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Is History a Nightmare

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‘History’ Stephen said, ‘is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’ (James Joyce, Ulyssess). Is history a ‘nightmare’ and, if so, is it possible to awake?

History has been represented by some as a triumphal march. As a progressive, unlinear, emancipating process. Fukyama, for instance, has heralded liberal democracy as the ‘end of history’; while orthodox Marxism also posits a liberating ‘end goal’ in the form of ‘communism’. History is understood as teleological and determined; a dream. It will be argued that history is more accurately understood as a ‘nightmare’; as contingent and determined by conflict or struggle within specific networks of power-relations.

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In this respect, crude, reductive, teleological understandings of history are rejected, in favour of those that analyse history as based on contingent inter-relationships between structure, agency and discourse. Paradigms such as historical materialism, post-structuralism and critical-discourse analysis will be drawn on to show how relations of power and domination are constructed through conflict. It is these relationships which are the ‘nightmare’ of history; the nightmare of ‘power’ and the ‘conflict’ over it.

1 Historical scholarship in historicising social relationships, de-naturalises relationships of power and showing the agency of historical actors can act as a critique to past and present ‘nightmares’.

For instance, feminist and Afro-Caribbean historians have often explicitly critiqued relations of domination so as to empower marginalised groups.

2 ‘History’, in this form, explicitly attempts to wake itself from the ‘nightmare’. It should, however, also be recognised that the discipline of history has often been complicit in creating ‘nightmares’ of ‘excluding’ and ‘marginalising’ groups. It seems impossible to ‘awake’ from the ‘nightmare’ of history; conflict and power have been perennial. In this way the ‘nightmare’ might be a coma but it seems possible to make the bed more comfortable.

History has long been dogged by a crude positivism. In this respect, history was given the status of ‘science’, as having an inevitable causality.

3 Orthodox Marxism, for instance, notes ‘humanity’s increasing technological control over nature suggesting that this can be equated with historical stages. Cohen argues that Marx viewed the ‘productive-forces’ as the main force of history.

4 The primary ‘causal-relationship’ is that between the ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’; once the productive forces have developed to a certain stage the ‘relations of production’ becomes fetters on further growth and are ‘cast aside’. In this respect, the ‘relations of production’ and the ‘superstructure’ are ‘functional’ to that of the ‘productive forces’.

5 The extension of seemingly self-developing productive forces over ‘nature’ determines the pace of ‘history’, giving it a ‘dream’ like quality. A substitution of this crude materialism, for a crude idealism, can be seen in the work of Fukuyama. In Hegelian fashion history is equated with specific ideological stages or consciousness. History becomes unlinear, progressive and inevitable. Capitalism in being the most materially progressive economic system becomes a natural ‘end-point’. Simultaneously, Liberalism offers a network of political arrangements that satisfy thymos or the desire for recognition. In this respect, liberal democracy is naturalized and posited as the inevitable ‘end-point’ of history.

6 History far from a ‘nightmare’ is a dream, a dream occasionally woken up from only to inevitably go back to sleep. The crude teleology of ‘productive force determinism’ and Fukuyama’s ‘idealism’ completely fail to give an adequate account of how historical social-relations are constructed. It is possible to view history as a ‘dream’ without accepting teleological argumentation. A number of scholars have used Parsonaian sociological techniques to suggest that social relations can be more accurately understood as harmonious, rather than based on conflict. Mousnier and Fourquin argue that pre-industrial society was not based on Marxian class structures but on ‘evaluative differentiation’.

7 Further, scholars working within the ‘Toronto’ school have used manorial court rolls to suggest that medieval English social structure were defined by conciliation, rather than conflict. For instance, DeWindt’s study of Holywell-cum-Needingworth (a manor of Ramsey Abbey) suggested that personal pledging was, in part, responsible and symbolic of pre-plague village solidarity and community. In this respect, pledging effectively eased the vertical ties of domination creating a communal space.

8 History is not a ‘nightmare’ in that social relations are conciliatory rather than conflictual; power-relations are based on shared cultural values; history can be represented as a ‘dream’ without crude or mechanistic notions of inevitability.

