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Harvey J. Kaye

"WORLD VIEW" for August T.H.E.S.

HISTORY UNDER DEBATE

Harvey J. Kaye

The Second International Congress of "History under Debate" met July 14-18 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. More than 500 scholars from around the world gathered to assess 20thC historiography and to deliberate where we should take the discipline. I came away having enjoyed myself immensely and feeling rather hopeful about history’s prospects.

My wife, Lorna, younger daughter, Fiona, and I arrived in Santiago several days early to explore Galicia and practice our Spanish. Festivity abounded. Xacobeo, the annual pilgrimage to Santiago - the city of Saint James, Spain’s Patron Saint - was already underway. In fact, we were put up in a 17thC monastery next to the cathedral).

Adding to the excitement, Santiago is this year’s European cultural capital. Every evening at 11pm, the city’s plazas became venues for jazz, classical or folk concerts. Lorna and Fiona especially enjoyed the flirtatious "Tuna de Derecho" (the law students’ traditional musical group) which performed nightly under the arches in the main square. I can personally attest that Galicia deserves its renown for seafood - octopus, squid, scallops, mussles, shrimp….

My enthusiasm clearly pleased my hosts, but they had brought me to Spain to talk history. So, when the congress opened - while Lorna and Fiona continued to tour, shop, and flirt - I got serious. Which is not to say I stopped enjoying myself.

I hate to sound provincial, but I had never participated in a conference as grand as this gathering. Led by medievalist Carlos Barros, the organizers had evidently worked hard to bring it together. Professor Barros had secured the financial support of the regional government of Galicia. That was no mean feat. The provincial president is none other than Manuel Fraga Iribarne, leader of Spain’s conservatives and a former protégé of Franco. Surreally, Fraga himself gave the welcoming address, quoting none other than the world’s premier Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm.

Each day opened with a plenary address (such as Enrique Florescano’s on Mexican history and memory and George Iggers’ on postmodernist history and its problems), and was followed by three concurrent 4-hour sessions, consisting of eight 15-minute presentations plus debate. At mid-afternoon we broke for a two-hour comida, later returning to work for yet another set of 4-hour sessions.

At the close of the first day, I commiserated with a fellow American about how the length of the sessions seemed almost punishing, however fascinating the several presentations. And I jokingly asked when Catholic Spain had succumbed to the Protestant Ethic. Indeed, the only redeeming feature of the fact that I could not - for medical reasons - partake of the local wine served at lunch, was that it enabled me to stay alert through those evening sessions. I would have relished a siesta.

Since I hadn’t spoken Spanish intensively in almost 25 years, it surprised me how quickly the words returned. My Latin colleagues generously complimented my competence (acquired in Mexico), but I could tell that Lorna - who read Spanish at Birmingham, and spent a year in Madrid before we met - impressed them all the more with her Castilian fluency.

Though the sessions were demanding, the papers were well worth hearing, especially those delivered at the roundtables. Having focussed on American studies for the past several years, I was keen to hear about scholarly and pedagogical developments from Paris to Patagonia. I tried not to be too impressed by French historian Jacques Revel, current director of the Annales School, but I failed.

I really liked the Spanish historians and their graduate students (several of the former had served in the opposition to Franco as youngsters). It was a pleasure to finally meet Cuban historians. And I had looked forward to hearing about Chinese historiography ten years after Tiananmen, but, sadly, the talk by the Beijing historian sounded more like party propaganda than scholarship.

The Argentinian historians of my own generation moved me in particular. They had survived the dictatorship years, some of them in exile or jail. They had lost colleagues and comrades. And yet, they remained determined intellectuals, eager to connect their work to projects for justice and change. I was honored to appear with them on panels treating "Historians and Power" and "Historians and Commitment". For all my professed radicalism, I felt like a naive innocent alongside them. Nevertheless, they seemed to appreciate my words, particularly my plenary talk, "Fanning the Spark of Hope in the Past". Meeting them inspired my delivery.

It struck me that the historians present shared certain concerns, regardless of their national origins and political sympathies. They were anxious about fragmentation, both of the discipline and of the grand narratives of past and present. They wondered about the duties of historians, morally and politically, and about how historians might speak more effectively to extra-academic publics.

Congress director Carlos Barros himself urged participants to see themselves as part of a movement. He called upon us to think globally, conceive of the present moment in terms of civilizational change (here I dissented somewhat), and consider what kind of constructive role historians might play in the making of the new global society.

I argued for a critical, committed, democratic historiography. No consensus emerged. But that was fine. We had made pilgrimage to Santiago to debate history, not wrap it up. It thrilled me simply to know that we were openly debating matters of theory and politics in a country where merely a generation ago it would have been out of the question.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. His young people’s biography, Thomas Paine, Firebrand of the Revolution will be published by Oxford University Press in October.