This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Stephan Palmié and Charles Stewart. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.014



For an anthropology of history

Stephan PALMIÉ, University of Chicago

Charles STEWART, University College London

Although Sahlins proposed it over thirty years ago, and notwithstanding various noteworthy contributions in the interim, a concerted anthropology of history has not yet come into being. This introduction, and the case studies which follow it, lay out the interrogatives of such an endeavor by reference to ethnographic and historical studies of Cuba, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, the United States, and early modern Euro-America. The anthropology of history inquires foremost into the very idea of history—the assumptions, principles, and practices that inform the acquisition of knowledge about the past, and its social presentation. Finding the terms to understand alternative forms of history making requires an ethnographic and historical sense of how the Western concept of history (historicism) came to be and how this historicism is, in fact, lodged within a plurality of alternative practices in Western communities. We see the anthropology of history as a large collective interdisciplinary enterprise that will involve archaeologists, historians, and many others in understanding the possibilities of history as a practice and as an analytic.

Keywords: chronotope, eventuation, historicism, past relationships, revelation and history, temporal pollution.

We have had history and anthropology, historical anthropology, and even anthrohistory (Murphy et al. 2011), but as yet there has been no concerted anthropology of history. The insertion of the preposition “of” has epistemic repercussions disproportionate to its grammatical minimalism. We have long been accustomed to viewing all forms of knowledge production as open to historical study—the natural sciences have their historians, and the history of anthropology has long existed (Lowie 1937; Hodgen 1964; Stocking 1968). The anthropology of history invites critical reorientation by turning history itself, as a form of knowledge and social praxis, into an object of anthropological inquiry. Through ethnography, anthropology can [208]provide perspectives that historiography or the philosophy of history cannot offer—not only because they mainly consider written texts, but also because their analytic lenses have been trained exclusively on Western historical thought.1

An anthropology of history, as envisioned in this collection, extends the exploration of how history is conceived and represented to take in non-Western societies, where ethnographic study can reveal local forms of historical production that do not conform to the canons of standard historiography (Hastrup 1991; Comaroff and Comaroff 1992: 157; and see Feierman 1999 for striking examples). People produce representations of the past obliquely, in practices such as dancing (McCall 2000), spirit séances (Lambek 2002; Palmié 2013a), or encounters with artifacts (Hodges 2013; Stewart 2012). Just as kinship studies have come to focus on the practices by which consociates establish relationships with one another (Howell 2001), the anthropological study of history takes on the broader task of establishing and analyzing what the historian J. G. A. Pocock (1962) felicitously called human “past relationships,” in all their stunning diversity. To be sure, an anthropology of the ways in which people variously conceptualize and morally evaluate the past in its relation to the present (and future) seems thinkable along such lines, and while it has, indeed, been repeatedly proposed by Sahlins (1981, 1985, 2004), it has decidedly not taken organized shape.2

Considering the enormous influence of Sahlins’ work, many anthropologists might feel that they have long been doing the anthropology of history. Nonetheless, the inquiry into what passes for history here or elsewhere—in the sense of guiding principles and assumptions (more than substantive historical representations)—has not been the main framework for very many works.3 While aware of local ways [209]of conceptualizing “the historical,” and occasionally homing in on it, anthropologists have, for the most part, and quite justifiably, allowed their ethnography to take them where it leads, thereby producing studies classified under other headings. The contributors to this collection might, under other circumstances, have developed their studies into, respectively, a social history of American fairs and commemorative stamps, the procedures and politics of spirit possession, Christian conversion, and Euro-American calendrics. Instead, these subjects are all explored for what they might reveal about local conceptions of space-time and the relationships between past, present, and future. This introduction seeks to delineate the analytical, theoretical, and empirical considerations involved in treating (the very idea of) history as an object of study in the conviction that much more research remains to be done in this area, the results of which need to be brought into comparison and theorized.

To begin to locate practices analagous to Western “history,” one must consider very closely what one assumes history to consist in. The value of an anthropology of history lies as much in conceptual unpacking as it does in the variety of practices it might bring to notice. Such a project will not only require identifying contemporary Western historiography and its “historicist” philosophical underpinnings as objects of study in their own right; it will also have to encompass vernacular Western practices such as the writing and consumption of historical fiction, the staging of historical walking tours, or the issuing of commemorative postage stamps (Handler, this collection), and set these practices side by side with, for example, spirit possession in Madagascar (Lambek, this collection), Melanesian engagements with biblical genealogy (Handman, this collection), teleportations across disparate “chronotopes” prompted by verbal and musical performance in Cuba (Wirtz, this collection), or, indeed, the eschatological concerns (Hamann, this collection) that led to the institutionalization of the modern supposedly secular calendar. The ethnographic studies in this collection deepen awareness of received ideas about proper Western history, both by exposing these to close inspection, and by examining alternatives, which throw standard Western, historicist assumptions into high relief.

The study of history that we propose may easily fall prey to ordinary-language misunderstandings and, at the risk of belaboring the point, it is necessary to register two caveats. In our view, “the anthropology of history” should not be understood to mean the anthropological study of past times, and conflated with a well-recognized field called “anthropological history” or “historical anthropology” (Burke 1987). That enterprise involves bringing anthropological knowledge to bear on past societies, such as Ladurie (1980) did by presenting his study of the medieval French village of Montaillou on the model of a village ethnography, or as Price (1983) did in reading the present-day Saramaka maroons’ recollections of their eighteenth-century freedom struggle against the records of the Dutch colonial state. In contrast to such efforts at harnessing anthropological methods and perspectives to the goal of representing the past, the anthropology of history that we propose focuses foremost on the principles, whether ideological, cosmological, or scientific—call [210]them broadly cultural—that underpin practices of inquiry into the past, as well as the forms and modes in which the past is represented to others.4 The second caveat is this: when we refer to the “West,” as in “standard Western history,” we are referring to principles of historical research espoused by the history profession and taught in schools and universities in many parts of the world (in and outside the West). Following a tradition of usage, we term this approach “historicism.”5 As noted above, historical practices within any Western community—and likely within any community in the world—are not homogeneous. The West is not exceptional in this respect, but its epistemological economy is particular insofar as historicism occupies a hegemonic place within it. Historicist procedures are necessary in order to have a chance to win cases in court or debates in government or at the university seminar table. The ghost hunter as well as the creationist know, at some level, that theirs is not the dominant view in the secular nation-states they inhabit. And many native communities engulfed by such states know, again at some level, that even though their own vision of the past may clash with dominant historicist versions of it, the latter are ignored only at one’s peril. The power of historicism has affected the rest of the world and become part of local epistemological economies, although in often highly divergent ways. When we speak of “Western history,” then, we will aim to be clear when we are referring to the coherent paradigm of historicism, and when we are referring to the plurality of historicizing practices that mingle and contest one another in a given Western society: Western history as paradigm, on the one hand, and Western history as nonhomogeneous social field, on the other.

Recognizing these tensions is a necessary step in the anthropology of history since anthropology, as a post-Enlightenment discipline, has long shared the assumptions of standard Western history (i.e., historicism). This has impeded the ability to recognize alternative historicizing practices as such. The anthropology of history must find a way out of this predicament. The anthropologist of history works within a Western science paradigm that enjoins logical argument, evidence, and proof, while identifying other historicizing practices grounded in different principles. The goal is to capture how these other practices succeed in representing the past in ways that local societies—and possibly the anthropologist, too—find [211]important and convincing. Rather than declaring these alternative procedures for history making, and the histories they offer, deficient, we aim to understand them in their context. Our approach to Western history is, correspondingly, “critical,” not in the sense of judgmental and dismissive, but rather as a ruminative “critique” (Foucault 1997; Butler 2002) of the fundamental ways in which Western history has been instituted and articulated with common sense. Historians have also subjected historicism to critique from the perspectives of postcolonial history (Chakrabarty 2000), comparative world history (Duara, Murthy, and Sartori. 2014), and, perhaps less explicitly, ethnohistory (Nabokov 2002). Our complementary angle from comparative ethnography contributes to a shared endeavor to find ways to think more expansively about “history” by sounding it out—making it ring, to borrow the Nietzschean procedure applied in Hamann’s contribution to this collection. For the time being, however, we recognize that this introductory essay and the others contained in this collection must work largely within historicism in order to be intelligible to Western audiences even as they bring to light other versions of history that depart from Western scholarly standards for history, and so open these standards up to the possibility of principled debate.

