April 13, 2014

Present Needs that drive Antiquarianism

History "for its own sake" isn't popular until it stops being just that. Even the most "objective" historian is driven partly by her own peculiar curiosities - a personal need tragically isolating her from those presently uninterested - but also by any number of additional factors. The need for a pursuit, the need to master something, the need for a field, a career, a dissertation topic, perhaps even the need for any of these things to provide the symptomatic isolation she so deeply desires.

On a broader scale, the strains and pockets of antiquarianism that do exist must - necessarily, if ironically - must be recognized as exceptions that prove the rule (and domination) of present needs in the search for the past. To go beyond personal need, then, what are some of the larger political motivations that might drive someone - sincerely or otherwise - to pursue "That Noble Dream" of revitalizing the past "as it actually was" and "for its own sake", and to believing the past has perhaps its best value when presented this way?

Here are a few "antiquarian" attitudes one might adopt, and how each is driven by present needs.

  Truthful Idealism
reporting inaccuracies is [thought to be] responsible community service

  Reform / Resistance
overturning dominant narratives can open the eyes of the abused

  Practical Corrective
improved knowledge of the past can benefit daily operations

  Sensitivity Training
confronting the otherness of the past can help reduce narcissism

There are probably many others, but these four come easily to mind - quite for obvious reasons, if you know me well at all. (!) Nevertheless, despite seeing my own psychology almost painfully on display, I must claim no egotism in affirming that each of these four categories can be a positive motivation for looking into the past, although none of them are ever likely to be popular, for obvious reasons.

However, it has also occurred to me there is one additional style that will always stand as a popular reason for looking into the past "as it was", or at least, as something-other-than-what-we-think-it-was, and that is:

  Story Quality
history, like fiction, can illustrate the possibilities of human existence

With this addition, it cannot be too heavily underscored that the key word is, of course, "possibilities". The reason we human beings read fiction is precisely because it offers a mixture of aspects we know from our own personal realities and aspects that are grippingly unlike our own personal realities, perhaps especially those of the moment. Thus, one form of antiquarianism as presentism can be merely a desire for escapism.

Equally motivating, if less blatantly conscious perhaps, is that revisiting the past as it was (as it may-have-been or supposedly-was) - that revisiting different and surprising versions of the past can be a proactive exploration to discover something 'new in the old', to restore knowledge about additional 'ways to be in the world' that have been largely forgotten, or that may simply appear to be under-appreciated by one's own personal world, at the present. In short, the desire to look into a foreign past can arise simply from feeling as if one is a foreigner in the painfully familiar world of one's present existence.

This last example is what drives Historians to Revisionism, or why History worth writing about is always likely to seek an ironic viewpoint in some way or another. This also explains everything about my own journey, to some degree or another, and that right up to this very - ahem - present moment, as this piece I am writing would not exist if it were not presently my own need to understand better how various forms of antiquarianism and presentism interact, oppose and/or assist one another.

The conclusions realized in this post are both unsettling and bracing, in ways I can't yet articulate. But to realize that antiquarianism is only opposed to presentism on the surface of things, that it is only a different sort of presentism - that is both challenging and helpful. And I may need to remind myself more often that when someone appears to be twisting the past into shapes that suit present agendas, it is not their methodology in particular, not their revisionism, that may need confronting the most. It may be their motivation. But if that point is true, then I begin to wonder... to what end all this research???

To one of five ends, I suppose, as I have just detailed above.

Thus, I do hope, we may yet live in hope...

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton