The contemporary moment is bleak. Climate catastrophe is not far away, Amazon warehouse workers were defeated in even the smallest concession of unionism—and unionism is a small concession. The ascension of the super wealthy to complete control seems inevitable.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union (and indeed before) capital presents itself as ahistorical: an inevitable and natural state of being in which history is largely exorcised. It is the pinnacle, and it is forever. This logic of the market, in which the point of sale becomes the temporal moment par excellence, expands to the system as a whole. The possibility that something could exist outside this mode is presented as either laughable and/or actively destroyed. Alternative models, or mere proposals, for organising social life and its economy are derided and actively dismantled.
Yet, in amongst the bleakness, there are always glimmers of hope, or perhaps more accurately there are schisms and tremors that re-historicise the present through a new lens. Moments that bring the present and the past into critical dialogue.
In the destruction and reappropriation of colonial statues we find such a moment. As both an articulation of resistance to historic and contemporary power relations and as the manifestation of social movements like BLM for racial justice, such collective action serves to not only challenge the historical narratives upon which current power structures reside but also serve to create new monuments for the future to come. They show us a new way to do history.
If we accept the assertion of Ursula K Le Guin that we ‘live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings’ then history itself becomes a site of resistance to the capitalist project.
History has the potential to challenge capitalism in three distinct ways. Firstly, it reveals that capitalism is contingent, that other forms of organising society have existed before (and therefore could exist again). Secondly, it provides counter narratives and stories to the march of market triumphalism—stories that reveal the violent, disposesseive foundations of capitalism; stories of slavery and gold, enclosures and starvation. Thirdly, it problematises the very temporality that capitalism espouses: on a micro level, the immediate and instantaneous nature of market transactions; and on a macro level, the promises of now and the ever-glistening future.
The point, then, is to contextualise capital, to historicise it, and in doing so to suggest that there is nothing inherently natural about its ascendency, and nothing inevitable about either its continuation or demise.
In the Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin critiqued this march to an imagined brighter future and the role history plays in such an imagining. It was one of Benjamin’s final works, written in 1940, shortly before his suicide in the Pyrenees, when attempts to flee France from Nazism seemed doomed.
These twenty short paragraphs offer Benjamin’s ultimate critique of historicism and the idea of historical progress. According to Benjamin biographer Esther Leslie, the Theses are Benjamin’s ‘reckoning with Social Democracy, Stalinism and bourgeois thought, none of which were able to the prevent the disaster of fascism.’ The social-democratic idea of progress was based on the perceived unending advancement of new technologies and the steady expansion of Enlightenment ideals. Yet Benjamin also saw, in proponents of both dogmatic Marxism and National Socialism, a belief in historical progress as an unfolding of the past towards some defined future good. It was the role of history played in facilitating such visions of progress, rather than opposing them, which Benjamin reviled.
With whom do the adherents to historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitably with the victor. And all the rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them. Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers … Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
(Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History)
Alongside Benjamin’s horror and disgust, he writes about an oppositional practice, too—perhaps a new, radical way to do history: ‘A historical materialist … regards it as his task to brush history against the grain’. To brush history against the grain. A materialist history must be gleaned in the stories of ‘those who are lying prostrate,’ whereby ‘historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.’
The challenge to the powerful in constructing such an alternative historical knowledge is twofold. In this first instance, retaining the memory of the dispossessed may help to recover or keep alive their revolutionary potentialities that went unrealised (or moments of resistance that were quashed) and may be activated again. And, secondly, a recovery of the unnamed undermines any notion of historical progress, the present predicated on dispossession and barbarism.
The recent destruction and reappropriation of colonial and supremacist statues brings together these two moments, the revolutionary potential of the crowd and the rejection of the victors historical narrative to create potential monuments for the future to come.
It is no surprise to find such a radical act met with the usual apologists for the present and the past. The barbarians remain at the helm, triggered seeing their great heroes doused in paint, sent into the sea or scrawled with demands for a different future. Fragile. So now we see the reaction—attempts to criminalise (further) statue defacement; to take the decisions about which statues stand and fall out of the hands of the people and into the dead halls of committees and local bureaucrats.
It is Eric Hobsbawm who reminds us that the role of history has always been to reinforce nationalism and national identity. With the growth of the power of the state over a certain territory came the need for an ideological basis for such a formation. As the state’s power over education became centralised so to did the teaching of history as this unifying force of nationalism and the nation-state. An attempt at a shared history as the thing that connects citizens and justifies the existence of this nation-state. And so it is that any such blow to this history is met by the full force of the nation-state, whose very foundation and cause for being comes into question. And so it is that we must keep pushing.
The uproar and the reaction shows the radical potential of history as an opportunity to bring together both a practical politics of reclaiming monuments and spaces and in the imagination of what has gone and what is to come.
