[CSH Occasional Seminar Series]
“What is History” in the 2020s? (Romila Thapar)
A conversation with
“What is History” in the 2020s?
In India and Beyond
This session was conceived as a platform for conversation between historians, other scholars, and public figures who are prepared to reflect on the role of history in contemporary arenas and markets of ideas, opinions, and fabrications.
For this installment, we have the pleasure to welcome Romila Thapar on 2 March 2020 at 4:30pm. Given that most of us know Prof. Thapar’s work, the format of the seminar this time will consist of a short statement by her, after which the audience will be able to ask questions. We hope for a lively and fruitful discussion.
Concept: If the nineteenth century was “a great age for facts”, in words of E.H. Carr reflecting in the mid-20th century on the Positivists and empirical, common sense school of history—fuelled behind the scene by European imperial confidence—seemingly naïve, but mostly dangerous way of thinking about historiography and historians’ craft, the twenty-first century is now confirmed in the corrosive sphere of gluttonous media, as a great age of alternative facts and historical falsifications.
Where does this new situation leave us historians, and our discipline? Where are we historians heading today and how should we define our ethical and epistemological tasks? What is the purpose of history as a discipline, so easily erased and rewritten by any new authoritarian government or identitarian movement targeting and steering the irrational enthusiasm of their political constituencies? Are historians relevant at all in the Present that seems to be devouring us all in our newly imposed social, cultural and ethnic identities that leave us less and less choice? Can a Muslim teach Sanskrit? Can a Christian teach the history of Islam? Should descendants of African slaves brought to America be defined as migrants? Who are the rightful “natives” and who are the “illegal emigrants” on the chessboard of the contemporary political map? Is “Blut und Boden” our destiny, as it was thought by a minority for a while in the 20th century, and ended in disaster for all? In the shadow of a potential planetary extinction of our own making, what can a historian do with words and in acts? What kind of history is history after the postcolonial turn?
It is the belief that history and historians still (and should) matter. This inspires us to shelve the doomsday scenarios of the future and conjure up the pasts that can teach us not only how we got to this illiberal political limbo that seems to be as destructive as Australian bushfire, but perhaps also how to reinstate dialogue, intelligence, tolerance and generosity that is supposed to govern civil society as we imagined it in the late 20th century.
About the speaker: Romila Thapar is a historian as well as an emerita professor (JNU) whose principal area of study is ancient India. She is the author of several books including the popular volume, A History of India. She has been offered the Padma Bhushan award twice but has declined it both times. In 2008, the US Library of Congress named Thapar a co-winner, with Peter Brown, of the Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity.
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