Is History Linear


While the postmodern theory of “deconstruction” cannot be a complete and rounded system philosophy as such, there can be little serious doubts about the irrefutability of the cautions it flagged against many presumptions of traditional thinking, especially in the fields of humanities and arts. Take the case of the popular understanding of progress – of history, arts etc. While history cannot be simply “one damn thing after another”, how far can we be justified in saying it has followed a linear or even a traceable multi-directional locus. In the world of art, the ridiculous nature of the query was pointed out quite eloquently by someone considered one of the greatest historians of ideas and a scholar of renown – Isaiah Berlin. He demolished the unquestioned presumption that art too has always “progressed” with one era dovetailing the other and because of the advantage of hindsight, the latest era coming out on top at the end of this continuous progression. Since art has to do with human aspirations and inner urges, it should follow from the progress theory that what a great master like Rembrandt aspired to be, would be to a great extent what Picasso represented centuries later, and that his own achievement was lower down on the ladder of that same universal quest. Or Homer’s epics “Odyssey” and “Iliad” were incomplete expressions of the writer’s aspiration to achieve what John Milton in “Paradise Lost” achieved two thousand later. This obviously could not have been the case could it? For all they are worth, a Rembrandt may be a greater work of art than a Picasso, or Homer’s artistic talent may be way ahead of Milton’s. Or, alternatively, and more plausibly, there are no perfect scales on which these expressions in art can be measured and compared. Epochal achievements in these fields are definitely related and certain elements are definitely passed down generation to generation, but it is absurd to even imagine that a progression works in the manner that popular presumptions in social sciences have led most to believe. Human aspirations and creativity are inextricably linked to the contextual backgrounds they spawned in, and often they cannot cross the boundaries of these backgrounds. Hence in all likelihood, epics of the scale and proportion Homer wrote cannot ever be written again, as in all likelihood the creativity and imagination that gave it birth belonged in that epoch only. The proposition, we imagine, will have to be true of all other social sciences as well, including history. Even history cannot be characterized as a simple progression of one building block piling atop another in endless successions. As in quantum mechanics in physics, we imagine huge elements in this social progression that are unquantifiable.

This thought of postmodern “deconstruction” is often evoked when confronted with the question, sometimes posed provocatively and at other times honestly, during seminars and symposiums outside the state, as to what the nature of the presumably ancient “imagining” called Manipur is all about. How could it ever qualify to be a “nation” or even a polity before the modern times? Where are the proofs that the Kabaw Valley ever belonged to Manipur etc? We sense a similar flawed presumption of historical progression in these questions. Who says a nation has always to have hard boundaries with boundary pillars, fenced off by barbed wires, guarded zealously by professional soldiers, the borders administered as intensely, or even more intensely, than the core etc. The pre-colonial world outside of Europe did not understand nations and territory this way at Curzon pointed out in his Romanese Lecture of 1907. Rather than national boundaries, there would have been frontiers only too. In the Hindu epic “Ramayana” there was a particular ceremony Rama performed to demarcate the domain of his kingdom, whereby he released a white stallion and let it run free. If anybody stood in the way of the free run of the horse, he would have to face the might of the king and if he managed to stop the king, that would be where the former’s kingdom was deemed end. Such and similar alternate understandings would be more applicable in say the contested ownership of the uninhabited Kabaw Valley of the time between the kingdoms of Ava and Manipur. For that matter the very frontiers of Ava or Manipur or other Southeast Asian kingdoms, and indeed the rest of the non-European world would have been determined by such principles. For instance, if a king stuck his flag on the bank of a river and nobody dared oppose him, as was the case when King Gambhir Sing stuck his flag on the bank of the Ningthi River in 1826, that point would have become the extent of the king’s domain. These understandings cannot simply be forced into the 19th Century European paradigm of nationhood with justice as too many attempt to naively.


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