History Calling

I went to a panel featuring Dipesh Chakrabarty today, who is one of the few academics I get all starry-eyed about. The conversation also included several other really brilliant scholars, so it was a rich and engaging discussion. I didn’t take notes (bad decision), and all the thoughts and arguments are jumbled in my head, fermenting and probably morphing into forms and claims that are distorted and incorrect. Nevertheless, I want to leave some of the recollections here, even if misunderstood ones on my part. Dipesh is too smart for me, okay.

During his opening comments, DC spent some time talking about the formalization of Aboriginal studies in Australia and the teaching of historical methods. One striking anecdote was related, about Patrick Wolfe teaching a course on aboriginal history and working with students on how to analyze settler colonial texts about a 1930s massacre of Aborigines as part of a project of historical inquiry. There were students of Aboriginal descent in the classroom who refused to even look at the documents, because of the painfulness, the rawness, the hurt of reading about white massacres of their ancestral people; Wolfe realized he could not teach these students without addressing their hurt, and how to overcome it in order to ‘do’ the history. There is an insistence that methodology cannot share headspace with the political, which is perhaps a quixotic notion, even when thinking of contexts less emotionally charged than the one portrayed in this anecdote.

Can you separate methods from politics? Can you imagine that disciplinary fields, that the writing of historical texts, can be sheltered from public life and its clamor of debates? These seem like basic questions but are quite complicated. Historiographical debates can be quite bitter–the standards of inquiry,  what is considered rigorous method, what should be taken as historical givens or paradigms or structures of analysis, what can be written about and be judged as legitimately, properly researched– none of these exist in a realm immune to public pressures, political developments, the historical construction of history itself. Nor can we forget the ways in which the politics of method may silence or muffle the voices of yet unwritten histories that cannot conform to the demands of the day– the gaps, as they are.

Another fascinating thing DC mentioned is the transition from the search for ‘truth’ to the preoccupation with ‘objectivity’ in the academy. This is hardly a new phenomenon, but the way that he framed– in the context of the particular Indian historian to which his book is devoted– truth as a moral value, and how that influences the judgmental lenses through which this historian wrote his works, was quite intriguing. Character, in the moral sense, akhlaaq, becomes important to someone who considers history as a quest for truth, as historical inquiry as an empire of truth, and who should be questing for that truth. But my thoughts on this are still fuzzy.




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