sun-220524_1920Back in January, as smoke choked the air of Australia’s east coast cities and a billion animals died, Frances Flanagan and I tried to wrestle with a question that had .

What does it mean to do academic history in these times?

In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that there were twelve years remaining in which the global community could act to reduce carbon emissions by 45% and avert runaway climate collapse. Their report urged “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure … and industrial systems” at a scale and a speed that was “unprecedented”.

The enormity of this challenge is dispiriting. There is no ready-made human community in waiting equipped to forge such change – certainly not one with a democratic mandate. This, as the world is belatedly coming to see, is the tragedy of our inheritance and the challenge of our moment. It is a challenge that spans the immediate and the far distant, the intimate and the general. It is at once metaphysical and mundane, existential and political. It will transform our individual and collective human life and it requires concerted and co-ordinated action. Our existing political communities are stunningly ill-equipped to meet it.

With the summer’s fires encircling our cities, Frances and I sought to think seriously about how the urgency of this challenge might press upon our own home-discipline. We looked not only for the ways it might shape the content of what we teach and research, but also its connection to our epistemic orientation: the ways we face the world and seek to orient subjects towards certain forms of seeing, understanding and acting.

Of course practices of making sense of the past are as old as human time, and have long been undertaken by a host of human actors from a variety of knowledge traditions. But historicity, as it is practised and taught within a range of disciplines at the start of the twenty-first century, carries with it a very particular orientation. It one that is predicated on an impatience with the idea that events or structures are eternal, static or natural. It understands people as subject to forces beyond their control, but also as having power to act on and in the world. Historians today tend to locate their actors in the midst of things: acting as best they can in their context with the tools they have; acting courageously, or secretly or self-interestedly or collectively; pursuing world-making on small and large scales.

There seemed to us to be nothing inherently progressive or conservative in this approach to time. On both the left and right side of politics, it is one that acknowledges animating forces and human striving. It sees the world as sacred and profane, replete with systems of power and possibilities for change and love and hope and tragedy. It is an orientation to power, time and human subjectivity that presents the possibility of a world in which structures can be re-ordered, subjectivities can be re-aligned, and everyone’s actions matter.

It might seem rather obvious to say but, writing under the skies of Australia’s ‘savage summer’, this seemed to us to be an approach to power and human agency that is very different to another orientation that has come to shape how states ‘think’, how politicians and business leaders speak, and the way people from all walks of life understand themselves and their worlds.

This other orientation promotes a vision of the world that is largely antithetical to the possibility of change and human agency. It flattens the differences of place and context and it tends towards fatalism – as evident, say, in its framing of the ‘inevitability’ of artificial intelligence or the ‘naturalness’ of wildfire. It is a technocratic and managerialist orientation that accords a very small class of people decision-making power, while reducing the agency of almost everyone else to the realm of consumption. In the process it seeks to depoliticise issues that urgently need politicising.

For those who feel the urgency of these times, perhaps doing history means seeing themselves as a part of this high-stakes debate about the systems that create and structure the world we all live in?

Our article, published recently as part of a special issue of History Australia, explores what this might mean for the ways historians think about themselves and the ways they write and speak. Thanks to the journal, the piece is available on open access for a limited time, but if you can’t beat the pay wall, the full text is available here for free.

Twelve short years are projected. How will we dwell in that time? Do we still believe it is open? That the ends predicted are inevitable? The communities inviting people to understand themselves as active and their worlds as re-makeable are few and far between.

With the time we have been given, let us speak the thing we know to be true: that in halting, inestimable and surprising ways, societies change, and in acting together, people have a hand in changing them.

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Tamson Pietsch & Frances Flanagan (2020),Here we stand: temporal thinking in urgent times’, History Australia, 17:2, 252-271, DOI: 10.1080/14490854.2020.1758577

 

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