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Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

Time Out of Joint?

  • Peter Seixas (Editor)
    Theorizing Historical Consciousness. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Liane Tanguay

On 22 August 2007, George W. Bush appeared before a gathering of veterans to “provide some historical perspective” on the situation in Iraq. Seeking to validate the “hard and necessary work we’re doing” by evoking an historical precedent, Bush embarked upon a rhetorical journey spanning several wars and some seventy years of American foreign policy. “The names and places have changed,” he asserted, but history nonetheless “reminds us that there are lessons applicable to our time”—all of which, predictably, point to persistence and ultimate victory in Iraq.

For an age that, as Fredric Jameson once said, has “forgotten to think historically,” Bush’s abuse of history should come as no surprise. It is testament to the political significance of what is defined in this (timely) volume as “historical consciousness” that such abuse is now a matter of routine. History, writes editor Peter Seixas, is everywhere “invoked to provide context, meaning, and continuity,” reflecting a “popular, market-oriented quest for the past” that parallels a surge of interest within the academy. It is against this back that, in 2001, a symposium was held at UBC to attempt to define, refine, account for, and, yes, theorize “historical consciousness,” a yet rough-hewn but richly suggestive field comprising historiography, collective memory, and history education. This book is the result.

Its first section proffers a conceptual “toolbox” for the theoretical task at hand. To the literary or cultural theorist, many of these tools—distance, narrative, identity—may seem worn, but their application to a relatively new field of inquiry is nonetheless apt. Chris Lorenz advances the centrality of “historical identity,” studied comparatively, as a “bridge between historiography and society,” or between professional and popular history. James Wertsch adapts a Proppian narratology to his analysis, distinguishing between “specific narratives” and “schematic narrative templates” in a way that is fully applicable, for instance, to the abuse of history cited above. This latter, indeed, ranks low in Jörn Rüsen’s proposed typology, which delineates four possible stances towards the past, each bearing specific cognitive and moral implications. If the resulting developmental hierarchy seems perilously Eurocentric, it is nonetheless unavoidable in light of the book’s stated imperative, and as such it resurfaces, explicitly or by interpolation, elsewhere (notably, in a dialogue with Roger Simon). Finally, Mark Phillips addresses the concept of “distance,” defamiliarizing one of professional history’s central yet tacit assumptions as a construct in itself.

The articles concerning history education bring the ethical imperative more explicitly into play. Jocelyn Létourneau and Sabrine Moisan acknowledge the role of non-curricular factors in the development of historical consciousness, explaining young Quebeckers’ investment in the “victimhood” narrative, despite a modernized Quebec historiography, in light of both this broader cultural context and the pressures facing overburdened instructors. British scholar Peter Lee makes a case for the tools of disciplinary history as a means of bringing students to a more empowered standpoint vis-à-vis both public and academic history. Christian Laville takes up this question in a skeptical analysis of the “historical consciousness trend” itself, questioning whether its influence in education would really generate the “independent-minded, rational citizens” that are its stated pedagogical aim. Roger Simon addresses the ethical demands made upon the present by records of the past, seeking in these a “historiographic poetics” whose pedagogical value hinges on the re-orientation of the citizen within a “politics of relationality.” If it is not entirely clear how such a “poetics” might be implemented at the curricular level, Simon nonetheless raises some compelling theoretical points. The implied centrality of formal education in the shaping of historical sensibilities (as opposed to non-curricular factors alluded to by a number of the contributors) can seem overestimated in this section, at least to one unfamiliar with the discipline. Indeed, that such factors, though often acknowledged, remain largely unexplored is one of only two areas in which I felt the book came up short.

The other is that the concluding section, “The Politics of Historical Consciousness,” consists of only two essays. Tony Taylor ties the education issue in Australia both to conservative interests and to the politics of academia, while John Torpey fulfills the book’s “self-historicizing” imperative by offering the broadest perspective on the “pursuit of the past,” attributing this to the demise of social ideals under a totalizing global capitalism. While Torpey’s article is perhaps the most suggestive piece, it is also unfortunately the shortest, and its claims would undoubtedly have benefited from a more extensive analysis. It nonetheless embodies the sort of inquiry of which I personally would have liked to see more.

Nonetheless, as a wide-ranging survey of a terrain that is still being mapped, this volume is sure to contain at least one piece of interest to a reader in a related discipline. George Bush, for his part, is better off without it.

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MLA: Tanguay, Liane. Time Out of Joint?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 Sept. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 187 - 188)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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