Why Micro-History Matters?

Mahesh Paudyal

When Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history in 1991, he probably did not literally mean, history was going to be an invalid discipline henceforth. He meant, gone were the eras of power-driven discourses, that often made history an account of the warring superpowers—USA and USSR in his case—and time following the collapse of USSR would belong to smaller nations, and history would have to deal with smaller power centers. To take Fukuyama further down the lane, history would now descend the ladder of power, until it comes to the level of the European ‘others’ i.e. nations whose role and presence were not considered formidable in the world history before the nineties.

It was obvious during Fukuyama days, that many nations did not count much in the global politics. During the world wars—both the first and the second—some of the smaller and underdeveloped nations mattered, because they were the playgrounds for the European warmongers. Ethiopia, one of the weakest economy ever, was always in the center. Congo made a lot of sense; Egypt forced the British senator Arthur Belfour to speak in the parliament, and Alsace Lorraine was an all-time issue during the war. India was so formidable that neglecting it would mean a big, big gash in European war history.

But then, after the World War II, when a spell of freedom shook the third world and nations went free from the European dominance one after another, their prominence would subside. All that mattered now, in the post-second world war period were nations that formed buffer between USA and USSR, and redefined, or at least held the potential to redefine the cold-war security complexes. Such buffers—most obviously regions around eastern Europe and the Middle East—suddenly went out of the priority list of the two power blocks—at least from war point of view—when Mikhail Gorbachev on December 25, 1991, resigned as president of the Soviet Union, declaring the office ‘extinct’ and dissolving the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a powerful communist empire that had existed since 1922.

With this, Europe or America suddenly seized to be the sole determinant of world history. They lost most of their prominence logics, and issues of democracy and human rights became their new tarot cards. However, as subjects of globally influential history, they were no more prominent. Suddenly the subject of history moved from Eurocentric discourses to elsewhere and within half a century today, in our own days, the world seems lopsided, leaning more towards China and India, and Europe or America is being left at peace with its own dinosaurian history. The Afro-Asian and Caribbean nations, that had started asserting themselves since the fifties, have now become a prominent voice in the global scenario.

One of the most important cultural implications of this shift in political priorities was that, with the dawning of the post-sixty period which also is often mentioned as the post-modern era, the focus of history shifted from the centre to the margin. Not just at the international level, but within nations itself too, the neglected and marginalized chunks started coming into prominence. Systems were quickly redefined to make establishments more inclusive. Parliaments started seeing representations from more communities. Every walk of life started feeling a need to reach out to the hitherto unaddressed chunk.

This shifting scenario had an easily discernible impact in history, since history functions very, very closely with power. Suddenly, historiography faced scrutiny never experienced in the past, and the arguments that defined the very disciplined started being deconstructed. History, driven by power, hitherto meant, history of the kings, of the prime ministers and presidents, of the power blocks, of the warriors, or anyone that could influence the power balance. Such history, over the centuries, functioned with a strategy of forced nationalism, characterized by what Benedict Anderson might call inevitable ‘amnesia’. This means, history’s nexus with nationalism functioned by forcing many minorities to forget their interest in the larger interest of the nation, which in fact was not the interest of the nation per se, but that of the powerful ones.

Thus, a serious revisionism in historiography has started, and today, an age of micro-history has dawned. In other words, history’s lens is moving beyond parliaments and senates, and settling down with peasants in the hinterlands, whose role in the nation’s forward march had been extremely important, but for one reason or the other, it had not been acknowledged. I would further go down the lane; history should become even more microscopic in the days to come. It should go further down, into pinheads, and unfold alternative sources of change. Such a strategy will suddenly bring minorities into the mainstream, and will have administrative and economic ramifications. The popularity of Subaltern Historiography, and its economic impact in India and elsewhere in the past few decades proves the miracle micro-historical researches can do.

Another area, where immediate impact of such micro-historical priorities can have is literature, which will, of course, impact politics. The advocates of the ‘local’ color in literature often highlight the need to foreground micro-history, and I lamely confess, I am in such a camp, which functions by borrowing some of the nuances of postmodernism, more specifically, its focus on micro-narratives, against the grand-narratives.

One of the declared motifs of postmodernism is to establish an engagement with history from its back. Bottom-up history, as is often said, is invoked. This summarily means, there are sheer limitations with ‘history’ as such—often referred to as nationalistic history in a pejorative sense—because of its very nature of sweeping generalizations, and negligence of the multiple but faint voices, and of course, to remember Anderson, the compulsive amnesia. The subaltern historiographers are irate with nationalistic history for its very tendency to foist such an amnesia at the cost of minority’s major interests.

What more is wrong with nationalistic history? This first calls for a debate on the very question of nationalism. The concept has been contested ever since the dawning of postmodernism—especially its attack on modernist logocentricism and grand narratives. Nationalistic history is state-sponsored, and therefore, ordained by power structure. It is, therefore, a bundle of generalizations and lies, strewn with vested interests to perpetuate the ruler’s designs. In other words, it is a documentation of the ideology, and eclipses many individual interests and juggernauts multiple interests. Therefore, micro-history matters.

One risk, however still persists! History requires a few educated, state-sponsored historians to do the job, but micro-history, by its very nature, needs insiders coming from different communities with first-hand experiences and proven records of historical contribution. It also requires a more detailed research and painstaking. The state might always try to resist the move—as all states are notorious for silencing potentially rebellious and defiant voices—but the work should continue! And yes, it should move on!

One this, however, is certain. An age of micro-history has dawned, and it shall last very, very long!