Archives for category: humanities

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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Olivia_TamsonOne of the best things I did in 2018 was help make the History Lab podcast. I’ve had the immense privilege of working with some amazingly talented and dedicated young producers and learnt a lot from them about story telling and meaning making and also just sheer hard work. Let no one cast shade on Millennials! These people have poured their hearts into this endeavour.

Together we have brought to life through audio the process of historical investigation – the asking questions and the sleuthing through sources and in many cases the not knowing.  Hearing steps echoing in empty corridors and puzzling over handwriting invites the listener into the process of discovery.  It opens up the experience of history-making to all who listen.

We wanted to do this because we are convinced that doing the work of thinking and making meaning together is central to building a good society.  And I think we really have made a difference. So far the podcast has had 44K listens in under 6 months! (how’s that for academic impact?!) And we’ve also hosted two events in Sydney that have brought together the community of listeners, culture-keepers and meaning-makers.

So if you are looking for something to listen to whilst driving across the Hay plains or waiting at Gatwick airport or flying across the Pacific, there are 8+ History Lab episodes that will surprise and delight you. They are each about 30 min long and you will get to hear me, among other things, puzzling over colonial love triangles and thinking hard about jelly babies. And if you like them we’d love it if you shared them with your friends.

Just visit https://historylab.net/ or search for “History Lab” on itunes or google podcasts or in any of the usual audio places.

Season 1

  • S1Ep1: Lindy Chamberlain and the afterlife of evidence – What happens to evidence after a criminal trial? Tamson goes looking for answers and finds herself in the shadow of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in Australian history.
  • S1Ep2: Damages of a broken heart – Why would the Courts be interested in the failed love lives of working class people? And what does a convict’s daughter, a barrister and a former Prime Minister have to do with it? We discover litigious lovers, colonial love triangles and the emergence of medicalised heartbreak on a quest to understand the history of love.
  • S1Ep3: When the Titanic sank in the desert – In the middle of outback Australia, over 400 kilometres from the closest ocean, stands a monument dedicated to the memory of the Titanic. Why? Encountering the politics of memory, Ninah and Tamson discover that a story about trying to remember reveals much about what we choose to forget.
  • S1Ep4: The making of History Lab – What does it take to make History Lab? Find out in our ‘Making of History Lab’ bonus interlude episode. Featuring some audience listening participation!
  • S1Ep5: Fishing for answers – Jutting into Sydney’s glittering harbour, the Sydney Opera House plays host to musicians and dancers, actors and singers. But beneath the notes of their voices, another song echoes across the city’s waters. Can we still hear it?

Season 2

  • S2Ep1: The Bank, the Sergeant and his bonus – In 1817, the Bank of New South Wales opened as the first financial institution in the Australian colonies. But when the first customers arrived for the grand opening, they found someone had already made a deposit.
  • S2Ep2: Invisible Hands – Where do jelly babies come from? Mass-produced things are all around us. But they all start with a single object. Olivia goes looking for the patternmakers, whose invisible hands create many of the products we use every day.
  • S2Ep3: Skeletons of Empire – Is world peace just a dream? In the aftermath of WWI, nations came together in an attempt to ensure such a war would never happen again. In this episode, Glenda Sluga and Ninah Kopel search for the ephemeral traces of that belief in a unified world.
  • S2Ep4: Making history in audio (behind the scenes of Season 2) – The History Lab audio makers explore how they’ve tried to understand the past through sound in History Lab Season 2.

If you are a researcher or historian and are interested in making a History Lab episode with us, please do get in touch. There’s a pitching form on our website and a bunch of information about how it works, or just email me. We are open to all discussions.

History Lab podcast is a collaboration between the Australian Centre for Public History at UTS and 2SER 107.3.  Huge thanks go to Emma Lancaster, Tom Allinson, Miles Martignoni, Olivia Rosenman, Ninah Kopel, Jason L’Ecuyer, Joe Koning and everyone else involved in making this show happen, including our fantastic collaborating historians – it’s been wild. Bring on 2019!

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Impact is not just coming, it is already here. Rant and rage, it’s a fact of academic life. In my view that’s (mostly) not such a bad thing. As a researcher I want my work to reach broad audiences, though I recognise that attempting to measure the impact of research is a fraught exercise with potential perverse effects. Our physicist friends tell us that observing a phenomenon changes it, and even “quality metrics” are pretty bad at capturing the kinds of value produced by culture. Scholarly work not only has intrinsic merit, but its “real world” effects or applications can take decades to manifest.

Yet like it or not, impact assessment is upon us. This means that historians need to spend a bit of time getting their head around what it means and how it might shape their work. And to my mind, there’s good political and disciplinary reasons for doing so.

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