(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘historiography

“How deluded we sometimes are by the clear notions we get out of books. They make us think that we really understand things of which we have no practical knowledge at all.”*…

“The Invention of Copper Engraving”; engraving by Jan Collaert after Stradanus, circa 1600

Anthony Grafton on Pamela H. Smith‘s new book, From Lived Experience to the Written Word: Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World, and the challenges of understanding the origins of the practical arts, crafts, and sciences…

… The knowledge that goes into building a brick wall that is truly vertical or hanging a door that doesn’t stick, printing a book that doesn’t smudge or casting a bell that won’t split, is hard to trace to its origins. Historians of science specialize in theories and methods that they can tie to people and dates: for example, astronomy based on the heliocentric theory and human anatomy based on human dissection. Both of these, as it happens, were the subjects of long, technical books—by Copernicus and Vesalius, respectively—that appeared in 1543.

The knowledge that underpins our world of things, by contrast, has been discovered over centuries, through trial and error, two steps forward and one step back. It has been produced and improved by collaboration: the work of talented, largely anonymous groups, generation after generation, rather than identifiable individuals. And it is less verbal than embodied. Most of the experiments involved in forming a craft and the practices used to teach and further develop it go unrecorded, as do those who carried them out. French bakers often start their careers nowadays with formal training. But they master their craft at work, learning from those with experience and skills, hands in the dough and senses focused on what happens to it in the oven.

Teaching astronomy or anatomy happens in a lecture hall or anatomy theater—a place where some people pronounce and others take notes (or zone out). Teaching in the world of things goes on in places where people work. Teaching in the university is usually abstract and verbal. Teaching in the world of things is often physical: the teacher urges pupils to apply all of their senses and employs gestures as well as words to make clear how one wields a tool or decides if something has finished cooking.

As a history professor I have told stories and argued about interpretations before hundreds of students in lecture halls and seminar rooms. Long ago, as a theater technician, I taught apprentices—face-to-face and with our hands on tools and materials—how to swing a hammer or glue the cloth for scenery to a wooden frame. When teaching history I present an ever-changing body of material that I have read and thought and argued about with colleagues over the decades. When teaching theater crafts I transmitted physical skills that I had learned from others in shops and about which I had not read a word. No notes preserve those lessons. How can we hope to discover how a medieval blacksmith learned to forge tools or a Renaissance tailor learned to cut brocade?…

The knowledge that underpins our world of things has been discovered over centuries, produced as the result of collaboration, and generally unrecorded. How does a historian overcome these obstacles? “How to Cast a Metal Lizard,” @scaliger on @ps2270 in @nybooks.

Similarly, see “How a Bedouin Tracker Sees the Desert.” And for how a successful manager (and artist) incorporates “the art of craft” into his life, see “Leading with Slow Craft,” from @natenatenate.

* Thomas Merton

###

As we noodle on knowledge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1899 that Henry Hale Bliss, a 69-year-old New York City real estate dealer, was alighting from a south bound 8th Avenue trolley car when an electric-powered taxicab (Automobile No. 43) struck him. Bliss hit the pavement, crushing his head and chest. He was taken by ambulance to Roosevelt Hospital; but upon arrival the house surgeon, Dr. Marny, said his injuries were too severe to survive; Bliss died the next morning… becoming the first recorded instance of a person being killed in a motor vehicle collision in the U. S.

Bliss in 1873 [source]

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 13, 2022 at 1:00 am

“What is the use trying to describe the flowing of a river at any one moment, and then at the next moment, and then at the next, and the next, and the next? You wear out. You say ‘There is a great river and it flows through this land, and we have named it History’.”*…

Ian Hesketh on “Big History”– its attractions… and, he suggests, its dangers…

Big History burst on to the scene 30 years ago, promising to reinvigorate a stale and overspecialised academic discipline by situating the human past within a holistic account at a cosmic scale. The goal was to produce a story of life that could be discerned by synthesising cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology and anthropology. This universal story, in turn, would provide students with a basic framework for their subsequent studies – and for life itself. Big History also promised to fill the existential void left by the ostensible erosion of religious beliefs. Three decades later, it’s time to take a look at how Big History has fared.

David Christian first made the case for what he called ‘Big History’ in an article in the Journal of World History in 1991. He based it on an interdisciplinary course that he had been teaching at Macquarie University in Sydney that brought together faculty members from the sciences and the humanities. The idea for the course was to situate human history within a grand historical narrative that stretched backwards in time to the origins of the cosmos in the Big Bang and forwards to include the present and future development of the human species. The course promised to transform the way students were taught history by focusing on the big picture and what united all humans rather than what divided them.

