The politics of history… J G A Pocock

I’ve been reading J G A Pocock, a New Zealander with an international reputation in the world of humanities. Initially a professor of political science at Canterbury University in the 1960s, he has become a leading scholar on the history of Western political thought, particularly of the 17th and 18th centuries. He is now Emeritus Professor at John Hopkins University, being for many years a highly regarded teacher there. From a distance he has made a number of forays into New Zealand history, or rather, has commented at some length on its historiography. This includes a number of fascinating book reviews of leading New Zealand history publications. View these at London Review of Books archive link (part only available, and some interesting letters to editor included at the bottom).

Some select quotations from his 1998 article, ‘The politics of history: the subaltern and the subversive’, reproduced in Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp 239-256:

“There is a kind of history, of great though not exclusive signficance, which is the creation of a political society that is autonomous, in the sense that it takes decisions and performs actions with the intention and effect of determining its character and the conditions under which it exists. That history is both the record of those decisions and actions (here the society both makes its history and narrates it) and the narrative and myth of how the society is said to have come into being and acquired the capacity for autonomy in the sense just stated. Together, they form what I shall term the ‘constructed history’ of the society. This construct will, of course, be the work of the dominant members of the society. But in so far as some of them are equals of others, it will record contests and come itself to be contested between the antagonist equals. And it is possible that it will record the resolution of these contests and come to be the narrative of a state of affairs in which equals rule and are ruled by one another…

“… ‘Subaltern’ is, I believe, a term derived from Gramsci, used to denote the culturally subordinate and, in particular, those having no identity except that which they can derive from the fact of their subordination. ‘Subversion’ is a strategy in which they and others may engage. We have been thinking of history as a means to the creation of identity. But it is possible that the Self cannot be created without the simultaneous invention of Others, whose history is that of the creation of the Self, but who have no part in it. Since this is an ideal type or pure case, it is hard even to imagine, and harder still to discover, as we travel in space or time, in unmitigated reality, though we shall find many cases of which it is close enough to being descriptive to make its employment urgently necessary…

“… Interesting historiographic situations now arise. Such a ruling free people will possess a history of itself as free; it will be an internal history, narrating the interactions between members of the society that make it a free political system, as well as of its attainment of sovereignty over itself that is no less necessary to its freedom. In either of these narratives, its rule over subject peoples, whose history is not the history of its freedom, will appear contingent and occasional rather than necessary. This is how the history of Britain has come to be the history of England, in which that of a non-entity called ‘the Celtic Fringe’ puts in an occasional and unnecessary appearance. But the internal history – the history in this case of England – is valid as far as it goes, and to that extent it will not be possible for the histories of the subject peoples, as they come to be constructed and written, to subvert and unmake it. It has been both enacted and written, and cannot be written out of the record. The ruling free people has to be persuaded that there is a history of its rule, which it may not know or want to know, as well as of its freedom, which it does know and wants to go on affirming. It is not necessary to persuade it, because it is not true, that the former history is the absolute subversion and negation of the latter; but what the relation between the two histories is remains to be debated, and the debate entails the self-constructed history of the ruled as well as the rulers…

I want now to consider this problematic in a particular context, that of ‘post-colonial’ politics, in which I shall suppose the presence of a free and formerly ruling people, with a history of its own, and of a people till recently subject to political and cultural domination, now asserting the autonomy necessary to resume, re-narrate and re-enact a history similarly its own…

“… Indeed, the indigenous have good grounds for regarding ‘history’ as an instrument of alien domination, since this is form in which it was proposed to and imposed upon them. European settlers came and said that agriculture, commerce and capitalism as they practised them were the means of breaking with the cosmogony of the pre-contact cultures, which they termed ‘primitive’, and entering the history of the progress of mankind. They used ‘history’ as an idealogical justification of their dispossession and disruption of indigenous cultures, though the terms on which aboriginals and tangata whenua were admitted to history, or in some cases vigorously asserted their action and autonomy within it, varied very widely from one colonial history to another.

“It is easy to say that the ejection of indigenous peoples from cosmogony and into history was effective, and that their present assertion that history has been unjust is nothing other than their means of acting within history and not cosmogony. Even revolution, were such a thing still possible, would be no more than an essentially European instrument of self-modernization on neo-European terms. Yet cosmogony remains an instrument by which modern or post-modern indigenous peoples criticize history itself even as they practise it. Europeans remember and in certain ways still practise it, and even where the indigenous are obliged to reinvest it, having lost it in the history imposed upon them, they accuse the history which has been the means, as well as the narrative, of their dispossession from it.

