The Architecture of Past and Present
By Andrew Shryock, Daniel Lord Smail
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ANDREW SHRYOCK AND DANIEL LORD SMAIL
History is a curiously fragmented subject. In the conventional disciplinary structure of academia, the study of the human past is scattered across a number of fields, notably history and anthropology but also folklore, museum studies, philology, and area-studies programs. Together, these fields constitute a dense layer cake of time. The bottom layer, by far the thickest, is grounded in deep time. The deep time of a discipline is not a specific date range or era: it is simply the earliest period to which the discipline pays attention. Among archaeologists and human evolutionary biologists, deep time is represented by the paleoanthropology of the simple societies of the Paleolithic, from the earliest known stone tools (dated to 2.6 Ma) to the origins of agriculture. Among historians, the deep time of the discipline is located in Greco-Roman antiquity. Though the Paleolithic and the ancient world are dramatically offset in absolute time, each provides the bedrock that supports disciplinary narratives. The middle layers of the cake are given over to the archaeology of complex societies and, among historians, to the study of "early modern" societies. On the very top is a veneer of modern frosting. Seldom more than a few centuries deep, this upper layer is what attracts the interest of most fields of contemporary historical research and almost all fields of cultural anthropology.
The entire span of time may come together in teaching: in the grand sweep of general anthropology, say, or in survey courses of world history. In their own research, however, most scholars limit their work to a single chronological layer and feel ill-equipped to move beyond this layer. In the great age of historico-anthropological writing of the nineteenth century, authors like Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Edward Tylor ranged across vast reaches of human history, producing conjectural arguments characterized by spectacular vision and very little in the way of hard evidence. Today, the pattern is reversed. As methods of analysis improve and knowledge of the recent and deep past rapidly accumulates, the division of intellectual labor has become exceedingly precise. Conjecture and grand vision have given way to hyperspecialization, an intensified focus on ever-smaller units of time and space, and a pervasive reluctance to build analytical frames that can articulate deep history and the recent past.
A century ago, modern historiography was built on the scaffolding of progress, a story line rooted in the rise of civilization and the break with nature that supposedly took place some five thousand to six thousand years ago. This narrative enshrined a triumphalist account of human achievement. In the words of an observer from the 1920s, history describes "the processes by which the chaotic chatter of anthropoid apes has been organized in the wonderful fabric of human speech." It offers a panoramic vision of man "in every stage of his long climb up from his feeble and brutish beginnings." The imagination of the age was suffused with sentiments that today seem almost unbearably trite. Cringing at such naiveté, we congratulate ourselves on having purged our anthropologies and histories of this exuberant evolutionism. But the congratulations are premature. The belief in human exceptionalism that drove earlier models of history still shapes narratives of progress, which are now told using the vocabulary of political modernization, economic development, and cultural emancipation from past prejudices. When telling these tales, we sometimes reverse the moral charges of the narrative of progress. We celebrate the merits of the simple and traditional and note the obvious dangers in the modern and complex. This stopgap solution does not eliminate the underlying problem. It leaves in place the idea that human evolution (or the emergence of culture, or the growth of historical consciousness) entails, for good or ill, an ever-increasing mastery of culture over nature, of cultivation over mere subsistence, of civilization over mere habitation. Seeing the humanity of others means recognizing their historical movement toward various forms of mastery, even if the movement is modest and still in its formative stages.
In the wake of the Darwinian revolution, the problem of human origins was transformed from a matter of speculative philosophy into a scientific research program. This transition, which required a radical reassessment of the older, biblical cosmology, was initially made intelligible by linking it to ideas of progress that had proliferated during the Enlightenment. Over the course of the twentieth century, which witnessed two world wars and the collapse of the European colonial order, historians and anthropologists grew increasingly skeptical of Enlightenment ideas, and Victorian-style social evolutionism was rejected as a justification for racism, class privilege, and global imperialism. In cleansing historical and cultural analysis of their nineteenth-century ideological baggage, most of the high modern (and postmodern) versions of cultural anthropology and history turned their backs on the deep human past, leaving problems of evolution to the archaeologists, paleontologists, and historical linguists.
