Tuesday, 17 November 2015

What Historians Do

One bestselling Indian author ignited a minor controversy recently when he asked on Twitter what historians do. The Twitter universe gave him sardonic replies, and to be truthful, I enjoyed some of them immensely. But here's the thing. I rarely follow business news. I may be aware of things like recessions or the occasional big buying or breakdown of a company, but on a day-to-day basis I'm just not aware of the government's decisions and their ripple effects. I suspect that the case is similar for my friends in non-academic circles. They may have some awareness of the things that we, i.e. academics and historians do, but often they do not understand why issues become so sensitive in these contexts, why we often end up taking a stand on issues that seem irrelevant to others. There are two opposed but equally reductive ways to explain this phenomenon: "All academics are liberals/Marxists" and "Academics are more intelligent and so able to detect things that others cannot". If either of these explanations appeals to you, do not read on.
NB: I'm writing this post with a very specific audience in mind: this post is for those people who are not academics or historians but do want to understand the dissatisfactions of the present times. For those already in these fields, this post may seem reductive.
So we're back to the question: what is it that historians do? Well, whether it is history, literature, philosophy or political science, a good undergraduate course will start with a variety of courses charting the entire field of study. History students will study different periods and times, literature students will read books situated not just in different time periods but across different cultures, philosophy students will read the theories of different philosophers, often again divided into time periods for easier access (for example, classical philosophy, modern philosophy and so on) and so on. Alongside this, most courses will have one, two or three courses in methods. Methods are like the toolbox: what do you use to make sense of what you are reading? Methods overlap: so for example, feminism is not just a philosophy but also a methodology, and you can use feminism to understand and make arguments about what you are reading, whether you are a student of literature, economics, history, philosophy or political science. As the example of feminism suggests, most method is thinking that helps you think about thinking, and as such is often referred to as theory rather than methodology. Apart from feminism, post-colonialism, liberalism, Marxism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, decoloniality and so on are different theories that students use to understand, react to and argue with what they do.
The jargon that scares most outsiders or makes them caustic is usually an integral part of theory. A lot of times however the use of the jargon is not performative. When you're passionate about your subject, there will usually be one theory, one way of understanding the world, that will stand out for you above all the rest. In those heady days, you will drown in it, read up everything possible about it and talk of nothing else until all the people around you are sick of it. I remember one day my usually patient but exasperated-by-then supervisor asking me if my pizza was ontological or not!
With a postgraduate degree, the immersion into theory deepens. Now it is a much bigger part of the syllabus, as the courses are now for people who may go on to work in the field. Students choose specialisations, and they also choose how they are going to be working on those specialisation. So, for example, two students could both be working on Premchand, but one is looking at gender dynamics in Premchand by focussing the male and female characters while another is looking at Premchand's construction of the village as a non-idyllic space by using ideas from sociological theories on the urban and the rural.
It is important to emphasise two things. Firstly, there is no approach that is 'no theory'. There is no way to work on something without making an argument, even if it is simplest one (this is good/this is bad) and any argument will have some underlying assumptions. There is never an impartial historian, because even the most seemingly bland histories can be shown to be full of choices that work with certain assumptions of hierarchies. For example, histories often used to be narratives of the political fortunes of countries until theorists (them again!) pointed out that such histories rarely bothered with the day-to-day life of ordinary citizens, and rarely talked about the lives of the poor, slaves, women, children, the aged and so on. Objectivity is an illusion where human affairs are concerned, and it is a dangerous illusion to harbour.
Which brings me to the second point I want to emphasise. All theories are just that: tools, ways to think. People find that many different ones make sense to them, and often end up using a variety of arguments in their work. At the same time, there are certain standards that academic research has to maintain: no falsifying, for example, and taking contradictory sources into account. I cannot cherry pick only those lines that support my argument, and refuse to entertain any work that counters my argument. At least I would definitely not be a good historian if I did that. The reason I say this is that I've noticed that a lot of online history gets written by people who are not really historians, and who disdain theory without making any attempt to understand its purposes or even try and make their work stand up to these common standards. I have also noticed that a lot of Indian historians get labelled "Marxist" or "Leftist" when their work is not really Marxist or Leftist, simply to suit the purposes of their detractors.
This brings me to my final point, about why historians are worked up. Some of them specialise in Ancient India, and the texts that they read tell them that Brahmins would eat beef. These are not random texts but shloks from the Vedas themselves. The fact is repeated often enough across sufficient texts for it to be accepted as normal by those historians who work on Ancient Indian history. Interestingly, some of the initial historians who wrote about this were not even trying to be controversial, they were simply doing their work and recording what was written in the ancient texts. Fringe elements attacked them, and it came about that their books would not be published unless they removed the beef-eating references, and their visas for international conferences were rejected, even when they were going to read seemingly innocuous papers on 'the social and cultural habits of Ancient Indians' at international conferences, because of the fear that they would mention the beef-eating. In this manner, for subsequent generations of historians, especially for those working on ancient India, the question of the stand they took on the beef-eating practices of ancient Hindus became a political one.
In recent times, other such issues have become politicised. A book about a history of Hinduism that includes the stories of the Dalits and women is banned. And people who defend the right of other people to say what they like in their books is murdered. I am writing a thesis where I am making an argument. It may be a strong or a weak one. It may become controversial or not. It is highly unlikely (relax mom!) but let us consider the possibility. And in that case I too will have to decide whether to fight or edit portions of what I am saying. I do not know what I would do in such a situation. What I do know for sure is that after 2, 5, 10 or 20 years of working on something, excising my opinions to suit those of a bunch of people who have some power will be like excising bits of my soul.
This is why the historians and academics are fighting. They are fighting for their right to make the arguments they want to make, to do the work they do. They are fighting for their souls.