History of the Present

portrait juergen martschukat

by Jürgen Martschukat

Jürgen Martschukat is Professor of North American History at the University of Erfurt.

A history of the present does not (of course) drag present categories into the past. Rather than projecting the past onto the present, such a history seeks to illuminate the present through the past. Yet, the history of the present does not (of course) conceptualize the present as the telos of the past, but acknowledges that our present has been formed in the past in multiple ways, as the editors of Geschichte der Gegenwart, one of the most inspiring historical blogs, articulate their project in seemingly simple terms. Writing a history of the present means comprehending history as a space in which the present has taken shape; it means hearing the echoes and seeing the shadows of the past. This space is not limited to our most recent history, but may stretch to the Middle Ages and even further back in time. We have to draw on history of all kinds and time periods if we aspire to get to grips with our own present, identify its problems and paradigms as they have developed over the course of history, and engage critically in our most contentious debates.

Here, being critical – or critique – neither means pointing out weaknesses or mistakes nor making moral judgements. In a history of the present, critique is understood as the act of questioning the seeming self-evidence of present perceptions, paradigms, and power structures by uncovering their historicity and thus revealing their malleability and evanescence. The point of critique, and therefore of a history of the present, is to lay bare the potential for transformation and “to open a system to change,” to quote historian Joan Scott. Histories of the present deconstruct and question the seemingly pre-political nature of existing power structures, for instance with regard to people and groups who are perceived as different within a society. Historically evolved conditions determine whether and how they can participate in and contribute to society, what access they have to society’s resources, how they can make their voices heard, and to what extent they are recognized and count as subjects. As a critical undertaking, histories of the present “ought to make us uncomfortable” (Joan Scott) by revealing the historicity of our values, relationships, and power relations, for example by showing how history has brought forth a voluntarily acting and engaging individual as the ideal subject type and what this entails. As historian Joanne Meyerowitz has underlined, writing the history of the present is a political endeavor: it makes historians’ voices heard when it comes to debating and understanding current issues and problems in all their complexity and depth. 

Seeking to understand and to engage with the present by turning to the past means recognizing the significance and the power of history. It means recognizing history as a formative force in itself. If we listen to history, as Michel Foucault claims in his famous essay Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, we find that there is no “timeless and essential secret” behind things, “but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms” (p. 142). A history of the present uncovers the acts and processes entailed in the fabrication of the present in the past.

Further Reading

Suggested Citation: Martschukat, Jürgen: “History of the Present”, Voluntariness: History – Society – Theory, September 2021, https://www.voluntariness.org/history-of-the-present/

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