Ageism, not just for the elderly anymore
Kracauer’s essay, AHASUERUS, OR THE RIDDLE OF TIME, became somewhat drawn out for me, but had some very intriguing opinions on the tension between chronological history and periodicity.
It seems to me that what I might call the practice of periodicity, or the practice of creating ages and eras as a way of building a historical narrative, is a result of the immeasurable gaps in context that the historian immediately senses when examining historical fact. This can creep up anyone reading primary sources: indeed Kracauer says that “…period seems to be so indispensable a unit that it is invented after the fact if it cannot be discovered in the material” (147). Those practicing history consistently fall into a habit of filling the gaps in the narrative with what they themselves believe to be clarifying context. Kracauer goes as far as to say that this resembles the human mind’s tendency to create similar patterns to categorize lived experience. How often have I justified my own actions by saying, “Well, I was sick at the time” or, “That was that period when I was mourning [something]”? The historian is not far removed from this kind of consideration.
Recognition of this practice reveals some very interesting things. I’ve always been interested in the lack of coherent thought when Western narratives of history are confronted with “peoples without history”, to borrow the title of anthropologist Eric Wolf’s famous book. Take, for instance, almost any primarily nomadic socio-economic system, such as the Roma in Europe, or the pastoralist Native Americans here in the Americas. Not only are these cultures often ignored, the subject of anthropological field work, but rarely garnering historical or political investigation, but their status in relation to the narratives of periodicity usually guarantees their abuse. This is currently being played out in the Sahel region, where the Kel Tamashek people, many of whom were employed in the army of Libya’s previous leader and whose nomadic culture was devastated by the introduction of the nation state to the Sahara, are once again battling the Malian government in order to secure an autonomous zone that would not be subject to blood soaked (and let’s face it, imaginary and arbitrary) lines in the sand.
It is doubtful that their demands will ever be recognized by any authority. There is silence, in academia, media, and policy on the plight of peoples without history, and so it has always been. Often, this is due to a lack of a written language or, more importantly, a lack of archival material. This lack presents a radical problem for the practice of periodicity, because without a ground for which to make leaps to overarching trends and patterns, the practice stumbles. That vacuum defies timely or “accurate” interpretation, and methodology becomes a ball and chain instead of a crutch. Rather than come to new conclusions about the way in which we practice history, and more importantly, what we do with the results, we ignore cultures that do not fall into the methodologies we have created. For the Saharan nomads, the dominance of “ageist” historiography will inevitably result in the failure of the Tuareg’s cause.
I’d like to say I’m optimistic about our ability to extricate ourselves from what is ultimately a damaging practice. However, I think the new emphasis on written communication in the electronic medium will cause people like the Kel Tamashek to fall further into this dead zone of history. Only a comprehensive review of the way in which we conceive of history will save these people. The discipline of history, should it wish to save these people, would be wise to create an alternative methodology with which to consider them: these groups of people are not truly silent. They are simply without a history that is comprehensible under the current model of interpretation. Recognition of this fact is not an indictment, but instead is a recognition that thought does translate into very real consequences.
I’ll close by quoting Kracauer:
“In referring to history, one should speak of the march of times, rather than the “March of Time”, (149)
and then quoting Khalil Gibran, in The Prophet:
Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, ”I have found a truth.”
Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”
For the soul walks upon all paths…
The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.