New Horizons of Historical Thinking in an Age of Contested Narratives

AHA Session 107
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Central Park West (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Ethan Kleinberg, Wesleyan University
In the Event
Tani E. Barlow, Rice University
Medusa’s Recurrence: Myth, Metaphor, and the Historical Work of Retelling
Carolyn Noelle Biltoft, Graduate Institute Geneva
The Limits of a Metaphor: Beyond History as a “Craft”
Zachary Riebeling, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Ethan Kleinberg, Wesleyan University

Session Abstract

This panel seeks to explore some dimensions of the current necessity of historical thinking by querying the fundamental parameters of history as experience, as event, as past, as memory, as practice. With the recent surge in ethnonationalist and nativist political mobilizations across the globe—from the United States, to Brazil, to India, to Europe and beyond—the fundamental movement and purpose of history has once again been put to the question. Modes of historical thought driven by racist, misogynist, and xenophobic resentments exercise frightening influence in various political and geographic contexts. The trajectory of historical development is now contested in polities and communities whose self-understanding as vanguards of progress and freedom had precluded political, moral, and historical regression. Paradoxically, these developments have also revealed the survivability—indeed, the remarkable persistence—of progressive conceptions of history that project human destiny into a future of fulfillment.

In light of these trends, historical thought as such finds itself at the center of political contestations across the globe. What history is, how it develops, its very meaning and relevance are questions which practicing historians and theorists of history must address in a world in which the “end” of history has proved no end at all. In response, this panel addresses the following questions: What historical categories are in need of revision? To what extent must fundamental conceptions of event and structure, narration and metaphor, memory and history be rethought? What new possibilities of historical meaning are available through renewed philosophical-historical, historiographical, and metahistorical critique?

The papers brought together in this panel cohere with recent theoretical work by investigating such questions across a variety of temporal, geographical, and political boundaries, from East Asia, to the United States, to Modern Europe. Taken together, they rethink central historiographical concepts and argue, in ways that often refract and create productive tension, for new ways to conceive of and write history. They engender necessary theoretical reflection on the place, purpose, and burden of history writing in an age that sees history distorted for all manner of political ends. Such engagements with the shifting theoretical boundaries of history are essential for the discipline of history as a whole, and are of particular interest to practitioners whose encounter with theory is inseparable from their work as historians. This panel thus serves as a catalyst for historians to reexamine, at the most basic level, our conceptions of the past and our means for its representation.

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