However, comparing history to a dream, whether inevitable or not, is mistaken. The ‘nightmare’ of ‘power’ and ‘conflict’ in history is ignored. How historical ‘agents’ actively struggle through conflict to produce and reproduce social relations is not convincingly addressed by viewing history as a ‘dream’. History can be understood as a struggle or conflict over power. The interpretive frameworks associated with historical materialism provide a partially convincing understanding of the dynamics of history. How relationships of power are formed through the inter-play of ‘agency’ and ‘structure’. In particular, primacy is given to the ‘mode of production’ i.e. the particular way a given society structures access to productive forces.

9 A range of ‘class-structures’ can exist on any given ‘productive-force’. Historical analysis should be focused on how particular ‘relations of production’ are constituted through ‘historical agents’ within various class-networks; these networks are characterised by conflict. Brenner, for instance, argues that historical change occurs through specific forms of ‘class-conflict’.

10 For example, the post-Black Death decrease in population cannot be taken as an independent variable in explaining the end of villeinage since similar population trends led to a consolidation of manorialism in seventeenth-century Bohemia. Historical actors, in this case the ‘peasantry’ should not be understood as ‘passive’ but as having ‘agency’ as producing, contesting and adapting social relations.

11 Redclift and Goodman have deployed the concepts of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ subsumption of labour to show how ‘capital’ can take control over the ‘means of production’ in various ways; the Western European capitalist model is not a result of economic logic but of particular forms of struggle.

12 Change was ‘struggled’ over; relations of power were contested by subordinate groups; these unequal relations of domination and the conflict arising from them signify the ‘nightmare’ of history. Historical materialism allows for the historicisation of social relationships and focuses attention on some ‘subaltern groups’. It ultimately suggests that issues of ‘power’ and ‘conflict’ underpin history: making it more of a ‘nightmare’ than a ‘dream’.

However, historical materialism does not provide an adequate account of how social-relations are historically produced and reproduced. It shows only a limited set of power-relations; it illuminates only one ‘nightmare’. Post-structuralist notions of ‘language’ have challenged the realist Marxian categories of ‘class’. Language is neither transparent nor objective, but constitutive of social relations. The relationship between ‘signified’ and ‘signifier’ is arbitrary and constructed within a ‘self-referential’ and ‘unstable’ system. Meaning is generated through a discursive configuration of ‘sign’, ‘signified’ and ‘signifier’. Discourse, in this sense, is how social reality and processes are ‘organised’ and imbued with ‘meaning’. Foucault argued that during the eighteenth century new epistemic systems or discourses emerged producing ‘modern’ notions of ‘self’. Disciplines and institutions arising from demography, medicine and pedagogy formed ‘technologies of sex’ to discipline, shape and regulate bodies in the interest of a ‘power’.

13 In this respect, power can be understood as discursive, history is not a ‘dream’ but a shifting, chaotic nightmare in which relationships of power make a mockery out of history as a dream.

Post-structuralism has provided a powerful critique of relationships of domination and has de-stabilised categories of ‘gender’, ‘race’ and ‘class’. For instance, Scott’s twin definition of ‘gender (as) a constitute element of social relationships’ and a ‘primary way of signifying relationships of power’ suggests ways in which social relations are constituted by discourse of ‘cultural knowledge’.

14 The post-structural focus on language allows the ‘nightmares’ of formerly marginalised social groups to be understood. How power operates discursively to define and exclude social groups belies simplistic notions that ‘awaking from the nightmare’ is unproblematic. A number of studies drawing on post-structuralism have shown how such supposedly ‘objectivity’ disciplines as ‘science’ are discursively constructed around gendered categories.

15 Similarly, post-structuralism has been useful in comparative studies of nationalism and state-formation showing the construction of ‘gender’ and the marginalisation of ‘women’.

16 A number of more specific studies, both European and non-European, have pointed to how categories of ‘gender’ and ‘race’ are deployed to mobilize or sanction nationalist movements.

17 In this respect, movements and disciplines that have often been understood as progressive or humanitarian are constructed on relations of power; concealing ‘nightmares’ under the mask of ‘objectivity’ or ‘progress’. Post-structuralism shows the enormity of the ‘nightmare’ but in acting as a social-critique interrupts the ‘nightmare’. Historical relations of power and conflict or the ‘nightmares of history’ can, thus, be made explicit.

Post-structural can be criticized for failing to provide any basis upon which to ‘wake’ up from the ‘nightmare’. Fraser, for instance, argues that Foucault notion of ‘discourse’ gives no basis from which to understand how power-relations are constructed to subordinate certain groups while privileging others.

