Dissolving into history? Historicizing Modern Nation Building

  • Mark Hearn (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationPresentation


Martin L. Davies argues that history ‘…dominates the public mind; its hold over the social imagination is total.’ In Historics and a number of subsequent books and scholarly articles Davies has described how individuals and communities are ‘imprisoned by history’, an oppressive domination of the past that replicates the ‘same old same old’ in an already historicized world; an oppression reinforced by the works of historians. Following Nietzsche, Davies argues that ‘[t]he historicizing mentality would absorb everything…The fabric of experience would dissolve into history, the particular textures of ordinary days irretrievable without it.’

The inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 relied on history to provide legitimacy and national identity; the creation of a new nation seemed inconceivable without an investment in history that deeply infiltrated the construction of the present. John Quick and Robert Garran’s Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth observed how the fabric of the Constitution – and perhaps, as Davies suggests, experience itself – dissolved into history. Quick and Garran’s commentary, published in the same year as the federation of the Australian colonies drew the nation into being, described the Constitution as a document with roots that penetrated ‘deep into the past’; ‘there is hardly a phrase in it without a history’. The Annotated Constitution is one of several works published in the immediate post federation period that invoked history to legitimize nation building.

Do the narratives and ambitions of post federation Australian nation building justify Davies claims of an imprisoning historicism? Aleida Assman has argued that an historicizing mentality was vital for the requirements of the development of modern progress as it evolved from the nineteenth century, invoking the past in order not to perpetuate established patterns but to break with them, and thus create a dynamic future. In How History Works Davies acknowledges that ‘[h]istoricization could be defined as the quintessential experience of modernity’ but argues the historicizing justifications of capitalism generate repeated patterns of inequality and environmental degeneration, anxiety and apprehension. Reference to the nuance and particularity of nation building at a crucial point of globalizing, turn of the century modernity helps to test Davies interpretation of modern experience.
Period20 Aug 2018
Event titlePlace and Displacement: The Spacing of History, 3rd International Network for Theory of History Conference
Event typeConference
LocationStockholm, SwedenShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational