasing narrowing of time span and specialization, historians must also remain diligent and clear about the particular conception of politics they’re employing, and what “publics” they desire to engage with.

How the longue durée relates and complements the theoretical scholarship of the Physical Cultural Studies (PCS) project remains tricky and uncertain. Largely understood as a post-Marxist project, much PCS work remains grounded in academic post- and neo- theorizations directly implicated within the perceived emergence of postmodernity.   While such analyses critically unpack the foundational logic of modern social theories, they remain wedded to the Eurocentric logic lying underneath their formulations. The world is seen as post- or neo- something stemming from a particular European version of history, leaving the rest of non-Western world history epistemologically hidden underneath modernity’s “logic of coloniality”.[5] For decades now, the world-systems analysis of Immanuel Wallerstein and the work of decolonial and transmodernity scholars like Samir Amin, Enrique Dussel, Rosa María Rodríguez Magda, Anibal Quijano, Maria Lugones, and Walter Mignolo have illuminated this important problematic concerning the Eurocentrism of postmodern theories.

With that said, the rigorous contextual analysis of PCS usefully links with Armitage’s serial contextualist operationalizing of the longue durée.   A contextual analysis of context, in other words, does not need to be sacrificed, but can be imbued with historical knowledge of the deep, enduring structures of transtemporality. Moreover, with the emergence of PCS tied to the scientific field of kinesiology, an incorporation of longue durée historical sensibility would provide the tools for unearthing the historically-formed epistemological foundations of the reductionist models permeating such fields of human science. Braudel himself presented the longue durée as part of his argument for greater collaboration between the social sciences. There is much to be gained, with caution and nuanced insight, from the incorporation of longue durée history within the PCS project.

 

[1] Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 1.

[2] Fernand Braudel, On History, trans. Sarah Matthews (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[3] David Armitage, “What’s the Big Idea? Intellectual History and the Longue Durée,” History of European Ideas 4(2012): 493-507.

[4] J.R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[5] See Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

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