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The rejection, the suspicion and the privatization of history

July 6, 2012

“There is more than meets the eye in the contemporary rejection and suspicion of history, and the valorization of fictional forms of representation, which may have less to do with history and literature as alternative forms of narrative than with alternative forms of politics. The appropriation of history for literature implies also the privatization of history—and of the political function history has served—replacing politics conceived as public activity by politics conceived as identity politics, privatized and yet fraught with implications for our understanding of what is public and what is private.” (213)

Where Hegel and nineteenth-century,” he continues, “historians pointed to the state and the public realm (identified with the state) as the location for history, the privatized literary version of history locates it in what Hegel regarded as the private realm, “the family and the clan.” The argument that it is literature rather than history that fulfills the needs of the oppressed and marginalized perpetuates the Hegelian prejudice that history belongs to the state, while it also privatizes the political needs of those who are left out of state-centered histories. In the process, it yields the public realm to the state. This is often accompanied, in the case of ethnic groups, by a displacement of political questions to the realm of culture. Cultural politics, moreover, easily lends itself to the reification of cultural identity as culture is evacuated of history.” (213-214)

BTW Dirlik makes this statement in the context of a discussion about Asian American writing – and the relationship between narrative form and the construction/reception of cultural identity. It’s an interesting statement – and the ensuing argument is too…

He adds: “It is not at all apparent to this reader why history cannot undertake the task of recovering what has been forgotten or “censored” in public memory, or force a reinterpretation of “the public sphere.” It seems to me that this is what gender and ethnic historiography has been all about. The question, moreover, is not merely a question of forgetting, suppression or censorship in memory, but the very real historical denial of citizenship and, therefore, political participation to certain groups on the basis of gender, ethnicity, race and culture; with the result that they could be excluded without much ado from any history written as a celebration of the state’s progress in time, which conveniently overlooked the suppression of difference that was an inextricable part of this progress. In the case of so-called “diasporic” populations, they could find a place in history only to the extent that they were assimilated, and could be seen to have contributed, to such progress; which, again, was impossible so long as they were denied political participation.” (214)

Arif Dirlik (2002) ‘Literature/Identity: Transnationalism, Narrative and Representation’. The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 24: 209-234

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