History as Chronicle of the Inevitable

From Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America:

[A]s Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as “History,” harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.  The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

When I first studied history as a subject of formal instruction, one equipped with formal syllabi and textbooks, it was presented as a very particular narrative, the classic dates-and-kings-and-battles kind. There was no increase in the sophistication of our studies as we rose from the sixth to the eighth grades, merely a chronological transition from the Ancient to the Medieval to the Modern, eras that neatly terminated as centuries did. Our understanding of the events we studied remained pegged to the same paradigms in each grade in school: here was a cavalcade of occurrences, flowing through time, each bringing forth in neat succession the one after it; history was just one damn thing after another. (Later, military histories introduced me to the notion of history written by victors, to the selective presentation of those narratives that best validate and justify and tidy up the messiness of something as chaotic and morally problematic as war. These histories at least made clear their writing was a creative act.)

The contingencies that Roth’s narrator notices missing in school history are implicit there but their presence is easily masked by the fact of history looking back at the past, at events transpired and now fixed and unalterable. Viewed from this perspective, it is all too easy to imagine the collective weight of all that went before forcing into existence the events of historical narratives, turning them from potential to actual. When this is done, the indeterminate garden of forking paths that is the future suddenly and mysteriously becomes as determinate and necessary as the past–the transition through the present has this magical effect. We forget, all too soon, every moment’s pregnancy with possibility. This is facilitated, of course, by the selective narrow focus that ignores entire classes of humans, entire domains of human activity. Small wonder that historical events that do not reflect the rich diversity of historical forces in action at any given moment appear so inevitable.

Some kinds of histories–especially of those human activities considered to be conceptually divorced from social, political and economic contexts–are especially susceptible to acquiring an air of inevitability about them. Histories of science are sometimes understood in this fashion; the edifices of scientific knowledge are imagined built up in step-wise fashion, each stone rising ever higher on the basis of the logical and evidential support afforded by the ones beneath it; no alternative developments appear visible. It is only the closer look at the social embedding of the laboratory that enables the revelation of its many contingencies. Keeping the ‘terror of the unforeseen’ hidden here serves the ideological purpose of portraying scientific knowledge as untainted by even the slightest hint of subjectivity; the practitioners of science appear free of any distinctively human bias.

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