The goal of this book is to remove the barriers that isolate deep histories from temporally shallow ones. These barriers have a complex history of their own, but they need not dominate future studies of the human past. Moving them aside solves multiple intellectual and political problems, and this renovation project is not as difficult as it might at first seem. The necessary analytical tools already exist. Some, like genetic mapping and radiocarbon dating, are recent innovations; others, like genealogies, bodily analogies, and predictive modeling, are older than written history itself. The gap between deep and shallow history, we believe, can easily be bridged; indeed, great efforts must be exerted simply to keep the gap in place. What motivates these efforts? How did they develop? And why do so many scholars think it is important to keep prehistory in its place?
The fragmentation of historical time is not inherent to the study of the past. It was produced by highly contingent historical trends that were triggered and amplified by the time revolution of the 1860s, when the short chronology, which envisioned a world roughly 6,000 years old, was abandoned as a geological truth, and human history began to stretch back into a limitless time before Eden. Before the 1860s, the human and the natural sciences had constituted a single field of inquiry. This field was framed by religious tradition and organized in accord with the universalizing framework of the Book of Genesis, in which history and geology are coeval. Knowledge production in all the societies of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds was contained within this totalizing model of creation.
Following the time revolution in Europe, however, this unified vision of human history fell apart. The chronology of the past fractured at precisely the point where human prehistory was being grafted onto ancient and modern history, which now seemed chronologically recent. By all appearances, a history long beholden to scriptural understandings of time was incapable of absorbing the fact of deep time. It is not difficult to find nineteenth-century historians who circled the wagons around the short chronology and declared the new, bottomless time to be anathema. Because respected scientists such as Georges Cuvier and Louis Agassiz refused to accept the new timeline, it is hardly surprising that many rank-and-file historians also proved skeptical—or, in some cases, openly resistant. But reaction to the time revolution was generally more complex. A short chronology is not, in fact, intrinsic to the cosmology of the religions of the Near East. The authors of Genesis measured time as a succession of life spans and genealogies; the New Testament and Qur'an are devoid of what we would now call calendar dates. The short chronology was in fact an artifice retroactively imposed upon scriptural traditions. This retroactive dating occurred as generations of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim chroniclers struggled to bring sacred texts into alignment with the solar and lunar calendars they had created to keep track of ritual obligations and to record the movement of creation through time. Ironically, it was the careful work of pre-modern and early modern historians, not the teachings of the prophets, that gave Abrahamic chronology its brittle precision, a level of detail that could date the first day of creation to the eve of Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. This brittleness would cause it to snap when placed under stress by the intellectual trauma of the time revolution.
In a larger sense, however, the demise of the short chronology made no difference to practicing historians. In the decades following the Darwinian turn, there were historians who looked with curiosity at the strange new terrain on the other side of Eden, and, later, historical visionaries who advocated for a reunion of deep time with history. Yet the gap grew so wide that it became nearly unbridgeable. Lacking written texts, practitioners in the emergent fields of archaeology and paleoanthropology had to develop new methods of inquiry designed to tease meaning out of scattered evidence and refractory sources. The new discipline of history, in turn, adhered to the very chronology that historians had fashioned for themselves in their vain attempts to apply a chronology to the Bible. As later chapters show, the questions that historians of the nineteenth century asked about the origins of human languages, races, agriculture, cities, and nations were often defined in specific relation to the Book of Genesis. This is hardly surprising. The European scholars best suited to become academic historians when the discipline arose in the nineteenth century were heavily invested in intellectual traditions anchored in a biblical worldview, to which a long pedagogical tradition had added Greek and Roman learning. It is hard to imagine the works of such luminaries as Leopold von Ranke or Jacob Burckhardt outside this milieu.
Yet neither inertia nor the prestige of older intellectual traditions can explain how time got bound up in the straitjacket created by disciplinary history at the beginning of the twentieth century. The decision to truncate history was a deliberate intellectual and epistemological move, bound up with the fate of the discipline itself. By the late nineteenth century, the proud new discipline of history was shouldering its way into the academy; and to justify its presence, the field adopted as its signature methodology the analysis of written documents. "No documents, no history," as Charles Langlois and Charles Seignobos declared in their 1898 manual of historical study, probably the most important of its kind. The methodology they advocated sought to assess human intentions as revealed in textual evidence. Their peers used the manual to train students in the art of ferreting out the truth that lies behind the creative omissions and downright fabrications intrinsic to historical documentation. Humanity's deeper history had no documents of this kind. This critical absence of data made a deep history of humanity methodologically unthinkable.
