(Roughly) Daily

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters”*…

Historian Adam Tooze‘s new book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, is released today. You can (and, I’d suggest, should) read excerpts from its introduction in The Guardian and The New York Times.

In his newsletter, he unpacks the fundamental historiographic challenge that he encountered in writing it, why that challenge matters… and why we must all face (and face up to) it:

I generally prefer a narrative mode that plunges you in to the middle of things, rather than beginning at the beginning. The in medias res approach is more engaging. It catches the reader’s attention from the start because they have to scramble to orientate themselves. It is also more transparent in its artifice. I prefer the deliberate and obvious break in the linear flow produced by a flashback – “now we interrupt the action to explain something you really need to know” – to the apparent simplicity and calm of “beginning at the beginning”, which in its own way begs all the same questions, but smuggles the answers into the smooth flow of a linear narrative.

As [critic Perry] Anderson suggested [here], this stylistic preference also reflects a certain understanding of politics and agency and their relationship to history, which might broadly be described as Keynesian left-liberalism. As he puts it, “a ‘situational and tactical’ approach to the subject in hand determines entry to” the subject matter “in medias res”. It mirrors my preoccupation with “pragmatic crisis management in the form of punctual adjustments without illusion of permanency”.

I side with those who see “in medias res”, not just as a stylistic choice and a mode of historical and political analysis, but as defining the human condition – apologies for the boldness of that claim. Being thrown into pre-given situations define us, whether though social structure, language, concepts, identities or chains of action and interaction, in which we are willy nilly enrolled and to which we ourselves contribute, thereby enrolling others as well.

Whatever thinking or writing we do, however we choose to couch it and whatever our explanatory ambition, we do it from the midst of things, not from above or beyond the fray. There are different ways of articulating that relationship – more remote or more immediate – but no way out of that situatedness.

We are thrown into situations. Most of the time they don’t come with instructions. If they do come with instructions we should probably not trust them. We have to perform enquiries to figure out how we got here, what our options are and where we might be headed. To do the work of figuring out our situation we might resort to the tools of social science, like statistics or economic concepts. Political theory may help. But history writing too is part of the effort at rendering our situations more intelligible.

For some colleagues, history is distinctive because it studies the distant past, or because it takes the archive as its source. For me, self-consciously inhabiting our situatedness in time is what differentiates historical enquiry and writing from other forms of social knowledge. History is the attempt to produce knowledge of the flux from within the flux. As Croce remarks: “All true history is contemporary history.”

The speed, intensity and generality of the COVID pandemic and the cognitive challenges it posed, gave this entanglement a new intensity. Even at the best of times, however, the problem is that being in medias res it is easier said than done. It is both inescapable and, at the same time, mysterious.

We are in medias res you say? In the middle of things? But which things? And how do those things relate to us and define us? Who or what are we in relation to these things? How do we chart the middle of this world? Who has the map? Who has the compass?…

@adam_tooze goes on to propose if not concrete answers to those questions, then a approach that can keep one honest. Eminently worth reading in full. History in the thick of it: “Writing in medias res.”

*  Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks


As we ponder perspective, we might spare a thought for Alan John Percivale (A. J. P.) Taylor; he died on this date in 1990. A historian, he wrote (albeit not overtly in media res) and taught briefly at Manchester Uinversity, then for most of his career at Oxford, focused largely on 19th- and 20th-century European diplomacy. But he gained a popular audience of millions via his journalism and broadcast lectures. His combination of academic rigor and popular appeal led the historian Richard Overy to describe him as “the Macaulay of our age.”


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 7, 2021 at 1:00 am

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