The Idea of Progress
It is important to know about the past. Without an attention to what has gone before, how can we understand our present situation or our tangled and conflict-ridden relations to each other?
However, it is all too easy to look at the past in order to celebrate how far we have come, how much progress we all have made.
This is a dream that can be traced back to the Renaissance - the realisation of human possibility will lead to the elevation of society as a whole.
What is less often acknowledged is the extent to which this dream of progress refers only to the West - because this ability to imagine, create and invent has been depicted as a central attribute of European civilisation.
The descendants of Europeans may carry this Renaissance-inspired flexibility to other places, but, largely, the rest of the world is not considered to be in a position to author its own progress.
Popular understandings of history tend to be built around this assumption of progress. Human endeavour has made things better - through industry, through technology, and, most importantly, through intellectual and moral enlightenment.
In his famous work, Orientalism, Edward Said argues that the West's attempts to represent other parts of the world have themselves been an exercise of power.
“... the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.”
Said describes a complex process in which the process of learning about the East is inextricably meshed with the business of conquering, exploiting and mastering in all regards.
He argues that when Europeans have purported to study the peoples and cultures of the 'East' - a nebulous place that signifies a multitude of foreign elsewheres - in fact they have concocted a series of useful fictions.
The stories that the West have told about the East, according to Said, have served as a method of legitimating a variety of dubious actions.
This so-called study produces a version of academic propaganda, a learning that seeks to prove that the inhabitants of the East are weak, lawless, without culture or capacity for moral judgement. The introduction of Western civilisation into this barbarism can only be welcomed in the circumstances.
Said warns that any project of domination can lead to this distortion of knowledge - and that in the process we all forget our common humanity.
"If the knowledge of Orientalism has any meaning, it is in being a reminder of the seductive degradation of knowledge, of any knowledge, anywhere, at any time. Now perhaps more than before." (Said, 328)
The Cost of Western Expansion
The progress of the West is marked not only by technological and cultural achievement, it is also demonstrated in the mastery of other parts of the world.
Although we now rarely hear the open celebrations of empire that characterised the historical understandings of previous generations, the world-shaping achievements of capitalism are still depicted as European inventions. The most formative global forces, those arising from industrialisation, are intertwined with Europe's imperial adventures.
In the process of Western expansion and progress, other people are conquered, exploited and killed. Progress for some represents catastrophe for others.
When Walter Benjamin argues that there is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of barbarism, he is speaking of this underlying inequality. The most valued achievements of human endeavour have always been bought at someone's expense.
The privileged space of imagination and invention is enabled by hard labour somewhere else. Both the cultural treasures that indicate progress and the account of history that celebrates them hide the barbarism that enable their creation. The cruelties of empire and slavery, of forced labour and stolen resources, don't register in the histories written by victors.
Who Is The Agent of History?
There have been attempts to write a different kind of history, a democratic history that makes space for the previously excluded to be heard and recognised. This endeavour can be seen in the various attempts to give voice to the histories of working people, peasants, women and cultural minorities.
If history records the voices of the victors, those who have dominated the world and other people and therefore wielded the power to make their version of events the one that is recorded and remembered, then surely the solution is to include the other versions that have been silenced.
However, giving voice to the voiceless may not be so easy to do. Gayatri Spivak argues this when she says that the subaltern cannot speak - using the military term for lower ranks to indicate those who are left out of the main story.
Here subaltern refers to all those who cannot figure in the victor's account of history. We might manage to piece together a story for the subaltern - but this will never register the historical violence of events. This is too variegated, unrecorded and undocumented to emerge into historical narrative.
What is the Task of History Writing?
The questions raised by so-called post-colonial critiques of Western history encourage us to think differently about the business of history-writing.
Is the job of history to give voice to all, in an attempt to reach a totalised understanding?
Or is it to interpret historical records in such a way that we understand the violence that is hidden in the representations of history?
Why do we believe that rewriting the historical record will compensate past generations for their unacknowledged suffering and undervalued lives?
If there is such a thing as a post-colonial approach to historical understanding it is one that seeks to critique the limits and silences of western conceptions of progress, while also making space for the articulation of other experiences.
No approach to history-writing can right the wrongs of the past. Understanding how this history came about might prevent the same mistakes happening again.
Can the subaltern speak?
Spivak, Gayatri (Chakravorty 1988)
Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture
C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (eds.), (Macmillan Education, pp271-316 )
Theses on the Philosophy of History
Benjamin, Walter (Illuminations, London, Fontana, pp245-255, 1973)
Said, Edward (London, Penguin 1978)
Imperial Fictions, Europe's Myth's of Orient
Kabbani, Rana (London, Pandora 1988)