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Unformatted text preview: hayden white The Historical Event For the process of truth to begin, something must happen. What there already is—the situation of knowledge as such— generates nothing other than repetition. For a truth to affirm its newness, there must be a supplement. This supplement is committed to chance. It is unpredictable, incalculable. It is beyond what is. I call it an event. A truth thus appears, in its newness, because a supplement interrupts repetition. —Badiou I never thought we would see the day when an African-American and a woman were competing for the presidency of the United States [. . .]. [T]his is not a piece of history that is happening to someone else; this is happening to us. —Hillary Clinton We’re on the brink or cusp of doing something important; we can make history. [. . .] We can make history by being, [for] the first time in a very long time, a grass-roots movement of people of all colors. —Barack Obama R ecent discussion on the periphery of mainstream historical studies has revealed the extent to which “belonging to history” (rather than being “outside of it”) or “having a history” (rather than lacking one) have become values attached to certain modern quests for group identity. From the perspective of groups claiming to have been excluded from history, history itself is seen as a possession of dominant groups who claim the authority to decide who or what is to be admitted to history and thereby determine who or what will be considered to be fully human. Even among those groups that pride themselves on belonging to history (here understood as being civilized) or in having a history (here understood as having a real as against a mythical genealogy), it has long been thought that history is written by the victors and to their advantage and that historical writing, consequently, is an ideological weapon with which to double the oppression of already vanquished groups by depriving them of their historical pasts and consequently of their identities as well. Volume 19, Number 2  doi 10.1215/10407391-2008-002 © 2008 by Brown University and  d i f f e r e n c e s : A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 10 The Historical Event Although it has long been claimed that “history” is a place in and a condition of being of everything that is “truly” human and that “history” is a universal process or relationship (like entropy or gravity), “history” itself shows that “history” was invented and cultivated as a learned science in the West, is based on specifically Western, aristocratic, racist, gen(d)eric, and classist preconceptions, and is no more “universalist” in its applicability to other cultures than Christianity or capitalism. So to view “history” as a “gift” of unalloyed value and usefulness to those who are seeking to enter it or belong to it may be delusory. It is within the context of this problematic that I wish to address the question of the nature, meaning, and discursive function of the historical event. Let me stress that by the term “history,” I mean “the past,” to be sure, but also something other and much more. Every individual and every group has a past, just by virtue of having a genetic and a cultural endowment of some kind. But a past made up of a genetic and cultural endowment is not the same thing as a historical past. In our time, which is that of late modernity, a specifically historical past is created by professional or in some way socially authorized investigators of what is only a virtual past as long as it has not been established as having really happened on the basis of evidence of a specific kind and authority. This historical past is a construction made by selecting from the wide range of all the events of the human past a specific congeries of those events that can be established as having happened at specific times and places and can be fitted into diachronically organized accounts of a group’s self-constitution over time. As Michael Oakshott has argued, this historical past is quite different from “the practical past” that most of us carry around in our heads in the form of memory, imagination, snippets of information, formulas and practices that we perform by rote, and vague ideas about “history” that we draw on in the course of a day for the performance of tasks as various as running for president of the United States, justifying a policy of war or economic adventure, planning a party, or arguing a case at law (18). The historical past exists only in the books and articles written by professional investigators of pasts and written for the most part for one another rather than for the general public. This historical past is, according to the doxa of the professionals, constructed as an end in itself, has very limited if any practical usefulness, and contributes only minimally to the understanding of what ordinary folk regard as “the present.” It is ironic that, as professional historical studies have become more and more scientific, 11 d i f f e r e n c e s they have become less and less useful for any practical purpose, including the traditional one of educating the laity in the realities of political life. Modern historical studies are genuinely dianoetic in aim and method, contemplative rather than active in kind. For modern historical studies, a historical event is any occurrence that lends itself to investigation by the techniques and procedures currently in force among the guild of professional historians. Such an event may make its appearance in the practical life of a given society or other kind of group, but insofar as it can be studied as a “historical” event, it is moved out of the category of past events that can be utilized for practical purposes and removed into that “historical past” that renders it now only an object of contemplation rather than a tool or instrument to be used in the present for practical ends. Since the time of Herodotus, there have been conventions, rules, and procedures for deciding what kind of events can be legitimately considered to be “historical,” on what grounds and by what kind of evidence events can be established as facts, and how to relate any given historical account of any given body of historical facts to other accounts and facts of a properly historical kind. In modernity, historical events are thought to belong to the class of “natural” events but to be antithetical in kind to “supernatural” events. So, too, historical accounts are thought to belong to the class of narratable processes1 but to be antithetical to the kind of narratives called “myths” and to any kind of “fiction.” According to the Western ideology