Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Better not read history anymore...

I hope I learned my lesson: never again buy pop-history books. I am sure there are plenty of interesting ones out there, but my last attempt has been - yet again - a complete failure. I am sure it's all my fault: I can no longer behave like a good reader, taking in what the author is giving me. I've increasingly become dissentious and recalcitrant. I pick on every single word and I'm not letting it go.

On the bright side of things, my little encounter with the heavy and colorful tome entitled "Modern History. From the European Age to the new Global Era" (J. M. Roberts) did remind me how important it is we keep on challenging both nationalism and Europeanism. You see, every now and then, immersed in the hundreds of academic books I have to read, I get bored and I loose perspective: who cares about this s...t anyway, I ask myself. Who gives a damn about nationalism or about colonialism or about technological determinism? We're living exciting times, Michael Jackson is dead, global warming has screwed up the weather this year, and the new Harry Potter is out.

But the heavy and colorful tome about "Modern History" gave me back my so-much-needed perspective. Exciting times, indeed, but the way we understand them cannot be divorced from the ways we understand our past. An understanding that means forgetting that today's meaning of words is not the same as 100 years ago. An understanding that also means erasing people, ideas, values from the past, giving us a purified, santized version of a history meant to make us feel proud to be who we are.

Proud, and ignorant. In any case, I got stuck on the very first page - page 11 (of a total of 912 pages), when the author wrote about our age as the age of "truly world history... dominated by the astonishing success of one civilization among many, that of Europe". I crossed out "success" and replaced it with "imposition" and "oppression". All of a sudden, Europe didn't look that astonishing - or that saintly - anymore.

A couple of pages down the road, and my worst fear became true: this history I'm trying to read is a history of 'nations', understood as a priori groups of people, existing from immemorial times. Well, at least since the times of the Roman empire, when we learn that the "Italian under imperial Rome" had the same chances of surviving as an Indian peasant in the 1950s. An Italian under imperial Rome... this must be honey to the ears of nationalists in Italy, it only proves what they have always tried to tell us: that the Roman empire is really an Italian empire. After all, each and every true nationalist dreams about showing the rest of the world that hir nation was once an empire, a true, magnificent, powerful empire. Of course, this mere detail should be enough of a proof for a variety of claims, but we won't bother with this here.

The point is that in spite of giving us bits of uncontextualized and unconnected information - that peasants in medieval France didn't really consider themselves French, and that they were in fact extremely diverse populations - the book shamelessly continues to talk about the French, the English, the Germans.

Oh, how I miss the boring, dull and abstract discussion of modernity as a complex interplay between various economic, political and social processes (Stuart Hall and Bran Gieben, 1992, Formations of Modernity). But granted, it is easier to say that history of modernity is a history of nations than to give readers the blah-blah talk about how modernity should be conceptualized as processes, out of which the creation of nations was an important social engineering practice, equally engaging political will, economic processes, education systems and most importantly, the development of a particular symbolic universe out of which "the construction of a sense of belonging which draws people together into an 'imagined community' and the construction of symbolic boundaries which define who does not belong or is excluded from it" (Hall & Gieben, 1992, p. 6) emerged.

Hey, who got the last paragraph, raise your hand!
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