"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

History Repeating

A few days ago, cooper left a comment on my post Why We Study History, in which she said:

… it would seem if we truly used history correctly we would not repeat it so often….

Since then, I’ve been carrying that thought around in my head, considering different ways that I might respond. This is not my response.

She’s absolutely right, of course; it’s impossible to study history over any time period longer than twenty seconds, without noticing cycles in human actions and reactions that seem to generate essentially the same social and cultural conditions. Clothing and hairstyles change, and dialogue and postures shift a little, but the broader results often seem about the same. Keeping my generalist hat on for a moment, let me just leave it at this: history repeating itself is as much a cliche as it is an actual historical condition; and as both of those things, it deserves a healthy dose of skeptical analysis.

And that is actually my main point, about all I could explore in this tiny post. When we talk of history repeating itself, we can’t stop there. We can’t really start there, either…. instead, I think we would need to latch on to some specific element of the cycles we’re trying to unravel, and, starting there, pull all sorts of interdisciplinary tricks to search for common threads and relationships among history, science, art, literature, economics, politics, and technology. It’s these things, along with the philosophical ideas that mold them and drive them forward, that define historical cycles. I can’t think of any theoretical reason why history has to repeat itself, or why history, as cooper stated, has to dictate anything … yet it would seem it has and still does, in cycles that are getting shorter and shorter and shorter….

They say the next big thing is here,
That the revolution’s near.
But to me it seems quite clear
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.
The newspapers shout:
A new style is growing.
But it doesn’t know
If it’s coming or going.
There is fashion, there is fad.
Some is good, some is bad.
And the joke is rather sad,
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.




  1. Such a large subject.
    I think of Africa and the tyranny there all with the excuse of fear of history ( of colonialism repeating itself). Not that the fear is baseless but is more often than not used as an excuse.

    To go further and because I am lazy this night to quote

    Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.

  2. Hi, cooper … thanks again for dropping in.

    Machiavelli makes a good point, of course. Another element of historical cycles I might like to explore sometime stems from the fact that each generation has to learn so much about the past almost from scratch … that is, we have no innate knowledge of our own history or of anyone else’s, so cycles may occur at least partially because we have to keep starting over. I’m sure that’s too simplistic an explanation for the broader idea of historical cycles, but I have no doubt that it plays into it.

    Interesting you mentioned colonialism repeating itself … That would actually be a good place to start, to tear apart the ideas and politics behind colonialism and try to learn why it occurs and why it keeps recurring. A “large subject” certainly, but we need to shed our fears of large subjects as much as possible (since they just keep getting larger). I like to hope that over time, the broader availability of information and the increased speed of its transmission might give future generations new options for exploring and understanding the past, and intercepting damaging cycles.

    Bye for now,


    (P.S. If a plugin I installed is working, you should have gotten this as an e-mail. I would greatly appreciate it if you would let me know…. tx!)

  3. Dale – In my opinion, the best way to study history is in a chronological fashion – then decide what genre or era you wish to explore.

    Since Cooper cited Africa – if you’re interested – start with:
    Africana – The Concise Desk Reference – Appiah & Gates
    Africa – A Biography of the Continent – John Reader
    Frontiers – Noel Mostert
    The River – Edward Hooper – mainly deals with the search for the source of HIV/AIDS, and has interesting items regarding Africa.

    There are other books that would round out your reading – if you truly want to be a student of history, let me know and I’ll see if I can steer you in the right direction.

    By the way, the reason history repeats itself is that we forget or never learn the lessons that history should have taught us.

    Case in point – How often do we hear about someone getting scammed, and it’s usually a elderly person. Quite often, yes?

    The same things happened in the 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s and were lead stories in the newspapers and on television, politicians rose up and demanded justice, yadda, yadda, yadda.

    After almost 40 years of this happening over and over – one would think we’d learn.

    Take care.

  4. Morgan,

    Thanks for the suggestions. One of the classes I ‘ll be taking soon (see: http://www.afewgoodpens.com/blog/category/about-me/) will cover the history of Africa, in part, so I’ll keep you’re reading list in mind.

    As I move into a masters program, I’m more likely to explore a genre than a period, probably something where history and cultural studies intersect. Haven’t really defined that yet; I’ve got a couple of years left to finish the BA first. What I’ve covered so far, though, has stepped through various eras from early modern Europe through contemporary European and American history, politics, and government, and I’ll be focusing on several specific regions (Russia, Middle East, and Eastern Europe, for example) in the courses I have left. So, in effect, I’m doing a little of both … survey-type courses of an era, followed by an international/regional focus.

    Bye for now….

  5. Pingback: Graffiti - Graphic Design Developed From Older Cultures » Inspiration Bit

Leave a reply ...

%d bloggers like this: