Narrating the Neoliberal Moment: History, Journalism, Historicity
Of Tiger’s Leaps and Lullabies, and Historical Excess
History, it has been said, is a sign of the modern, and subsistence “without history” or “on the margins of history” was long a metonymic sign of backwardness and a pretext and justification for colonial occupation.1
A somewhat less noted fact is that an excess of historical invocation — or a historical obsession — is a diagnostic sign of failed modernities, and especially of what Wolfgang Schivelbusch has called “the culture of defeat,” that is, the process of mourning and recovery that follows national trauma. To the extent that it is attributed to external forces, economic collapse such as that suffered in Mexico in 1982 and again in 1995, or in Argentina in 2002, can also be assimilated as national trauma and has spurred this kind of historical excess.2
In such contexts, the present all too frequently exposes the wounds of the past and thereby prompts the sort of historical stance that Walter Benjamin favored when he wrote: “The historical materialist approaches a historical object solely and alone where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he cognizes the sign of a messianic zero-hour of events, or put differently, a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past.”3 Indeed, the messianic historical approach advocated by Benjamin — the “tiger’s leap” to and from a past moment of possibility as an outburst that ruptures the monotonous lullaby of historical domination — tends to get worn from overuse in contexts of national dependency. There, the “culture of defeat” cannot be redeemed as long as historical invocations appeal only to a national community that is imagined as sovereign but that is in reality dependent.
Indeed, the messianic sensibility advocated by Benjamin is widely present in dependent countries, like many in Latin America and the Middle East, where the combination of frustrated modern projects and Abrahamic religious traditions turns the millenarian horizon into a readily available and seductive source for an alternative political vocabulary. But national liberation in those cases is always tempered by dependency, so history there turns into a kind of neurotic obsession.
Mexico is an interesting example of this phenomenon, having suffered national trauma from civil strife following independence, catastrophic defeat in its war against the United States in 1848, further (though ultimately unsuccessful) European invasions, and numerous internal defeats during its social revolution of 1910 – 20. Mexico was one of the earliest economic dependencies of the United States in Latin America and has certainly been the most important. More recently, it suffered the spectacular collapse of what had been a successful model of import substitution industrialization and of “mixed economy.” Not surprising, the country is known to have deep historical concerns and, indeed, to have had them from an early date.
Thus, U.S. historian Hubert Bancroft, who came to Mexico in 1883 to collect historical documents, wrote, as one of his first impressions of the country:
I am really astonished at the great number of pamphlets and books for the young relating to the history of this country, almanacs of history, catechisms of history, treatises on history, etc. These together with the numerous historical holidays and celebrations show as deep and demonstrative a love of country as may be found, I venture to assert, any where else on the globe. There is certainly nothing like it in the literature of the United States. Today, the 27th [of September], one hundred years after the event, in this comparatively isolated capital there are two factions on the plaza almost coming to blows over an Iturbide celebration, the priests insisting that they will do honor to his memory, and the government party swearing that they shall not.4
National trauma provided the structure in which Mexico’s historical profession has developed from the nineteenth century forward. Indeed, historical framing of day-to-day events was such a significant issue that a number of Mexico’s first senior statesmen also became its most prominent historians: José María Luis Mora, Lucas Alamán, Lorenzo de Zavala, and Carlos María de Bustamante all wrote major — and widely diverging — histories of Mexico’s independence in order to offer the public credible teleologies in times of national trauma. Needless to say, their scholarly efforts were supplemented by intense and continual engagements with the press.
In times of peace and prosperity, when there has been broad hegemony, historians tend to be perceived as ornamental — acolytes swinging pots of incense as they march behind the priest of high office. They are invited to participate in the press but usually provide a different kind of accompaniment: the text of a panegyric providing a dictator with a lofty lineage; the commemoration of a patriotic date that confirms and updates the terms of the social compact.5 The profession as a whole gets represented as an antiquarian’s pursuit, and the press is satisfied with having a single august chronicler, usually very much an “insider,” to festoon its pages with commemorations.
Since the 1982 financial crisis, Mexico has not fully returned to such a moment of peace in domination, and historians’ interventions have been more numerous, more contentious, and more urgent. The bankruptcy of the Mexican state ushered in neoliberal reforms in a contradictory process that required both a good measure of authoritarianism and a negotiated (and protracted) democratic transition. Reading the tea leaves of history was made interesting precisely by these contradictions. It was in the context of Mexico’s twin neoliberal and democratic transitions that I finally came to supplement my work as an academic historian and anthropologist with regular interventions in the press.
This essay is a reflection on the relationship between historiography and routine public commentary in the media as it pertains to my experience as an academic historian and anthropologist in New York City and as a newspaper columnist in Mexico City. I begin by summarizing my practice as a writer of op-ed columns, then move to a considered reflection of the interpretative demands that make historical work dynamic in the public sphere. I conclude with a few remarks on historical and journalistic writing. The essay is presented as a field report rather than as a fuller theorization of the relationship between historical and journalistic writing.
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I am grateful to Bain Attwood, Dipesh Chakrabarty, John Coatsworth, Fernando Escalante, Judith Friedlander, Friedrich Katz, and José Moya for their comments on an earlier version of this essay. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.
- Nicholas Dirks, “History as a Sign of the Modern,” Public Culture 2 (1989): 25 – 33.
- Schivelbusch’s phrase “culture of defeat” refers especially to national defeat in war, and he compares the U.S. South after the Civil War to France after its war with Prussia and to Germany after World War I. See Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (New York: Henry Holt, 2003).
- Walter Benjamin, “Theses on History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), number 14.
- Hubert Bancroft, Observations on Mexico, 1883, unpublished manuscript, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 40 – 41.
- I do not mean to imply that all professional historians conform to this expectation. For example, Daniel Cosío Villegas, who was the dean of Mexico’s modern historians, was also a courageous critic of the regime in the press in the 1960s and 1970s.