You Have To Care About History


A human being is an historical organism. I may have emerged in October of 1969, but I wasn’t born a fresh slate. On the contrary, I came out amidst a narrative already in progress, enmeshed in a network that exceeds and defines me: boy, Jew, New Yorker, youngest sibling, child, middle class, and so on. My story was already being told, necessarily. 

I then assume my place within this historical tale and tweak it from within. But part of that process is defining and redefining my story. And this story comes from not just from things that happen to me but from tales I am told. 

For instance, my father died when he was around 65. I don’t really know because I didn’t know him having not seen him since I was five. I am told his father died quite young, in his 50s. So now I see myself as the continuation of series of men who die relatively young and so, not surprisingly, I assume I will die relatively young.

Which is to say, as we are temporal beings who traverse time, I am always imagining and reimagining my trajectory that begins with things I cannot possibly know for myself — the life of my ancestors. I see images of persecuted Jews making their way to America and somehow imagine that I am heir to both suffering and strength, fear and fortitude. It’s odd, perhaps, but such is human life: we tell ourselves tales, write and rewrite our stories that necessarily extend forwards and backwards through time.

Knowledge is fundamentally historical. When we say things like You can catch a cold from someone sneezing on you, we are a mouthpiece of history. After all, that’s not necessarily something you know first hand. My guess is plenty of people have sneezed on you without you ever getting sick. Knowledge speaks through us, insinuates itself into our very understanding of what it means to be alive, to have this or that genitalia, nose, hair, mole, sickness. It’s how we know of seasons and comets and the orbits of planets. History streams through us, carries us along, just as we are history, making it with every gesture. 

It’s not that history is the source of answers. The cliché that we must know history in order not to repeat its mistakes is nonsense. Time is change; history is change. What was relevant then is not relevant now. What LBJ could do is different than what BHO can do (I read that in The New Yorker!). It’s a different world. 

The relevance of knowing our history lies not in its answers but in its narrative possibilities. I read, hear, see things from the past and I make connections to my world now, how we got here, where we’re headed. For instance, a friend of mine is making a documentary on the history of the network. Listening to these historians, I suddenly see that digital culture is not a radical break; it’s merely an acceleration of capitalism. NASDAQ is shipping trade routes exponentially accelerated. Is this true? I don’t know. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant. What matters is that I can rewrite the narrative and how I imagine my world and my place in it.  

I remember when I first read Foucault’s History of Sex. My entire understanding of my world and my will to sex shifted dramatically. Repression shmepression, says Foucault. During the so-called age of repression, we talked about sex all the more! Suddenly, I didn’t see a need to free my sexuality precisely because it had never been repressed. 

The computational network has not as much ushered in the end of history as it has become a live history engine. The web is a read-write machine, always recording our actions — our tweets, likes, blogs, comments, emails — and always being written over, written to, rewritten. The net is not the end of history; it’s the end of linear history. Now we are in the process of relentlessly recording and rewriting our narratives, every blog post another node, another record, history happening now.