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Image/2: Not progressive order but chaotic disorder.

MONTHLY BLOG 51, TALKING ABOUT THE SHAPE OF HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

The present ‘Temporal Turn’ in ideas and politics means reminding everyone, including all government policy-makers, that everything unfolds in historical context.1  There’s never a tabula rasa – a blank page on which to inscribe the future. The present comes from the past, and legacies from the past are all around us, let alone within us.

Well, that seems obvious enough. Yet insisting that we all have to look to history doesn’t advance things very far, especially since these days historians are (rightly) not giving out easy messages. It’s much easier to say that things are complex than to provide one-word answers.

Above all, historians collectively are not saying (as many Victorians did): be optimistic, Progress will win through. Partly that’s because it’s not clear exactly what constitutes historical improvement. When the supersonic Concorde first buzzed the skies over London, Paris, New York and Washington in the 1970s, protesters were firmly told off, with the snappy dictum: ‘You can’t stop Progress’. Yet … thirty years on, it’s Concorde that has gone; and it’s the urban protesters over aircraft noise who are slowly winning the battle to get the aviation industry to produce quieter planes. A different sort of Progress, it could be argued. But in the 1970s it was far from clear which version was going to succeed.

It’s a pertinent reminder that technology, which is often cited as the driver of historical change, does not hold all the trump cards. Innovations have to fit in with what humans collectively will accept, even though it may take time/arguments for that decision to become apparent. So, no simple Progress. At best/worst, a struggle or friction between conflicting interests. It’s what Marxists and Hegelians would call an example of dialectical contradiction in operation.
Image/1: Concorde – Was it Progress?

Image/1: Concorde – Was it Progress?
It flew elegantly – and faster than the speed of sound, in commercial service from 1976-2003.

 But it was super-noisy when heard from below; it did not cater for mass transport; and, by the end, its own operational systems were becoming technologically outdated.

Likewise, historians today don’t generally tell the world that ‘it’s all really the Class Struggle’ (though some still do). Or ‘it’s all really the hand of God’ (though some, not usually professional historians, still do). Or ‘it’s all really biological/gender or racial or national destiny’ (ditto).

Instead, the mainstream messages about long-term history are complex, which reflects reality. Indeed, there is an in-built tendency towards finding complexity in professional research: the more one looks, the more one finds. That can be helpful. When talking about some historically-derived situation, the remark ‘Ah well, it’s all very complex!’ can certainly be a good first inoculation against over-simplified nostrums.

On the other hand, historians should be able to say more than that. The art of research is not only to find complexity but also to explain it. Hence if fascinating historical studies offer intricate detail but no overview in conclusion, readers are entitled to feel frustrated.

Sad to say one erudite and fascinating study of three seventeenth-century women falls into that category. Natalie Zemon Davis’s Women on the Margins (1997)3  starts inventively with an imaginary conversation between the protagonists, who never met and knew nothing of each other. They are a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew – and they don’t want to appear in the same book together. Yet Zemon Davis overrides their (imagined) objection. For her, there is evident analytical interest in studying their very different lives in conjunction. Yet, in her conclusion, she expressly declines to locate these case-studies within any wider history of women. Why not? Who could do that better than Zemon Davis? And she won’t say, what are readers to conclude? That these micro-histories are individually fascinating but collectively meaningless?

Certainly, their stories are not uncomplicated tales of female advancement. But readers would surely welcome an assessment of the changing long-term balance between constraints and opportunities for women – a seventeenth-century dialectic which has hardly ceased in the twenty-first century.

When opening a discussion of these issues, one good exercise is to ask people to explore their own implicit assumptions. If you have to draw the shape of history as a diagram, what image would you draw? The outcome then requires discussion – and gives scope for people then to have second, maybe deeper, thoughts.

