Harbans Mukhia Rector, Jawharlal Nehru University


Harbans Mukhia Rector, Jawharlal Nehru University

The second of three sessions of the International Congress on ‘History under Debate’ (HuD) was held on 14-18 July 1999, six years after the first. The venue was the beautiful small town of Santiago de Compostela, in the Galicia region of Spain. The town’s magnificent cathedral was a major Catholic pilgrimage centre in Europe’s middle ages; it still remains the centrepoint of life in the medieval parts of the habitat and small sized sculptures of a pilgrim walking with a club in hand with the shell of a gourd to carry water hanging from it remains the town’s chief symbol. The series of three Congresses on the theme has been inspired by a concern for the discipline of history by the fin de siècle anxieties. It was thought necessary to take stock of ‘our discipline from the point of view of methodology, historiography and the theory of history in relation to problems we are likely to confront in the transition from the present century to the next.’

The organisation of the Congress was very well thought out logistically as well as academically. Delegates from some 30 countries in Europe and as far away as the U.S., Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, China, Japan, New Zealand and India were mostly accommodated in the well appointed guest houses of the University and the Cathedral. The Congress sessions were held in the recently commissioned Conference plaza with facilities for simultaneous translation into English, Spanish and French.

Each day began with a plenary lecture by an eminent figure in the discipline. The first in the series was by Enrique Florescano, the Mexican grey eminence, who analyzed the relationship between myth, history and nationalism. Grounding himself in Mexican history, Florescano pleaded for the professional historian’s respect for myth as another kind of history, as common people’s history, as a resource for the construction of Latin American nationalism and one which still remains a powerful social force. The argument and the plea are by themselves not new, but Florescano’s deep feeling for the plea lent an extra strength to it.

The lecture by Georg G. Iggers of the State University of New York at Buffalo and President of the Commission on Historiography formed by the International Committee of Historical Sciences, focused on critiquing Hayden White. He took account of the evolving contours of White’s approach to historiography, was receptive to several of his formulations, was appreciative of some very significant questions raised by him; yet he was unwilling to go along with White’s erasure of distinction between history and poetry. He also demonstrated how White often did not follow his own prescriptions: ‘The problem with White is…he does not do what he sets out to do’. Even as the focus of Iggers’s lecture was one thinker’s oeuvre, the discussion had a wide range and issues that were of fundamental importance to the discipline.

The theme of the lecture by Jacques Revel, President of Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, on the third day was one of deep reflection on the discipline of history. ‘The cognitive usages of historical texts’ ranged widely and sensitively over the ever expanding domain of what could constitute a historical text: virtually everything could! It was both a masterly as well as a moving tour de force of how far the discipline had travelled from its exclusive reliance on written texts as the data base to almost everything that human life has been concerned with physically and culturally in the past: memory, myth, mindset. His plea for an aesthetic of history was specially endearing.

The lecture on the fourth day by Carlos Barros, organiser of the Congress, centred on ‘the return of history’. Barros is Professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela and is a renowned medieval historian. He is also deeply involved with the questions of theory which transcend the confines of history. He spoke with a certain amount of pessimism about the loss of direction in the discipline, but ended with affirmation of confidence and hope for it in the future.

The last lecture in the series by Harvey J. Kaye of the University of Wisconsin on the British Marxist historians was a bit of a let down. Teeming with unsubstantiated assertions, it was rather a substandard defence of Marxist historiography, which is indeed capable of a far more powerful defence.

After the plenary lectures, parallel panels were in session. These were organised at two levels: Round Tables and Thematic Sections. Five Round Tables centred on major problematics: Political usages of history, Whither history today, Science, postmodernism and the new rationality, Interfaces of history, and, Latin historiography. Thematic sections were broken up into three: [History’s] mutations during the century, New paradigms, and, Problems of historiography. More than one panel reviewed the state of the discipline at the end of the century and speculated on new foci emerging in the next few decades. This seems to have been the driving motif of the Congress. One of the panels was devoted to ‘the crisis of history, the making of paradigms’, and another to ‘the historian and power’. The difficult relationship between history and theory was the subject of yet another panel. But several themes that are more contemporary also formed panel subjects: ecology, sexuality, globalisation. The question of history, ethics and social compromise was the theme of one panel. At the other end, pragmatic problems like ‘The University: access to professariat and educational career’ were subjected to scrutiny. The ‘other’ history was the theme of a couple of panels: one on myth, historiography and nationalism and another on the Chiapas and history. Panels on ‘Is a chronological division of history obsolete?’ and ‘Men and women: a common history?’ interrogated old themes in a new perspectve. The old problematic of history as a science was not neglected either.

Engaging as the discussion of such a wide range of themes was, and assuring as the ambience was that history was facing no crisis of existence but merely one of rapid change of profile, the chief drawbacks at the Congress were: very brief time available for presentation of papers (from ten to fifteen minutes) and often briefer still for discussion; and the non-availability of written papers. There was a book of summaries of the papers, but summaries are poor substitutes for the whole text. However, just as the proceedings of the first Congress were published and were available at Santiago, the proceedings of the second too will hopefully be published. That should add an enormous value to the very satisfying exercise at that gem of a medieval European town at the height of summer.

The Santiago Congress has also instituted a website, which is a site of almost daily interventions in the debate from around the globe. It can be accessed at <>