Cultural galaxies far far away

Explain this! Fantastic creatures populate an initial letter P in a manuscript containing Pope Gregory the Great theological treatise on the Book of Job, Dijon, Bibliothèque Municipale, 173

Any historian would have heard at least once in their life a variation on the following question addressed to them: ‘What’s the point of studying the past?’ At least once in their lifetimes, all historians would have changed into apologetics for the historical profession. What’s the point of spending time looking at what happened hundreds or thousands of years ago? The ancients didn’t worry too much about this issue, the past had to be probed so that we’d know how to conduct ourselves in the present, by imitating those who lived before us and avoiding their mistakes. History was an ethical guide. Doing history wasn’t a disinterested project. We don’t believe that anymore. Having untethered ourselves from this line of thought running roughly from ancient Rome to the 19th century, we’ve emptied history of that public relevance which had for centuries been taken for granted. As history is being conducted more scientifically, more critically and more epistemologically gainfully, it has also lost its pride of place in the public square. The ‘Why’-type question alluded to above is more and more prevalent.

Which brings me to the question of appeal. Since history is no longer seen, in mainstream circles, as publicly relevant or professionally useful, one of the challenges left to historians is to make distant worlds attractive. This works quite well in practice, whether it’s the Romans, the Vikings, the Normans, the Crusaders, etc. And it seems to me that there are two very different approaches through which 21st-century audiences become interested in distant worlds, societies and cultures.

The first emphasises the similarities between those cultures and our own. The ‘variation on the same theme’ argument is widespread for those taking this approach. I myself have often availed myself of it on this blog. The ancient Roman tablets and the iPad, the scroll and the blog, medieval automatons and modern robots. According to this rhetoric, the past and the present are always staying connected, so distant cultures are not, after all, that distant, and something common and enduring runs through all things.

The other approach gambles with the potential for strangeness to generate interest and charm. Distant cultures appeal to us through their bizarreness and irreducibility to modern categories and explanations. It is as though looking at alien worlds, marvelling at their disengagement from our culture and from our ways of life, pulsating in galaxies far far away.  Meeting ancient societies on their own terms, understanding institutions and ideas that have long been extinct, while not trying to bind them to anything that would make them more familiar and less strange.

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