Advice for the History-lorn

My academic project for the summer does not involve writing anything: from that I can use a break. Instead I have been going through a pile of clippings and notes (both hard copy and on-line) accumulated while writing The Triumph of Human Empire. It is my mulch pile for some future crop. It’s mostly words, some numbers, and some images (maps are crucial). The only way I can make any sense of it at all is to sort it into folders labeled by other words, which is to say by keywords.

A lot of my folders are categorized by keywords from the Human Empire project, which tend to be biggies: Water, Romance, Historiography, Phenomenology, Modernity, Nature, Place, and so forth. I will be working with those keywords until my dying scholarly breath. I have also discovered, however, that I am ditching some biggie labels–notably “Environment” and “Technology,” which have become everything and nothing, at once vacuous and “hazardous” (Leo Marx’s warning label for the word/concept “technology”).

Then there are more narrowly defined topics, less grand but also less hazardous: Belgian agricultural history, Saint-Simonianism, Symbolism, Romanticism, and fin de siècle (the 19th century, that is), for example. I have also added some new categories, such as Exploration and Migration, that I should have introduced long ago.

Finally, and most important, there is a new category that had to be invented, as I began to accumulate a stack of clippings and notes that didn’t fit into any of the above. Some of them were going into “Nostalgia,” some into “The End” (in the sense of the “rolling apocalypse” discussed in Human Empire), some into “Crisis.” But what they had in common wasn’t so much a topic as a tone—the tone of an advice column. They address an implicit audience of readers who feel spurned by history, who want to “make a difference” but who find it hard to have any confidence that they can at the beginning of a century that keeps tossing up reminders of The End.

AT first I tried the label “Loss and Change” (after one of my favorite books, by Peter Marris), but this didn’t fit all the items in the pile. I also tried “Mourning,” Marris’s larger theme, but that didn’t work either. I ended up labeling the pile “Psychic Management,” though I am not crazy about it either. For one thing, “psychic “ may be be too much associated with thinking and not enough with feeling. Stuff in this pile shows how history looks from the inside out, and the human “inside” is heavy with feelings.

Furthermore, both thoughts and feelings are inseparable from behavior. Developing a sense of history may sound highly academic, but it includes a lot of tacit knowledge, and all sorts of practical life decisions depend on it. The advice column tone is responding to an implicit practical question: how you make a life in a world that you think and feel is at the mercy of historical forces far beyond your power to influence, much less to control ?

Well, the historian is compelled to ask, so what else is new? What is new in the modern world is the conviction that it might be otherwise [see: The Enlightenment}. What is new in the 21st century is the common underlying assumption that the driving force in history is now climate change. There are many other historical forces at work in the world, but this has been the game-changer in how many people think, feel, and increasingly behave as historical actors. I am not saying the focusing on economics or militarism would make anyone feel less history-lorn – but the conviction of environmental determinism has come to dominate how people think about history altogether.

It will be interesting to see how this pile stacks up over time. Contributions to it are welcome. So are suggestions for a better label.

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