The TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and space.

Historians too often get a bad rap for being out of touch. Stuck in the ivory tower, so the story goes, neck deep in dusty archives and lost in their contemplation of dead white men and forgotten pasts. Where’s the relevance? is frequently the refrain.

Yet my Facebook feed tells a different story. The number of articles I see written by colleagues for public audiences seems to increase all the time.

Thinking temporally in public has got to be one of the most important things we can do as historians in a period of uncertainty and change. This means going beyond the ‘Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What’s Happened In Past Before Making Any Big Decisions’ version of public commentary (although let’s be frank, sometimes the temptation to do that is just overwhelming) and instead thinking in public about time, its politics and its effects.

The uneven and unequal legacies of empire and capitalism are all around us, but so too – if we know how to look – are the tangible reminders that as a society we once thought social change possible and were prepared to back up our dreams with money and action. I can’t help thinking that the destruction of these reminders, as Oliver Watts points out in in his piece listed below, is part of a larger project of alienating us both from our history and the possibility of a different kind of future.

Because although not a template, history can be a inspiration, showing us that, through collective action, inherited structures can be changed. Institutionalised slavery can be abolisheduniversal public health free at the point of delivery can be establishedthe Franklin River can be saved. The long-term ramifications of our own society’s policies and actions are, therefore, also a matter for critical temporal thinking.

Time is not just an axis on which processes play out, it is political in itself. In this world of distributed digital processes and the marketisation of our everyday life we increasingly ‘spend’ our leisure time shopping for essential services – deciding which financial, educational or health ‘product’ to buy, and ferrying ourselves and family members across town to access them. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of people work on low-paid ‘zero hours’ contracts that leave them desperately insecure.

Universities are repositories of time in all of these senses. Produced by uneven structural processes (have you every wondered where the wealth that funded the bequests of Australia’s early universities came from?) they increasingly rely on casualised labour and the mortgaged futures of their debt-laden students.

But for all their faults, universities do still work with an understanding of time and human capacity that stretches beyond the frames of annual reports, funding cycles, government elections or even of individual careers. They draw the future into them with each new intake of students; they mix up the generations, and bring the living into contact with those long dead. They are places where deep and slow thinking is still possible. Not everyone wants or needs to live like this, but now, more than ever, as a society we need people who do.

If historians don’t think temporally, who will?

So Yay! to temporal thinking in the public domain. Yay! to the dexterity of the historical mind (cough). Yay! to a critical eye and longer view on questions that would otherwise appear to be of this moment only.

Here is this week’s haul of recent #PublicHist pieces by people wot I know, writing about stuff not always entirely within their field. If you can, give them the time (and the retweet) they deserve.

PS. I foresee a regular series on this #PublicHist friend-puff business, so please alert me to anything you have published that is directed at a public audience and I’ll add it to the next instalment.

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The old politics is broken, the new politics has yet to emerge, but here we find ourselves living in the between times. How do we make sense of where we are? How are we to act? This is the predicament we all share, Senators Pauline Hanson and Larissa Waters alike. And it is a predicament that in many ways is frightening.

But precisely because the lines are not drawn and the sides are not clear, this is also a moment in which we might rethink the society we want; in which we might make values-based arguments about what matters, about how we want to live and what it might take to get there.

Which is just to say, there’s a certain theme running through this third Green Chair dispatch:

  • Interview with Michael Ignatieff, ‘A Central Conflict of 21st Century Politics: Who Belongs?’ New York Times, 8 July, 2016.  This piece stands in for the millions of things on the internet I have been reading somewhat obsessively about Brexit <insert cry of anguish and heartbreak>. I highlight it for two reasons:
    • (1) It’s a clear articulation of the BigThing now being widely noted: a great cavern has emerged between those who see themselves as cosmopolitans (and who have “benefitted” from globalisation, and speak the language of expertise and evidence and facts), and those who see themselves in local terms (and have not benefited, and speak the language of affect and feeling). That this divide also has a geography is worth remembering. Finding a way to reach across it is possibly the most urgent political task of our moment;
    • (2) Ignatieff’s conception of this split as one between “cosmopolitan elites who see immigration as a common good based in universal rights, and voters who see it as a gift conferred on certain outsiders deemed worthy of joining the community” seems extremely useful, and not widely articulated.
    • Read also:
  • Guy Rundle, ‘Brexit, in context: an essay on reversed polarities’, Crikey, 15 July 2016 [$]. So I think there are some problems with this schema laid out by Guy Rundle (and depicted by me in the BONUS “infographic” at the end of this post), but it does get at some of what’s going on. As Rundle sees it, we are witnessing a shift from the old politics of socialist vs capitalist (which both had internationalist and localist elements), to a new politics of internationalist/globalist vs nationalist/localist (which both have left and right elements). His conclusion, in particular, is worth lingering on: “Many people are going to have decide which side they’re on, of a changed political order, and find a way of dealing with people they hitherto saw as enemies, or even odious.”
  • Julianne Schultz, Cultural Institutions and Ideas of Australia, The 2016 Brian Johns Lecture, republished in The Conversation, 2 May 2016. There are so many wonderful passages in this piece I don’t know where to start. I just want everyone to read it. In summary Shultz argues that as a community of cultural producers we in Australia are increasingly invisible to ourselves, and there are lots of reasons that this is really really not good. However, there are actual structural reasons for this shift that we can and should do something about. Also, the notion of the “Age of Fang” is an amazing  addition to my conceptual vocabulary (see, now you have to read it!)
  • Marta Figlerowicz, The Gatekeepers Aren’t Gone, Jacobin, 8 July 2016. In the same vein, this piece shows clearly why we need to think about the digital economy as an extractive one, in which we are all already labouring for free. I’ve written before about how we might see recent higher education policy in terms of the privatisation of the intellectual commons. If my work has been about anything, it has been about the way that ideas and culture and content appear free floating but really aren’t. Instead, they are produced by structures and platforms that are bounded and specific and owned. A good rule of thumb is to think about the online world like we think about land and to ask: where are the fences? where are the gates? who is let in? who does the work? who reaps the profits? who pays the rent?