So how then might we brush history against the grain? What does a new type of radical history look like? Benjamin might tell us that it involves three parts with infinite projects and places to start:
- The recovery and retelling of hidden or overlooked histories
- A (re)presentation of history more akin to the experience of history
- Challenging the empty time of commodity capitalism
Number one—the recovery and retelling of hidden or overlooked histories of the oppressed.
The construction of alternative knowledge and counter memory is the first strategy of Benjamin’s brushing history against the grain. In the specifically academic historiographical practice of ‘history from below’, we can see many attempts at constructing such alternative historical knowledge. Beyond the academy and all over the world, indigenous and other communities have kept alive cultural and historical memory over thousands of years, despite direct attempts, through violence and coercion, to extinguish such knowledge.
These efforts are nothing short of heroic. It is imperative that we continue to problematise grand historical narratives of progress—to tell the stories and do the work of uncovering the stories of those to whom great evil was done in the name of race, religion and profit. We must re-evaluate the historical mode by which certain evidence is prioritised and others and we must combat forgetting. We must continue to listen and to find these hidden, overlooked histories. We must tell big stories of resistance—like the Wave Hill Walk Off— but we must also dig into different scales of historical experience, of individuals and of places. To insist on telling them. This is the first strategy of Benjamin’s schema for brushing history against the grain.
Of the three prongs of Benjamin’s method, the recovery of lost histories is perhaps the most developed. In the pages of this magazine you will find a discussion (and accompanying reading list) of ‘history from below’. This important historiographical shift in the academy, which emerged in the 1960s, sought to reinsert historical subjects left out of a tradition that focused instead on the political history of nations and leaders.
In foregrounding new (read: old) historic subjects, new categories of analysis also emerged. Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many Headed Hydra and Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic are emblematic of this shift from a focus on both political leaders and nation states to transnational spaces of association and resistance. For Rediker, history must ‘tell a big story within a little story. In his work ‘the big story has always been the violent, terror-led rise of capitalism and the many-sided resistance to it from below.’ The turn towards the little story has also tended to give credence to local history as well.
In their recent historical research into Footscray, embedded online and through walking, Jinghua Qian and Liz Crash write, in Benjaminesque terms: ‘The streets aren’t named after the people who paved them.’ When considering the radical potential of the local we should also be reminded of the late great British geographer Doreen Massey, who theorised a radical sense of place—a method in which a locality was not a reactive attempt to creative an homogenous, internally consistent space inside a boundary. Instead ‘place’ should be seen as a unique site, an intersection or meeting of point of global and local networks, social and capital relations, and of historical knowledges. As Qian and Crash point out, places are also sites of struggle:
It’s not that things were necessarily better or worse in the past, but they were different, and different in ways I could never have predicted … What excites me is mass mobilisation, the democratisation of power, and the idea that we’re all equally invested in our future. I don’t want to topple one statue and put up another.
In this same vein, we might ask what vectors contested statues sit at, both contemporaneously and across time. And what portals do they open?
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.
(Bertolt Brecht, A Worker Reads History)
Number two—A (re)presentation of history in a mode more akin to the historical subject’s experience of history.
Too much contemporary history is written. Too much of it is written about World War II. Too many ‘great (white) men’ are the subject of historical inquiry. Too much of it is reactionary. But even the great works of history from below, such as The Many-Headed Hydra or Caliban and the Witch, are confined to books and articles.
To heed Benjamin’s critique, we must go beyond history as it is practiced now, history as the written word. In Benjamin, there’s a plea not simply to do the same type of history with new heroes (or old statues of new struggles) but to push beyond this, to argue for a re-presentation of history more attuned to the subjective experience of the historic subject itself, particularly in its radical episodes. Historical knowledge comes to the historical subject alone—‘but it comes in flashes, moments and involuntary memories, which provide the liquidation of the epic mode. The lightning flash, the profane illumination’. Or as Benjamin writes in Theses V, ‘the true picture of the past, flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again’. Our actual experience of history is discontinuous, fragmentary, elusive, faltering, fictive, etc. and as such ‘history writing [should be] allegorical and filmic, based on fragmentation, montage and construction.’
So, what does this mean? It means we should expand historical re-presentation beyond writing, for doing so may also prove effective in producing a history against the grain. It is in this space that artists, museums and galleries can stake a radical space, moving beyond the dominant colonial frames of Western art into more interesting areas and deconstructions of historical knowledge and experience. It is where there is space for everyone: Oral history, alternative writing practices, fiction. Nothing should be off the table in a re-presentation of history.