18 Post-structuralism tends towards a discursive reductionism. In particular, the historical agent is marginalised or rejected as a pre-discursive ontological category. Historical ‘nightmares’ or relations of power are more usefully understood as negotiated or struggled with by historical actors; it is this struggle that creates and contests power-relations. Bakhtin offers an insightful way of theorising ‘agency’ in relation to ‘discourse’: ‘the word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his (or her) own intention, his (or her) own accent, when he (or she) appropriates the word, adapting it to his (or her) own semantic and expressive intention’.

19 Bakhtin notion of ‘dialogically’, in particular, how language is appropriate and used by ‘actors’ in specific contexts is adopted by a number of historians and political commentators. For instance, Anna Clark, in an analysis of nineteenth century labour-relations, conceives ‘power’ as in a constant flux owing to the ‘agency’ or ‘dialogue’ of historical actors with ‘discourse’.

20 Scholars, such as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, have noted how ‘language’ has to be contextualized within social locations and is relative to the power of its speakers.

21 Theoretical models such as Archer’s ‘morphogenetic cycle’ or ‘Critical Discourse Analysis’, frequently associated with N. Fairclough, provide avenues in which ‘agency’, ‘structure’ and ‘discourse’ can be theorised.

22 Recent research by Anna Kane on ‘experience’ of Irish peasants during the ‘Land War’ seems to draw on these paradigms, noting how construction of ‘meaning’ by reflexive agents leads to particular forms of ‘social action’.

23 Thus, the ‘nightmare’ of history has to be understood as occurring through inter-relationships between ‘structure’, ‘discourse’ and ‘agency’; it is through the ‘agency’ of ‘historical actors’ that the potential to make the bed more comfortable lies.

Thus, history can be understood as a ‘dream’, as conflict free, as harmonious, as inevitably drifting towards some political or economic ‘end-point’, such as ‘communism’ or ‘liberal democracy’. However, this is to ignore the nature and dynamic of history. History is defined by ‘conflict’, by the construction of relationships of power and domination: this is the ‘nightmare’ of history. Historical paradigms that allow for the theorisation of conflict without teleology, reductionism or determinism have been drawn on. It seems that relationships of power are usefully understood as relationships between the ‘structural’, ‘discursive’ and ‘agency’ of actors. Any ‘end-point’ in history is rejected, in this sense, ‘awaking’ from history is not possible. The ‘nightmare’ of history shows that historical agents through struggle can adopt, entrench or resist relations of power. It is through the ‘agency’ of actors in mediating ‘discursive’ and ‘structural’ relations that the ‘nightmare’ of history continues. In this respect, pessimists might suggest that ‘history’ is more of a ‘coma’ than a ‘nightmare’; but people in ‘comas’ are passive; history is about struggle.

1 Power is a vague concept and has been variously related to the ‘state’, ‘productive forces’, ‘relations of production’ and ‘discourse’. It will be argued that ‘power’ has to be understood as an inter-relationship between ‘structure’ (relations of production) and ‘discourse’ mediated through the agency of historical actors. This approach is an approach advocated by political commentators associated with ‘Critical Discourse Analysis’. See R. Wodak and Michael Meyer, Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (2001); J. Joseph and J.M. Roberts (eds) Realism, Discourse and Deconstruction (Routledge, London, 2004); Norman, Fairclough, Analysing Discourse; L. Chouliaraki and N. Fairclough, Discourse in Late Modernity

2 In particular, see Bonnie G. Smith,. The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1998; B. Hooks, Ain’t I a woman : black women and feminism (London : Pluto Press, 1982).Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, ‘African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 17 (1992), no. 2 p 251-274; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, ‘Beyond the Sound of Silence: Afro-American Women in History’ Gender and History 1 (1989) p, 50-67; Reddock, Rhoda. ” Women and Slavery in the Caribbean: A Feminist Perspective”, Latin American Perspectives, vol. 12, no.1 (1985), pp. 63-80; Verene Shepherd, Bridget Brereton and Barbara Bailey eds, Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective (London, etc., J. Currey, etc., 1995)

3 Comte is perhaps the most renowned positivist in his Course of Positive Philosophy a three stage mode of human evolution or history is adumbrated; theological-military; metaphysical-legalistic and the scientific-industrial