When I ask my MA students to undertake this exercise – putting pen to blank paper and letting inspiration flow – they usually respond with bafflement, plus exasperation. One of them told me crossly: ‘I just don’t think like that, Penny’. In response, I urged: ‘Try’. A small minority (these days) draw a line, sometimes pointing upwards or downwards. They may explain their choices either as an expression of faith in Progress, in a distinctly Victorian style, or of deep-grained ecological pessimism. Another minority, rather more fatalistically, declare the answer to be a circle: ‘what goes round comes round’. Such images lead to fruitful discussions of the pros and cons of linear and cyclical views of history.4

But the majority (these days) scribble a confused mass, like a tangled ball of wool, and explain their choice with comments like: ‘Oh, it’s all a mess’. ‘It’s chaos’. ‘There’s no pattern to it’. ‘It’s too complex to explain’. ‘Unexpected things happen’. ‘Contingency rules’. ‘It’s just one accident after another’.
Image/2: Not progressive order but chaotic disorder.

Image/2: Not progressive order but chaotic disorder.

The only Concorde crash, just outside Paris (July 2000), following accidental damage to the plane from debris on the runway.

Very shortly after this photo was taken, 113 people died, 109 airborne and 4 on the ground.

If testimonies were needed to confirm the current absence of agreed Grand Narratives, recounting the long-term course of history, then these responses would provide it. And they lead to good discussions, once these answers are further explored. Sometimes, the advocates of chaotic randomness are very firm in their views. Their arguments may verge upon the notorious Time-heresy, that Time itself lacks all continuity and that each one moment (however brief) is sundered from the following moment.5  At that point, I usually reply: ‘Well if that’s the case, I won’t bother to mark your essays carefully. I’ll throw them into the air and those settling at the top of the heap will get top marks, and those at the bottom will be failed.’ To a man and woman, the students chorus: ‘But, Penny, that’s unfair’. So there is enough through-time coherence and order in the world to encourage people to expect a just assessment of their earlier efforts at some subsequent date.

In fact, those who see history as messy chaos don’t usually mean that there are absolutely no continuities or holding systems which operate through Time. But they do mean that things are so messy that they cannot be reduced to simplicity (except insofar as stating that ‘It’s all chaos’ is in itself a simple answer).

So we are back to encouraging historians, and all others interested in the long term, not just to report but to explain the complications. These are likely to feature an ever-changing mix not only of different forms of change and competing trends, but also deep continuities. As physicist Stephen Hawking predicted, approvingly in 2000: ‘The next [twenty-first] century will be the century of complexity’.6  For historians, the old simplicities of linear or cyclical history may have been outgrown. Yet the Temporal Turn commands us not only to engage in the study of the past (which stretches up to the present moment) but also to explain to the wider world its underlying logic. It’s a big challenge.

1 On the Temporal Turn, see P.J. Corfield, ‘What on Earth is the Temporal Turn and Why is it happening Now?’ BLOG/ 49 (Jan. 2015) and idem, ‘What does the Temporal Turn mean in Practice – for Historians and Non-Historians Alike? BLOG/ 50 (Feb. 2015).

2 Following its first flight in 1969, the supersonic Concorde was used in commercial service from 1976 to 2003: see references in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concorde

3 N. Zemon Davis, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (Cambridge, Mass., 1997).

4 For an indication of the many possibilities, see E. Zerubavel, Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past (Chicago, 2003); and for linear and cyclical histories, see P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. 49-56, 80-8.

5 See, for example, a publication with an aptly fin-de-millennium title, J. Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in our Understanding of the Universe (1999).

6 S.W. Hawking, ‘“Unified Theory” is Getting Closer, Hawking Predicts’, interview in San Jose Mercury News (23 Jan. 2000), p. 29A, quoted in A. Sengupta (ed.), Chaos, Nonlinearity, Complexity: The Dynamical Paradigm of Nature (Berlin, 2006), p. vii. See also M. Gell-Mann, Adventures in the Simple and the Complex: The Quark and the Jaguar (New York, 1994).

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MONTHLY BLOG 50, WHAT DOES THE ‘TEMPORAL TURN’ MEAN IN PRACTICE – FOR HISTORIANS AND NON-HISTORIANS ALIKE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

The senior American policy-maker, who claimed in 2004 that: ‘When we act, we create our own reality’, proved to be dangerously wrong – in Iraq as elsewhere across the world. Instead, it is history which provides the past and present reality. Hence the need to understand everything in its full historical context. That’s what the Temporal Turn2  really means: a turn to Time, whose effects are studied by historians, alongside the practitioners of many other long-span subjects, like archaeologists, astrophysicists, biologists, climatologists, geologists, or zoologists.

