“We are doomed because some of us look to Europe while others look to the past.”
Fanon once spoke about how some in the decolonizing world were looking to Europe while others were looking to the past, and that this was the reason why we are doomed. When I heard this quote last week, I had a moment. I realized I was one of those people that looked to the past (and had previously looked to Europe, but no need to focus on that, ahem).
I definitely have the tendency to romanticize the past, often in ways that are in line with my ideological beliefs. I might talk about a pre-capitalist past when some societies didn’t function based on greed and selfishness in order to show that capitalism is not natural, or I might talk about how types of colonialism found before European colonialism were not the same structurally, to show that European colonialism has altered the world in ways other types would probably not have been able to do. But there’s always this voice that asks whether these things happened, or whether they have also been created by people like me who want to believe that a different future is possible because a different past existed.
Romanticizing the past is comforting and is one way to feel better about the world today. In a decolonial context, it is also tied to one’s self-image. We need to talk about what Egyptians were like in the past so we don’t get disheartened by what Egypt is today. We need to be able to show that Arabs have done great things before, just so we know that it is possible. But not only is it impossible to know the past, it is also a way of playing into the discourse of Arab inferiority. By arguing that Arabs did great things in the past, I am still engaging the discourse even though I’m trying to counter it.
The question then is, why can’t we build a future that is not based on a romantic past? Why can’t we critique, deconstruct and then reconstruct what we have today, without referring back to what might have been 1000 years ago? The reality is that we will never actually know what happened, because of all the problems associated with recording and remembering history. I project onto history what I wanted it to have been, and others do the same. There is no objective account, even though some may come close. So what use is it anyway?
But then I begin to think about how it is useful because it functions as a way of imagining alternatives, and I really believe that imagining alternatives is the first step of disobedience and critical thinking. Once we accept that the world doesn’t inevitably have to be like this, we can begin to critique it and change it (as seemingly impossible as that is). So isn’t romanticizing history one way of imagining a different world?
On the one hand, I see the emotional benefits of looking for comfort in a made-up past and for using that to believe that a different future can exist. On the other hand I also see the problems with this. Not only does it erase the suffering of marginalized people in this romantic past, it also limits us to trying to rebuild this imagined past, which is now impossible. It seems like the only way to move forward is to work with what we have today. None of us exist outside of this, and we all reproduce it constantly. The only way, I think, to change anything is to continuously resist and subvert it from within – the only position we can do so from anyway.
This discussion has also reminded me of how often Muslims look to the romanticized Islamic past of the time of the Prophet. Not only does this assume that there were no major problems, it is also futile because there is no going back to that, ever.
I guess that’s the main take-away – there is no going back to that. Our world is what it is today, not what it was or what it could have been. We may hate capitalism, patriarchy, and all these other systems, but this is what we are and this is what defines us.
So the conclusion is I need to listen to Fanon and stop looking to the past (except in rare moments of day dreaming maybe) and instead look at how we can use critiques of what we have today to construct a different way of being. If that’s possible. I’m still not sure about that =)