History as Corkscrew and Kaleidescope

I recently finished reading A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 in which Paul Berman, once again, skillfully details the shifts in the New Left movements spawned by the student revolts of 1968, including second wave feminism, violent anarchist trends like the Weather Underground, the gay awakening following the Stonewall Riots, and the influence of both diplomats and cultural icons in the Eastern Bloc.  The finale of Berman’s account is “A Backward Glance at the End of History” in which the author examines the impact that the political journey 68ers made on ideas of what exactly “history” is.  Although I was familiar with the framework of ’68 outlined in Two Utopias (thanks to my research for senior sem in ’08), the final chapter presented an interesting and thought-provoking argument, one worthy of a bit of summation and reflection.*

In his conclusion, Berman expounds on two major theories of history.  First, the idea of history as a “corkscrew,” most famously championed by the Reagan-era intellectual Francis Fukuyama, the author of The End of History and the Last Man.**  The corkscrew theory suggests that history ultimately has forward motion and that, for all the apparent chaos, the series of events eventually becomes progress.  History is also finite; the events, or at least the progress, have to end somewhere down the line.

The second idea, championed by the French philosopher and former Maoist André Glucksmann in The 11th Commandment, suggests that history is best understood as a kaleidoscope.  All of the apparent chaos is just that–chaos.  Change happens and perhaps there are some similarities among events, but there is no way to fit everything together.  History is potentially infinite; it’s entirely possible that the series of events could continue eternally. 

Berman rightly observes that the two theories are irreconcilable, but also points out that both theories have their merit and we need not completely ignore the perspective allowed by one theory just because we side with the other.  Besides, it’s difficult to prove that either is entirely wrong or entirely correct. 

So then, what benefits can the readers and writers of history derive from each idea?†

The corkscrew theory, I think, legitimizes the formulation of narratives in an era suspicious of metanarratives.  Three different students might come up with three different narratives, but at least all of them think that can tell a story of how A led to B which became C.  This particular freedom satisfies a human need for purpose and creates the possibility of a story being passed on.  (Chaos might be interesting to observe, but it’s beastly to attempt to retell it.)  Furthermore, the idea of an end to the events plays well into the pervasive egoism and inescapable mortality of human beings.  It stands to reason that if there is an end to my own life, there must be an end to everyone else’s and to their actions and events.  Therefore there must be an end to history.

However, I don’t think historians or humand in general are always comfortable with confident narratives or admissions of mortality.  The kaleidoscope theory therefore satisfies some equally human, but paradoxical, sensibilities.  The idea of a history as a series of disconnected, but sometimes similar events, allows an historian to admit a limited perspective.  It frees the historian to notice similarities and make connections if it seems reasonable to do so, but there is absolutely no pressure to construct an overarching narrative.  One’s tale might not be quite so neat and tidy, but at least it’s honest and doesn’t attempt to force the events to fit a theory.   It also legitimizes new theories and perspectives on old stories; it becomes perfectly appropriate to formulate a new narrative when the viewer changes and the metaphorical lens shifts.

I’ve oversimplified Berman’s chapter and the original theories quite a bit here and might revisit them again at a later time.  In the meantime, I’m wondering if there are other applicable or prominent metaphors for history?  Do the corkscrew and kaleidoscope still make sense?  Or is there a better idea that describes the series of events we call history?  Just something to think about. 

*The following paragraphs are a very brief summation of section one of Berman’s final chapter.  He goes into far greater detail about Fukuyama’s and Glucksmann’s family backgrounds, education and political maturation.  The whole chapter is fascinating, but outside the scope of this blog post for the moment.

**Fukuyama is not himself a 68er, but Berman outlines the philosophical influences that connect Fukuyama to those actually involved in the revolts.

The last few paragraphs are my own musings.  Just so you know that the potentially flawed ideas are mine and not Berman’s.


3 thoughts on “History as Corkscrew and Kaleidescope

  1. Hmm… history as a tapestry? history as a dance? as a tale told by an idiot? (heehee) It’s interesting that both theories seem to imply that the future will somehow be the key, and either give meaning to history or deny it. Apparently geography even suffers from related questions (as in, meta- or disconnected narratives) — I don’t know if you’ve already come across this article, but it’s really intriguing and I bet you’d like it! http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2010/1007.gravois.html

    • Good point Riv–and good catch. If it sounds like the future is the key to the theories, then I should probably clarify my explanations. Both theories, after all, are an attempt to make sense of global history post-Cold War–how should one understand the past in light of a very different sort of present, now devoid of a unifying conflict? Some editing may be in order… And thanks for the article! Most amusing.

      • Oh no! if there was any confusion, I highly doubt that it has anything to do with the clarity of your explanations (it probably a lot to do with the time of night in the UK and the general fogginess of me). So don’t edit this one, but do keep writing more! : )

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