Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On the uses of history

What will a future defined by peak oil and climate change be like and how should we approach it? For me, one of the best ways to understand any future is to look at the past. We do that all the time in our personal lives, without thinking of it as peering into a crystal ball. It's just common sense. Why do I keep getting fired from my jobs? I have to understand the circumstances of those past incidents if I hope to get an answer and then act on it. Why is such-and-such person so angry and anxious all the time? Because they suffered long and grievous abuse as a child. Dealing with the emotions of the present has to begin with understanding the trauma of the past.

It isn't too much of a stretch to say that memory is the basis of understanding and behavior. That's why everybody says experience is the best teacher. Experience is memory, which is a guide to understanding why things happen, what works in responding, and what doesn't. And what is likely to come next.

The memory of a society is called history. In thinking about where our society is headed, and what to do as we hurtle into that future, our history will offer a crucial guide. I'll have more to say soon, in a separate post, on the application of history specifically to a future of ecological collapse. In that post, I'll serve up the next installment in the Rules of Collapsotopian Futurology.

For now, though, some thoughts on a more general topic -- why is the study of history good for anything at all?

* * * * *

When I was a graduate student in the field of U.S. history, I had lots of conversations with professors and fellow students on a certain anguished question. It came up a lot, and the question was: why bother? What good is history? Why study it, I mean? What purpose does it serve to know about the past?

We weren't just talking about how to get a job as a historian. Although that was part of it, since those jobs were regrettably rare. And still are, so I hear. No, mostly we wondered why, in the philosophical sense, anyone should bother studying dead people and their bygone days. There are lots of potential answers, from the political implications of past events, like the conflict over Palestine, to the aesthetic pleasure of the great stories to be retold. Several cable TV channels have exploited this last use of history rather profitably, in fact. 

I must have missed the gravy train. I got an MA in history from a program that used the past to understand the present, but not just for pleasure or politics. We studied history to address public problems and make policy, in an intellectually rigorous, responsible way. In the little scholarly community where I once spent a couple of years in misty Appalachia, this was the goal of historical study. I tried to pursue that goal by two means. First, by using history as a pool of information about a contemporary subject. Want to reform Social Security? You have to know how Social Security was created, how it evolved over the decades and why, what sort of modifications were tried and why, whether they succeeded or failed and why. This pool of information about the past is a pre-requisite for doing anything about Social Security in the present.

The second means of using history for present-day problem solving lay in the use of methods unique to historians, distinguishing them from other disciplines, offering a perspective and insight not otherwise to be found. Certain other fields, we apprentice historians knew, thought their methods more intellectually rigorous than the practices of our little trade.

We had the economists and the political scientists in mind. They weren't shy about telling us that they did, indeed, look down on historians. To them, we were collectors of jumbled, antiquarian arcana, who wrote about moldy, forgotten archives via rambling, literary-esque stories, which we patched together from a mass of personal biases and half-baked pseudo-intellectual blobs of incoherent thought. That's an exaggeration, but not by much. We history students really did feel like the inhabitants of an intellectual ghetto, on the wrong side of the tracks from the more respectable neighborhoods of academia-town. Well, I did anyway. I'm pretty sure I wasn't alone.

Mostly, our rivals derided us because historians didn't see quantitative models, statistics, and reductionist interpretations as the holy trinity of methodologies in the social sciences. Economists and political scientists did. In contrast to their gleaming high-tech instruments of scientificalistic inquiry, we celebrated an old fashioned, well-worn, reliable toolkit, tracing its origins back to Thucydides. And maybe much deeper into the ancient night than that.

Among the tools in our kit, which we never presumed to specify completely and authoritatively, were:

  • the comprehensive marshaling of written records about a subject from the human past;
  • the synthesis of information in those records via the use of the world's most powerful and sophisticated information processing tool, which is the human brain;
  • the description of the resulting synthesis within a narrative non-fiction story, chronicling events over time;
  • the interpretation within the narrative of events and their causes, by means of reasoned, systematic inference;
  • the grounding of that inference in the available written records but also in heuristic guidelines derived from thousands upon thousands of years of human culture;
  • the incorporation of statistics and other quantitative approaches into the narrative where appropriate;
  • the use where appropriate of theories, interpretations, and methods from the social and natural sciences to explain and analyze the events of the narrative;
  • the holding to a flexible, pragmatic notion of the word "appropriate' in the above context, within the bounds of logic and the use of empirical evidence.

