Critique of nation-state history is still relevant

It is not always clear what people mean when they talk of history. The word may acquire several meanings, even when the reference clearly is about the well-known and established discipline of historiography. The history we learn at school is not the same

It is not always clear what people mean when they talk of history. The word may acquire several meanings, even when the reference clearly is about the well-known and established discipline of historiography. The history we learn at school is not the same as the one the (future) historians learn in the universities. And neither of them are represented in the books that can be found on bookstore shelves, the history that people interested in history mostly have access to. For years some historians and philosophers have tried to surpass this terminological difficulty by capitalizing the term: History is not just history, but it is the History everyone who wishes to talk about history in the most general sense would mean by writing the word. It is a product of the meeting in the public domain of the ideas about and for history that are formed when people first come in touch with pieces of historiography, on the one hand, with the knowledge that is produced by the professionals, on the other. This amalgam of first impression, expertise, and general knowledge constitutes the history this essay wishes to explore.

History in this sense is not good or bad, right or wrong. Most people come in touch with history in school curricula and through this acquire a first taste of their history, a mostly accurate (re)construction of the most basic and uncontroversial historical topics dominating the interests of the country in which they live or, if need be, a not so accurate construction of the controversial ones. The people who write and edit these books also had similar experiences when first confronting historiography and their deepening in historical matters follows theoretical and empirical rules which, though not perfect, do guarantee a promising result. These same writers and editors also address another audience, the general public, which they now need to persuade, however, to get in touch with their option of history and not somebody else’s. This way of historiographical production and spreading of historical knowledge is like a circular move, and nobody is to blame.

It seems to me that Zoltan Boldizsar Simon’s recent book History in Times of Unprecedented Change: A Theory for the 21st Century, understands history in this same way. Already on the first page in the Preface of the book, Simon deals with “the modern Western historical sensibility” (Simon 2019, vii) as a unified idea of what history is and how it makes people think: as if everything can be understood, as if every novelty in the world is the product of something older. He finds then that this particular effect of history needs to be challenged by studying how the new emerges in today’s (Western) world, namely how historical consciousness needs to be reformed in order to get access to the new events that the 21st century bring to our society and the planet. And if I understand his analysis correctly, the idea that history creates a consciousness of time and the passing of time, a “historical sensibility” as he names it, that is almost universal and characterizes an epoch of cultural understanding – again, at least in the West – is a fundamental assumption that can be found everywhere in his analysis. I am certain that Simon does not think that this historical sensibility is the same for everybody, but that it defines our understanding of change on a broader level; but still, it seems to me that this unified schema of how we imagine a future world suffers from an inability to differentiate.

Let’s go back to the definition of history that I gave and that I assume it is also used by Simon. Does its neutral character also mean that it can be reduced to only one general idea about it? Do we and can we all share a common perception of the past, the present, and the future based on a constructed idea of how history moves? I believe the answer here has to be negative. Not because I do not recognize that there is a certain dominant discourse about the change of times that can be found in periods of human history. I agree with this and, even more, I agree that at this particular time we are living, technological and ecological considerations play a defining role in how we see and foresee a utopian or dystopian world. I also feel very sympathetic to the critique of Simon of previous philosophies and theories of history that avoided discussing history in this sense, as historical sensibility, as the fundamental factor that can form and modify our consciousness of time and change, but instead remained stuck in the analysis of language. I thereby also agree with Marek Tamm’s claim that “historians have rather desired to escape from ‘the prison of language’, to move beyond discourse, out of the labyrinths of text” and have started, as a result, dealing not with words, but with things and the relationship human culture has evolved with its material environment (Tamm and Burke 2019, 11). But as the perception of language was not something common among historians, and of course among the public, the same is true for the perception of the future: theorists and scholars can expose their opinions on the issue and even, in the long-term, make this way of thinking so dominant that it is integrated into the education; but claiming that such a history and its understanding acquires a universal acceptance, that how we make sense of history is or can be something shared by a whole society is unrealistic. There can be no common sense of history, historical sensibility, or historical change, even if unprecedented.

