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Reverting to longue duree

Renewing the connection between past and future

Reverting to longue duree

David Armitage’s new book The History Manifesto that he co-authored with Jo Guldi, a historian from Brown University, is making waves among the circle of historians.

Armitage is a Cambridge trained historian, who holds PhD in English literature, and currently heads the history faculty at Harvard. His book, Ideological Foundations of the British Empire, shot him to fame as a historian and he hasn’t looked back ever since the publication of that book.

A slim volume of 165 pages, published by Cambridge University Press, The History Manifesto calls for the restoration of longue duree form of history — thus revivifying the tradition of Fernand Braudel, one of the great historians of the 20th century.

The expression of longue duree is generally associated with the French Annales School of historical writing to designate their approach to the study of history, which prioritises ‘long term historical structures’ over what Francois Simiand calls ‘evental history’.

The latter form of history is believed to be the domain of a chronicler or a journalist because it deals with the short-term time-scale.

Longue duree, on the other hand, rivets its attention on “all-but-permanent or slowly evolving structures”, an approach pioneered by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre between 1920s and 1930s, but it saw its culmination in Braudel’s epoch-making work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.

The ambition of Braudel was “to find the relationship between agency and environment over the longue duree”. Importantly, for him the longue duree was one among a hierarchy of intersecting but not exclusive temporalities that structured all human history. He has put down the time-scales in the preface of his magnum opus, The Mediterranean…, which is almost an unmoving one of humans in their physical environment, a gently paced, the story of states, societies and civilisations and a more traditional history of event, those brief, rapid, nervous oscillations.

Having said that, it was not the sole preserve of the French Annalistes to underscore the efficacies of longue duree approach to history.

The globe-spanning universal histories associated with German historian Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West or the inimitable British theorist-historian Arnold Toynbee’s The Study of History employed telescope rather than microscope as the preferred instrument of investigation. Will and Ariel Durant’s voluminous Story of Civilization exemplifies the same sort of history despite its questionable authenticity and methodology.

The problem with these works of immense scholarship is that they tended to draw and deduce laws, governing civilisations and cultures, that made these studies far too generalised in their respective sweeps. These works offered a contrast to the archive-based history that came in vogue by the last decades of the 19th century through Lord Acton and the historians of his ilk.

For Braudel, Leopold Von Ranke, Jules Michelet and Jacob Burckhardt were scholars to emulate. However, Armitage, though not subscribing to the practice of deducing (universal) laws governing civilisations, underscores the importance of generalities for historians. As he beacons, without abandoning tight focus, because biographies and micro history have continuing popularity and sustained utility, the broad panoramas of space and time must be supplemented. The various terms are now in wide currency, like ‘world history’, ‘deep history’ and ‘big history’ etc.

Indeed, he argues, “Historians learn how to argue about these changes by means of narrative, how to join explanation with understanding, how to combine the study of the particular, the specific and the unique with the desire to find patterns, structure and regularities”, thus joining what neo-Kantian philosopher, Wilhelm Windelband, calls ‘idiographic’ (tendency to specify) and ‘nomothetic’ (tendency to generalise).

The tradition of writing big/deep history was abandoned in the 1970s largely because of the changes brought about by the 1968 movement. In that era, the point at issue was the human agency which seemed to have dissipated in longue duree academic ventures. In Western Academia ‘short termism’, as Armitage called it, has been prevalent ever since. He saw such pattern of ‘short termism’ impinging upon every field in the recent era. From politicians, business firms, humanitarian bodies to NGOs, everyone has been taken hostage by short-term planning. In this ambient situation, history is left with no choice but to ape that trend.

But, then, historians were deprived of the role that they played in the past as policy advisers. As Winston Churchill once said, “The longer you can look back the further you can look forward.” But, unfortunately, since the long-standing tradition of going to the big and deeper context was lost to historians, they became irrelevant to policymakers.

Now the revivification of a longue duree approach may bring historians back into business of policy formulation, particularly when the world is facing the horrors of environment degradation and climate change.

The sword of history, says Armitage, has two edges, “one that cuts open new possibilities in the future, and one that cuts through the noise, contradictions, and the lies of the past”.

Thus, renewing the connection between past and future, and using the past to think critically about what is to come in future, are the necessary tools.

The author in his book recommends three modes of thinking: it looks at the process that take a long time to unfold; it engages false myths about the future and talks about where the data come from; and it also looks to “many different kinds and sources of data for multiple perspectives on how past and future were and may yet be experienced by a variety of actors”.

All said and done, because of its contents and analytical profundity, this book is a must read for the serious students of history.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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