Historicizing Failure

by guest contributor Disha Jani

Making meaning out of the past requires sifting: turning flotsam and jetsam into units of time and entities of subjecthood. One of the most basic ways in which historians sift is with beginnings and ends as markers. This debris, the fragments of failure, is what fascinates us when we ask, “Why didn’t they succeed?” or “Why did this come to an end?” When the end of an era is what has drawn us to it in the first place, how does this making of meaning in retrograde affect our narrative writing and historiographical context? When we study the end of things, we encounter a particular set of questions. I believe the first among them should be, “Why does this failure fascinate me?”

There is a particular historiographical problem surrounding the study of failure. Certain phrases or dates are widely associated with a spectacular finish. Cleopatra’s reign. The League of Nations. 1989. Some historical moments are swept from our collective memory by virtue of their quite lackluster ends—and it falls to the historian to resurrect them, and explain why we had never heard of them in the first place. Infamy and erasure both color scholarship, because they often drive the aims of the historian herself, in her role as interpreter between past and present. When a scholar selects such a topic for study, the reason for this choice is a curiosity with how something came to an end, how a particular individual or group failed to achieve their aims. Historicizing the concept of failure, then, has implications for why and how we make meaning out of particular moments in history.

What constitutes failure in the eyes of the historian? The War of 1812 was miraculously won and lost by both the British and the Americans simultaneously: the British defended their colonies, and the Americans maintained that “not one inch of territory [was] ceded or lost.” What a happy conclusion that was! No one had to go home a loser, and we were treated to such fun re-enactments at the bicentennial.

Failure in the eyes of the historian can come from one of several places. If the historical subjects stated their aims at the beginning of a project and were not able to fulfill those aims, that can constitute failure. If a bounded and sovereign entity, such as a nation-state or empire, ceases to exercise control over its former territories, or its former territories remain basically the same but are re-named and ruled differently—that can constitute failure. And even if the stated aims of a project are achieved by most accounts, but the central or guiding logic of the project is not upheld—historians can see that too as a failure. The Spanish Popular Front. The Roman Empire. American democracy in 1776. In all of these instances, once a failure has been identified and defended, the historian can begin to explain why it happened: why their subjects were unable to fulfill their aims either materially or essentially. This designation of success or failure cannot occur in a vacuum, of course. Often, the identification of a marker of failure comes from a popular understanding of that event, and the historian’s desire to either explain it or debunk it.

Making meaning out of a subject’s failure is similarly manifold. On the most basic level, the chronological markers of beginnings and ends can perform the intellectual and affective work of periodization. For me, the word “interwar” carries all the hope and loss of the 1920s and 1930s, but to a historian of the Middle Kingdom, it might be meaningless. When we lay varied timelines on top of one another, more and more complex renderings of the past emerge—as we consider legal milestones, influential popular culture, social and demographic shifts, and linguistic divides alongside the reigns of kings and ministers.

When narrative is the medium through which we deliver this meaning to our readers, the trajectory and emotion our stories imbibe can be governed by our knowledge of our subjects’ fate. When a political project lies at the center of a study, often the stakes for those involved were life and death. When a subject has great cultural or moral significance, or exists larger than life in contested popular imaginations, it is difficult, and perhaps dishonest, to try and step outside the looming shadow of the eventual end. For example, it is difficult not to write a melancholy or angry account of a quashed slave rebellion. Even accounts of the joy and creativity within such a project can read tinny and sharp against the harsh knowledge of the centuries that followed. The dramatic irony the reader dubiously enjoys allows the historian to use detail and sources in a particularly captivating way, since we know what our subjects do not—they will fail, and their friends and family will die. Identifying turning points in a series of events becomes almost perverse, when you know each decision or happenstance leads, thundering, down a path of no return.

Finally, the historian must defend the significance of her subject to the reader (and her colleagues) by learning a lesson from it. She may conclude that a project did not, in fact, fail—due to some criteria that were not considered in the initial assessment. She may conclude that a project was a failure, but remains significant because of how it changed its participants, or changed its environment, or paved the way for another, more obviously significant occurrence. If the failure was spectacular and earth-shattering, then this defense is unnecessary, but the historian needs to say something new about an event everyone considers common knowledge.

This is, of course, if you allow your narrative to be governed by the failure it explains. What could be the alternative? Historians tend to acknowledge, to varying degrees, the effect of their positionality on their work and use of sources. From our perch in the present, does a methodology exist that would allow us to suspend our knowledge of our subjects’ eventual failure, and proceed, as it were, spoiler-free? I don’t think that’s something anyone wants or believes to be possible, but it is an interesting intellectual space to imagine, if only for a moment.

Let us imagine that we don’t know how the story ends. Of course, such a space exists, and it is called the present. How do historians assess the significance of political projects in the immediate wakes of their demise? Accounts of events of significance to us today were written about from the moment they happened, and part of assembling our own narratives involves sifting through the ones that came before. But how do we, as historical actors ourselves, historicize the successes and failures of our present and recent past?

The Occupy movement began on July 13, 2011 when Micah White and Kalle Lasn of the Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine released a tactical briefing to their mailing list calling for the occupation of Wall Street and a new form of citizen-led protest. This year will be five years since the beginning of Occupy, and to many activists, writers, and organizers, this movement is far from finished. In March, White published his book The End of Protest: calling for a shift away from old protest tactics, towards a rescaling and reorientation of the terms of revolt. The book describes the history of protest and the form a new protest might take, and emphasizes the spiritual and non-hierarchical nature of this new protest as key to its success and resonance. I spoke with White last week about how he sees the history of the movement he helped create, and how we might view the failures of our fledgling century in light of how we have written about and internalized the successes and failures of the last one.

White referred to Occupy as a “constructive failure”:

DJ: What does that mean for Occupy’s role when we think about protest in the 21st century?

MW: I think that’s the only real revolutionary way to look at it. We are part of a five-thousand-year revolutionary uprising that has been passed from generation to generation. Everything that’s come before has been in some way, a constructive failure. The Russian Revolution was a constructive failure. The Paris Commune was a constructive failure…. There’s a tremendous inertia within contemporary activism not to learn from our past failures… the goal has to be revolution, but people don’t want revolution, they’re afraid of revolution. But seeing things as a constructive failure allows you to move closer to a revolution.

As participants in the present moment, we begin immediately to historicize the present and thereby forge the recent past. It is impossible to know the signposts future historians will use to separate us from our parents or grandparents, creating eras and pre- and post- where there once were just lives lived. But it is clear that we are leaving historians much more preservable data than they could ever sift through, and much more than our predecessors were given. Knowing this, we will see in our lifetimes the grand narratives of 21st-century failure written and re-written. The particular problems involved with writing the history of a failed project deserve our careful thought, since they reveal a great deal about what we consider a loss and what we consider collateral damage. Lives lost during conflict can amount to an overall failure in policy, but a peace conference in Geneva can render it successful all over again. It is already happening: histories of the invasion of Iraq, of the 2008 housing bubble, of the Syrian civil war, of austerity and of police brutality—these could be the crises that define our time, used as buzzwords and explanatory notes on why the next decades would unfold as they did.

Disha Jani is a writer based in Toronto. Her research follows the movements and writings of anti-imperialist organizers in the British Empire between the First and Second World Wars. Broadly speaking, Disha is curious about the intersection of socialist, post-colonial, nationalist, and imperial histories, and the ways in which memory and narrative mediate the past, present, and future for historical subjects and people living today. She will be a Ph.D candidate in History at Princeton University in the fall.

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