AT&D #33. Historical Agency & Passivity

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The concept of “Agency” in history addresses the extent individuals and groups have the ability to act/be active in the historical narrative. The opposite of this is being acted upon or passivity being assigned to groups and individuals.

Based from the chapter, who is given agency when empires and nations are used to study the past? Who is acted upon? Does agency flow in a singular way or is it complex and interconnected? How does this impact understanding of the past?

Coming from this week’s readings, there are multiple examples of empires that have been given agency while its ruled people have been given, likewise, passivity. Among the discussions, the empires of Europe dividing Africa and Britain controlling India have been mentioned and these examples fit with that typical scenario. However, there is a unique case where a group of people have been both subjected to agency and passivity. In Chapter 26, Armesto brings up the case of the Jews. “They had no national homeland.” Due to this, Jews have been spread throughout Europe (with the diaspora originating after the fall of the Kingdom of Israel/Judah), with each population being subjected under different empires (i.e. Holly Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, etc.)

Regarding this case, the Jews took the role of passivity as these empires told the narrative of their history; this was further exasperated by the rulers of these empires persecuting the religion and encouraging anti-semitism. As a result, some Jews took the option of assimilating in the country of living. Others, started to look toward what was and still is perceived as a new homeland (somewhere in Africa or Palestine, the latter which led to the establishment of Israel, the subsequent flow of Jews into the country, and spark of the Arab-Israeli conflict). When this did take place, the role of the Jews went from passivity to agency as they could once again continue their narrative of what history they could bring (through the efforts of restabilizing their culture in one place of nationalism).

Effectively, the Jews went through a role-reversal in this scenario. It is unique situations like this that describe how agency/passivity is a complex matter and how one nation’s act of agency may impact another’s own and vice versa. In all, our understanding of the past is impacted by how much historical evidence there is from a nation/empire/ culture in agency as they have more of a presence with regards to written resources and artifacts.

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