Monday, August 4, 2014

After the fact

First, a digression: several centuries ago, the English language was quite a different beast. I love to look through the entries at the online etymological dictionary for insights into the changing vocabulary of English as a means to getting at the change in thinking patterns over time. Many times it is the most mundane or boring words that have the most interesting entries. A good example is the entry for "the."

For the study of history in particular I find interesting the evolution of the words "event" and "accident," which at one point were very close in meaning.

Event (Latin - Eventus: ex- "out"  + venire "to come")
Accident (Latin - Accidens. accidere:  ad- "to" + cadere "fall")

Both could be used to refer to "something that happens," but over time accident came to have the added meaning of "by chance." Though rare, this older meaning does persist in some phrases, like "accident of history." Of course, there are other meanings to consider: a car accident for one, and the philosophical accident (sometimes accidence) of Aristotle for another. In the Russian language, however, these three meanings do not belong to the same word and only the philosophical meaning is a cognate with English (Aкциденция, or Aktsidentsiia).

The reason I find this interesting is how providence or chance manifested itself in the one word and not the other. Historical events have actors, planners, executives, members, participants -- while historical accidents have participants, but not necessarily knowledgeable participants. To be fair, both historical events and accidents have victims. This difference in connotation I think is useful to discussing the measurement and judgment of historical actions and outcomes.

I enjoy anecdotes about people in "historical situations" as much as anyone, when someone recalls being in or near a certain place at the specific time when a memorable "event" or "accident" occurred. However, I believe that most of these events are measured for their importance after the fact and the chance participants are later asked to account for the momentous nature of the occasion. There seem to be two outcomes in terms of anecdotes, the first I find most convincing:
1) "No one knew at that time, but later we realized just what it meant..."
2) "Of course no one knew at the time, but one could feel that something big was going on..." 

This is my setup for a discussion of "after the fact" history.


I paraphrase Chase Robinson when I write that a large part of understanding early Kazakh history requires coming to grips with how, as Kazakh identity emerged, oral traditions were complemented and, to some extent, replaced by written history. The transformation of story to history is conditioned not only by record keeping. Religious and national/ethnic attitudes play a role as well.

Chase Robinson showcases this tendency by directly comparing early Islam with early Christianity. The early Christians were most concerned with Christ's resurrection and its implications. The early Muslims were most concerned with Muḥammad's career as God's final messenger. Consider the difference in these simple statements: the wheres, whys, and who-said-whats of Christ's prophetic career were (and are) of secondary importance to Christians, which is why any attempts to recreate the final years of Christ's life (or any years of life) rely on conjecture and contradictory accounts. Belief in Muḥammad's prophecy defined Muslims in start contrast to the other prophets that lived among the Hebrews, all of whom struggled with the disbelief and doubt of their constituents. The Muslims stand out as actually realizing a messenger of God walked among them during the lifespan of the prophet.

However, Chase Robinson points out that both of these communities (early Christians and Muslims) very quickly ran into doubters and skeptics, whose arguments had to be addressed. "How do we know that theirs was God's work?" The community of believers squabbled amongst themselves as they wrestled with these questions, the importance of which they knew to be secondary. But - the questions were answered, because they had to be, and "early Christians and early Muslims eventually came to tell the whole story.1"
What they could not remember they duly provided in the form of legends, myths, conjectures and reasonable guesses, all about things that they had no real memory of, since they had not really mattered before. This explains why Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, which were first set down about two generations after His death, are so much less reliable as history than accounts of his Passion; while Mark and Acts reflect earlier views and say nothing of Jesus' birth, Matthew and Luke do, because these two later writers saw in it an opportunity to grind theological axes. This is also why Muslim historians began to fill in details of Muhammad's pre-prophetic career, proposing a number of inconsistent solutions to a variety of academic questions. In what kind of caravan trade were the Quraysh involved on the eve of Islam? Where and when did these caravans travel? How old, exactly, was Muḥammad at the time of his father's death? [Emphasis Added]
I would only suggest one change to Robinson's argument in this chapter. He writes, "for most Christian and Muslim historians, the purpose of history was generally not to test, probe or explain, nor to provide an accounting for all events that correspond precisely with what had once happened." I would alter this ever so slightly be removing the qualifiers 'Christian and Muslim,' since it seems to me that "most historians" throughout history had other purposes for writing, including the modern era, the American academy of historians, and even the author of this blog. It's difficult to articulate the ultimate causes for our actions, but suggesting that it is a love of objective history is confusing and not very convincing.

In short, much of what makes studying the Bare Footed Flight for my dissertation exciting is placing two problems against each other. The first problem is finding and understanding contemporary early 18th-century sources describing the destruction of the Kazakhs at the hands of the Dzhungar/Junghar/Жоңғар. The second problem is following how these sources survive and change as the importance of those same events alters over time. In other words, the answer to the question "What did the events of the early 1720s mean?" changed many times in the following centuries -- and the changes in that meaning offer a lot of useful information for the study of the region from 1700 to the present.


1 Chase F. Robinson, Islamic Historiography. Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 8-17