Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: American Ethnological Society
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists
Primary Theme: Identity and Equity
Secondary Theme: Persistence
What does it mean to engage with history as anthropologists? How do we write alongside, or in service to revisionist projects? As J. Lorand Matory cautioned: “We must be careful not to allow our enthusiastic description of the present to reduce the past to a one-dimensional foil” (2005, 9). Reframings of history—moderate or radical—can have far-reaching, long-standing repercussions: resisting or becoming hegemonic narratives and, in the process, challenging the solidity of historical “fact.” As we uncover old contestations and give voice to new ones, we call into question the relevance of the pursuit of historical facts as “empirical knowledge” in our field. Such inquiry leverages political projects or provides radical and complex re-readings of the past, relieving extant historical narratives from the one-dimensionality of convention in both our respective sites and in the realm of theory. In this way, radical projects of social-historical revisionism interface well with anthropology’s deep attention to multivalent spatial and temporal contexts gaining traction since the recentering of history in the 1980s.
Cecilia Méndez (2013) has argued that (post)colonial national histories, specifically those telling of independence from colonial rule, tend to elide stories of intranational violence. Scholars have put much intellectual effort toward understanding the processes of domination and resistance that operate and undergird social relationships within (post)colonial societies over the past four decades. Attention to people’s strategies to resist oppressive power dynamics, survive overt and endemic forms of violence—and still become entrapped in ongoing cycles of injustice—has grown immensely. The discourses and material conditions that structure unequal relationships between people, people and the state, people and transnational bodies, are often just as resilient, sometimes more so. How do we grapple with hegemonic forces that by definition resist change? Their simultaneous durability and malleability permits them to carry on through time, showing up in current constructions of the national and transnational, in public policy, and in historical narratives themselves. Nevertheless, our means of articulating these histories and explaining how they permeate the social, remains relatively provisional.
The papers in this panel investigate the nature of history as both object and medium: history is not just documented through written testimony. It is an ideology encoded in grammar and discourse, and experienced through corporeal and material epistemologies that coalesce as forms of pedagogy (Taylor, 2003; Covington-Ward 2015). What matters is the way we experience history as a human process and a human endeavor; in other words, how we live in and by history. How do we ourselves voice the historical narratives we encounter through fieldwork? In what ways can ethnography itself be a means (if accidental) of telling or making the past? How do tangible materials, grammatical categories, and ethnological narratives perpetually present pasts? How are they manipulated and reimagined by contesting social and political factions? The panelists contributing to this session therefore reinvigorate William Roseberry’s (1989) pivotal call to not simply “turn toward history” but to do the work to critically engage it, constantly evaluating what we refer to when we talk about “history” in anthropology.