A non-exhaustive list of the stories that do not need to continually be told, as continually told by Peter Fitzsimons:
- Rugby Stories (1994)
- Kokoda (2004)
- Steve Waugh (2004)
- Tobruk (2006)
- Great Australian Sports Champions (2006)
- Charles Kingsford Smith and Those Magnificent Men (2009)
- Mawson: And the Ice Men of the Heroic Age: Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen (2011)
- Batavia (2011)
- Eureka: The Unfinished Revolution (2012)
- Ned Kelly: The Story of Australia’s Most Notorious Legend (2013)
- Gallipoli (2014)
- Gotta Love This Country! Great stories from around Australia to lift your heart, make you laugh and puff out your chest (2015)
- Fromelles and Pozières: In the Trenches of Hell (2015)
- The Ballad of Les Darcy (2015)
- Victory at Villers-Bretonneux (2016)
- Burke and Wills: The triumph and tragedy of Australia’s most famous explorers (2017)
- The Catalpa Rescue (2019)
- Fair Go, Sport: Inspiring and Uplifting Tales of the Good Folks, Great Sportsmanship and Fair Play (2020)
- James Cook: the story of the man who mapped the world (2020)
- Breaker Morant (2020)
- Mutiny on the Bounty: A saga of sex, sedition, mayhem and mutiny, and survival against extraordinary odds
Number three—Challenging the homogeneous empty time of commodity capitalism
To challenge history, we also need to challenge time itself.
According to Benjamin, homogenous empty time is historically specific to capitalism, contrasted to other historically-rooted ways of experiencing time such as festival, ritual, natural, seasonal, performative, etc. The emergence of a new temporality under capitalism has been revealed by historians like EP Thompson who demonstrated in their work the imposition of time-based discipline associated specifically with the formation of the working classes under capitalist commodity production. Before, even, the factory clock, the methods of imposing time on the population were politically laden. Capitalism dictates how we experience time. And with the ascension of derivative markets and finance capital, it can be argued that capitalism is entering a new phase of empty, linear temporality in which the future is rolled up into the calculative logic of immediate market transactions.
Against homogenous empty time, which passes in an eternal present, replete with boredom and essential sameness, is what Benjamin calls jetziet or ‘now-time’. This experience of immediacy and the creation of non-linear connections with particular past or future points is characteristic and present at the moments of great revolutions—it is no coincidence that French Revolutionaries shot out the Parisian clocks or chose to impose a new calendar. The recent uprising against colonial statues fits in this radical tradition, the collective moments of solidarity more akin to ‘now-time’ while the material forms of the statues congeals capitalist/colonial same time. It is why such acts/performances are history brush against the grain par excellence.
Are not the crowds who confront statues the perfect historians?
Brushing history against the grain …
Creating non-linear connections between the past
And (potential) futures
Are they not time travellers?
Are they not standing shoulder to shoulder with those
Parisian communards who shot
Out the clocks of imperial time?
In Australia, while police guarded a statue of Captain Cook during Black Lives Matter protest, the sacred birthing trees of Djab Wurrung were been destroyed in order to make way for a road. This is a crime, a tragedy and a horrible historical irony.
Many Australian roads traverse ancient Aboriginal paths, following the tracks of stars. Arriving with no idea of anything, settlers would force/enslave/employ/coerce local Aboriginal guides to show them to their land grants that they had never before laid eyes on, bestowed upon them by a colonial authority—theft through pen and gunpowder. These paths to and from port, to and from other land grants would, over time, be built up to accommodate horses and wagons and eventually cars. Little did the settlers know that many of these paths—often travelled under moonlight with the stars as guides—had existed since time immemorial and often followed certain star formations. It takes walking the continent for millennia to know the best ways to and from anywhere. In Sydney, the colonial buildings, still standing today, were built with limestone burned from local Aboriginal middens. Australia is Aboriginal, in both its violent negation of the original inhabitants (the original sin of dispossession and genocide) and in the very materiality of its being, the paths it walks, the buildings it inhabits. And the statues it protects. And the ancient gorges and sacred trees it destroys.
A very short list of some examples of what history brushed against the grain looks like:
- The art of John Akomfrah and the films of the Black Audiovisual Collective
- Jamie XX’s song, Under One Roof Raving
- The Seven Sisters exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia
- New York City Trans Oral History Project
- Terra Nullius by Soda Jerk
- The film 10 Canoes
- The great Ngurrara Canvas
- Jeremy Dellar’s Battle of Orgreave
- Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do
- The documentary Maidan
- Wayward Lives by Saidiya Hartman
The role of the historian is to break with received modes of understanding the world, whereby ‘the materialist presentation of history leads to the past to bring the present into a critical state.’ To do so is to challenge the nation-state, the empty time of capitalism and the politics of the future. And while the work is not programmatic in the sense of having a defined political end goal, by embarking on a journey of doing new history, a history brushed against the grain will not only serve to reveal the crimes of capitalism and honour the heroes who sought to contest it or survive it. It might also break open some new cracks in what is to come.
We can recover and retell the histories of both capitalism’s crimes and the amazing resilience of those who have resisted its multiple guises. We can create a history that isn’t written, a history that is more akin to the experience of history itself, the joy of the crowd and resistance. And in doing so we can challenge the empty time of commodity capitalism and forge a new relationship to the past and to the future, and create a new present.
We can brush history against the grain and we can start today.
The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.
(Ben Lerner, 10:04)