Oct 12, 2018

history is contingency

In the early 2000s, I was in graduate school for the first time around, in the History department at UCLA. During a holiday break, one of my very smart relatives asked me point-blank: “Are you folks still trying to find out, you know, what happened?”

Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. Because “what happened” is never just one story or account, and any one story is inevitably shaped by generational concerns. And stories are foregrounded and suppressed for all kinds of reasons. To misquote Proust: the historian’s job in the 21st century is sometimes about finding new material in archives; it’s more often about having new eyes for what’s already there.

But the bigger gift in being a student of history is this: You look deeply enough into the past to understand that things could have been otherwise. That no matter how ineluctable a series of events will seem in retrospect, they were absolutely contingent, dependent on all kinds of forces that include pure chance. If you’re paying attention and have good historian mentors, you start to know this in your bones. Things could have been otherwise! The world turns so surprisingly, even casually, on circumstances that could have been utterly different. And when you understand that, then you read and interpret and organize and act with that same contingency in mind for your own day.