The (pre)suppositions of history

One of the things everyone seems to know about history and anthropology is that Lévi-Strauss once pronounced that there were two types of society, hot and cold. This little phrase, thrown out in an interview, has been one of the most misconstrued statements ever produced by anthropology. It was so badly misunderstood that Lévi-Strauss (1983, 1998) twice returned to clarify that societies may not be divided into historical and ahistorical as a matter of objective classification. In his words, his intention in making this distinction was not to “postulate a natural difference between societies; it does not place them in separate categories. It refers, rather, to the subjective attitudes that societies adopt vis-à-vis history; to the variable ways in which they conceive it” (1998: 67).6

All societies differ in their openness to the idea of historical change: some encourage it, others suppress it—not the facts of change, but the idea of it. Cultural notions as to what constitutes “time,” what is an “event,” what kind of agent can bring about “change,” how perceived “change” is set apart from the regular flow of happenings—all of these vary from society to society and modulate the understanding of what we might call history. Yet, what once seemed like a regrettable, ethnocentric stereotypification—we are “hot,” they are “cold”—actually points in the right direction. Sahlins’ (2004) refrain “no history without culture” reformulates this basic insight about the cultural modulation of history.

Causation stands as one pillar of historicism. Causes have effects, and the historian is trained to locate the antecedents that give rise to a particular configuration or event and these are debated. Was it Prussian ambition, Balkan nationalism, a [212]disrupted balance of power in Europe, or one of many other causes that gave rise to World War I? Causation depends on other basic building blocks of historicism7 such as linearity and sequentiality. Present situations give rise to future situations in sequence, and time moves forward and accumulates progressively and irreversibly. These formulations are absolutely consistent with ideas of bodies, motion, and time in classical physics and basic science, and the kind of naturalistic causal uniformitarianism established by Lyell in geology, and then transferred by Darwin into the biological realm. That is why linear uniform causality is so difficult to think beyond: one would be proposing an alternative to Western common-sense reason itself. This is true at some everyday level, even though we might know that in advanced physics time is relative, and can even go backward. We know this, and yet not a few of us would express surprise at the fact that some of our own consociates are convinced that they have had personal experiences of past lives or premonitions of the future.

By contrast—or analogy, as it were—the Saulteuax Ojibwa (Hallowell 1955) and the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea (Schieffelin 1985) espouse the idea that reciprocity governs causation. Commit a moral transgression and something bad will happen to you and your group, such as a frightening thunderstorm, an attack by wild animals, or a bout of serious illness. As Schieffelin reports, “The reciprocity scenario embodies deeply felt cultural assumptions concerning the way events in the world are constructed and how actions are meaningfully related to one another” (1985: 48). The Ojibwa, in turn, regard themselves as (human) persons engaged in continuous moral reciprocity with what Hallowell called “other than human selves” (1955: 104), willful and wily, but ethically aware agents, capable of judging human action and reacting to the former’s moral infractions in a finely calibrated calculus of dream visitations and infliction of “eventful” calamity. Clearly, these are different forms of common sense, belonging to people who, in the first case, consider that all of nature was originally human, and only later developed into flora and fauna, and, in the second, see themselves as part and parcel of a human/nonhuman commonwealth in which social infractions can occasion the wrath and retribution of nonhuman agents. Considerate exchange with nature—the “nonhuman”—assumes moral overtones, and results in real events. Expressions in our own society such as “what goes around comes around,” “just deserts,” “karma,” or “divine punishment” do not pass muster as serious rational statements, still less break through into the armory of historical method. At best they are wishful thinking, at worst an intimation of a theodicy that needs to be kept at abeyance at all costs, lest it violate one of the core tenets of historicism (Chakrabarty 2000): the ontological injunction against supernatural causation.

The intrusion of the numinous into the phenomenal world (or so we have come to think of it since Kant)—put differently: the agency of the nonhuman in human [213]affairs—is only part of the problem. But it is one that medievalist historians know all too well. No historian of the European Middle Ages can risk importing the nineteenth- and twentieth-century visions of “rational man” acting in a secular, amoral universe—so commonly smuggled into accounts of non-Western societies—into scenarios where people were thought to subsist on nothing but the host and droplets of holy water for years on end, where fragments of martyred saintly bodies were expected to exert causal influence on the course of human affairs (Bynum 1992), or where the teenage girl we know as Joan of Arc retrospectively became an “agent of history” only because she was the “patient” of angelic communications. And, one might add in historical retrospect, because the angels spoke to her about courses of action that happened to relate to the wars between France and England of her time, and happened to have an impact on their course (or so we think today).

This raises another issue that philosophical historicism banned as beyond the pale of acceptable and legitimate accounts of the past: that of historical knowledge derived not from diligent and painstaking research and reconstruction, but through revelation, mantic technique, oneiric, prophetic, or otherwise “inspired” (instead of rationally contrived) forms of knowledge production. To be sure, Ginzburg (1980) has made a case for the origins in ancient mantic divination of what he calls the “evidentiary paradigm” still governing the praxis of Western historiography. Yet as Koselleck (2004) has argued, one of the crucial developments in the rise of modern secular notions of history in the West was the suppression of political prophecy, first by the Catholic Church itself in the aftermath of the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–17), and then, after the peace of Westphalia, by states turning away from eschatological visions of the unfolding of events and asserting their control over the future by the protracted replacement of inspired prophecy (often based in scriptural visions of the past) with rational prognosis in which knowledge of “laws of tendencies” extrapolated from historical patterns (a dream that lives on among economic forecasters) was once and for all to secularize and rationalize the making of history (Abrams 1972; Koselleck 1988, 2004).

Yet in England, for example, inspired prophecy drawing on visions of the past experienced a final flourishing as late as the turbulent last decades of the eighteenth century (with, for example, Joanna Southcott or Richard Brothers), becoming effectively neutralized as a political threat only through the passing of laws of insanity in the early nineteenth century (Barr 2006). The principles that animated “inspired” history by no means became “a matter of the past” in much of Europe. Thus in the 1830s, on the island of Naxos in Greece, where Stewart (2012) has conducted long-term field research, people experienced dreams of the Virgin Mary telling them where to dig to find an icon buried on a hillside. These dreams were consistent with the general expectation at the time that dreams revealed the future. After five years of intermittent digging, people unearthed four devotional Christian icons, and some human bones. In further dreams, the Virgin Mary gave them information about how the icons came to be in the mountainside, and in yet further dreams and waking stories the villagers expanded this information into a historical account. They told of Egyptian Christians arriving on their shores over a millennium earlier to escape persecution. The stories included details of these [214]people’s names and described their clothing. Local history, then, was instigated by predictive dreams which revealed theretofore unknown pasts.8

While the Naxiots were recurring to a mode of oneiric revelation that can be traced back in the Aegean area to the Revelation of St. John9, Handman (this collection) shows how missionary tutelage of the Guhu-Samane of southwestern Papua New Guinea (PNG) eventually prepared them for a similar revelatory discovery of their Mediterranean Christian past. The Summer Institute of Linguistics and other missionaries have offered different practices of “past relating,” in succession, over the last fifty years. First they translated the Bible and gave people contextual historical information so that they could understand the biblical meaning of objects such as mustard seeds or sheepskins in their original place and time; later, they identified illustrative equivalents in the Papuan cultural environment so that people could localize Christianity and experience it in their own cultural terms; and then the Guhu-Samane took the final step. They identified themselves not just as Christians, but as the literal descendants of the ancient Hebrews who first converted to Christianity. Their journey through historicism and presentism (Stocking 1965: 211) culminated in a revelation that radically ruptured their previous understanding of their past. Much like the Black Hebrew Israelites of the United States and Israel (Dorman 2013; Jackson 2013), the Guhu-Samane discovered not just a congruence of, but an identity between, their past and that of the biblical Jews.10 Rock carvings on their territory, previously considered the sacred engravings made by ancestral figures in the distant past, came to be thought of as Hebrew signs, indexes of Jewish presence in PNG.