Paying fresh attention to Time calls for greater changes in the mind-set of non-historians than it does for historians. For us, it’s axiomatic that History deals with the very long term. But for other disciplines, it means making a fresh effort to ‘think long’. To reflect that the current parameters of your discipline may not remain the same for ever. To become aware of change and historical context, as an integral component, not just an add-on extra. But also to be aware of deep continuities, which may not be amenable to policies of instant reformation. Thus the Temporal Turn will encourage an intellectual shift in many disciplines across the board in the Arts, Social Sciences and Sciences, just as the Linguistic (or structural) Turn, as announced by Richard Rorty in 1967,3  affected philosophy (his prime target) as well as anthropology, social studies, theology, ethics, literary studies, and even, to an extent, history.4

Historians are debating quite what the Temporal Turn means for them too. Crusading zeal on behalf of the discipline, as expressed in the recent History Manifesto, makes for good copy and rousing appeals. Thus Jo Guldi and David Armitage end their polemical tract with a Marxist echo: ‘Historians of the world unite! There is a world to win – before it’s too late’.5  Yet some of the early responses from fellow historians are unexcited. In effect, they are saying that public history has already arrived: ‘We do this already’. In particular, Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler criticise The History Manifesto for being wrong both in its descriptions and its prescriptions: ‘Historians aren’t soldiers, they don’t fight on a single front, and … they certainly don’t need to be led in one direction’.6 Cohen and Mandler specifically dislike Guldi and Armitage’s hopes that public policy debates can be resolved, or at very least enlightened, by using ‘big data’, derived from massive long-span historical databases. Instead, they stress creative diversity within the discipline.

Who is right in this disagreement? In one sense, Cohen and Mandler are sure to be correct, in that historians can’t be told what to do and how to do it. Their subject is already hugely diversified; and, unlike many academic subjects, it overlaps with a huge semi- and non-academic world of freelance historians and do-it-yourself amateurs. This massive collective project, which has been developed over centuries, is not for speedy turning.
2015-2 No 1 Clio_Goddess of History c1770

Clio, Goddess of History, c1770:

in Portland stone roundel (32in diameter), from Plas Llangoedmor, Cardigan, Wales.

Source: http://www.ausbcomp.com/~bbott/wortman/Clio_Goddess-of-History.htm.

On the other hand, The History Manifesto is importantly right in its general message, even if not necessarily in its specific preferences. It is one sign among many of the intellectual shift towards long-term analysis and away from short-termism. Urgent contemporary issues – like the search for long-term economic growth, or the challenge of resisting/coping with climate change – have long-term roots and demand a long-span historical perspective in response. Historians should be primed and ready to contribute. Indeed, more. Where necessary, historians themselves should be recasting the debates and the big questions.

That contribution can be done on the strength of insights and analysis from micro-history as well as from macro-history. The Temporal Turn does not mean that everyone must study millennia. There are virtues in short-term probes and in long-span narratives – and in the many way-stations in between. The length of periods studied should be dictated only by the research questions in play, as mediated by the source materials available.

Nonetheless, historians of all stripes should be ready to explain or at least to speculate on the bigger picture(s) revealed by their research. When asked something sweeping, it’s not enough to reply: ‘I’m sorry. It’s not my period’. Who other than historians are better placed to comment on historical trends? And there are plenty of ways in which attention to the diachronic can be strengthened in current History research and teaching – of which more in a future BLOG.
2015-2 No 2 Shou Lao Chinese god of longevity

Chinese figurine of Shou Lao or ‘Old Longevity’, representing the power of Time.

Since he carries the scroll which records everyone’s date of death, his good favour is auspicious.

Source: www.daodoctor.com.

