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  • Writer's pictureJose Arrieta

Ahistoric: Events outside of our written record, but not less relevant

What we define as history is the collection of records that detail things that happened in our world. The invention of writing defines the transition of a society from prehistoric to historic. But what happens with important events that fail to be recorded?

I will call these events ahistoric. Ahistoric defines events that happened, that had important repercussion but by being outside our collective records can at most be taken as a latent variable in our theorizing.

The importance of latent events becomes overt when we think of situations that made it to the history books, but just barely. For example, the contributions of whistleblowers helped us broaden our history. But without people like Mark Felt, Edward Snowden, Rose McGowan, or Frances Haugen, our history books would be quite different. So would be our view of the world.

History is written by the victors. If we were to think of what characterized a víctor, during the past half century, at most, we could call them WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, and Developed. Maybe not industrialized and developed at the time of Colombus, but that adjective becomes increasingly applicable as time goes on.

The fact that only weird history is recorded, takes center stage in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. The fictional novel is a wonderful example of what we miss out when victors write history. It relates the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo person in the time of European expansion in Nigeria. Achebe beautifully presents the humaneness within Okonkwo, a broken protagonist, but one with value.

At the end of the book Okonkwo commits suicide, after his decisions, values, and historical context drove him to this unfortunate fate. After Okonkwo dies, Achebe changes his narrator. Now the narrator's becomes a white District Commissioner. The commissioner is in charge of writing the history of the district he commands.

As Achebe ends his book he writes: "The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He [the commissioner] had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger."

I would take Achebe's recollection of the life of Okonkwo over "a reasonable paragraph, at any rate", more so one that sees the tragedy of the Igbo as one of "pacification of... primitive tribes". Yet, when looking at the history of the colonized, the losers, and the oppressed, the only texts we can read are at best the ones written by the District Commissioner. The rest become part of our ahistoric past. Forgotten but important. I wish there was a way of remembering the history we cannot read.

PS: How many actions firms do or fail to do become ahistoric? An annual report rarely covers missed opportunities, minor investments, minor failures, sexual harassment cases, etc. I'd argue that ahistoric events are of marked relevance in organizations. But how can we study what is not written down?

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