And in case you thought I had stopped reading history:

  • William C Lubenow. ‘Only Connect’: Learned Societies in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2015. Woah, reading this book is like taking a trip back several decades, to what I imagine scholarship might have been like before the post-modern fall. To take just one example: when did you last encounter prose in which the author was dedicated to the use of the third person singular pronoun (‘One might well wonder …’) and happy to make asides that dismiss entire decades of scholarship? (eg. p 206. ‘sneers [about class]… common in the writings of a particular generation … may be effective social criticism, [but] … are bad history’). Although it contains a wealth of detail that highlights the diverse array of institutions in which knowledge was made in the nineteenth century before the university approached its near monopolistic status, this big picture is lost on the author. I wanted more wood, less trees – but then, as a lumper I would say that.

BONUS: My nerd-tastic “infographic” (!) of Guy Rundle’s argument about the reversed polarities of the new politics.

Guy Rundle on the new politics



Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the sea.

We swim in it, fly over it and pollute it; we harvest its resources and, in greater quantities that ever before, we consume goods that come to us in ships that have sailed over it. Yet for all our dependence on the ocean, we denizens of the twenty-first century are very much creatures of the land. We no longer see the sea that sustains us, and this brings with it a dark tragedy: with the world rapidly heating, it will soon be the waters that engulf us.

Our terra firma myopia sets us apart from our nineteenth (and even twentieth) century forebears, whose relationship to the sea was much more intimate and bodily than our own. For all the emphasis on land and conquest in colonial and imperial history, for much of this period the resources of the oceans and their shorelines were much better mapped than those of the colonial interior.*

In Britain and Australia, as elsewhere, maritime industries, subsistence fishing and naval economies pulled people onto the waters; while migration drew people over them. Between 1850 and 1880, more than 1.3 million men, women and children travelled in sailing ships to the Australian colonies, lured by the discovery of gold, assisted passage schemes and by the promise of a better life.

Lasting between seventy days and five months, these journeys took these passengers from the industrial urbanised ports of Britain, and carried them far from any sight of land, through both hot and freezing temperatures, to colonial cities that by the 1850s were well established.

What did this mean for the people who travelled these routes?

I have tried to get at this question by attending closely to the diaries written at sea by eight passengers who made the journey to Australia between 1850 and 1880.

These accounts reveal just how intimately migrants came to know each other’s bodies. In the cramped and frequently unsanitary conditions between decks, corporeal boundaries became porous. They leaked into each other, eroding individual sovereignty.

In the last couple of decades historians have done much to historicise bodies. They have stepped away from deterministic and naturalistic notions and instead examined how bodily ideas and practices changed over time and place. Ever since Foucault, scholars have been interested in the ways that bodies were disciplined and rendered docile, not just by coercion, but increasingly by ‘modern’ techniques such as enclosure, ranking, exercise, partitioning, timetabling, synchronisation, repetition, and spatial ordering.

The diaries I read, suggest that travel by sea to Australia in the era of sail disturbed the bodily practices that were increasingly being learnt on shore in Britain in the mid nineteenth century. At sea bodies were anything but stable, individualised, clean and orderly. By contrast they continually threatened to break their boundaries. Passengers of all classes experienced acute anxiety at this prospect. They were unsettled by shifting temporal and spatial practices, and immobilised by dramatic changes in temperature. The bodily fluids, bugs, noises and diseases of others were hard to avoid. If the better class of traveller sought escape in above deck cabins, they nonetheless also lived in fear of contagion from below.

In these conditions passengers, as much as those who organised migrant vessels, sought to assert forms of organisation that were familiar to them. In many ways their writings stand as cries of frustration and anxiety that at sea, land-based practices of order and control did not quite work the way they felt they should.

And what did this mean for passengers’ after they arrived?

These migrants’ first actions on landing were often deliberative attempts to recompose their bodily and social selves. They washed, put on clean clothes, ate a proper meal, read their mail and sought out family and friends.

Yet for many the sea journey never left them. They carried the death of a child, serious sickness, or friendships made on board with them for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps their ship-board apprehension of the loss of bodily order never left them either.

While historians of mobility are increasingly showing just how important spaces of transit were in fashioning experience and identity, historians of colonial cities and societies tend not to consider the impact of the sea journey in fashioning bodily subjectivities and cultures of rule. Might passengers’ experience of bodily anxiety at sea have influenced their eagerness to embrace and even produce the cultural classifications and hierarchies of rule that typified colonial and settler societies?

This question asks us to connect bodies at sea to bodies on shore. By doing so we may find a way, once again, to look both out to sea and across the land, and to stitch back together distributed geographic processes and chains of production and consumption that land-based histories have long elided.

*This is a point Alecia Simmons recently made at the Voyages and Visionaries conference in honour of John Gascgoine and Ian Tyrrell in Sydney, July 2016.


I’m talking about this at the Australian Historical Association conference in Ballarat this week. A free-to-download pre-print version of  the published article, ‘Bodies at Sea: Travelling to Australia in the age of sail’, Journal of Global History, 11:2 (2016), 209-228 is available for download here.

Or if you have library access, visit Journal of Global History, 11:2 (2016) where you will also find a series of excellent papers by Roland Wenzlhuemer, Martin Dusinberre, G. Balachandran, Johanna de Schmidt and Frances Steel as well as an incisive theoretical article by Dusinberre and Wenzlhuemer, all on the theme of being in transit at sea and the incompatibilities of global history.