Immediately, three longitudinal insights from History are worth highlighting. (1) Covert change: there are aspects of behaviour, which people often consider to be permanently part of the human condition, which may not really be so. (2) Covert continuity: there are big crises and upheavals in history, which people often think of as ‘changing everything’, but which don’t necessarily do so. And, as a result, (3) change over time is much more than a simple binary process. People often entertain very schematic ideas of the past. Before a certain date, everyone did X, whereas after that time, no-one did. In fact, there are multiple turning points, not always in synchronisation.

Long-term change can be insidious and gradual as well as turbulent and rapid. It is halted by continuity and yet hastened by revolutions. History is interestingly complex – but not inexplicable. Ask the historians; and, historians, tell the world.

1 Attributed to Karl Rove, George Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff (2004-7). See M. Danner, ‘Words in a Time of War: On Rhetoric, Truth and Power’, in A. Szántó (ed.), What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics (New York, 2007), p. 17.

2 See PJC, ‘What on Earth is the Temporal Turn and Why is it Happening Now?’ Monthly BLOG/49 (Jan. 2015), for which see http://www.penelopejcorfield.com.Monthly-Blogs.

3 R. Rorty (ed.), The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago, 1967).

4 G.M. Spiegel, Practising History: New Directions in Historical Writing after the Linguistic Turn (New York, 2005).

5 J. Guldi and D. Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge, 2014), p. 126.

6 D. Cohen and P. Mandler, ‘The History Manifesto: A Critique’ for American Historical Review, at http://www.deborahacohen.com/profile/?q=content/critique-history-manifesto, opening paragraph

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MONTHLY BLOG 49, WHAT ON EARTH IS THE ‘TEMPORAL TURN’ AND WHY IS IT HAPPENING NOW?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

The ‘temporal turn’ is a grand phrase to name the current political and intellectual return to interpreting things explicitly within the very long term, otherwise known as history. It’s a new trend, which is gathering pace – and it’s an excellent one too. The name is borrowed from a phrase popularised by the American philosopher Richard Rorty in 1967. He then wrote of the ‘linguistic turn’ in twentieth-century philosophy, when fresh attention was paid to language as a factor significantly influencing or even determining meanings, rather than just conveying thought.1

Since then, an array of other analytical ‘turns’ have been announced. But none have had the same resonance – until now. The serious study of history and historical trends had not, of course, disappeared. So the ‘temporal turn’ is not news to historians. But let’s hope that it becomes a confirmed and sustained development. The ‘linguistic turn’ certainly had its merits. Much was learned about the power of language to frame and convey meaning at any given point in time. Yet the ‘linguistic turn’ was eventually overdone. Analysis of the synchronic moment was excessively privileged over the study of long-term (diachronic) history.

Such an outcome, however, proved detrimental to both perspectives, which are intertwined: ‘The synchronic is always in the diachronic’, just as ‘the diachronic is always in the synchronic’. Life is not composed just of self-contained instantaneous moments. They are linked seamlessly together. Just as well-functioning gears mesh together seamlessly in the present in synchro-mesh, so the past meshes seamlessly with the present and future in diachro-mesh. As a result, it’s really not possible to divorce analytically ‘after’ from ‘before’. While some elements of the past can be properly defined as dead and gone, plenty of others persist through time.

One example of lengthy but not eternal continuity is the human genome. It’s analysed by geneticists as composed of three billion chemical bases of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which contain the biological instructions to make a human. As such, the human genome frames our collective and individual genetic make-up, providing a core pattern plus individual variability. And its longevity is matched with that of our species.2015-1 No 1 Human Genome DNA split

Fig.1
Living History: The Human Genome – DNA split.

From: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Genome_Project

Recalling the genome’s long past and immediate present provides a reminder that studying the past (whether via biology or history or any other longitudinal subject) does not require a dualistic choice between either change or continuity. They are intertwined, like History and Geography, or Time and Space.

