Saturday, July 29, 2006

Theories of History

I sometimes feel a little defensive and insecure about the fact that my main project, which focuses on histories of social movement struggle in Canada as told through the words of activists who participated in them, is taking such a long time. I have never had the privilege of focusing on it full-time, with such things as paid employment and then full-time parenting taking primacy in my schedule, and blog-focused writing as a necessary diversion for the maintenance of my sanity and well-being as well as all the other elements involved in the struggle to live a rich and balanced life. As well, I did not recognize nearly early enough in the project exactly how much reading I would need to do to understand (and then contextualize respectfully and with some degree of political sophistication in writing) the many different times and places and standpoints of the rather broad range of long-time Canadian activists whom I interviewed as the basis for the work -- I really wish that had occurred to me three years earlier, but it did not.

Having this work occur slowly and over a long period of time means that my thinking has had a chance to evolve in significant ways over the course of the project. The last time I turned my attention to the book proposal was something like a year ago, or a year and a few months. I am now focusing again on that particular aspect of the work, with the intent of submitting it to a new publisher as soon as I can, and it is fascinating to see how my thinking has changed over that time. It is not a radical change in direction, and perhaps many people reading the version I produced a year ago and then reading whatever ends up being my finished proposal in the current iteration of the process would notice little difference, but I think the shifts are real and of substance even if they might appear to be subtle. Some are actual changes in analysis and some are refinements in how I present the analysis.

In describing in the proposal what I intend to do in the book, I am contrasting "conventional history" with my approach. By "conventional history" I mean the history that most people in Canada have a chance to learn, which mostly amounts to a lay version of liberal nationalist history. I have decided that directly critiquing academic liberal history is unnecessary given what I want the proposal to do, but I think that the substance of that critique would be much the same as my objections to lay conventional history. I also think that a number of similar critiques could be made of tradtional Western Marxist history, but again it is not something I feel the need to raise directly.

In any case, there are a number of core elements that I am using to distinguish between conventional history and what I am doing.

Conventional history tends to treat history as if it was flat, as if the liberal fantasies of society beginning from a basis of isolated, atomized indivduals who contract with one another to create the context in which they exist were, in fact, true. I am trynig to approach history with an understanding of society that reflects anti-oppression analysis -- it recognizes that our everyday realities and the narratives, organizations, and practices that shape them are produced in a context that is centrally shaped by interlocking hierarchies of power and privilege based on class, gender, race, sexuality, ability, and much more.

Conventional history pretends to an objective standpoint, which is assumed to be above and outside the world, and pretends to allow for an understanding of history and society that is neutral and unifluenced by the tawdry goings on of actual flesh-and-blood human beings. In fact, objectivity tends to amount to a mystification of the origins of history told from the standpoints of people at the pinnacle of the pyramids of power and privilege in society. What I am doing recognizes that history looks quite different depending on the standpoint from which you enter it. Moreover, because of the point made in the paragraph above, these differences in standpoint are not defined purely by difference, i.e. they are not neutral, but rather there are moral and political imperatives to enter history through the standpoints of those who experience and resist oppressions of various sorts and capitalist exploitation.

Conventional history tends to make ordinary people invisible. The motive forces of history are treated as some combination of "great men" (very occasionally women, almost always hetero and white regardless of gender) and impersonal forces like "economics" (treated in ways that reify them and give them agency outside of the local, everyday human activities that actually produce them). What I am doing recognizes that ordinary people are central actors in the production of history. As thoroughly erased as it has been from the dominant narratives of "Canada" and other industrialized states, there is very little of our lives that has been left untouched by the legacy of ordinary people getting together and struggling against the oppressions and exploitation that they face, against the efforts by those with power to keep and enhance it.

As well, on a point that is more stylistic than analytical, I am recognizing the fact that human beings are social animals and tend to feel connection with other human beings. My project is therefore intending not just to enter history through different standpoints but through partcular stories of particular people who participated in collective, public struggle (i.e. social movements). The use of people telling their own story in their own words should facilitate engagement by readers who might be less likely to identify with history written in more academic, impersonal ways. At the same time, it is not only new-to-the-reader facts that are being presented but also new-to-the-reader ideas, and those ideas are introduced through my own engagement and journey with both them and with the participants. Using that approach is again a way of personalizing it and presenting new ways of thinking in ways that are grounded and personalized rather than abstract and detached from any obvious connection to reality.

So that's the theory. Hopes of part-time pre-school placement in September notwithstanding, my constraints remain laregly the same for the time being, so the translation of that theory into an actual document will remain a slow process.


Jay Taber said...

Sounds like it was worth the wait.

Scott Neigh said...

:) Thanks...I hope so!