Rosy Retrospection: The Failure of Liberal Conceptions of History

(30 July 2014)

In many ways, the ultimate failure of liberal conceptions of history can be encapsulated in the phenomenon of “rosy retrospection”—a phenomenon in which past experiences are remembered in a much more positive light than appropriate for the circumstances in which they originally occurred, in which negative aspects are forgotten, in which memoria praeteritorum bonorum (“the past is always recalled to be good”).

What is perhaps most problematic are not the ways in which this phenomenon manifests itself in discussions of individual lives, but rather the ways in which it leads people to conceive of and characterize generations as collective wholes. Problems have always existed and will always exist; no one is disputing that—although the degree and severity of extant problems certainly have changed and do continue to change (fortunately often, but not always, for the better). But rosy retrospection is dangerous when it conceives of the past, as a whole, as a fundamentally different place—when, in fact, from a structural, material, radical (“from the roots”) perspective, it is just a slight variation on the same system of fundamental social organization, the same underlying mode of production.

We must remember, we must always remember, history doesn’t just happen. It is made. And the way in which it is made depends entirely upon the social structures in which that change-making is situated.

A person didn’t just commit that action because “that’s the way that person chose to do it.” History is not a series of whims and fancies. (This is not to say it is completely devoid of whims and fancies, but that even whims and fancies have material impetuses.) There are particular, material reasons that person committed that action, and those material reasons were determined by, reflect, and shape the forms of social organization in which they were situated (typically so as to ensure the continuation and longevity of that system of power)—just as that action itself shapes future material reasons that in turn shape future actions.

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We must prevent rosy retrospection from clouding our thinking, from shrouding our historical consciousness in a dense smog of intellectual laziness and prestidigitation. In spite of countless liberal historians’ insistence to the contrary, history is not made by individuals. Yes, individuals can, and often do, play an enormous role in instigating social change, but they can only do so by inspiring others to act with them.

Liberal conceptions of history “explain” sociocultural events at the (most egregious) expense of excluding these others—these supposedly “non-agent” agents responsible for change—and at the expense of neutering the very history they (purportedly) wish to recount. Radical, systemic approaches to history, approaches explored in the sub-discipline of social history, afford rich, nuanced understandings not paralleled in liberal, individualist discourses.

With a radical, structural conception of historical reality, the prominence of chronologizing what are ultimately just anecdotal circumstances as a method of scholastic “explication” begins to be seen as a cheap ploy, one that reinforces systems of power (namely capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, cisheteronormativity, and Eurocentrism, among others) by identifying the leaders (benefactors) of these structures as the primary, or in some cases even “sole,” agents of history-making—thus relegating the rest of human (and non-human) existence to mere subaltern status, unheard, if not “voiceless.” This absurd practice only reifies hegemony, obfuscates meaning, and bludgeons truth.