At the time, Christian was reacting to a trend in academic life towards increasing specialisation. This trend played a role in further dividing the ‘two cultures’ of knowledge represented by the arts and sciences, but also led to divisions within those two cultures as well. Christian’s discipline of history, for instance, had grown fragmented into geographic and temporal specialisations, while narrow studies of archival sources were preferred to large-scale narratives that were more common earlier in the century. At a time when, in Jean-François Lyotard’s memorable phrase from 1979, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ represented the era’s postmodern condition, Christian headed in the opposite direction…

Three decades later, much of Christian’s vision has been fulfilled. Big History has become well established. It is now entrenched in Australia where it is taught at several universities, and there’s a Big History Institute at Macquarie. It is taught at universities around the world such as at Newcastle University in the UK, Dominican University in California, and the University of Amsterdam, to name just a few. There is an International Big History Association (IBHA) that was founded in 2010, which has organised five conferences since then. And in 2017, the IBHA launched the Journal of Big History, now published three times per year. Several monographs and textbooks have also appeared since the mid-1990s, notably Christian’s book Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2004) and Fred Spier’s book Big History and the Future of Humanity (2010).

Big History was in fact at the forefront of a broader shift to large-scale, scientific history. A very different attempt to establish large-scale history on a scientific footing was proposed by Peter Turchin, the Russian American evolutionary anthropologist. In Historical Dynamics (2003), Turchin sought to apply the kind of mathematical modelling associated with evolutionary biology to social processes, such as the rise and fall of complex societies. Closer to the Big History formula is the recent work of the medieval historian-turned-public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari. His bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011) reconstructs the story of humanity, beginning with the Big Bang and ending with a lament about how humans have become God-like. A subsequent bestselling work, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), speculated about what the future holds, based on the scientific story of life that was presented in Sapiens. The popularity of Harari’s works indicates that there is a public appetite for the large-scale, scientific approach to history.

Thirty years on, it is becoming clear that the issues that confront Big History are not unlike that of earlier attempts to utilise the cultural authority of science to write a history of everything. We’ve already seen that Big History relies on the same mythopoeic rhetoric that was central to E O Wilson’s works of popular science that yearned to project the same sense of wonder and meaning on to science that has traditionally been found only in religious metanarratives. This desire has a deeper history, however, that stretches to the 16th century, and has produced genres of scientific history that resemble Big History. This includes sacred histories that sought to elaborate and narrativise the historical events of the Old Testament as well as universal histories that sought to uncover the overarching stages of human history from Providential and secular perspectives.

There are similarities with more recent forms of large-scale history as well, such as the positivist histories of the 19th century, which sought to explain the development of civilised society as the product of a progressive scientism, or the evolutionary epics of the 19th and 20th centuries, which sought to tell the story of life from an overarching evolutionary perspective. What these forms of history all share with Big History is the desire to synthesise contemporary science to tell a story of humanity and to reduce its development to a set of laws or stages leading to the present and future.

…thanks in part to Big History, large-scale accounts of the past have moved from the periphery to the centre of historical thinking and writing. What Big History has done well is challenge the long-held assumption that has limited the discipline of history to the era of written records. As it is clear that we live at a moment when, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, the previously relatively separate processes of human and geological timescales are now colliding, so we need new ways to think historically in order to grasp what is happening and how to respond. Big History provides one possible answer to this problem by producing a holistic, singular and universal story that seeks ultimate knowledge in the overarching laws of science.

But, much like the Judeo-Christian conception of history from which it derives, Big History reduces the vicissitudes of human history to processes that are ultimately beyond human control. What this means is that Big History necessarily privileges the cosmic at the expense of the human, the natural at the expense of the political. This is, unfortunately, a necessity that follows from Big History’s goal of uniting the human species under the framework of a story that is supposedly for everyone. It may make for a popular just-so story that appeals to billionaires looking to empty history of politics and divisions, but it offers little for those hoping to understand how we go about thinking through the problems and possibilities of writing history in the age of the Anthropocene…

Sweeping the human story into a cosmic tale is a thrill but we should be wary about what is overlooked in the grandeur: “What Big History misses,” from @IanHesketh in @aeonmag. Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “On the wisdom of the historians,” by @Noahpinion, and this thread from @JoshuaRHall3.

* Ursula K. Le Guin

###

As we contend with context, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972 that Spire released the first Christian comic books, a version of Brother Andrew’s God’s Smuggler and David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade. They were primarily written and drawn by Al Hartley, who was working for Archie Comics at the time; the following year, he got permission to use those characters at Spire, and added an Archie series. Then, in 1974, the company added Bible stories and a series dedicated to younger readers including the Barney Bear series.

source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 1, 2022 at 1:00 am

“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected”*…

Friedrich Strass, Der Strom der Zeiten, 1803 [source/zoomable version]

Readers may recall an earlier post on John B. Sparks’ Histomap, a well-known 1931 attempt to visualize the 4,000 year history of global power. Public Domain Review takes a look at Histomap‘s ancestor/inspiration, Friedrich Strass’ Der Strom der Zeiten (published in 1803), and its influence…

