September 25, 2016

Histories and Narratives

The Rodney CoI’s Report (still officially not released) has unleashed a new wave of narratives and histories of the sixties and seventies in our daily newspapers. Histories, however, are always written within a particular “space of experience” – the ways that the past is remembered in the present and a “horizon of expectation” – the anticipation of the not-yet-known future beyond the horizon.
A history of our present, in the words of David Scott, demands that “histories of the past ought to be interventions in the present, strategic interrogations of the present’s norms as a way of helping us to glimpse the possibilities for an alternative future”. Somehow our narratives about Burnham and Jagan that are now circulating just keep looking backwards at what was “then”.
But our “problem space” – the threats and opportunities that confront us in our sociohistorical conjuncture – is radically different today. At a minimum, our “us” and “them” within the old narrative is not a unified “us” versus the “them – British”, whom we hoped to kick out – the “us” and  “them” are now “all-a-wee” that have to co-exist in our common homeland.
What then should be our “horizon of expectation”? Criticism is always strategic. What is it that our interlocutors want as a consequence of their criticisms, narratives, actions and exhortations? What is the “Good”? While there will never be – for the simple reason that it just cannot be – a single horizon of ends for all of us, I am pretty sure that among the various possibly competing ends that of a more harmonious society would be there in common in all formulations.
I am suggesting that with the privilege of hindsight, we should connect the past with the present in a broader narrative that is healing rather than destructive. We cannot change the past, but we can certainly change the future.
Our horizon of expectation must generate strategies that speak to those normative ends rather than further dividing us as some seem determined to do. They must ask whether their particular narrative (of revolution), or any narrative that seeks to connect our past to the present and envision a more positive future, will deliver those normative ends. Another way our problem space is different from our post-independence era is the demographics now deny any built-in ethnic majority and so open up the possibilities of a working democracy. A constructive narrative cannot then picture our opposing groups locked forever in mortal combat.
Crucial to the formulation of a constructive narrative would be what Hayden White labelled the “content of the form” of the narrative – particularly its plot to link past, present and future.
Most of the present narratives  set “us” against “them” into a frenzy of nihilistic Fanonian violence – not to mention teleologically promising a future that can never be delivered.
Hegel’s famous interpretation of Antigone as the paradigmatic Greek tragedy might be particularly apt to our situation. In this narrative, both “sides” are morally right: the conflict is not between good and evil, but between “goods” on which each is making exclusive claim. Isn’t this the situation that our mutually exclusive narratives of victimhood with its facile binary oppositions have delivered us into? Such an emplotment within a narrative, I am suggesting, should suggest compromise rather than a battle of one side overcoming. That would be a constructive narrative for our time, place and circumstances.
In noting the importance of narratives in the task of nation building, Benedict Anderson has
identified the importance of newspapers that are read every morning in constructing what he has tellingly labelled “Imagined Communities”:
“The significance of this mass ceremony – Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers – is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.”
Let us use our newspapers for nation building rather than tearing it apart by narratives that are fighting long-gone terrors.

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