- Time, Forward!
The first issue of Ab Imperio (AI) in 2015 opens with a Russian translation of the introduction and first chapter of The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Over the four quarterly issues in 2015, the entire book will be published in Russian in the “Methodology and Theory” section of the journal. In the editors’ view, this is the most straightforward introduction to the annual theme of Ab Imperio: “Does the Past Have a Future?”1 Amid the global crisis of the politics of the future and Russia’s increasing surrender to the grotesquely reenacted past, historians have the special mission of providing new models of thinking about the future.
This idea is central to the book by Armitage and Guldi, and it is useful to think along their lines even if one does not necessarily agree with their argument on all counts. Specifically, in the material published in this issue, it seems that the authors place too much hope in the very format of longue durée historical inquiry. Blaming the reaction to a Braudelian type of history-telling (first of all, the turn toward microhistory) for the rise of what they call “short-termism” as the dominant mode of social thinking, Armitage and Guldi forget that the primary target of criticism was not the longtime scope per se, but the rigid structuralism of Fernand Braudel’s version of total history. Microhistory revolted against a teleological perception of the historical process as largely predetermined by fundamental structural preconditions, [End Page 15] and was accompanied by a linguistic turn and an anthropological turn (to mention just the most important innovations in history-writing of the late 1970s and 1980s). The method of longue durée was by no means confined to a wide chronological scope, nor would a return to “long” histories by itself provide a viable alternative to “short-termism.” This can be vividly seen in the case of post-Soviet historiographies, where “long-termism” in the form of the romantic and positivist national history of the pre-Annales type (tracing the rise of the nation or the national state from ancient times to the present) still persists. Narratives of national histories spanning many centuries can be easily telescoped down to the literally timeless continuity of territory, statehood, and body of the nation. This version of long-termism combines structuralist assumptions about the historical process (not alien to Braudel) with a reactionary (anti-Braudelian) view of the main actors of that process: instead of the interplay of long-term structures and spontaneous conjunctures, nationalist history is driven by predestined collective bodies with shared subjectivities.
Historiographic methodological innovations of the past decades strove to find and reinsert human agency, and thus, besides revising longue durée history-writing, contributed to further critique of abstract and groupist national history narratives. Methodological innovations in the post-Soviet region combined the import of the critique of structuralist social history and the introduction of microhistory, the history of everyday experience, and cultural history with new ways of writing the history of hybrid social and political spaces, something that was called “New Imperial History” in the pages of this journal. Thus, a critical and comparative reading of The History Manifesto is as emancipating as it is thought-provoking: by revisiting the grand historiographic fashions of the past, it opens up new venues for the future of history-writing.
One important conclusion that can be drawn from reading Guldi and Armitage is that the return of the longue durée history narratives requires painstaking work on deconstructing and deessentializing the analytical language used to construct these narratives. No actor or structure can remain the same, even in name, from the start to the end of the story (something that Braudel did not really understand). Begriffsgeschichte – another contribution of post-Braudelian historiography – is sine qua non for any long-term history-telling. The “History” section of this issue illustrates the importance of this by featuring the forum “The Past and Future of the Promised Land: Lithuania, from a Historical Region to a National Territory.” Three thematically connected articles...