Saturday, 18 September 2010

History is past Politics and Politics present History

History seminar room, Johns Hopkins University, 1887
History is not election results, or laws, or wars, but a lot of history was once based on those things and not much else. Historians are now concerned with more or less everything about the past that we can possibly find evidence for, from people's deep beliefs to their daily routines. Hence the motto, 'history is past politics and politics present history' (with that dignified, archaic ellipsis of the second 'is') that once adorned the wall of the room where the first professional graduate course in history was taught, has been somewhat unfashionable in the last half-century.

But if our definition of what history is changed over that period, our definition of what politics has also been changing for nearly as long. Somehow, I think, things have come back around. For just as history encompasses almost all human activty, the truth is so does politics. In every action or thought or relationship there are structures, echoes, lines, shadows of power. And politics is the negotiation and arrangement of power. Pick any novel, and read how the subtle lines of power connect individuals and animate their lives. Can works of history exist that do not do the same?

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