One wonders if the missionaries are pleased or dismayed by these developments. The Guhu-Samane have jumped into Christianity with both feet, which must count as a success, but in the process they have trampled on basic assumptions about authenticity which Protestantism has done so much to formulate and disseminate [215](Keane 2007). These assumptions are consistent with nationalist historiography11 where each nation erects a specific and discrete history as the authentic source of the collective (Anderson 1983). To be sure, such a view has come under productive scrutiny by historians,12 but it still inheres in the pedagogies served by national secondary school curricula. In such a view, every identifiable human grouping has its own individual history and it is impossible—at best mistaken, at worst deceitful—to claim someone else’s history as one’s own. When Guhu-Samane, African Americans, or, for that matter, nineteenth-century British adherents of Anglo-Israelism (Parfitt 2002) declare themselves Hebrews, they diverge from a key assumption of Western historical thought, and court the charge of inauthenticity. These examples return us to the topic of common sense about nature considered at the beginning of this section. Revelation, as Handman notes (this collection), implies rupture with the past, and this flies in the face of the basic Enlightenment assumption articulated by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century: “Nature does not make jumps” (Natura non facit saltum). Nor does “history” in its secular, historicist sense.13 Miraculous appearances of Hebrew epigraphy in PNG, or even ancient Egyptian icons on Naxos, are only acceptable if spatial and temporal contiguity can be demonstrated. Continuity is the baseline assumption not just for history or anthropology (Robbins 2007), but for all of natural science. In semiotic terms, icons cannot be made into indexes by mere charismatic pronouncement. An unbroken chain of evidence is needed.

Temporality and event

A closely related presupposition to be considered in this context concerns the question of anachronism—the violation of sequential irreversibility—which arguably is both a boon and a bane of modern Western history in that it undergirds what Lévi-Strauss (1966: 260) called its chronological code. Handler’s exploration of commemorative postage stamps celebrating annual fairs and exhibitions (this collection) reveals the arbitrary underside of the code in a deft anthropological analysis of history in the heartland of American bureaucracy—the US Post Office Department. Successive fairs in American cities around 1900 chose arbitrary moments in the past to commemorate (e.g., St. Louis’ 1904 fair commemorated the 1803 Louisiana Purchase; Jamestown 1907, the 1607 Jamestown settlement). On the one hand, time was moving forward, while, on the other, the pasts selected for commemoration on stamps jumped back and forth in an alternative code. To [216]be sure, all humans live in pluritemporal lifeworlds. Yet in the modern West, the simultaneity of the noncontemporaneous (Bloch 1977) has been carefully quarantined by concepts such as “tradition,” “heritage,” or, conversely, “survivals” and “regression.” Thus while the dead can be seen as our contemporaries, the “truth” of statements to that extent can only be metaphorical: as, for example, in cases where Truth and Reconciliation Commissions or investigations into genocidal wars use a language of accountability of the living to the dead when it comes to reckoning with past atrocities. Yet what if the present absence (Domanska 2006) of the dead, in other words, the weight of the past (Lambek 2002), were not only borne by their descendants in a symbolic fashion, but constituted part and parcel of the interactional reality of their present social worlds?

Malagasy spirit possession as considered by Lambek (this collection) represents a case in point. While the copresence of the living royal dead in the lives of contemporary inhabitants of Majunga is simply a social fact (they reappear in the bodies of their mediums at regularly staged royal services), the emergence and proliferation of hitherto unknown types of jiriky spirits in times of political crisis not only prompt reflection on a seeming misalignment of past and present; they amount to a poignant comment on the moral and ethical force exerted by the past. In Majunga, we might say with Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” ([1951] 1996: 85). While we will return to the implications of Lambek’s ethnography of what Bohannon (1958) might have called an “extra-processual event” in the social reproduction of Sakalava “past relationships” (i.e., an unexpected disturbance of the flow of ritual eventuation), it is clear that what from a historicist point of view looks like “chronological pollution” (Hamann 2008) is constitutive of Sakalava political ethics not just on a local level, but within the context of Malagasy politics more generally.

Or consider here, if in a different register, the case of palo monte, an Afro-Cuban ritual complex in which human remains are dug up and incorporated into composite power objects known as ngangas or prendas (Palmié 2006, 2013b). Within such objects, the dead human being (“muerto”) to whom the bones belonged takes on a new worldly existence as a nfumbi (a term only poorly glossed as “spirit”). Ritually installed in a nganga object, the nfumbi animates a complex new life form capable of agentively and eventfully interfering in present human affairs by performing mystical “works” at the bidding of a palero, as the human masters of ngangas are known. Housed in metal cauldrons, ngangas possess internal logic and coherence. Their components act in synergetic concordance, so that while, for example, the human remains will guarantee the “inspired” nature—willfulness, personality, agentive force, and so on—of a nganga, the addition of, for instance, a dog’s head, the skeleton of a bat, or a desiccated scorpion or spider will channel such force by amplifying and directing the ways in which the nfumbi will conduct its mystical errands (such as smelling out its target, flying in the night, or stinging and sucking the life out of the victims of sorcerous attacks and counterattacks). Packets attached to the outer surface of a nganga may contain further instructions concerning specific “works” (trabajos) that the nfumbi is to perform, and the residue of the animal or other sacrifices with which a nganga is remunerated for its services will gradually build up, and often overflow the cauldron itself, spilling out into veritable ritual landscapes that can come to fill whole rooms. These have their own depositional [217]logics and histories, and they present a materially accreting record of mystical interactions between the nfumbi and its human master.

The resulting tableaux morts thus come to document a sort of history that chronicles the nganga’s owner’s agency and mystical pursuits in, for example, healing the sick, influencing the outcome of court cases, procuring exit visas to the United States, or warding off sorcerous attacks. But the history thus materialized systematically blurs the bright lines of Western common-sense ontological divisions, such as those between persons and things, life and death, past and present. While a new nganga is fed with its owner’s blood, initiation into the cult of a nganga involves rubbing some of the nganga’s contents into small wounds cut into the skin of the future palero, rendering the nganga and its owner the coconstitutive parts of a supra-individual relation. Such relations ramify outward in space and time by assimilating actors and entities on both sides of the divide between the living and the dead: just as new initiates literally become consubstantial with the ngangas they acquire, so will a palero “seed” a nganga object fashioned for a neophyte with parts of the contents of his own nganga (which, in turn, had once been charged with elements derived from a preexisting nganga), thus constituting a pattern that cascades across time and (social) space in a historicity that appears to defy any and all Western modes of temporal, physical, and even metaphysical common sense.

This common sense arises from the widely shared historicist supposition consolidated in the early modern period (Fasolt 2004; Koselleck 1988, 2004) that the past is past, and separated from the present, which is, in turn, separate from the future. In line with the view of classical physics, students of history are taught to understand the past in its own terms, and not pollute it by anachronistic assumptions about the operation of ideas or technologies that only arose later. The nganga, in contrast, is an exercise in temporal pollution. Like the Naxos villagers who found their past riding on the coattails of their future, or the Guhu-Samane, whose past had to be retrospectively changed in order to prefigure their present conversion to Christianity, time may not be realized as linear and progressive. Ethnographic sensitivity to the intricate linkages between past, present, and future guides the anthropological study of histories as they take shape in specific social settings.