The economists and political scientists thought that we historians scorned the use of quantitative methods, and therefore condemned us as narrow minded. I will admit that I personally felt intimidated by math, and I know that many of my fellow students (and faculty) felt the same. But I also came to know that many historians did, actually, use quantitative approaches in their scholarly work. Some deployed econometric models to interpret the history of railroads. Some extracted statistics from old probate records to illuminate the material culture of colonial America.

That didn't seem to matter much to the econometricians and poli-sci crowd. To them, historians remained willfully ignorant mathematical illiterates, end of story. Despite evidence to the contrary. So it wasn't we historians being close minded or issuing blanket denunciations of a different approach. It was the other guys, who steadfastly insisted that numbers were the only valid form of knowledge and anything else was, basically, bunk.

The number fetishists got it exactly wrong. Quantitative knowledge is essential, especially in the natural sciences, where we have a good idea of what to quantify (atoms, molecules, energy flows in an ecosystem, the physics and chemistry of plate tectonics, and so on). But quantification isn't always possible. And numbers only tell us so much, especially in the area of human societies and cultures. We know, for example, the numerical value of goods and services produced in an economy, and we can quantify the ecological damage inflicted by the economy's machines. But numbers alone can't tell us why a society adopts one system of production over another, or why that system succeeds or fails, or how conflicts about the system's rules and results are resolved or not, and why.

Numbers can't interpret those conflicts because they are found in culture. Anthropologists, historians, and others define that term, roughly, as an intangible body of ideas, values, emotions, symbols, and customs, circulated through a society to give that society a sense of psychological cohesion, producing a shared mental universe rooted ultimately in the metaphysically complex interiors of the human brain. Out of that instrument come songs and stories, speeches and rituals, images and the emotions they evoke -- a swastika, a crucifix, a six pointed star. The intangible meanings behind these entities are transmitted like ghosts from one brain to the next, by the alchemy we experience as human communication (voice, writing, music, pictures, facial expression, sex, and much more). The alchemy passes the meaning through time from one generation to the next.

None of that can be represented solely in numbers, the way scientists do with quantum mechanics or molecular genetics. Unless memetics, the proposed quantitative scientific study of cultural transmission, ever takes off the way its proponents have hoped. In my opinion, it won't. Quantifying culture and the human behavior it governs will never happen. Not in the same straightforward way that has worked for genes and atoms. We know culture and society reside in the mental realm, which we know is found in the brain. We can do visual scans of brain activity, watch certain regions flash more intensely. We can measure the microscopic firings of neurons. We can determine, as neuroscience has in fact done, that the ability to learn languages is innate in a child's brain, not instilled by socialization.

But we don't know how any of these things give rise to basic components of culture, or to the rules that govern it. We can't measure, quantitatively, what culture fundamentally is, or its building blocks, much less its laws. Because culture isn't any single, physical thing, like an atom, or an amino acid molecule. It transcends individual components, and so it can't be measured, not in the way we can do with more clearly defined, contained entities and their laws. Like atoms and genes. We won't find the equivalent of atoms or genes for culture, because they aren't there to be found. Alchemy doesn't work like that.

So instead we do what we can. We gather the physical, macro manifestations of culture -- documents, stories, songs, pictures, symbols. We analyze them using our unaided brains, augmented by whatever numbers or other data we can get (how many documents were found, when were the songs composed, how were the pictures made?). And then we put it all together. We synthesize, as historians would say. Based on that big picture view, we ask what seem to us to be the key questions. What happened? Why did it happen? And so what? And around those questions we build a narrative. A story. Non-fiction, but a story all the same.

We do this all the time in daily life. With our families, our jobs, our decisions. Based on our experiences of the past, we have a sense of how the future will go. We can't say for certain what the future holds for the organization that pays our wage. But we can see how workplaces change over time, how they succeed or fail, and from this we get a sense of the possibilities for our own livelihood. At home, we don't know exactly how the lives of loved ones will turn out. But from experiences of our own family and others, we know what sorts of crises or turning points might happen. Or will happen, no matter what. We don't know when we will die, but we know that we will.

It's the same with the approaching future of global ecological upheaval. We can use history and memory to shine a light into the shadows of the next age and discern some of its features. We can't know everything, but we can have a guide at least, to certain passages, certain properties of the landscape. Certain aspects of what might happen, and how human communities might respond.

More next time.

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