In his foundational textbook Elements, the Alexandrian mathematician Euclid defined a line as “breadthless length” — a thing with only one dimension. That’s what lines can do to history when used to plot events: they condense its breadth into pure motion, featuring only those people and places that serve as forces thrusting it forwards along an infinite axis. Early in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Strass proposed a different way to visualize time’s flow. A Prussian historian and schoolteacher, he published his chronological chart in 1803, a massive diagram titled Der Strom der Zeiten oder bildliche Darstellung der Weltgeschichte von den altesten Zeiten bis zum Ende des achtzehnden Jahrhunderts (The stream of the times or an illustrated presentation of world history from the most ancient times until the eighteenth century). The linear timelines that Strass resisted, like those inspired by Joseph Priestley, “implied a uniformity in the processes of history that was simply misleading”, write Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg. Strass’ stream, by contrast, allowed historical events to “ebb and flow, fork and twist, run and roll and thunder.” It would spawn several imitations as the century drew on…

Capturing history in its organic unfolding: “The Stream of Time,” from @PublicDomainRev. See the original at the David Rumsey Map Collection.

* Reif Larsen

###

As we contemplate chronology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1800 that the Library of Congress was established. James Madison has first proposed a national library in 1783. But it wasn’t until 1800, when (on this date) President John Adams signed signed an act of Congress providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington, that the deed was done. The Act appropriated $5,000 “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress … and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them.” Books were ordered from London, creating a collection consisting of 740 books and three maps, which were housed in the new United States Capitol.

But in 1814, during the War of 1812, British forces burned the Capitol Building, and with it, the the collection (by then, around 3,000 volumes). The Library as we know it was created from those ashes. Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his personal library– 6,487 books– as a replacement, Congress accepted, and the Library of Congress grew from there.

The Capitol Building, which housed the Library of Congress, after being burned by the British [source: Library of Congress]

“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.”

source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 7, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Without a map who would attempt to study geography?”*…

History and maps!…

Imagine creating a timeline of your country’s whole history stretching back to its inception.

It would be no small task, and simply weighing the relative importance of so many great people, technological achievements, and pivotal events would be a tiny miracle in itself.

While that seems like a challenge, imagine going a few steps further. Instead of a timeline for just one country, what about creating a graphical timeline showing the history of the entire world over a 4,000 year time period, all while having no access to computers or the internet?…

John B. Sparks maps the ebb and flow of global power going all the way back to 2,000 B.C. on one coherent timeline.

Histomap, published by Rand McNally in 1931, is an ambitious attempt at fitting a mountain of historical information onto a five-foot-long poster. The poster cost $1 at the time, which would equal approximately $18 when accounting for inflation.

Although the distribution of power is not quantitatively defined on the x-axis, it does provide a rare example of looking at historic civilizations in relative terms. While the Roman Empire takes up a lot of real estate during its Golden Age, for example, we still get a decent look at what was happening in other parts of the world during that period.

The visualization is also effective at showing the ascent and decline of various competing states, nations, and empires. Did Sparks see world history as a zero-sum exercise; a collection of nations battling one another for control over scarce territory and resources?

Crowning a world leader at certain points in history is relatively easy, but divvying up influence or power to everyone across 4,000 years requires some creativity, and likely some guesswork, as well. Some would argue that the lack of hard data makes it impossible to draw these types of conclusions (though there have been other more quantitative approaches.)

Another obvious criticism is that the measures of influence are skewed in favor of Western powers. China’s “seam”, for example, is suspiciously thin throughout the length of the timeline. Certainly, the creator’s biases and blind spots become more apparent in the information-abundant 21st century.

Lastly, Histomap refers to various cultural and racial groups using terms that may seem rather dated to today’s viewers.

John Spark’s creation is an admirable attempt at making history more approachable and entertaining. Today, we have seemingly limitless access to information, but in the 1930s an all encompassing timeline of history would have been incredibly useful and groundbreaking. Indeed, the map’s publisher characterized the piece as a useful tool for examining the correlation between different empires during points in history.

Critiques aside, work like this paved the way for the production of modern data visualizations and charts that help people better understand the world around them today…

Histomap: a 1931 attempt to visualize the 4,000 year history of global power. (via Visual Capitalist)

* John B. Sparks, creator of Histomap

###

As we ponder patterns in the past, we might spare a thought for Carl Jacob Christoph Burckhardt; he died on this date in 1897. Probably best known for The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (which established that period as the vaunted subject it has become), he was a historian of art and culture and an influential figure in the historiography of both fields. Indeed, he is considered one the the founders of cultural history.

Sigfried Giedion said of Burckhardt’s achievement: “The great discoverer of the age of the Renaissance, he first showed how a period should be treated in its entirety, with regard not only for its painting, sculpture and architecture, but for the social institutions of its daily life as well.”

source

%d bloggers like this: