History Matters

Microreviews with an Eye on the Past

“And Art Alive Still”, by dhammza, with Creative Commons licenceA little change can do a lot of good. My recent foray into possible futures has taken me into realms I hardly expected to traverse. It’s certainly an adage worth remembering that the map does not precede the territory, that expectations aren’t previews of experience. So I began compiling this week’s microreviews with a good deal of trepidation because they took me back to a milieu of which I can claim some sort of mastery, at least in some areas – history.

The new efforts are now in the sidebar, with last week’s microreviews shuffled off to the dedicated page. It’s worth mentioning in passing that the microreview page is receiving quite a few visits – thanks to everyone who has spent their time pondering my brevities!

But back to the past. I’ve mentioned before that history is a judgemental narrative, as I learned through eight and a half years of training in the craft at university. Nothing is simple, everything changes, even our perceptions of days gone by. Fact is a facet of interpretation, a partner of probability. Interestingly enough, Angus (a.k.a Kevin Greir) at Kids Prefer Cheese made a similar point about empirical research recently – that the object is to establish something within a probability of error, not to establish that it’s true.

So history as interpretation given sufficient detail isn’t such a harebrained idea after all. Still, a few people I studied with would be choking on their soup if they read this. And I kept that in mind when I selected the books to review this week. William Duiker’s Ho Chi Minh: A Life was an obvious choice – I’m reading it now. But it also covers a figure who was pivotal to the twentieth century and who continues to divide opinion.

My take on the volume is meant to show that even without the material on Ho still languishing in the old Comiterm archives in Moscow, or anything remotely sensitive to state interests from Hanoi, Duiker lends an interpretive rigour to his account that makes it a compelling read.

Fingerprint 3, by Mr Jaded, with Creative Commons licenceThis week I’ve also covered Chandak Sengoopta’s Imprint of the Raj on the intriguing emergence of fingerprinting as first a form of surveillance in colonial India and only then, after a lapse, as a method of identifying criminals. Unless, of course, you live somewhere like Hong Kong and have to give fingerprints for your identification card – or if you visit Walt Disney World in the US, it seems. In any case, if you read this book it will be hard to escape the constant surprise of learning.

Eric Jones’ Cultures Merging, which I’m not entirely sure about, is equally informative, but more activist and ultimately less persuasive. It would be extremely hard to deride Jones for a lack of knowledge in his field, and he is very convincing on the effects of cultural change across time. Where this leads him is another matter entirely, but I urge you to read the book and join the debate about the effects of globalisation.

James Fulcher’s contribution to the Oxford University Press series of short introductions, Capitalism, is far less nuanced and little more than an attack on a self organising system as though it’s some sort of nefarious ideology, deliberately imposed. Clearly the book frustrated me, but I enjoyed scribbling counterarguments in the margins, contesting the claims point by point.

skeleton reading, by whalt, with Creative Commons licenceAs Terry Pratchett would put it, history ATEN’T DEAD – there’s still a lot of challenge, discord and clarity rolling around inside it, with no ascendancy and no real need to define, once and for all, the ‘correct’ view or the essential facts. That’s what drew me to it as a kid and eventually pushed me through graduate school when others were looking for certainty.

It seems somewhat ironic that these introductions to one sentence reviews are now running to hundreds of words. But they’ve gained a life of their own, and I take seriously the late Edward Said’s adage in Orientalism that “texts exist in contexts”, that isolation is ignorance. And I want to explore the puzzles of this world, if only to ask ever more questions. Please feel free to give me any answers you think I might need.

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