To develop his argument, Simon very delicately and productively criticizes the previous dominant stream in theory of history, narrativism, focusing – quite plausibly – on its most recognized representative, Hayden White. He correctly states that narrativism has limited the scope of the historian’s theoretical investigations to language and that we need to move beyond that to face the challenges of the 21st century. My own reading of White and other theorists of the “linguistic turn” in history has led me to the same conclusion: the focus on language, on style, on the form of the historical text cannot offer a radical reconsideration of what history is, what historians can do and how historical consciousness can form a better future world (see the conclusion in my forthcoming: Pelekanidis 2022). But there is one point of Simon’s analysis which I would like to challenge: the idea that “narrativism inadvertently even rendered insignificant the question of what makes historical writing ‘historical’ in the first place” (Simon 2019, 19, italics in the original).The most important aspect of narrativism in the way it was developed by White was, in my reading at least, not the narrative as such; White did not write about historical writing as his ultimate goal. His ambition was to show that the form of narration that was established as historical has been a feature of 19th-century writing and that the fundamental reason behind it was the historical discipline’s “loyalty” to the institution that made its heyday possible, the nation-state. This critique of this specific characteristic of historiography, a characteristic that makes the discipline constitutively conservative and prone to deny any possibility of radical or unprecedented change – and not its analysis of the historical text per se –, is the most significant legacy of the postmodern/narrativistic theories of historical writing. I believe this is something that Simon willingly or unwillingly misses and this impacts the ability of his argument to differentiate between different and parallel concepts of history.

To be fair, Simon has already commented in his book on this matter. White, according to his analysis, attributed the decline of historiography to its sticking with nineteenth-century modes of literary meaning-making. But Simon declares that this was not the actual reason, but rather “what made historical writing lose its prominent public status was the diminishing societal relevance of the meaningful temporal pattern of developmental continuity that history kept offering even in times of unprecedented change”. (Simon 2019, 24) And although he is correct in what he claims, this is still not antithetical to what White had in mind. Because for White, this sticking with “late nineteenth-century social science and mid-nineteenth century art” did not just happen (White 1966, 127); the reason behind it was that by serving the nation-state, history lost its radical character and stagnated. This stagnation can be clearly seen in the romanticist mode of writing that historians still adopt when narrating, but it can also be detected in the “meaningful temporal patterns” the nation-state creates and spreads, through its education system and its other institutions, claiming them to be the only normal form of historical consciousness. By saying this I also declare that, if history is declining, it is neither due to the historians’ fault of choosing outdated modes of writing nor due to history’s inability to grasp and explain change. It is because the vessel into which it has grown for two centuries is breaking. The more the nation-state finds its limitations in today’s changing world, the more history will prove to be of little worth for people and society.

Although many scholars seem to distinguish a change in White’s views when he later introduced the notion of the practical past, I believe that this kind of sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit critique of nation-state history can also be found there. Regardless if he is right in every detail of the distinction between practical and historical past (and I find his insistence on the practical past to be unfairly one-sided), the former symbolizes for him the other side of the dominant history, the historical imagination that resists being prisoned into norms both in its content and in its form. His sense of Marxism makes this distinction seem almost automatic (see: Partner 1997, 105), and in many cases he has declared that there is a history for the rich and powerful and another one for the poor and obscure (White 1999, 86). And even when histories of the working class or “politically engaged feminist history” – to use the example of Simon and Maria Ines La Greca (Simon 2019, 67) (La Greca 2016) – seem to be on this other side, their reproduction of the same models of historical narration makes them also reproduce the dominant history, or historical sensibility, consciousness, imagination, whichever term you might prefer. Let me be clear: it is not that feminist history does not produce important emancipatory results for women and society in general, as La Greca’s analysis of Joan Scott convincingly shows (La Greca 2016, 400); it is that, if historians concentrate their emancipatory efforts only on the content of their narrations (say, with a focus on women’s history), this will eventually lead to their neutralization and incorporation of these new narratives into the dominant discourse.
When Simon juxtaposes the dipole practical-historical past to his combination of the idea of present past with his idea about the apophatic past, he does it in a philosophically solid manner, showing that the entanglement of past, present, and future should not just be taken into consideration by historians but also that this past should be seen as both always present and something that we still need to acquire access to. Therefore, his contribution to the dialogue is indeed bringing something new: an idea of historical consciousness that sees time as a “disrupted singular”, as a unified field which, however, is not only characterized by continuities – as history in today’s sense would have it – but also by its discontinuities. But his critique of the practical past is correct only up to a point. Because the practical past does take into account such discontinuities – it is in a way a continuation of the idea of the sublime that can be found in White’s work of the 1980s – and it also makes the important differentiation described above between a history from above and one from below (and it seems to me that the whole spirit of La Greca’s article also points to this). This differentiation is not present in Simon’s analysis, partly understandably because he seeks a unifying theory, but partly also unjustifiably, because this dichotomy is a highly problematic element of today’s history and affects tremendously the real world which Simon’s theory tries to philosophically grasp.

