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It is often acknowledged that historical arguments and historical traditions play an important role in the creation of nations and national identities. Just recently, for example, a group of distinguished American historians set out to delineate a set of ‘National Standards for History’ offering the following justification: “Without history, a society shares no common memory of where it has been, of what its core values are, or of what decisions of the past account for present circumstances.”1 Such sentiments are not simply a product of our current political climate, nor are they just an American phenomenon: various expressions of belief in a vital relationship between history and national identity are to be found in conflicts over aboriginal history in Australia, in the defense of national revivalist histories of Eastern Europe, in the critical stance of postcolonial or subaltern histories, and in ongoing debates over Britain’s ‘heritage industry’.
As such debates make clear, however, there is little consensus regarding the nature of history’s role in the construction of nations and identities. Just how do historians, and their histories, help to shape national identity and how do they understand their own contributions? What philosophies and what methods have historians followed and how have these influenced the content of cultural memory? Not only have historians long debated questions about the uses and abuses of history, but they have also wondered about the desireablity and the very possibility of history as public memory; and they have theorized about the relationship between memory and history, and the negotiation of conservation and critique.
This year’s Social Science Colloquium at Bucknell will explore these questions about history and nation, memory and identity. First, Dominick LaCapra will address the problem of memory and questions about the relation of traumatic experience to extreme historical events such as those of the Holocaust. LaCapra will explore trauma’s effect on memory, and on the accounts offered by victims as well as by those unconsciously identified with them. Further, his analysis of the work of other theorists of trauma --such as Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman or Jean-Francois Lyotard — will elucidate problems not just for memory but also for representation and communication.
David Armitage will address the question of history’s role by examining the practice of declaring independence, and tracing the legacy of an historical text --the US Declaration of Independence (for example, in Venezuela, 1811, Liberia, 1845, Vietnam, 1945 and Southern Rhodesia, 1965) --to account for its appeal and the widely divergent uses to which it was put. The aim will be to discriminate between different strategies of state-creation (as opposed to the more conventional subject of identity-formation), to trace the spread of a peculiar genre of political discourse and, finally, to suggest some counterfactual readings of the US Declaration and of US political ideology in relation to international affairs.
Finally, Colin Kidd will problematize the categories of ‘history’ and ‘national identity’ themselves by examining the assumption that identities --and related concepts of ethnicity and nationalism --are valid terms of analysis not only in early modern history but even in the modern era. How far does an anachronistic emphasis on ‘identity’ obscure other, more historically sensitive, priorities? By investigating the meaning of such terms as ‘identity’, the ‘ethnic’ and the ‘national’ in the pre-modern era, Kidd will reconstruct the neglected provenance and surprising semantic genealogy of ‘identity’ as a descriptor of ethnicity and nationhood.
--Julia E. Rudolph, Faculty Coordinator
1 National Standards for History, Gary B. Nash and Charlotte Crabtree co-directors (National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles, 1996) p.1.