As the renowned Uruguayan journalist, writer, and novelist Eduardo Galeano once put it, “History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.’” Since the enlightenment and the development of the critical historical method, there has existed a subtle certainty in those who study and write history that history is on a never-ending path towards new, better, and the novel. Not unlike the progress of technology or human rights over the centuries, many historians and laypersons alike believe that we are destined to progress, like the ever expanding and accelerating universe onward and onward we shall go. As Galeano points out, however, there is something about the historical narrative of progress that runs counter to our experiences of history. We often find ourselves individually and collectively saying to ourselves, “Here I am again.”
While some believe that the future is open and undetermined, there is a real sense in which so many of the problems we face, both as individuals and as larger societies, are just iterations of what came before. As the saying goes, it’s the same play, just with different actors. While our circumstances may change, our motivations, predilections, and weaknesses do not. Before iPads, children were enraptured with television, and before that, the radio. Before that, books, and before that stories around the fire or the mythology of the stars. Children’s insatiable curiosity and desire to be entertained have never changed even though technology has. Obviously, things are different. But then again, how different are they really?
There is a spectrum to such beliefs. No one is asserting that we are like Bill Murray, just relieving the same day as he does in the 1993 cult classic “Groundhog Day.” Murray, a weatherman, awakens each day to find himself inexplicably living the same day, Groundhog’s Day, over and over again. There is little novelty or spontaneity in Murray’s world. While he is able to change the way he lives, everyone else acts and responds in the very same way each and every day. To say the world becomes predictable is an understatement. There is no change. There is no growth. There is no progress in any true sense. This is not the kind of history Galeano is talking about.
Instead of conceiving of progress in a linear fashion, some historians have argued for understanding progress in terms of a spiral staircase. A spiral staircase has spiraled circles of equal diameter stacked atop one another unfolding upwards. Consider the perspective of an observer who knows nothing about spiral staircases and is looking straight down on such a staircase from above. A friend of theirs is standing on the spiral staircase at where 12 o’clock would be on the face of a clock. From the perspective of the observer looking down on the staircase, regardless of whether the friend is on the first, second, third, or forth level of the staircase, if she is standing at the 12 o’clock spot, the friend will look as if she is standing in the same place. The observer might even ask of their friend as she ascends the staircase, “Why do you keep walking in circles?” each time they pass the 12 o’clock spot. In a sense, the friend is in the same spot. But then again, it’s obvious to us when we consider the vertical plane that progress, vertical progress, is being made.
History and the future are not unlike an ascending spiral staircase. In a way, one’s been here before. And yet despite this, we somehow continue onward and upward.
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