This holds just as true for historicism, where historians have constantly fended off the specter of presentism in order to conduct the business of history. Modern historiography purifies itself (Latour 1993) of temporal pollution to create the past as an object of the present. There are historical reasons for this. According to Fasolt (2004), modern history in the form we know it arose in the seventeenth century as people began to assert the possibility of a different future where they would not be held so firmly in place by the church or the monarch. Not unlike the Guhu-Samane, or the Naxiots, in the process of creating a new present and future, they changed their understanding of the past. The past was now conceived to be separate and different from the present. A notion of human individuality, free will, choice, and change came gradually to inform historical study as well as personal assumptions about life. If the future would be novel and undecided, then the past must have taken shape under the same conditions. This spelled the end of pattern and teleology in history, and the beginning of historicism, as we know it. Fasolt (2005) went so far as to cast the practice of history in the West as a ritual reaffirmation of human liberty, constantly repeated to remind us of our innermost values of [218]individual autonomy. But as Latour would have predicted, and as the essays in this collection show, like all programs of modernistic purification, this one, too, turns out hybrid after hybrid.

Scales and modes

Perhaps, each nganga object—just like a dead Sakalava royal taking possession of its medium, the Virgin appearing in Naxiot dreams, a series of commemorative postage stamps, or the Gregorian calendar—is best seen as constituting a chronotopic constellation of its own: encompassing a register of potential eventuation with its own coordinates of space, time, and value. A key concept for the anthropology of history that we envision, Bakhtin’s (1981) notion of the “chronotope” needs addressing here, especially since, as Wirtz rightly notes, it is “increasingly cited, sometimes applied, but only rarely given sustained theoretical attention” (this collection, p. 343). In contrast to the naïvely Newtonian nature of Western temporal common sense, Bakhtin’s concept analogically recurs to a post-Einsteinian relativity from which a plurality of senses of space and time become not only thinkable, but also potentially psychologically and socially inhabitable. Fusing Bakhtin’s own concept of heterochronicity with a non-Euclidian notion of space, one might call this “heterochronotopy,”14 in order to capture the dialogic relationship between chronotopes in a social field—a concept akin to heteroglossia, but emphasizing the evocation of temporal envelopes rather than just persons and authorities per se. While structuring the time-space coordinates of social ontologies in a way that makes eventuation thinkable in the first place, such chronotopes, according to Bakhtin’s crucial insight, are themselves “historical,” that is, subject to change and modification over time. Here we have, it seems, a way of operationalizing Sahlins’ notion that “an event is a relation between a happening and a structure” (1985: xiv, emphasis in original), so that a potential multiplicity of locally salient chronotopic registers can determine what, if anything, can come to constitute an “event,” and what incidents get banished to the realm of mere duration: the “empty stretches” (Ardener 1989) that largely make up the unnoticed and unnoticeable “incremental,” “eventless,” even “evolutionary” (Ingold 1986) or “structural” (in Braudel’s [1980] sense) processes by which social systems—including their chronotopic regimes—get both reproduced and transformed over time.15[219]

At the same time, the chronotope offers a concept of unstable time, where chutes into the past can suddenly open and afford time transportation, which is why, in usage, it is not always clear if chronotope refers to a present “here” or a temporally removed “there.” When Wirtz speaks with some Cuban oldtimers about religion in the past—in what, for her, was a chronotope of “the interview” grounded in basic historicist assumptions—they begin singing, thereby opening for themselves a chronotope of spiritual immanence. And spirits of the dead duly appear. Mean-while, the reggaeton music blaring on the street constantly threatens to shatter the frame and haul everyone back into the chronotope of the Cuban present. This shows the complexity of triggers for activating different chronotopes, which can vary from subtle linguistic cues to ambient soundscapes and visual phenomena encountered by chance.

Everything in the present has a past, and therefore the potential to be viewed as historical, yet we operate much of the time without noticing the historical aspect of, say, the window we look through or the paper we write on—these objects and activities are transacted instrumentally in the present, conceptually unconstituted as such (Lucas 2004), and thus readily “at hand” (in Heidegger’s sense) as a material scaffolding for our present pursuits. To activate historical thought, to see our worlds as “pastful,” we must perform the operation of viewing the “present under the aspect of the past” (sub specie praeteritorum), as the philosopher of history Oakeshott phrased it (1933: 118). Chronotopes are different from intellectual switches where we agree to consider the past. They are modal switches that activate—often unintentionally and spontaneously—particular pasts in joint or individual attention.

In chronotopic switching, affectivity takes precedence over reference: in Jakobson’s (1960) terms, the expressive function in communication has salience over the referential; mood, the feel of the past, floats above tense, which classifies pastness and relative pastness. When Swann tastes the chronotopic madeleine in Proust’s novel, he is conducted by his sense of taste to the emotive recovery of Sunday mornings at his aunt’s house. It is not one particular Sunday morning on a given date, but the general affective overtone of Sunday mornings during that time of his life. Chronotopes often carry an iterative aspectual dimension, the imperfective, which captures action from the inside. They deliver people into generalized past worlds, epochs, eras, or envelopes of time, not necessarily to fixed points and singular moments.

The Alevi ritual of cem provides a further example. Participants light twelve candles for the twelve martyrs (imams) of their faith, douse them, and begin to weep as they immerse themselves in the thought of painful events, recent and distant, in an act of analogical compression where the present, near past, and remote past are fused. The cem includes music and a trance-inducing dance in which participants commune with their history, embodying it and bringing it to life. The pictures of Atatürk (the twentieth-century political leader), Haji Bektash (the thirteenth-century mystic), and Ali (the seventh-century son-in-law of Muhammad) prominently hanging on the wall act as visual guides to the past, prompting people to sink into thought of their history as a concatenation of suffering (Mandel 2008: 255, 280).

In a different, but not unrelated, way, among the Wari’ of the Brazilian Amazon (Conklin 2001), the smell of decomposing flesh, the sight or smell of burning trees [220]or huts, and the size of trees in the forest are all historicizing triggers. They are indices of persons who have died. The Wari’, however, work the chronotope from the opposite direction (cf. Taylor 1993). They want to forget people who have died because it is too painful to remember them; thus there are no memorials or gravestones, only the gaps in nature and society, opened up particularly wide because the Wari’ obliterate houses and trees or plants associated with the deceased (Conklin 2001: 224ff.; n.d.). These gaps are antimonuments, visible less as man-made “lieux de mémoire” than as the work of biotic processes contingent upon human interference in the realm of the nonhuman (such as in the new vegetation emerging from burnt forest spaces). But they are nonetheless reflections of a past separated from the present. Instead of submitting to the affectivity of history—the passion of the past—the Wari’ seek to establish tense at the expense of mood in order to render the past definitively over and done. This attitude resembles Western historicism’s separation of past and present, with the difference that, among the Wari’, no one is invited to go back and research and recover this type of personal past in a form approaching historiography. They are content to know that their deceased have been transformed into spirits or animals occupying a timeless mythic dimension, and therefore are not located in the past at all (Conklin n.d.; cf. Taylor 1993: 675). Inverting Harvey’s (1989) diagnosis of the chronotope of technomodernity—the annihilation of space by time—the Wari’ annihilate time by reworking lived space or place.

Given the particularities of the Wari’ case, it may seem ironic that Western historiography cultivates a similar dispassionate relation to the past. Overdependence on the affective connection to an epoch or zeitgeist runs against the grain of historicism, which seeks to establish truths about the past on the basis of tangible evidence and by providing temporal specificity in relation to the chronological code. Academic history also seeks to keep the past in the past, by objectifying it—just not in the form of altered landscapes sinking back into the gradual oblivion guaranteed by micro- and macrobiotic processes (Harrison 2004), but by entombing it in writing (de Certeau 1988). Each wave of revisionary interpretation that grips the discipline in roughly generational intervals thus might be analogized to secondary burials as they are known from the ethnographic literature.