4 G.A.Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford, 1978)

5 Both Elster and Giddens have argued that ‘functionalism’ is redundant in the analysis of ‘social-science’. However, even if ‘functionalism’ is given legitimacy, ‘productive-force’ determinism does not convincingly show how the productive relations determine the relations of production. A. Giddens, A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism (London, 1981) pp. 17, 215. J. Elster, Ulysses and the Sirens (Cambridge, 1962) pp. 19-84

6 Fukuyama has been heavily and rightfully criticised from a number of angles. Alex Callincos, in particular, has attacked Fukuyama’s model from within a Marxist perspective. Anthony Giddens has argued that Fukuyama model is not underpinned by a convincing theorisation of ‘modernity’. More generally Fukuyama does not define ‘liberalism’ or ‘democracy’, both vague concepts, and their relationship to one another. Alex Callinicos, The Revenge of History: Marxism and East European Revolutions (Cambrdige: Polity Press, 1991): Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990).

7 R. Mousnier, Peasant uprisings in seventeenth-century France, Russia and China, (London, Allen and Unwin, 1971); G. Fourquin Lord ship and Feudalism in the Middle Ages (1976)

8 E. DeWindt, Land and People in Holywell-cum-Needingworth. (Toronto, 1973), p. 242-250. see also S. Olson, A Chronicle of All That Happens: Voices from the Village Court in Medieval England (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1996) For a general critique of the Toronto school see Zvi Razi, The Toronto School’s Reconstitution of Medieval Peasant Society: A Critical View, Past and Present, No. 85 (Nov., 199) 141-15. For a specific critique of DeWindt argument on ‘pledging’ and how these represents asymmetrical and conflictual relations of power see Martin Pimsler, “Solidarity in the Medieval Village? Personal Pledging at Elton, Huntingdonshire’ Journal of British Studies, XVII (1977), 1-11. Richard M. Smith, “Kin and Neighbors in a Thirteenth Century Suffolk Community” Journal of Family History, IV (1979), 219-246; Richard M. Smith “Modernisation and the Corporate Medieval Village Community: Some Sceptical Reflections” in Alan R.H. Baker and D. Gregory (eds), Explorations in Historical Geography: Interpretive Essays (Cambridge, 1984), 140-245

9 The use of ‘mode of production’ should be distinguished from ‘economic determinism’. Mode of production analysis shows a concern to identify particular forms of deploying social labour and organization around ‘productive forces’. In this sense, politics and ideology are not reflections of an economic ‘base’ but are specific and embedded within a set of ‘strategic relationships’ which organise productive relations. The concept, in this sense, is one variant of an eclectic Marxian system of thought. A good introduction and a spirited critique of ‘economic’ determinism can be found in S.H.Rigby, Marxism and history (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1998). More empirically: E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawn and George Rude, E. R. Wolf, have found the class-analysis of historical materialism useful. E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (London : Merlin Press, 1991); E. Hobsbawn, Bandits (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1969); G. Rude, The Crowd in the French Revolution, (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1959); E. R. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (University of California Press, London, first published 1982) . For more ‘structuralist’ interpretations see L. Althusser and E. Balibar, Reading Capital (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970) and M. Godelier ‘Dead Sections and Living Ideas in Marx’s Thinking on Primitive Society’ in M. Godelier, (ed) Perspectives in Marxist Anthropology’ (Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology, No. 18. Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 99-124 . A more recent interpretation of Marxist theory can be found in B. Jessop, State theory : putting the Capitalist state in its place (Cambridge, U.K. : Polity Press, 1990)

10 Brenner thesis is used to illustrate a point and is not uncritically accepted. It is also acknowledged that this is part of contentious dispute labelled the ‘Brenner Debate’. A few difficulties with Brenners scholarship relates to its failure to confront recent developments, such as the recognition that industrialisation was a slow and regional affair, rather than a nation-wide phenomenon. Robert Brenner, Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe, Past and Present, No. 70. (Feb., 1976), pp. 30-75. T.H. Aston and C.H.E. Philpin The Brenner Debate: Agrarin Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe, (Cambridge: Embridge University Press, 1985); B.J.P. van Bavel, Land Lease and Agriculture: the Transition of the Rural Economy in the Dutch River Area from the fourteenth to the sixteenth Century, Past and Present, No. 172 (2001)p. 3-43;

