Archives for posts with tag: Australia

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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What a time it is to an historian!

Here in our corner of the world in Australia, the last few weeks have witnessed a series of social and political events that have absorbed the nation.

To my mind at least, they show that the gaping cracks long evident in the notion of citizenship and belonging (and therefore sovereignty) that underpinned 20th century Australia are now so wide as to be swallowing us whole.

This was a notion of citizenship founded on settler colonialism, racial exclusion, imperial benevolence (British or American), wage arbitration, and the gendered politics that came with it. And it is in this sense that the dual citizenship crisis engulfing parliament, the Manus Island refugee crisis still unfolding with tragic consequences, the politics of the non-binding same-sex marriage postal survey, the Liberal government’s out-of-hand rejection of the Uluru Statement’s proposal for an Indigenous voice to parliament, the ongoing disaster of environmental blindness and destructive resource extraction, and the interlinked outrage of insecure work and tax avoidance are all connected.

Who gets to belong? Who gets to participate and on what (and who’s) terms? These questions underpin our political moment, not just in Australia but across the globe.

They cry out for contextualisation – no wonder the historians are out in force:

Are you an historian who has written for a wider audience? Send your #publichist pieces in for puffing!

 

FullSizeRenderOne of the best bits about being an historian is that “reading” features prominently in the job description. From archival letters to articles and scholarly monographs (and ok, yes, just as often twitter and random bits of the internet) words crafted by others are at the heart of my daily practice. They take me out across oceans and pull me into the intimacies of others’ longings and fears. And in doing so they bring the past and the future into my present, both slowing me down and dragging me along.

But I find that often this longer-form reading gets lost in the textual flood that is the internet and email and the administrivia of daily life. I want to keep better track of my textual meanderings and I want to be more conscious of their value in my week.

I know, I know, book lists are annoying. I can’t stand the endless “best of” inventories generated by book sellers and reviewers. The words “inspiring”, “gritty” or “hilarious” invariably appear in every single precis. They seem wholly too worthy, and usually make me itchy and impatient. Yet I love love LOVE the LRB, which is basically a big list about books written by people who live in North London. I love the conversation into which it draws me, and the unexpected connections it helps me to make.

So, in the spirit of the latter rather than the former, I hereby offer you:

Occasional dispatches from my big green reading chair #1

  • Zoe Williams, Get It Together(Hutchinson, 2015) – Zoe Williams is freaking great. A journalist for the Guardian UK, her writing combines deep awareness of people in the realities of their daily lives with incisive analysis of the structures and interests at work in our political and economic systems. This book is talking about wtf is going on in Britain now and the massive transfer of wealth that has happened since 2008 and what can be done. It has wide resonance beyond Britain because so many of these issues are present in post-industrial societies – they include the changing nature of work, housing (un)affordability, service outsourcing and much besides. The tone is one of controlled rage mixed with wry humour.
  • Tomás Irish, The University at War, 1914-25: Britain, France and the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) – I am writing a review on this, but I had bought it before the journal contacted me, which has got to be a good sign. It both exemplifies and contributes to a new breed of university history that is coming out of the cloister and stepping beyond its traditional institutional and national frames. I’ve got a particular interest in this book because, as well as focusing on the mobilisation of universities during the First World War, it takes up questions of expertise and the nation in the aftermath of the conflict. These latter themes are at the heart of the major ARC-funded project that I’m running, together with colleagues from the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne. To get a sense of it, imagine a national version of USyd’s Beyond1914 database which collects information on graduates who served in the war. What did these soldier experts do after the conflict ended? Why is their story not more central in our accounts of nation building?
  • Alecia Simmonds, ‘Why we need a reminder about Australia’s imperialist history with Nauru’ Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Feb 2016 – This is an important piece because in all the talk about refugees the history of Australia’s relationship with Nauru is too often ignored. Why has Nauru agreed to set up a detention facility? It’s because decades of Australian-led phosphate mining have stripped it of its natural assets such that 90% of the island is depleted and its people live in the narrow strip around its coast, vulnerable to rising sea levels. The failed tax-haven plan of the 1990s only left it doubly bankrupt. As Naomi Klein has so powerfully shown, on Nauru ‘the people who could very well be the climate refugees of tomorrow … play warden to the economic and war refugees of today.’ In this piece Alecia Simmonds reminds us that the border between Australia and Nauru has long been little more than a convenient fiction.
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