Archives for category: first person

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.

__

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

 

__

The New Social Contract_Logo_FINAL

Ok Covid-19.

It’s a thing.

A big thing.

And its consequences for universities are going to be enormous.

Like really.

That’s why now is the time to start a conversation about how the relationship between universities, society and the state might be remade.

Because, let’s face it, the virus has pulled on the threads of the already worn fabric of higher education policy.

What comes next is a question the sector has been asking for some time. Now it’s a question that has a great deal of urgency.

What kind of universities does our society need?

As someone who has long been interested in universities and their relationship to society, I figured I’d better have a go at talking about these questions.

So with UTS Impact Studios, I’ve been making a podcast — recording from under a ladder with a duvet on top of it, in my spare room.

The trailer is out now and the first episode will release 4 May so SUBSCRIBE on all the usual podcast platforms (just search for “The New Social Contract”). Here are a few handy links:

Apple Podcasts  //  Spotify  //  Stitcher // Whooshkaa

Screenshot 2019-07-17 at 13.24.01

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about expertise and its history and the ways that academics like me deploy it to underpin our knowledge and authority claims.

This is my current bio, taken from my UTS website.

Screenshot 2019-07-17 at 18.14.11I send versions of this bio to conferences and academic journals and reproduce it in thousands of conversations. It follows a pretty defined formula, beginning with my name (often also given with pre-noms), my position in a hierarchy and my employing institution. It then proceeds to mobilise my publications in order to establish my authority and field of expertise, complete with the sanction of academic publishers and grant-making bodies. At the end come more references to credentialising institutions that stand as further markers of status and serve as evidence of my international formation and legibility.

It is a bio that is geared towards establishing my standing as a professional and as an expert, who is fluent in a language of specialised knowledge that is portable, authoritative and objective.

And this language does work. Since the early part of the twentieth century university credentialed expertise has extended its reach into more and more knowledge domains,  underpinning the technocratic forms of rule-making that have shaped our societies, political systems and economies. Today it continues to be my passport to speak in academic and professional contexts across the world.

The problem is, I’m just not sure that apparently objective and disembodied expertise is what our world needs any more (if it ever did), and not least because there is no such thing as objective and disembodied knowledge free from social and economic relations in the first place.

When you look at it, my academic bio says very little about me. Although it obliquely speaks to some episodes in my life that were hugely important to me (my time at Oxford for example), it says little about where I come from and the forces and belongings that fashioned me. It does not reveal my values, my obligations or my commitments, and it speaks in only the most minimal terms about where I live, why I do what I do, and how that is connected to the community in which I make my home. The only thing to which it holds me accountable is the world of trans-local expertise and the institutions that retail in it.

Reading Bruno Latour’s recent book Down to Earth: Politics in the new Climate Regime* has mobilised me to try something quite different and unfamiliar. He ends his book by introducing himself and describing “where he would like to land”. In the process he turns on its head the usual formula for performing academic credentials to re-situate himself in a place and a set of values, hopes and solidarities.

So, following Latour, I’ve attempted to write a different kind of academic biography, one that locates me as a part of an historical process of formation (familial, settler colonial, religious), points to the ground I call home, foregrounds my commitments and my values, and understands my institutional location as the outcome of these commitments.

In short, it makes me political. But it also makes me a person who is much more than a brain on a stick.

It was, I confess, deeply uncomfortable to write, and probably it’s still a work in progress. Stripping away the apparatus of status built up over nearly twenty years (eek) of life in universities, made me feel vulnerable and exposed.

But I think that, really, is the point. In speaking about where I stand, I make myself available. And from there grows the possibility of relationships with both others and with places, and of common action. And goodness knows, that is what the world is going to need a lot more of as we find a way to live together in our common home.

Tamson Pietsch was born and grew up in Adelaide on the lands of the Kaurna people, as part of Australia’s German Lutheran community, and now makes her home in Sydney. She believes that the ways we make sense of who we are and how we got here helps to shape the societies we are striving to build. Tamson is committed to the roles that universities and other cultural institutions play as homes of this meaning-making. This commitment has been shaped by experiences and relationships made in academic and civic institutions in Adelaide, Melbourne, Oxford and London. It is a commitment that underpins Tamson’s work as an historian of higher education and ideas, and as Director of the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. 

––

* Go read this book! Not only has it helped me make sense of the entangled politics of ecological destruction, inequality, deregulation and globalisation, but it also points to an alternative. We need to learn new ways to inhabit the earth in order to live together in our common home.

 

%d bloggers like this: