Ahistory

Ahistory: not the absence of history, but the recognition that history — the past as a meaningful narrative, as a story — never existed in the first place. It is wrong, having pierced the veil, to try to tell the history of this idea. I can only speak of my own recent ventures into the area: knocking down the “historical evolution of religion” in my undergraduate thesis and seeing the power of history textbooks in Texas, Japan, and China. History cannot be “politicized”, because it is at its heart a political endeavor; not just the facts, but an arrangement of the facts that imbues personal or collective power. It disguises one particular path among many as the single road to perfection. In its incarnation as “world history”, it seeks to universalize one of these paths as “humankind’s journey from childhood to adulthood”, but as Oswald Spengler put it, “‘Mankind’, however, has no aim, no idea, no plan, any more than the family of butterflies or orchids.” We are not climbing a mountain. The world is here, the same as always. Only the stupid things we’re doing on its surface have changed.

As Spengler points out, before the interruption of colonization, India existed in a state of ahistory. Oh, sure, India is a country full of stories. There are epic stories that can enlighten and entertain the reader for centuries on end, but in such a stubbornly diverse and divided continent, none of these stories were meant to identify the persons who told or heard them. A culture of friendly anonymity prevailed; there was no word for “India” in any Indian language, and indeed, stories like the Ramayana were told and revered as far east as Thailand and Vietnam. The historians of South Asia were not the brilliant philosophers, but the marginalized and cast-off Sri Lankans. Seeking to define themselves as a monocultural people, they manufactured a narrative, the Mahavamsa, which will be recognized today as a pioneering work of ethno-nationalism. Probably India did not understand the peace-making power of ahistory, for even in light of the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka, they have begun to define themselves, as Hindus, Muslims, or urban Indians, uniting their stories into a common ethnic narrative (i.e., a national history that would no longer be interesting to Thais or Vietnamese), or else casting them off and adopting the trendy Western narrative of economic development and globalization.

How can ahistory retake its rightful place on the world stage? There will always be critics around to deconstruct or uncover ideological histories, just like the resounding criticism of recent developments in Texas. But the interesting thing about criticism is that, by adding to that particular discourse, it reinforces that history’s authority as official, even if some people doubt that it may be true. The more people talk about it, the more that history becomes bumped up the ladder towards world-class ideology.

Perhaps the only way out is to promote the telling of stories. The more unruly and unregulated stories that get told, be they first hand experiences, second hand gossip, folklore, fables, or simply snippets of books from here and there, the more the approved histories get put in their place as just one brand of story among many. In a world full of wonderful stories, it will be difficult to identify oneself with any particular history. Then, perhaps, we can leave the past behind and turn our thoughts towards the present.

Posted: May 30th, 2010 | Postcolonialism | 2 Comments »


The Diaspora Project

I’ve decided to start a blog about Diaspora, a free software alternative to Facebook. Since I’ll be using this blog to talk about Japan, I’ll be keeping advocacy posts about that subject at Avery’s Diaspora News. Feel free to subscribe! Or don’t!

Posted: May 17th, 2010 | Site news | No Comments »