But as is made clear by the essays in this collection that explicitly deal with “the West” (Handler, Hamann), such distancing between the present and the past has an epistemic premise: professional historians espouse primarily a correspondence theory of history where, in order to be true, statements about the past must capture actual past arrangements. The alternative would be a coherence theory where statements can be true because they are consistent with expectations, beliefs, and sentiments held by the historian as an individual and a member of society. Not surprisingly, we find both of these epistemologies coexisting in Western societies. The Chicago world’s fair of 1893 commemorated the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. This was such a large “event” that it exposed some indicative problems of scale for Western historical thinking. Which was the actual moment that one wished to remember? The Post Office issued a commemorative series of sixteen stamps parsing out the events within the event, breaking down the broad chronotopic epoch into specific points in time. These events were then ranked, with the most significant moments pictured on the lowest-denomination [221]stamps, so that the largest number of people would encounter them. Capitalist economic considerations and democratic values thus drove historical production.

The conflict between affective—value-rational, in Weber’s sense—and historicist histories continues to surface in recent and ongoing public discussions. Consider the following case: on September 28, 1987, a group of African Americans first celebrated what since has become a major tourist attraction, sponsored by the City of Annapolis. Originally known as Kunta Kinte Arrival Day, the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival nowadays draws thousands of visitors.16 It commemorates an event that—at least for academic historians—remains beyond verification and endorsement: the arrival of novelist Alex Haley’s putative Gambian ancestor Kunta Kinte (a fictitious name, as Haley conceded) among ninety-eight slaves brought to Annapolis aboard the ship Lord Ligonier on that day in 1767, as described in Haley’s 1976 novel Roots: The saga of an American family, and portrayed in the 1977 TV miniseries Roots. Even at the time, Haley was widely criticized by historians who—while not impugning his motives—rather conclusively proved that Kunta Kinte was a figment of the author’s imagination. And yet Kunta Kinte’s—ostensibly fictitious—arrival in America has now been commemorated for close to a generation.

A curious case of text come to life, we might say. Fiction celebrated as historical fact. And yet, ought we not ask: From whose perspective? Make no mistake here. There is no doubt in the archival record that the British slaver Lord Ligonier went to anchor at Annapolis on September 28, 1767, and disgorged a mass of enslaved Africans: human commodities who survived the middle passage, were sold at auction, introduced into New World plantation slavery, and forcefully renamed as Toby, Phoebe, Jack, or George. Every one a Kunta Kinte of sorts, and some of them the distant, often unknown, ancestor of those who commemorate a fictitious—or not so fictitious—event at the Annapolis City Docks each September.

Correspondence to historical facts, no. Coherence with the moral vision of a vast number of Americans of African descent, yes. The story of Kunta Kinte is true at this scalar level, and as a proxy for the family history of a great number of people in the United States today. The history profession demands, however, that if specific names, dates, and places are adduced, then they must be verifiable in the record. A commemorative postage stamp has value for collectors, yet, as Handler notes in this collection, it takes on even more value if it is canceled with a postal date stamp at the exhibition it commemorates. That is the historicist perfecta: the iconically compelling commemorative stamp turned into an index of the proof of actual connection to the exhibition place and time; the knowledge of an African ancestor beyond documentary authentification, in contrast, remains in a historicist limbo, no matter how compelling its moral veracity may be to large numbers of contemporary Americans.

Historicities in collision

Returning to our earlier distinction between historicism, on the one hand, and historical practices in Western societies, on the other, we have used the former to [222]indicate broadly a type of historical practice to which professional historians aspire, and which the educational systems of Western countries impart. This general sensibility about history—what it is, and how to do it—is, as we have shown, largely consistent with natural science and practice in other spheres of society such as law and government. Yet it is also clear that the underlying principles of historicism are not fully espoused by everyone all the time. People operate with multiple tenets of historical thought in the West, as, indeed, they do in other societies. The ways of establishing relationships to the past in the West quite simply cannot be reduced to a standardized monothetic set of practices. To claim otherwise would be to succumb to the allure of a facile “Occidentalism.”17 We suggest that this plurality of historicizing practices be viewed more as a polythetic set (Needham 1975) where practitioners share certain common suppositions but not others, and also where they mix in tenets excluded by historicism, such as adoption of the wrong scale of analysis, overreliance on affect, or representation in unrecognized forms such as dancing.18 The anthropology of history creatively investigates this area of mismatch between asserted or assumed ideals and actual practices, showing in the process that historical practice in the West shares much more in common with historical practices outside the West than one might like to think.

What better antidote to the temptation to a self-congratulatory Occidentalism, then, than Hamann’s study (this collection) of the Catholic Church’s replacement of the Julian calendar by the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century in order to fix more precisely the date of Christ’s resurrection (i.e., Easter). Although this change eventually did spread its empty, homogeneous units of time measurement across the globe, gaining belated scientific ratification in the form of atomic clocks initially calibrated to its specifications, it originally arose as an eschatological instrument. Furthermore, the calendar that we now take to epitomize progressive, secular time was actually designed as an instrument to “reduce” time, that is, make it go backward to the perfection of Eden, reversing the degenerated Julian system of reckoning. The endorsement of the Catholic Church aroused opposition in Protestant countries such as England, where the Gregorian calendar was not accepted for many years. The idea of a secular universal time arising in the early modern period emerges as an Occidentalist misconstrual of a divisive, religious innovation. The Spanish Catholic interest in redemption and eschatology actually had much more in common with the viewpoints of local peoples in Mexico or Afghanistan [223](Hamann, this collection) than it did with secular modernity (cf. Subramanyam 1997). The congruence of present-day common-sense history (at various social levels) vis-à-vis paradigms of past relationships in world societies is not likely so extreme, but Hamann’s study of the calendar furnishes a provocative analogy in regard to the historical specificity of historicism’s chronological code.

Anthropologists and historians have used the handy terms “historicity” (Sahlins 1985; Comaroff and Comaroff 1992; Trouillot 1995; Hirsch and Stewart 2004; Stewart in press) or “regimes of historicity” (Hartog 2015) to capture the cultural paradigms modulating historical experience and practice, with the often unstated premise that what, at least since Marx, has come to be known in the West as “historical consciousness” might be subsumable under such terms as well.19 In this collection, several such historicities—or forms of human awareness of being and becoming in time—are on display, notably the image of the sunrise on the Tlaxcalan lienzo (Hamann), which signifies the end of an epoch and the beginning of a new one; or the figuralism of Bible interpretation with its anticipatory post hoc, ergo propter hoc logic (Handman). Perhaps the most striking is Lambek’s deeply impressive explication of the “sublunary” historicity of the Sakalava royal lineage, which waxes and wanes, neither strictly linear nor reversible. Yet Lambek is careful to explain that this historicity sits alongside other historicities, such as the commoner historicity of death and replacement. It is also subject to internal tensions and political oppositions within its own terms of spirit possession. Finally, it sits inside other historicities, notably that of modern global historicism, with which it contends, in a continual dynamic relationship as an “immodern” counterpart.

The analysis of Sakalava historicity resonates with our preceding observation about the nonunitary nature of Western historicism, itself but one example of a historicity, as we would like the term to be understood here. Although convenient, one must be vigilant not to allow the term “historicity” to lull one into thinking that the principles of a historicity—its “regime,” in Hartog’s (2015) sense—are all shared and equally distributed among members of a society. Societies borrow from each other and change internally, which creates dynamic situations such as the different understandings of Kunta Kinte, or the uncertainty of the Guhu-Samane man who, unlike many of his consociates, could not find his genealogy in the Bible (Handman, this collection). At such moments, as Handman goes on to say, it is often a charismatic figure who effects change through resort to chronotopic speech genres—in this case, one of revelation—that alter convictions in an Austinian perlocutionary act.

The architecture, imagery, rituals, and cultural logics of different historicities come into view especially at moments of collision between utterly heterogeneous historicities—or chronotopic regimes. To give yet another example, Sahlins [224](1985: 54ff.) tells the story of how the Maori repeatedly tore down the flagpole erected by the British during the Maori revolt in the 1840s. The British, who were trying to forge an alliance with the Maori chiefs that would effectively give them sovereignty over New Zealand, could not understand why the Maori did not destroy the Union Jack flying on the flagpole—the very symbol, to their minds, of “sovereignty.” Sahlins explains that for the Maori, the future is behind one: everything that happens in the present is an analogical reoccurrence of an earlier cosmological event. In Maori cosmology, in the beginning, the sky was collapsed onto the earth and a hero prized the two apart and propped the sky up above the earth using four poles. This was the originary event by which the ancestors claimed possession of the land. The British flagpole was seen as replicating this cosmic event and claiming ownership of the land, hence it had to be knocked down over and over again. A British historicity of progressive, future-oriented colonial expansion crossed swords with a historicity emphasizing the eternal return of the past. They diverged fundamentally over the identification and significance of “the event” at the heart of the flagpole affair.