“The political dialogues now going on in lands of settlement where indigenous peoples are reasserting their identity and claiming autonomy are, therefore, of considerable theoretical interest, since they entail debates between histories and counter-histories. Suppose that the history of one’s society (one is tempted to say ‘one’s country’) is revealed to have been that of interaction between two peoples, each living in a history not reducible to the terms used in recounting the history of the other; so that the citizen (and with the citizen the historian) is required to live, speak and act in two non-reducible histories at once, and in the interactions between them. Can there be a politics, a citizenship, an autonomy and its history, as means to identity, in a life lived on these terms? And will its political form be that of a commonwealth or only a confederation? The problem is that of autonomy, identity and sovereignty in a multiplicity of histories – and we have to consider the possibility that these histories may be a means to their own undoing…

Barbarism and Religion - Pocock

“… These counter-histories [of Enlightenment] interpenetrate one another. As the Enlightenment history imposed upon the tangata whenua is both antagonist and protagonist in the histories they must construct of themselves, so the cosmogony of their animist past and present finds resonances in Enlightenment thought. It finds them in Rousseau, who thought of a natural innocence against which all civil society and its history were an aggression; it finds them in Herder, for whom history resided in the many self-imaginations of disparate cultures through incantation and myth. These Counter-Enlightenments, I argue, arose within what we call Enlightenment rather than from opposed sources, and they arose precisely as Enlightenment history [i.e., agriculture, commerce, capitalism] was being imposed on the tangata whenua and Enlightened minds were wondering what this meant. I am in need, then, of some narratives of what is going on in Enlightened historiography, additional rather than opposed or even alternative to that narrated by Isaiah Berlin [The Age of Enlightenment: the eighteenth-century philosophers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956)] or John Gray [Enlightenment’s Wake: politics and culture at the close of the modern age (London: Routledge, 1995); and Endgames: questions in late modern political thought (Oxford: Polity Press, 1997)]. To relate these narratives will serve various purposes as well as illuminating or complicating the matter of indigenous historiography. It will bear on the problem of the definition of Europe, and of Britain’s place in Europe. It will bear out, and put into practice, my contention that historiography consists in the multiplication of narratives, between which there may exist a variety of relationships, many of them political. And it will lead back to the problems of living in a world where one finds oneself involved in a plurality of histories, each one of them potentially the means of defining a sovereignty, and yet both sovereignty and history are widely regarded as marked out for demolition.” [article ends]

My thoughts:

Pocock highlights some fundamental problems in constructing history or histories in a post-colonial environment. First, that history is itself a political activity, in that histories often serve the purpose of explaining the origins and nature of political societies. Second, that a political society that has imposed itself on another will, at the same time, have imposed its history – a history that both legitimates the former’s existence, but also serves to legitimate the imposition by recourse to categories that are understood to explain a universal history of human progress, viz., in the case of Western European colonialism/imperialism, such categories as agriculture and capitalism, and in particular individual property and the democratic liberal franchise (or perhaps, colonial ‘self-government’). Third, the imposition of that history in the course of carrying out the colonial project, thus rendering the histories of the subject people as ‘subaltern’ or subjugated, means that it may be difficult today to recover or reconstruct a history of the subjugated peoples that does not also utilise the modes and idealogies of the colonizer – perhaps, for example, in the use of the language of political liberties or rights including the right to participate fully in the colonial polity.

Yet, Pocock seeks to problematize the binaries of this picture – colonized/colonizer, western/eastern – by indicating that Western histories are themselves the product of contest and even the melding of different modes of thought: Europeans themselves still possessed older ‘cosmogonies’ and folk traditions that have survived the supposedly imperious and subjugating march of modernity. The biography of Britain’s great Liberal politician, William E Gladstone, is one reminder how ‘liberal’ sentiment could entirely coexist with a Christian moral lens. This accords with what Chris Bayly argued in his seminal global history The Birth of the Modern World (2004), that in many ways the growth of organised religion and religious sentiment and ideas, were more formative of the 19th century world than the idealogies of free trade or democracy.

So we need to problematize even the idea that the 19th century was ‘Enlightened’ if by that we mean the march of capitalism, science and liberal democracy. There were many enlightenments and many modernities, such that the term needs to be stripped of its essentialist baggage. And, of course, there were many and varied ways in which indigenous peoples engaged with these multiple modernities. This varied engagement must mean, then, that many and varied histories ‘happened’ or were produced through this engagement. It cannot be that we have just two histories – colonized/colonizer – but rather, as Pocock suggests, a multiplicity of histories. In Aotearoa is it clear than different tribes/iwi/hapu engaged with British imperialism and colonialism in varied ways, along a spectrum ranging from outright rejection to outright embrace. The task is to discover the internal cultural logics that explain these varied responses, in such a way that the significance of tribal discourse and cosmogonies are maintained but without marginalising the displacements that took place through encounter with European Others. The other task is to explore the multiple meanings of colonialism to those that lived or enacted it, in the context of many texts and histories that suggest different or even conflicting meanings.


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