The construction of history

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By DYLAN RILEY*

Theories of history are, like many overly ambitious-sounding ideas, entirely unavoidable.

Why is the story necessary? In what sense is it a constitutive element of humanity? In a way, the answers to such questions can be simple and straightforward. Human beings are teleological animals. Under a given set of relationships and conditions they formulate the ends they want to achieve. But what is the relationship of these “micro-stories” with the self-understanding of the human species in general?

The best way to approach this problem is to ask yourself what these micro-stories imply; that is, to identify the conditions of possibility of acting in a micro-historical way. Can a teleological orientation exist without "history" in its most general sense? Or, to put the question another way: do the “small stories” already suggest or refer to a “bigger story”? Can they exist without it?

To discuss these issues clearly we need to distinguish between the actor's and the observer's perspective in microhistory. For the actor, the meaning and sense of a particular action is entirely spent in the action itself. Consider, for example, the decision to start working at a particular job. Imagine that the actor decides to work as an Uber driver because the hours are flexible and the money guarantees his livelihood.

From his perspective, the meaning of the sequence of actions that led him to that job rests entirely on his desire to pay the rent and maintain some autonomy. But the observer can interpret this sequence quite differently. From his perspective, the very possibility of working as an Uber driver would be connected to the casualization of taxi work, smartphone technology, the widespread use of digital payment systems and a wide range of historical conditions. It is also possible to connect the actor's desire to have a certain kind of autonomy and flexibility with the emergence of the neoliberal subject and the ethics of personal entrepreneurship associated with this.

The point is that from the perspective of the observer, the meaning of an action depends on the relationship the action has to a specific phase of historical development. (Before proceeding, it is important to emphasize that the distinction between “actor” and “observer” is purely analytical. The possibility of these two perspectives overlapping, of the actor being self-conscious – when the actor himself becomes an observer, building itself as an object of consciousness, becoming a third party in relation to its own actions – is itself highly variable, historically and socially speaking.)

To historicize an action, however, one inevitably faces the question: as part of what larger historical development, and at what stage within it? But what if we consider that history has no form at all? What if we hold the view that history, in its broadest sense, is a sum of accidents, just "one damn thing after another"? The paradox of not having a theory of history is that this position is itself a theory of historical development, a theory that postulates that history does not develop or that, if there is development, its form is inscrutable.

History, from this point of view, would be like the Kantian thing-in-itself, whose paradoxes and contradictions have already been very well explained several times. All criticisms of Kant can be reduced to a fundamental question: how can we say that something is inaccessible to human consciousness, that we cannot know this something, if when we say that such an object is unknowable or ineffable we are necessarily saying something about it? (In the end it turns out to be very difficult not to talk about things in themselves and to be led into all sorts of dogmatisms.)

Perhaps a different version of this skeptical position is possible. Such a version would hold that we may have partial theories of development but no "grand narrative" or "great history". This position – common in the tradition of Weberian sociology – seems attractive and reasonable. And yet, it also suffers from a paradox. First, why are Weberians so sure that partial theories of history are possible? What makes them so confident that history is not total, or at least totalizing? Is not their skepticism a kind of hidden dogmatism?

Then there is another, more practical problem. If the story is "partially" explainable, into what "parts" should it be divided? For example: should we treat "ideas" as a causal sequence and "production" as another kind of parallel sequence? Even if such treatment were correct in a specific period, would it not be dogmatic to say that this autonomy between ideas and production always existed? Can we really say that the same conceptual framework applies to all historical epochs, or must the concepts be formulated for the specific eras they seek to describe? It seems that theories of history are, like many apparently overly ambitious ideas, entirely unavoidable.

*Dylan Riley is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Author, among other books, of Microverses: Observations from a Shattered Present (To).

Translation: Julio Tude d'Avila.


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