Something similar happened on the island of Naxos, where, after independence in 1832, the new Bavarian-led government of the independent Greek state, seeking to cultivate a less mystical version of Greek Orthodoxy, confiscated the villagers’ newly discovered icons. They accused several charismatic dreamers of charlatanry and took them to court. The villagers’ Christian-infused archaeological practice was delegitimated by new laws against the excavation of artifacts without a permit. Objects in the ground were reconfigured as part of a frozen past perfect, highly valued as patrimony, and placed under protection in line with historicist ideas. For the villagers, the icons were part of a past imperfect, a continuous liturgical present in an Orthodox Christian temporality where figures from the past such as the saints portrayed on icons can be in the home, touched, kissed, and treated virtually as family members.

What (to use Lévi-Strauss’ terminology) was “heating up” matters in these cases is what Sahlins might call the vicissitudes of a “structure of the conjuncture” between different ways of organizing and recognizing “events” and making them stand out from the endless stream of nonevents that form their backdrop in the social imaginaries in question. But as Wirtz (this collection) shows, what we may need to consider is that such moments do not only operate on a macroscale, but equally characterize social interaction on the most microsociological levels, even among members of one and the same social formation. Attention to real-time everyday social language use and performativity thus can reveal switches of chronotopic registers that, in themselves, demonstrate the potential heterochronotopy of any and all regimes of historicity. We may not think of it this way, but our lifeworlds are inherently “plural”—full of “multiple realities” (Schuetz 1945), including temporal ones, that can be activated, and given a “reality accent,” at any moment, regardless of whatever may prompt such chronotopic switches: a certain linguistic cue, a tune (from the “soundtrack of our lives”), or a whiff of something, we can often not even tell what it is, that triggers olfactorily encoded forms of experiences of the past. The key issue, as Wirtz reminds us, is that these transportations across chronotopes are social in nature: not only recognizable in the instant that they occur, but also iterable across various instances on the basis of a socially shared “semiotic ideology” (Keane 2003) allowing for what we might call past recognition.[225]


As is well known, years ago anthropology took what is now known as the “historic turn” (McDonald 1996). It went from a predominantly synchronic approach to societies frozen in an “ethnographic present” (Fabian 1983) to recognizing the need for historical perspective. Eric Wolf ’s Europe and the people without history (1982), published over thirty years ago now, can be pointed to as a landmark. This initiative gave rise to colonial and postcolonial historical studies where anthropologists placed peripheral societies within our framework of history. We gave them history according to our historical reasoning, and often as tied up with our own story of contact with them. This led to some important and, at times, spectacular revaluations of non-Western pasts—but always on terms that were ours. Just how these people themselves conceived and represented the past was less often studied.

Not only that, however: as many critics have noted, historicism drives out of circulation what Nandy (1995) calls its non-Western “doubles,” as if by some Gresham’s law of epistemological economy. Ironically, when anthropology took its “historic turn,” it largely took Western historicism off the shelf and used it as the tacit gold standard in its well-intentioned endeavors to reconstruct, verify, and legitimate other modes of relating to the past.20 However impressive the results were in many instances, the inescapable conundrum was (and remains) that the resulting historicization of “other pasts” subjected them to a regime of historicity that, as we have argued, is not even consistently pervasive in the West itself. The task at hand for an anthropology of history thus involves not solely appreciating “other pasts” delegitimated by, subordinated to, or subsumed under Western academic historiography. We also need a reverse anthropology where Western historicism itself, as it arose and triumphed in the course of the nineteenth century over earlier or rival forms and principles of generating knowledge about the past, comes into focus as a historically and culturally specific, if nowadays near globally diffused, phenomenon.

As Mannheim diagnosed in 1924: “Historicism is a Weltanschauung that determines our forms of thought” (1952: 85). By the time of his writing, historicism as “the Weltanschauung of modernity” had become hard to think outside of, and this—to this day—makes recognizing and understanding other cultural approaches to the past a major challenge. Hence we must recognize the framing power of our intuitive suppositions—our chronotopic ethnocentrism—and suspend judgment when it comes to other modes of forging past relationships. This means placing our own historical imagination and praxis in a broader context of human cultural possibilities and thereby putting historicism at productive risk.[226]

The anthropology of history thus ventures on the assertion that we have not always been looking for history in the right places. This, however, raises a crucial question: How does one define “history” so as to do the anthropology of it, without reimporting Western historicism as the framework through which all other past relationships are viewed? Our suggestion is that we begin with a simple, heuristic definition of “history” not only as “practices of knowledge production” aiming at forging “relations to the past,” but also as “intimations of the past,” since the past may be perceived nonobjectively, or sensed affectively (even if later given representation, the experiential moment of the historical is relevant). Representation of such past relationships, and the mode in which they are cast—scriptural, mnemonic, constituted by evanescent cues, or features of the landscape traversed by human groups who relate to them in such a way—all these are not matters to be decided a priori on conceptual grounds, but need to be opened to ethnographic inquiry. To quote Sahlins once more: not only “no history without culture,” but also “other cultures, other historicities” (1985: x).21

Western historicism generally expresses itself in writing, hence the term “historiography,” which is often conflated with history itself. The anthropology of history requires new vocabulary, since “historiography” is manifestly inapplicable to dreaming, dancing, spirit possession, walking through newly reforested areas, or even collecting postage stamps. How shall we talk about these ways of relating to the past, and human consciousness of temporality and eventuation more generally? Terms such as historicization, “historical poiesis” (Lambek 2002), and neologisms such as “historification” come into usage to capture productions/representations of the past that do not necessarily take shape through conscious, rational reflection, or receive expression in writing. All of these terms refer to “the making of history”; not in the manner conceived by Marx, which involved decisive action on the ground, but rather as the a posteriori making of representations of what went on in the past, and how such past goings-on might relate to the world as people variously know it.

The introduction of new vocabulary, the discovery of previously unrecognized forms of historical practice in and outside the West, and the probing of the assumptions underlying common sense about history—can these effect any change in “history”? To ask such a question is to ask if anthropological knowledge can affect society. The historicism within which we dwell and write these pages constrains us from predicting the future. On the one hand, the studies collected here might encourage those operating outside the paradigm of historicism to remain confident in their local practices because historicism is not consistently practiced, or even entirely different from what they do. But it might also bring new ideas into historicism and alter its sense of itself as the only correct form of history. It might further precipitate the recognition of its parochialism—something Chakrabarty (2000) and other postcolonial historians have been persuasively arguing for.

In our view, historicism will change, when it does—and perhaps it is already changing—for the very reasons recognized in its own principles, namely that the [227]future is bound to differ from the past. As intellectual historians might be the first to point out: thought is historical. Concepts—and “history” is one such concept—are bound into genealogical relations of discursive productivity (Daston 2000; Hacking 2002). To be sure, the same can be said of the discursive grounds from which we—two anthropologists—launch our call “for an anthropology of history.” Yet the expectation for the anthropology of history, as we envision it, is not to instigate or engineer change in historical practice, but rather to study it as it happens. It is a call for empirical attention by anthropologists, historians, and practitioners of other disciplines. As we have contended above, “regimes of historicity” and their prevalent chronotopes are themselves subject to historical transformation. This is no contradiction in terms: past relationships have a history. As Boas might have said, our task is to chronicle the social history of the unfolding and transformation of humanity’s “secondary explanations”: the stories we collectively make up about who we are, how we came to be, and why this should matter (Bunzl 2004).