The overestimation of technology and ecology and the underestimation of politics is not something negative per se. One could find areas where today’s political is determined by the technological and the ecological, unlike what happened in the previous two centuries. This would, however, require a politico-philosophical study of its own to be proven. But when discussing history in the 21st century while having the theoretical background that postmodernism and narrativism bequeathed us, totally dismissing this background in search for new directions seems to be hasty. Although I am in agreement with attempts to change the basis of the dialogue in history and theory of history and, therefore, with works that highlight the importance of change in the techno-ecological domain, I still believe that we cannot just ignore the institutions that were criticized before as long as they still not only exist but also thrive. And although I feel we do not possess the necessary tools to make a critique of capitalism from a theory of history perspective – something that should maybe worry us – continuing our critique of the nation-state and its historiography remains essential in order to change our perception(s) of time.

Studies that highlight the extreme singularity of the epoch we are living in and try to find a common way of understanding the past, the present, and the future are, therefore, welcome, but only insofar as they do not neutralize the whole discourse. Climate change is not experienced in the same by everyone. And technology, from smartphones to ballistic missiles, is not equally accessible to everybody. And one of the most annoying obstacles in any effort to acquire a common planetary vision for the future and think of common planetary solutions for the present is the existence of the nation-state and the form of history it carries with it that obstructs the effort to create common planetary imaginations of the past. In the Paris Agreement of 2015, one can barely miss the constant reference to the existence of “developed” and “developing” countries, a dichotomy that has been normalized so much that it needs to be repeated on almost every page of the agreement. Similarly, some days ago, on the 3rd of January 2022, the permanent members of the Security Council of the UN “have pledged to prevent atomic weapons from spreading and to ensure a nuclear war is never fought”. What is interesting though and exceeds common logic in the way I see it, is that all the above nations essentially agreed on the need to retain these means of global destruction for securing one from the other. ( The same logic prevails in the dialogue about climate change, where mistrust between the nation-states “forces” the emerging powers like China and India to repeat the same environmental blunders that the early capitalist states committed, exactly the ones that we all collectively agree should be avoided.

Taking the above into consideration, I do not see how history can have any meaning for today’s world if it continues being a tool – in a conscious or unconscious way – in the hands of agendas promoting nationalism in any form. I believe this was the vision of the previous generation of critics of history and that our conception of time, change, past, present, and future is a consequence and not a reason – let alone the main reason – of this condition. History needs to free itself from this relationship or accept its complicity and follow the nation-state on its catastrophic path, wherever it may lead.

Theodoros Pelekanidis

La Greca, María Inés. 2016. “Hayden White and Joan W. Scott’s Feminist History: The Practical Past, the Political Present and an Open Future.” Rethinking History 20 (3): 395–413.
Partner, Nancy. 1997. “Hayden White (And the Content and the Form and Everyone Else) At the AHA.” History and Theory 36 (4): 102–10.
Pelekanidis, Theodor. 2022. How to Write About the Holocaust: The Postmodern Theory of History in Praxis. Routledge approaches to history. Abingdon Oxon, New York NY: Routledge.
Simon, Zoltán Boldizsár. 2019. History in Times of Unprecedented Change: A Theory for the 21st Century. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Tamm, Marek, and Peter Burke, eds. 2019. Debating New Approaches to History. London, New York, Oxford, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic.
White, Hayden V. 1966. “The Burden of History.” History and Theory 5 (2): 111.
White, Hayden V. 1999. Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.