Friday, July 15, 2016

The History Of "History"

That Duck Quack so called patriarch was in the news again recently, quacking on about his unlearned theories about the world, and Mr. Jesus. His thesis was that Jesus was obviously God incarnate because why else would we still be counting the years since his birth? His sub-thesis was that anyone who acknowledged that this was the year 2016 was also acknowledging that Jesus was lord.

That’s a pretty silly thing to say. For anyone with a sense of history it should be clear that the years are counted as they are because of the introduction of the Augustinian Calendar around the time of the Year Zero. Before that, the calendar had the wrong number of days and the seasons changed character over time, you know, like January moving over to where April should be. Also, before that, whenever a new emperor was brought in, or even when some new king was crowned somewhere, they called it the year one in that jurisdiction. So the number of the year was different in different places. The Emperor Augustus knew that that was no way to run an empire, so he commissioned a new calendar and straightened the whole problem out in a way that is still to our satisfaction. Later on, that numbering system took hold over much of the world, and we still use it today in most countries.

The imagined Jesus connection is obviously wrong, because the year ten, let’s say, was the year ten before anyone had any idea of the existence of Jesus. Except maybe the three wise men, but their comments, if any, were not recorded.

The designations “BC” and “AD” came later, and to some extent they are not even used anymore. For AD, CE has crept into use (“Common Era,” or “Christian Era”); for BC, make that BCE. Even Christian Era is just an acknowledgment of the fact that in this era Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman world and then way beyond that.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. The Duckster’s comments served to remind me of another popular misapprehension. The feeling that many people have that the word “history” somehow means “his story,” as in “that’s not my story . . . that’s HIS story!” Well, that’s kind of a silly idea, too, in a way.

History, a noun (plural, histories) 1. The study of past events  2. The past, considered as a whole. (and maybe, the whole series of past events connected with someone or something.) 3. A continuous, typically chronological record of past events or trends.

Origin: Middle English: via Latin from Greek, historia, meaning narrative or history; from the earlier word, histor, meaning a learned, wise man.
Looking up historia in Latin yields further insight.

Historia, plural historiae, feminine, 1. An inquiry, the results of inquiry 2. Learning, a historical narrative or history 3. In general, a narrative or a story.

There’s no “his” at all in “history.” In its origins, the word was closer to the idea of it being the story rather than the subject matter. So it’s best not to take the whole thing too personally.

A Big But . . .

The word may be innocent in itself, but the whole history of history does include plenty to be angry about. Maybe angry is too strong a word; it might be better to say there’s plenty to be annoyed about. Within the study of History as an academic pursuit, the concentration on the history of the white world quickly becomes apparent. This is also true of Art History. Not only of the white world, but of the history of important white men who were prominent in its events.

My undergraduate degree is in Art History. I had always enjoyed history, but I had become disappointed in history’s preoccupation with kings, wars and treaties, relieved only by a passing interest in things like plagues and the like, to break up the monotony. It was only the history of important white people in white kingdoms, with scant mention of ordinary people or people of other races. 

I found Art History more interesting, since at least it included the history of the artists themselves, their commercial lives, their patrons and their subject matter. This all started out being the church and the rich as patrons, and mostly religious scenes and saints as their subjects, but it grew during the Renaissance to include the new commercial class as patrons and scenes of ordinary life and people as subjects worthy of depiction. During my education in the field, however, I came to find oppressive the omission of the rest of the world from the curriculum. It was still a very white, European Art History.

Towards the end of my BA, I became fascinated with the Balinese artist, Gusti Lempad. You can look up Google Images of his stuff, and it is just remarkable. We had a wonderful Art History library at my university, with a large collection of books and scholarly magazines, and even some interesting galleries. But of Lempad, there was almost nothing. There were mentions in a book or two, and there were some articles to be found, and even then most of that was in Dutch. 

If I had stayed in the field, and wished to pursue Lampad studies, it would have been in the manner of genre studies, a sub-category called Asian Art or something. There wouldn’t have been any market for teaching it, either, unless it was at a university that had a big South East Asian Studies program. Are there even any of those? That’s a dubious future after all the work of mastering Dutch and Bahasa Indonesia, and probably Balinese as well.

I gave up the idea of devoting my life to the study of Art History for two major reasons: 1. Early in your career you move around the stix teaching survey classes to bored students from other majors; and 2. The office politics in our department was a snakes’ nest of intrigue that no one would want to pursue. We had a few professors that were quite famous already, and several moved over time to Ivy League schools. What a slog, though. I just figured that I didn’t have the constitution for fighting like that.

So I understand why non-white people look at history as it is studied and discussed and become annoyed at the all-white-all-the-time character of it. History should include all of history, without way too much weight being given to white history. All of the world’s people have contributed to the world we find at our doorsteps every morning, and their contributions should be acknowledged. (And not as condescending footnotes, either.)

I still think that the “his-story” thing is a bit silly. The onomatopoeia of it is too coincidental to make it really useful for anything but a protest sign. The problem is real, though, so I guess that I should be happy that people bring it up at all. 

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