In the Event of History: Reading the Mime of Memory in the Present of Public History

  • Premesh Lalu University of the Western Cape
Keywords: representation, memory, archive, critical history, nationalism, public history, Hintsa, Eastern Cape


Premesh Lalu's 'In the Event of History' was written in 2000, before the publication of his first book, The Deaths of Hintsa: Postapartheid South Africa and the Shape of Recurring Pasts in 2009, as a preparatory statement for his doctoral study on which it was based. 'In the Event of History' is published here for the first time, lightly revised. While the outlines of the argument of the Hintsa book are clear enough, it is addressed, as it is not in The Deaths of Hintsa, to the field of public history. Noting how productive public history's notion of 'making history' has been as discussed in the introduction to this special issue and in 'In the Event of History', it foregrounds the ways in which the past is mediated in and by the present Lalu identifies a limit to public history: it leaves the spatio-temporal signifier, 'the present', largely unthought. To think through the genealogy of this problematic, Lalu turns to different nationalist narrations and commemorations of Hintsa, the nineteenth century Xhosa king who was killed by British soldiers in 1835. Attuned to the numerous critiques of nationalism, what Lalu aims to abide by here are 'the openings that nationalism established within its concept of the present'. The paper juxtaposes public history and nationalist texts of memory 'to define a crisis for the discipline of history, as Lalu writes, 'a crisis where critical history may set about doing its work'. That work, for Lalu, is a practice of reading, in a present that offers anything but a secure and stable ground. The argument is made twice, as it were, in the content and form of Lalu's deft readings, and in the disjunctive present in which he will have returned to the figure of Hintsa. If Lalu's reading of 'the present' puts it in question, 'the present' from which he reads is one that is, at once, sedimentary, fragmentary, and, in the psychoanalytic terms he deploys, one of afterwardsness. This paper drafted more than 20 years ago not only engages the theme of this special issue, but it also uncannily addresses and questions our present.