of history, 2 “history” came into existence at a particular time and place, developed among the peoples inhabiting that time and place, expanded in time and space with the expansion of Western civilization, and is in fact properly recounted as the story of how this expansion into the rest of the world occurred. “Modern” (itself a Western notion and mode of social existence) practitioners of history purport, of course, to have drained the notion of “the historical” of its cultural specificity as a distinctively Western ideology and to have constituted it as a “soft” but nonetheless universal science. But whereas a modern physical science might be taken up by a given culture without necessarily requiring abandonment of dominant traditional values and institutions, it is questionable whether non-Western cultures can take up “history” without jettisoning much of their traditional cultural baggage—any more than non-Western traditional cultures can take up Christianity or capitalism without losing their distinct identities based on their presumed relationship to a past that may have nothing “historical” about it at all. 12 The Historical Event Thus, “history,” or so it might seem, is or has been for most of the last two millenia a construction and a value in the West, while other cultures have chosen to relate to their pasts in ways sometimes similar to but ultimately different from the “historical” way. 3 It is for this, and a number of other reasons, to be sure, that theories of history have been developed in recent times, in the West and elsewhere, directed at the identification of ambiguities of the kind usually ascribed to ideologies, myths, and religions rather than those found in scientific disciplines. In other words, there has been an effort in recent times to “deconstruct” history in much the same way that “man,” “race,” “gender,” “literature,” “society,” and other mainstays of Western humanism have been deconstructed. Excluded and subaltern groups have objected, of course, to this theorization of history as yet another tactic designed to foreclose their claim to “belong to history” quite as much as their oppressors or to “have a history” of their own that founds their identity similarly. Yet, theory of history (as against historiological theories or theoretical considerations about the nature and uses of historical knowledge) developed within Western culture at a particular moment in the evolution of historical studies, the moment at which it was professionalized, academicized, and began to lay claim to the status of a (modern) science. 4 There can be no science in the modern sense without theory, and indeed it is a sign of the modernity of a given field of scientific activity to be divisible into a “theoretical” and a “practical” (or “applied”) dimension. Prior to this moment in its development, historiographical composition was treated as a perfectly “natural” or ordinary activity that could be practiced by anyone endowed with “letters” and the learning required to read old documents or interrogate witnesses of past events effectively. Prior to this moment, differences might be entertained as to the “meaning” that could be derived from the study of past public affairs, especially when claims of a religious or politically sectarian nature regarding certain events of the past were concerned, but these were not so much “theoretical” as, rather, “practical” matters—insofar, especially, as they required the effort to establish “the facts” at issue as a necessary preliminary to the assessment of their possible meaning. To those for whom the Incarnation or the Resurrection or the Descent of the Holy Spirit were already taken as fact on faith, the problem of the relation of fact to meaning was already resolved relatively easily. By contrast, for the scientific historian, the only possible factuality to be accorded to these allegedly “miraculous” events would be their status as d i f f e r e n c e s beliefs held by specific people at specific times and places. The factuality of the events themselves would have to be treated as having been based on evidence of a kind not to be admitted in historical (or, more precisely, historiological) discourse. Obviously, in cases like the last mentioned, scientific historians would be concerned as much about the nature of the events under question as they would about the nature of the evidence offered in support of their factuality. In history, any reported event of whatever kind, natural or miraculous as the case might be, has to be treated as a potential fact since to rule out any given reported event as impossible in advance of investigation of the evidence of its occurrence would violate the empiricist principles governing historical inquiry from the origins of the genre. But the very distinction between natural events and miraculous events indicates the importance of the distinction between event and fact in historiological discourse. Since a miraculous event is a manifestation of a power outside of nature and a fortiori outside of history, a miraculous event is the one kind of event that can never be treated as a historical fact. The canonical version of the distinction between an event and a fact has it that “a fact is an event under a description”—where “description” can be understood as consisting of a perspicuous listing of attributes of the event—or a “predication”—by which an event is assigned to its proper kind and, usually, given a proper name. 5 An event cannot enter into a history until it has been established as fact. From which it can be concluded: events happen, facts are established. A fact may be construed as a happening in speech or writing and in this sense conceived as an event. But facts are events of a special kind: they are events in speech that are about other speech events and other kinds of events beyond or outside of speech. On this account, a historical fact would differ from other kinds of fact by virtue of the rules prevailing in historical discourses for determining when a given event could be described as the kind of event properly characterized as “historical.” Now, in general, people who know something about the issue have little difficulty defining “historical event” and distinguishing historical from other kinds of events, pseudo events, and nonevents, natural, supernatural, imaginary, illusory, and so on. And historians in general have good or at least tried and trusted rules for determining how events are to be established as facts or established as having really happened rather than only appearing to have happened or as having been falsely reported as having happened. None of these procedures is scientific in 13 14 