So the ‘temporal turn’ is welcome. And there are multiplying signs of its arrival, across many disciplines. Within the study of history, micro-histories are being balanced by new macro-histories. And the macro- can be very elongated indeed. Some diachronic studies now start with the origins of human society, others with the origins of Planet Earth, while others start with the origins of the cosmos.3

In practice, it’s far from easy to research and to teach on such a wide canvas, but the International Association of Big History (founded in 2010) advises and encourages practitioners. Some of us (myself included) laugh slightly at its terminology, which has a hint of Toad of Toad Hall: ‘My history is bigger than your history’. Other terms of art are ‘Deep Time’ or, with thanks to Fernand Braudel, the ‘longue durée’. But the name is not the most important point. The history of the long-term is indeed big; and it’s good that it’s returning to a range of new agendas, in everything from zoology to art.4

Lastly, why is this trend happening now? There are three big reasons, which, separately, would have had great impact – and in conjunction are commanding. But it took a combination of macro-crises to overcome ‘presentism’ and the quest for instant gratification, which is strongly entrenched in consumer culture. Nonetheless, external circumstances are forcing a rethink. One inescapable factor is climate change, especially in the context of demographic pressure and ecological degradation. This great topic for our time requires an understanding of past and present science, future prognostications, and current politics. Historians can contribute by studying how past communities have coped with ecological changes, both for good and for ill.5 Accordingly, David Armitage and Jo Guldi have just produced a stirring trumpet-blast, calling for historians to be included in all long-term planning teams organised by governments and international bodies.6

A second factor is the heightened global confrontation over a range of political and religious issues in the twenty-first century. The 2001 attack upon New York’s Twin Towers came as a huge surprise as well as a disaster. It triggered new calls, for eminently practical reasons, to comprehend the roots of conflict and the historic prospects of any countervailing forces of cooperation. Instant power-plays without a diachronic perspective have failed badly. Thus a hubristic assertion in 2004 by a senior American policy-maker that ‘We’re an empire now and, when we act, we create our own reality’, proved to be dangerously wrong.7 History has a habit of biting back – and it is still biting all the protagonists in numerous conflicts around the globe. These all call for diachronic assessment. They haven’t happened out of the blue. And they can’t be addressed cluelessly.

Thirdly, fresh thought is required in response to the unexpected 2008/9 global economic recession, whose ramifications are still unfolding. Knowledge of synchronic structures, networks, and meanings will explain only so much. The origins, treatment and prognosis of the crisis need analysis in long-term context. A sign of the times can be seen in campaigns by some economists and many students to revamp the study of economics. That subject has since the 1970s become highly technocratic, focused upon a neo-classical model, with a strictly quantitative methodology. It might be termed a structuralist or synchronic economics. Yet there are now calls to debate moral values as well as statistical assessments. And to re-incorporate the (wrongly) underrated insights of diachronic economic history.8
So the ‘temporal turn’ is very welcome. It is quietly killing the anti-history philosophy of post-modernism, which flourished in the later twentieth century.9 At last, here is an intellectual trend which historians can welcome wholeheartedly.

1 R. Rorty (ed.), The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago, 1967).

2 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (London, 2007), p. xv.

3 Examples among a burgeoning field include D. Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley, Calif., 2004); and C.S. Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (New York, 2007).

4 C. Ross, The Past is the Present; It’s the Future Too: The Temporal Turn in Contemporary Art (London, 2014).

5 See M. Levene et al. (eds), History at the End of the World? History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure (Penrith, 2010); or J.L. Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough History (New York, 2014).

6 J. Guldi and D. Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge, 2014).

7 Attributed to Karl Rove, George Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff (2004-7). See M. Danner, ‘Words in a Time of War: On Rhetoric, Truth and Power’, in A. Szántó (ed.), What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics (New York, 2007), p. 17.

8 See e.g. D. North, The Economic Crisis and the Return of History (Oak Park, Mich., 2011); T. Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, transl. by A. Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass., 2014), pp. 31-3, 573-7; J. Madrick, Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists have Damaged America and the World (New York, 2014); and students’ calls for reform, led by Manchester University’s Post-Crash Economics Society: see www.post-crasheconomics.com.

9 For more, see P.J. Corfield, ‘History and the Temporal Turn: Returning to Causes, Effects and Diachronic Trends’, in J-F. Dunyach (ed.), Périodisations de l’histoire des mondes Britanniques: reflectures critiques (forthcoming Paris, 2015).

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