An illustration of this issue can be seen in NAGPRA (the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), which provides Native American groups the right to reclaim and bury the remains of their ancestors when graves are found on federal or tribal land. This framework enables Native Americans to rehistoricize commercial American real estate, as happened in Port Angeles, Washington (Boyd 2009). Building work on a new dry dock was suspended when construction workers unearthed the remains of a 2700-year-old Coast Salish community containing some three hundred graves. During the process of excavation, several of the Native American archaeological workers were visited by their ancestors (what many Americans would call “ghosts”). Ultimately the construction of the industrial harbor was abandoned and the land redeveloped to hold an archaeological site and museum as well as the reinterred graves. Here we have a state-legislated rewriting of the terms on which previously nonsanctioned past relationships may attain not just historical salience, but politically binding force. The legal system of the dominant culture ruled against its own rationalist historicity. For the disgruntled townspeople, ghosts and ancestors stood in the way of progress. The Port Angeles case shows that other historicities may not be disregarded the way they used to be (imagine the Maori erecting poles and reclaiming parts of New Zealand under the law!).

But such reassertion of “other” historicities is only one part of a larger spectrum of transformations of historical praxis and experience underway in Western societies. The emergence of new technologies such as digital platforms for simulating and interacting with the past, and social trends such as historical reenactment and the cresting popularity of historical fiction, historical film, TV documentaries, and infotainment have fed the emergence of alternative historicities in the West, and eroded some of the bedrock from under standard historicism. Perhaps we are witnessing the creation of a hybrid historicism. Video games such as JFK Reloaded or Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 immerse players in pasts where they make choices in real time. The Robben Island video game currently under development by the Serious Games Institute in Coventry enables students to visit the island virtually and interactively to approximate the experience that Mandela and other prisoners may have had.22 The written mediation of history, and the framing of the past as an object located in a [228]different time frame from that of the historian, are replaced by direct, visual, sensory engagement with the past; an active, affective mode of historicization. As Rigney (2010: 116) has pointed out, the Internet search engine and web-generated pathways are replacing the logic of narrative connection in popular historical thought.

Equally indicative are the disputes over the school history curriculum in the United Kingdom, in particular those over “child-centered learning,” which broke out in 2013. Introduced in the 1970s, “child-centered learning” became the bête noire of conservative critics, who argue that it is one of the reasons why people were not completing school with an adequate history education. Child-centered learning involves, among other things, experiential exercises such as imagining oneself as a soldier in the trenches of World War I, or standing packed tightly together to experience what conditions were like on a slave ship making the Atlantic crossing. Conservative reformers sought to curtail this form of pedagogy in favor of a better understanding of chronology, key political figures, and major events.23 History teaching, as the opponents of such reform argue, becomes impossibly reduced to a boot camp for an “ultra-orthodox” historicism that most academic historians would reject.

From the perspective of the anthropology of history, this is a disagreement between a restrictive version of historicism and other versions of historicism. It is a civil war within historicism. But it should also be noted that those on the side of child-centered learning stand on a continuum with practices of experiential and affective historical practice outside the boundaries of historicism, and, indeed, sometimes at odds with historiography. Historical reenactors in the United States told researchers (Handler and Saxton 1988) that history books are not authenticating reference points for them; it is rather their personal experience of the past during reenactments that makes history meaningful. Proof by reference to external evidence is, for them, secondary to personal experiential witnessing.

Ranke’s dictum that we should understand the past “as it really was” has generally been taken as an incitement to the fullest scholarly documentation possible. But it has also been understood within the hermeneutic tradition (surveyed by Gadamer [1960] 1994: 173–264) as trying one’s best to establish the internal lifeworld of the past—basically trying to understand the past from the point of view of those who lived in the past. To this day, this tension has not been resolved, let alone properly theorized, within the discipline of history (but see Robinson 2010 for a rare attempt to do so). One suspects that many historians began with an affective fascination for past events, personages, and places, and many probably do still have their own quasi-shamanic imaginary methods for envisioning the past to go along with their dispassionate scholarship.24[229]

The advent of popular visual and digital technologies, then, did not create experiential modes of accessing the past. Instead, these new technologies have remediated this type of past relationship and given it new vitality, just as cell phones have redelivered a social connectedness more reminiscent of Melanesian dividuality than Western individuality. Technologies do not solely increase modernity. They have reenergized long-standing historicities and perhaps made “us” more like everyone else. Ironically, then, it may be through the mediation of IT that the West reveals itself to be not as modern as it purports to be; in fact, it looks to be retreating from some former expectations of modernity that may now be transforming into “futures past” (Koselleck 2004). The time for dancing, singing, and acting histories interactively may arrive sooner than we imagine.

In conclusion, the recognition of this plurality of historicities and their fusions here in the West might give us a better platform from which to see our commonality with the repertoires of historicity found in other societies around the world. Rather than engineering the sudden importation of their principles into ours, we can recognize that much of what they do we also already do. To say so, as anthropologists, is by no means to diminish the work of our colleagues in history departments, many of whom are engaging similar questions from their own disciplinary vantage points. It is to say that the anthropology of history—like any form of anthropology—attends to all these practices and orientations and attempts to capture their inner worlds of thought and experience.


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Introduction: Pour une anthropologie de l’histoire

Résumé : Bien que Sahlins l’a proposé il y a maintenant plus de trente ans, et en dépit de quelques contributions remarquables entretemps, aucun véritable mouvement vers une anthropologie de l’histoire n’a réellement émergé. Cette introduction, et les études de cas qui la suivent, révèlent les défis d’une telle entreprise en se référant à des études ethnographiques conduites à Cuba, Madagascar, en Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée, aux Etats-Unis, et dans l’espace Euro-Américain du début de l’époque moderne. L’anthropologie de l’histoire s’intéresse essentiellement à l’idée même d’histoire—ses présupposés, ses principes, les pratiques qui informent l’acquisition de savoir sur le passé, et les formes qu’elle prend dans l’espace social. Trouver les termes permettant de comprendre des formes alternatives de fabrication de l’histoire requiert une vision ethnographique et historique de la manière dont le concept occidental d’histoire (historicisme) fut développé, et de la façon dont cet historicisme réside en fait dans un ensemble de pratiques diverses au sein de communautés occidentales. On voit que l’anthropologie de l’histoire est appelée à être une vaste entreprise interdisciplinaire, incluant entre autres des archéologues et des historiens, afin de comprendre les possibilités de l’histoire comme pratique et comme méthode d’analyse

Stephan PALMIÉ is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Das Exil der Götter: Geschichte und Vorstellungswelt einer afrokubanischen Religion (Peter Lang, 1991), Wizards and scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban modernity and tradition (Duke University Press, 2002), and The cooking of history: How not to study Afro-Cuban religion (University of Chicago Press, 2013), as well as the editor of several volumes on Caribbean and Afro-Atlantic anthropology and history.

Stephan Palmié
Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago
1126 E 59th St
Chicago, IL 60637

Charles STEWART is Professor of Anthropology at University College London. He has conducted long-term field research on the Greek island of Naxos and specializes in the anthropology of religion, dreaming, and theories of cultural mixture (creolization, syncretism). He is the author of Demons and the devil: Moral imagination in modern Greek culture (Princeton University Press,1991), Dreaming and historical consciousness in island Greece (Harvard University Press, 2012), and editor of Creolization: History, ethnography, theory (Left Coast Press, 2007).

Charles Stewart
Department of Anthropology
University College London
14 Taviton Street
London WC1H 0BW


1. For an eclectic and woefully incomplete sample see, for example, Bernheim (1908); Becker (1932); Oakeshott (1933); Beard (1934); Collingwood (1946); Gardener (1961); Dray (1964); Danto (1965); White (1973, 1978); Mink (1978); Ricoeur (1984); Novick (1998); Ankersmit (2005). None of them are concerned with what we might, for the moment, call “non-Western” modes of knowing and representing the past.