11 Jessop, provides a good illustration of the flexibility of ‘materialism’. Structures do not determine outcomes; agents are not simply ‘bearers’ of structures. Rather, the relationship is dialectical: structures constrain and facilitate agents whose actions constitute and reconstitute the structures. B. Jessop, The future of the capitalist state, (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2002)

12 Formal subsumption involves the extraction of absolute surplus value, real subsumption the extraction of relative surplus-value. In this respect, capital can achieve control over production without directly expropriating the forces or means of production. One implication of this is to modify Marxist theories of differentiation that emphasis the two-tier polarization of capitalist rural relations. M Redclift & D. Goodman, From peasant to proletarian: capitalist development and agrarian transitions (Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1981). For an alternative and convincing state-centred explanation of agrarian change see G. Hart, A. Turton, B. White, Agrarian Transformations, Local Processes and the State in Southeast Asia (University of California Press, Oxford, 1989)

13 Foucault describes power as a ‘multiplicity of force relations’, as ‘both intentional and non-subjective’ and as a ‘moving substrate’. In short, power is understood as diffused through social-relationships cementing inter-personal relationship of power. Foucault, The history of sexuality (London : Penguin, 1987) p. 1:92, p. 1:94, p. 1: 93

14 J.W. Scott, Gender and the politics of history, (New York : Columbia University Press, 1999) p, 42

15 Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science (Cambridge, Mass, 1989); Ludmilla Jordanova, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Madison, Wisc., 1989); T. Laquear, Making Sex (Cambridge, Mass., 1990); Regina Morantz-Sanchez, ‘Feminist Theory and Historical Practice: Rereading Elizabeth Blackwell’ in History and Theory, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec., 1992) pp. 51-69; Andrea Nye, Words of Power: A Feminist reading in the History of Logic (London, 1990); Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter (eds) Feminist Epistemologies (New York, 1993); Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York, 1989)

16 I. Blom, K. Hagemann & C. Hall, (ed) Gendered nations: nationalisms and gender order in the long nineteenth century (Oxford, Berg, 2000); N. Yuval-Davis. Gender and nation (London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif. : Sage Publications, 1997); A. McClintock, A. Mufti, and E. Shohat, (ed) Dangerous liaisons : gender, nation, and postcolonial perspectives (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c1997); C. Hall, Defining the Victorian nation : class, race, gender and the British Reform Act of 1867 (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000); R. R. Pierson and N. Chaudhuri – with the assistance of Beth McAuley – (ed). Nation, empire, colony : historicizing gender and race (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c1998); Nira Yuval-Davis and Pnina Werbner, Women, citizenship and difference (London : Zed, 1999)

17 Enloe, in particular, notes how ‘gender’ is used to mobilize for military activity. C. Enloe, Bananas, beaches and bases: making feminist sense of international politics (London, Pandora, 1989): C. Enloe Maneuvers : the international politics of militarizing women’s lives (Berkeley, CA : University of California Press, 2000);

18 Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (Minneapolis, 1989) 17-34. See also Lynn Hunt, ‘Foucault’s Subject in the History of Sexuality’ in D. Stanton (ed)., Discourses of sexuality: from Aristotle to AIDS (Ann Arbor, Michigan U.P., 1992) pp. 78-93.

19 M.Bakhtin, ( translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist.) The dialogic imagination : four essays (Austin : University of Texas Press, 1981) 293-4

20 A. Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the making of the English Working Class, (London, Rivers Oram Press, 1995). Sonya Rose et al., ‘Dialogue; women’s history/gender history: is Feminist history losing its critical edge? Journal of Women’s history,5/1 (1993) p. 108.

21 Smith Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (Oxford, 1985) p. 43-44;

22 Critical Discourse Analysis is an eclectic movement but has the general goal of investigating critically social inequality as it is expressed, signalled, constituted, legitimized and so on by language use. Good introductions are R. Wodak and Michael Meyer, Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (2001); J. Joseph and J.M. Roberts (eds) Realism, Discourse and Deconstruction (Routledge, London, 2004); Norman, Fairclough, Analysing Discourse; L. Chouliaraki and N. Fairclough, Discourse in Late Modernity

23 A. Kane, Reconstructing Culture in Historical Explanation: Narratives as Cultural Structure and Practice, History and Theory, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Oct., 2000) 311-330

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Is History a Nightmare. (2017, Jul 22). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/is-history-a-nightmare-435/

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