The Historical Event the sense of requiring experimental replication of the event under laboratory conditions or the subsumption of a given event to the causal laws or relationships governing the class of events to which it may belong. But they are good enough for the kind of crude social uses to which historical knowledge has been contrived to contribute since its invention in Greece during the fifth century b.c.e. So, let us grant that there are events and there are facts. Let us grant, too, that there are series of events and structures of events that can be factualized, which is to say, dated, placed, described, classified, and named well enough to permit a distinction between “atomic” or individual facts and something like “molar” or macro-facts—“large” facts such as “The Russian Revolution of 1917” or “big” facts such as “The Renaissance.” This would allow us to imagine a wide range of “historical facts” that would make up that “history” that is the object of study of “historians.” But this way of thinking about history—as an aggregation of facts—begs the question of the status of those “events” that are the content, referent, or necessary condition of facts. There has been a great deal of discussion of late about the event in general and about the historical event specifically. In historiography, the evental status of the Holocaust is a matter of extensive debate: is or was the Holocaust an event unique to history and therefore incomparable to (or incommensurable with) other events of a similar kind? So, too, for the event now called 9/11. Was the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, an utterly new kind of event, indeed emblematic of a new epoch and paradigmatic therefore of a category of historical events hitherto unimaginable and requiring, consequently, a search for new principles of explanation for its contextualization? Or was it simply an event that happened to have been unexpected in the United States, an event only unimaginable in that context—since, obviously, it was all too imaginable among its perpetrators? In most of these discussions, that an event occurred does not have to be established. What is at question is the nature of the event, its relative novelty, the scope and intensity of its impact, and its meaning or what it reveals about the society in which it took place. “Things will never be the same,” it has been said of both of the two events; “It is the end of American innocence,” it is said of 9/11; “Never again,” has been one response to the Holocaust. While responses such as these are both understandable and, if understood figuratively, more than adequately justified, it is not always d i f f e r e n c e s registered how such responses implicitly presume a precise idea of what a historical event—as against a natural event—consists of. A natural event, such as an earthquake or an avalanche, will always have been conceivable, imaginable, possible, and, in some locales, even probable. The disastrous consequences of such events attach to the human beings who insufficiently prepared for the occurrence of this type of event in the physical areas affected by them. Thus, although the effects of such events on human beings and groups in a particular place can appropriately be described as “disastrous,” even “tragic,” the same epithets could be used to describe the events themselves in only a figurative way. There are no “disasters” and certainly no “tragedies” in nature. The fact that there are plenty of events in history to which such epithets can be legitimately or at least appropriately applied tells us something about the extent to which “history,” in spite of its efforts to become scientific, remains indentured to mythical notions of the cosmos, the kinds of events that occur in it, and the kinds of knowledge we can have of them. In our time, many other events made possible by new technologies and modes of production and reproduction have changed the nature of institutions and practices that had remained virtually unchanged for millennia (for example, warfare and health care) and changed them so radically that it has become impossible to write a history of, say, war as a tale of continuous development from the Stone Age to only yesterday. Weapons of mass destruction cause a quantum leap in the history of warfare. Antibiotics and genetic engineering change definitively the nature of health care for the foreseeable future. All this suggests that the principles that make historical change possible in the first place may themselves undergo change. Or to put it another way: change itself changes, at least in history if not in nature. If it does, then so, too, can the nature of events change as well. 6 Can we imagine a new kind of event breaking in on our world that might manifest evidence of another, alternative system of existence that differs utterly from our own? Fantasies of alien cultures in outer space and theories of parallel or antithetical universes reflect the wish, hope, or fear of the existence of such alternative places from which new and strange events might emanate. Such fantasies may seem delusory, but they are no more so than our notion of “history” considered as a process made up of conflicting and mutually exclusive societies, cultures, and races each vying with the other for Lebensraum and the resources to allow one or another to prevail over all contenders. 15 16 The Historical Event But not only that: history itself, with its division into past and present that parses human nature into earlier and later avatars whose differences are often thought to be more striking than any similarities between them, already contains more than enough evidence of radical discontinuity over time. Indeed, history is thought to be composed of events of a kind that effect changes in the common human substrate that amount more to mutations than simply variations on the common heritage. Imagine how different is the kind of event that modernist technology is capable of producing from those that might have been familiar to a peasant of the twelfth century. Certain events in modernity—space travel, genetic engineering, atomic weaponry—are so utterly different from anything previously thought possible that even a modern peasant or bourgeois might be forgiven for taking them as “miracles.” So different, indeed, are certain events of the present moment from anything preceding them that we can readily understand why certain intellectuals might be impelled to speak of “the end of history” or, like Marx, to speak of everything that has happened up until now as “prehistory” or a prelude to the real drama of a hum...
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