Monday, August 15, 2005

Narrative Reproduction

Once again, I'll refer to one of Stirling's posts, not only because I feel he is one of the more thoughtful, visionary writers on the web, but because this post resonates with issues I was working on in my dissertation. Perhaps as a reaction to the general trend in most academic historical writing, where one is asked (and asked and asked) to focus on a particular period (What is your period?), and it is generally assumed that the events of one age do not have a lasting impact on those that follow, at least not lasting beyond a given period of time, my primary concern (really since I started studying Chinese) has been to explore how the past, even the ancient past, has a profound influence on the present. Such an approach often meets with typical reactions:

How can you study such a long period of time? It was a different world. This is an assumption. Is it a given that an age is an enclosed temporal entity, just like a state is a spatial one? Is there nothing that flows across borders, that isn't restricted by time and space?

Yes, that might be true for the 2nd century, but you are talking about the twentieth. This is really the same assumption. It is as if there is some immense, inpenetrable barrier between some fixed point in the past (2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th century, when?) and where we are now. However, that point changes depending on who you are and what you have studied.

I have encountered this argument repeatedly, by people who only study ancient China and by people who only study contemporary China. I guess people want to view what they study as unique. It is also a reaction against the timeless China way of expression. "It has always been thus."

Certainly there is something to be gained by observing shorter periods--100 years, 10 years, even 1 year. Wow! To really get to the heart of what occurred in 1260. That would be a project. It might become one. But where would you begin? Could you fully appreciate 1260 without knowledge of what came before and what followed?

There are also those who are so absorbed in the contemporary world that they seal themselves off from everything that came before. For instance, I heard one anthropologist say she was mainly interested in the contemporary situation as it is emerging. But when did the contemporary world begin?


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