Origins of Presentism, review by William Anthony Hay
Our Shadowed Present: Modernism, Postmodernism, and History, by J.C.D. Clark, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004. 336 pp.
HISTORY RETAINS A PROFOUND HOLD on the human imagination as individuals and societies alike define themselves by coming to terms with their past. Today, however, a general shift in assumptions about the role of the past in the developed world has changed the relationship of cultures with their history. Events are now located only in the present tense. Having lost touch with a history that provided meaning, Western societies now grapple confusedly with questions of identity.
Jonathan Clark, Hall Distinguished Professor of British History, University of Kansas, calls our pervasive abandonment of history presentism. Whether “at the high level of theory or at the low level of assumptions that seep into every intellectual exchange,” presentism has a profound social impact. Contemporary problems often have deep historical roots, and understanding historical context is vital for developing realistic solutions. Clark outlines an important trend in scholarship from Eric Hobsbawm’s Invention of Tradition (1983) through Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging a Nation (1992) that presses the view that elites typically construct identities to serve political agendas. Constructed identities therefore can be revised to serve other projects, and Colley–who describes herself as European by choice and transatlantic in lifestyle–calls for a substantial rethinking of what it means to be British. Clark argues that such a political use of history either cobbles together a bogus past to justify a current agenda or deliberately mutes profound differences that subsequently emerge in especially virulent forms. “Doctrines that deny the past do not make it go away.” Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia both demonstrate that historians who play at politics with historical identities play with fire.