2. To clear some analytical ground right away, we do not think that the debate—largely among historians—about “history and memory” that began to unfold internationally in the aftermath of Pierre Nora’s (1989) influential essay on the “lieux de mémoire” has done much to clarify these matters (see Klein 2000 for a useful critique; cf. Palmié 2010). If anything, we would argue that this debate represented a diversion from the issues on which an “anthropology of history” should focus: namely the consideration of any and all practices of establishing “past relationships.” Another development that we will not touch upon in this introduction is colonial and postcolonial history. Such scholarship has made important contributions towards a critique of non-Western historiographies whose tacit “theoretical subject” remained Europe (Chakrabarty 2000: 34; cf. Prakash 1990, but see Dirlik 1994 for a scathing critique). Still, but perhaps not surprisingly, history per se was not a concerted focus in these studies and debates: it was the medium in which they were conducted.

3. Sutton (1998) and Lambek (2002) would be two exceptions, both of which offer empirical studies of the poetics of history. There is no synoptic theoretical book on the anthropology of history, and there are no edited collections on the subject. South American specialists have perhaps come closest to the interrogatives posed here with their illuminating considerations of history vs. myth, and of Amazonian historicities (Hill 1988; Gow 2001; Whitehead 2003; Fausto and Heckenberger 2007; Oakdale and Course 2014).

4. This change of focus may be compared to the foundation of science and technology studies, which turned from the sociology and history of science in the vein of Merton or Kuhn to the work of, for example, Barnes, Bloor, Latour, Woolgar, Knorr-Cetina, Law, or Pickering. The crucial move involved in this transition was away from an agenda that sought social or intellectual explanations (often framed as either “externalist” or “internalist”) for the growth of scientific knowledge, and toward concerted empirical interrogations (initially often in the form of lab ethnographies) of what science is as a social praxis, and what it does in the world.

5. For convenience we list the main tenets of historicism: (1) the assumption of temporal linearity; (2) chronological code; (3) basis in objective evidence/objectivity; (4) intentionally produced on the basis of research, usually in writing (historiography); (5) the separation of temporal zones—past, present, future; (6) the assumption that events are contingent and unpredictable; (7) the avoidance of anachronism—the past must be understood on its own terms; (8) causality as a standard mode of explanation (see Iggers 1995; Chakrabarty 2000; Burke 2002).

6. “Ne postule pas entre les sociétés une difference de nature, elle ne les place pas dans des categories séparées mais se réfère aux attitudes subjectives que les sociétés adoptent vis-à-vis de l’histoire, aux manières variables dont elles la conçoivent.”

7. To eliminate any potential confusion with Popper’s (1957) use of the term “historicism,” we need to clarify that we consider the contingency and unpredictability of events to be a signature feature of modern historicism. In labeling Marx’s belief in historical destiny “historicism,” Popper was criticizing it for its teleology; hence his title, The poverty of historicism. From our perspective, Popper’s insistence that there is no pattern to history exemplifies and champions historicism.

8. This is by no means an idiosyncratic example culled from the “Mediterranean margins” of “modern Europe”: even if one wanted to apply similar scepticism to Christian’s (1996) encyclopedic inventory of visionary events during the second Spanish Republic, such critique would hardly stand up to Linse’s (1983) study of millenarian visionaries in historicism’s historical homeland, Weimar Germany, or Boyer’s (1992) extensive documentation of political prophecy in the post-World War II United States. That the state of Israel saw itself forced to take active precautions to rein in the flood of American Christians flocking to the Holy Land on the eve of Y2K (the secular cyber-apocalypse!) to await the Parousia speaks for itself (Goldberg 1999).

9. When the twentieth-century Naxos dreamers wrote in their notebooks, “I saw a sign in the sky,” they not only repeated a key theme from the Book of Revelation, they also did so in very nearly the same Greek words, thereby revealing a particular relationship to the past that required no translation (Stewart 2012: 91).

10. Further extending the analogy to biblical hermeneutics, we might say that just as John the Baptist is read as Christ’s “anti-type” (revealed as such through Christ’s life), for the Guhu-Samane, the ancient Hebrews have become the “anti-type” to which their own lives provide the “type” (Frye 1981). See Handman’s discussion (this collection) of this moment in light of Erich Auerbach’s concept of “figural representation.”

11. Itself arguably a secularized successor of a biblical historical matrix of dispersal and descent, as in the paradigmatic cases of the Noahides, the genealogies of the tribes of Israel, or the confusion of tongues at the tower of Babel.

12. Cf. Werner and Zimmermann (2006) for an exposition of the analytical concept of “histoire croisée” and Subrahmanyam (1997) and Gruzinski (2002) for useful exemplifications of the empirical promise of such approaches.

13. A curious exception to this is the legal fiction of “acts of God” in US insurance and tort law concerning unpredictable catastrophic events.

14. Indeed, Wirtz proposed this coinage in earlier drafts of her contribution to the collection.

15. With reference to Melanesian ethnography, Strathern (1988) offers an entirely different conception of events (such as first contact), which she likens to images. These images already contain meaningful relations with the viewer and the event is a performance where these relations become evident and receive interpretation. How is one implicated in the event? What has one done to provoke it? And thus, how does the event already pertain to one? In this Melanesian event concept, the meaning of the event is internal to it, while in Western models it is external to the event and derived by situating it against structure and time.

16. See http://www.kuntakinte.org.

17. As Carrier (1992) termed the still all too common tendency among anthropologists to contrast their richly nuanced ethnographies of non-Western worlds with deadly monolithic and essentialist accounts of “the West.”

18. The latter moment was vividly exemplified at an academic conference on “The Slave Trade in History and Memory” held at the University of Chicago in 1997. As one of the authors of this introduction vividly recalls, during a discussion period, an African American member of the audience asked to perform the “Song of the Sons and Daughters of the Pyramids” as a comment on the academic proceedings. Her request was granted, but what followed her intervention was awkward silence on the part of the majority of scholars assembled. See Berlin (2004) for a reflection on a conference gone comparatively badly awry owing to the expression of divergent visions of the past, unassimilable within the academic historicist frame.

19. The German notion of “Geschichtlichkeit,” which was crucial to Hegel’s notion of historical consciousness as a component of civic ethical life, “Sittlichkeit,” became key to Marx’s vision of historical emancipation. But in our present usage, it designates but one among many other “historicities”—a concept that we would urge ought to be taken to embrace a far wider range of “past relationships” than Marxist notions of “historical consciousness,” or the more common anthropological formulations recurring to it (if, shall we say, only “in the last instance”).

20. A case in point is that of “ethnohistory” as it came to prominence in the United States in the aftermath of the Indian Claims Act of 1946. Called in as expert witnesses in the readjudication of Native American treaties, well-meaning and often politically engaged anthropologists then mined Native American oral traditions for visions of the past that could be commensurated with the forensics of history inherent in the American legal system (on which see, e.g., Levi’s [1948] classic Introduction to legal reasoning), and so unwittingly “gave” Native Americans a version of their past that bore that ratifying stamp of academic historicism.

21. Even if the moment of mal d’archive that Derrida (1995) identified late in his life were a part of the human condition (and this is an empirical question, too), the sources of “archontic” power envisioned and desired in each instance are—shall we say—underdetermined.

22. http://www.seriousgamesinstitute.co.uk/applied-research/Mandela27.aspx.

23. At the height of these history battles, the historian Niall Ferguson (2013) laid blame for the decline of history learning at the feet of “child-centered” learning, which supplanted “source analysis.” The proponents of experiential and world history—as opposed to a history curriculum focused heavily on Britain—seem to have won this round. The minister of education who proposed the reforms was removed from his position in mid-2014, and the proposed reforms were softened.

24. Collingwood’s (1946) “historical imagination” covers the logical inferences historians need to make beyond what is given in the evidence. This can shade into more intuitive practices, such as the techniques of the famous Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos, which verged on a shamanistic communication with the underworld of the past (Hamilakis 2007: 162). We plan to take these questions forward in a future volume deriving from a conference we convened on “The Varieties of Historical Experience.”