Oddly enough, this epistemological package was also gradually accepted by cultural anthropologists, whose chronologies tend to contract whenever they attempt to historicize their discipline. The classic instance is Europe and the People without History, in which Eric Wolf tried to pry anthropology out of the ethnographic present in which he believed it was hopelessly stuck. To bring "the people without history" into the domain of proper history, Wolf portrayed European expansion as a global interaction of human populations organized by kin-ordered, tributary, and capitalist modes of production. Wolf was not especially interested in how the kin-ordered and tributary modes had emerged in deep time; instead, he wanted to know how these modes of production were taken into a world system dominated by capitalism. As a result, although Wolf's historical analysis is based on social forms that developed sequentially over tens of thousands of years, it is limited to roughly the last five centuries. The evidence he used to historicize the world's ahistorical peoples would satisfy the criteria devised by Langlois and Seignobos, and Wolf was unapologetic about the resulting Eurocentrism of his project. What one learns from "the study of ethnohistory," he noted, "is ... the more ethnohistory we know, the more 'their' history and 'our' history emerge as part of the same history."
Wolf's intent was not to cut ethnography off from its deep historical roots but rather to open it up spatially. Yet his eager embrace of a history based on textual evidence led immediately to temporal foreshortening, and his five-hundred-year frame is in fact vast when compared to the studies his work inspired. It is now virtually axiomatic that any anthropological approach advertising itself as "historical" will focus on the recent past. Its subject matter will be modern or postmodern, colonial or postcolonial. Rarely is this focus perceived as narrow. It is seen as vital, and engagement with events and societies located before European expansion, before textual evidence, is often considered politically irrelevant unless such events and societies can be interpreted—and some poststructural theorists would argue that they can only be interpreted—through intellectual lenses crafted during the great shift to colonial and postcolonial modernity. Otherwise they are best left to classicists, medievalists, and Orientalists. If the past in question predates the emergence of literate state societies, it falls under the jurisdiction of archaeologists and biological anthropologists, whose methods of inquiry are scientific, not historical. This pattern is visible across the academy, and attempts to disturb it quickly generate resistance on all sides.
MAN AGAINST NATURE
Why does disciplinary history, as a set of methods and motivations, so predictably conform to this epistemological grid? The blame lies with a commitment to human exceptionalism, a sensibility that survived the Darwinian revolution largely intact. As creation gave way to nature, the assumption that humans are part of nature, and that human systems are natural systems, slowly took hold in the biological and behavioral sciences. Among historians and cultural anthropologists, however, the equation of cultural systems with natural ones has never been easy, nor has it been easily historicized. Both difficulties, we believe, are related to the lingering power of the metaphors that dominated history writing in the nineteenth century. The human story, in this worldview, is centered on the conquest of nature and the birth of political society. A passage from one of the works of the great French historian and archivist Jules Michelet (d. 1874) captures the logic perfectly: "When the world was born there began a war that will last until the world's end, and this is the war of man against nature, of the spirit against the flesh, of liberty against determinism. History is nothing but the story of this endless conflict."
The claim made here was hardly new. The Judeo-Christian tradition has long celebrated human stewardship over nature. What gives Michelet's remark special poignancy is the fact that, even in his own day, there was a growing awareness that geological time was far older than human time and that human time itself might be deeper than hitherto imagined. A quarter of a century later, human time was known to be long indeed, and by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the history of humanity threatened to merge insensibly with natural history. In this changing context of time, the need to mark the break between animal and human took on special urgency. Michelet, whose opinions on this matter reflected those of his day, had already divined the solution to the conundrum. Animals live in harmony with nature. Humans, by contrast, are at war with nature. In the pious bromides of early-twentieth-century science writing, evident in a 1912 work immodestly called The Conquest of Nature, "barbaric man is called a child of Nature with full reason. He must accept what Nature offers. But civilized man is the child grown to adult stature, and able in a manner to control, to dominate—if you please to conquer—the parent." In this act of emancipation, in this shift from passivity to agency, history itself was created. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Deep History by Andrew Shryock, Daniel Lord Smail. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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