Questioning Epochal Interpretations of History: Thoughts

“Historical analysis can point to moments of uncertainty-when stabilizing institutions were weakened and expectations of change heightened-and to moments of stability, and it can point to change. But to see history as a succession of epochs is to assume a coherence that complex interactions rarely produce. Whatever makes an era distinct should not only be present but be its defining feature; otherwise, the identification of an epoch says little . . . Historical temporality, as Williams Sewell puts it, is “lumpy”: the tendency for innovations and breaks to be reabsorbed into ongoing discursive and organizational structures is sometimes broken by a cascade of events that reconfigures the imaginable and the conceivable. Historical time is lumpy in another sense-across different conceptions of temporality held by different people at the same moment. But if time is plural, it is not divided into self-contained compartments. One circles back to the problem that in order to understand how ideas of history were shaped by colonialism, one has to understand colonization and challenges to it over time. The critical insistence that historians examine their own concepts of time is valuable, but so too is the historian’s insistence on attention to process, on how what happens at one moment in time configures possibilities and constraints on what can happen the next.”

-Frederick Cooper, “Colonial Questions, Historical Trajectories,” from Colonialism in Question

Hmmm. This was profound to me. Currently, I am writing on a post-colonial reading of the U.S. federal government campaign against Black militancy between 1937 and 1953. Particularly, I am focusing on the Council on African Affairs’ lobby for UN sanctions against the apartheid South African government. Of course, South Africa was the source of approximately 90% of the US’s processed uranium (which came by way of the Congo Basin). The United States was unwavering in its support of the South African government because the arms race against the USSR demanded ready access to uranium.

The respective discourses of the Cold War and Post-Colonial thought were simultaneously emergent. I don’t consider them epochs- rather contemporaneous discourses. Framing history as a great discourse where all have some form agency. All living souls would then engage each other through actions and words.

The difficulty is that individual histories are difficult to capture objectively. The history I was taught was always the history of an educated elite. Only recently was I introduced to cultural history.

And yes, I must examine my own time. I live in a time where post- modern thought has come to the fore, and relativism (cultural, moral) has begun to complicate further the pre- Enlightenment binaries of good/bad, moral/immoral, right/wrong. And here some claim a post- racial world, but I am all too aware of the institutionalization of race and inequality.


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