Survival of the fittest vestige

The jigsaw puzzle of history is a drama of survival. Some win and some lose. Here, a 4th-century CE papyrus fragment containing a poem in Hebrew, London, British Library, Or 9180 E

Many types of history have become history. But most kinds of history-writing are still with us. We no longer write genealogies, annals or universal chronicles. Our histories bow to the scientific imperative, they are evidence-based, the best possible explanation, always on the brink of revision despite the inalterability of the past. History is a branch of social sciences, not one of rhetoric, as it used to be. Words matter, but methodology matters more.

History is the most exciting survival show in town. It is survival of the fittest vestige. Not all traces are born equal in terms of the potential for survival. And the ability to traverse the expanse of time to reach out on the other side, our side, is what history is about. Arguments from silence may be useful, but only as long as they’re supported by subsequent meaningful noise. What isn’t there, or can’t be found, isn’t worth talking about, although we have the tools to mould absence into something palpable. But history is made out of traces, sprinkled confetti on the topside of time.

The past is worthy of the name history inasmuch as it is recoverable in its contingent traces. The ambiguity of the word history as ‘sourceable’ past and the activity/profession/practice of recovering it may give a clue to the famous ‘If a tree falls in a forest’ test. Prehistory is not just the period before history, but it is also one in which traces are far more difficult to trace. Our logocentric inheritance privileges written traces, as standalone items or sedimented echoes of words long uttered and lost. And why shouldn’t it be so? History is the province of words, the past becomes history insofar as it is recoverable in word. It may not start with words, but that’s where it ends.

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