Having resolved to communicate more about what I am learning and thinking during my graduate studies, I thought I would begin with one of the first assignments of this semester: to consider the question, ‘what is the history of the modern world and what does it have to do with me?’ I could have chosen to discuss calculus, which we are studying in our statistics class, but it doesn’t lend itself quite so easily to the format of blogging. Plus, I am only at a painfully basic stage (as in, embarrassingly basic while still being fairly uncomfortable to endure) of calculus. Historians will probably think this blog is also at quite a basic level of analysis, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment.
The history of the modern world is one of shifting geographies. By ‘geographies’, I mean the constellations of political, environmental, cultural, social, and economic processes that define and shape a place. We can think of geographies in the plural because, as well as there being numerous places in the world, there are different scales of analysis: local, national, and international.
At any one point in history, you find yourself occupying a particular point in space that is constituted by these multiple, intersecting processes (cultural, economic, etc.), which themselves change over time, i.e. historically. If you can understand how these processes are working at a particular moment, you can understand your place in the world and the forces that keep you there or that push you towards another place (whether ‘you’ are an individual, an organisation, or a country).
If you can understand how these processes have changed over time, you can understand how and why you arrived at that particular place and why other people did not. Understanding how the world’s geography has changed over time also helps you to avoid teleology – a sense of inevitability. This is because historical study can reveal the uncertainties and alternative options that decision-makers have faced across the years, as well as the unintended consequences, unforeseen developments, or already-existing factors that were ignored, which led to expectations being unmet. In understanding the history of why and how change has or has not happened, you begin to see the present as a still-shifting geography, and to see yourself as an agent of change who interacts with, and is part of, that geography.
Learning the history of the modern world can be a radical process: going back to the roots of a situation and working out how it could have been otherwise. What are the forces or processes maintaining that situation? How deeply entrenched are those forces or processes – or are they precarious?
The history of the modern world is also the history of ideas: how they arise and take root, or do not take root. That is a political process, as much as it is an intellectual one. Why do some ideas appear to be self-evident? Some, perhaps, seem this way because they have been well-evidenced and established by the scientific method – like the idea that the Earth travels round the Sun.
Other ideas can seem self-evident because they form part of the make-up of the political status-quo; they are perpetuated on a daily basis by the media, by politicians, and by other well-respected or high-status figures within society. Even though they might not be well-evidenced or established by the scientific method (which, I hasten to say, is not itself entirely free from bias or subjectivity), these ideas can become so well-instated that they begin to feel as natural as the fact that the Earth travels round the Sun. The concept of never-ending economic growth is one example – a concept that has proved surprisingly resilient despite the financial upheavals of the past few years and despite the ever-more-dire warnings of decreasing ecological capacity to underpin the current global model of resource-intensive economic expansion.
I’m not sure “the history” of the world, in its entirety, is something that can ever be grasped. But perhaps it doesn’t need to be. Writing history is always a selective process, based on including and excluding. It depends what you’re interested in finding out. Our most commonly-used tools for understanding history are writing and reading, and the history-writer has the difficult task of translating a four-dimensional process (shifting geographies over time, in all sorts of directions) into a linear narrative, in which word follows word and chapter follows chapter. Historians are limited by page limits and intellectual stamina. The definition of history, then, is to tease out the strands that seem relevant from the knotted and frayed rope of time.
Museum curators might disagree with the above description, with reason. Unlike books, articles, and blogs, museums create their own geographies of the past, with which the contemporary visitor can interact. A well-designed exhibition can create a sense of time as you wander along its paths, while overlaying the different processes that make and reshape each historical era. There might be reconstructed past physical environments or human settlements. Perhaps some dug-up artefacts for you to contemplate their cultural, economic, social, or political significance. Maybe costumed actors to perform the lives of people long dead. A museum exhibition still involves the decisions of what to include and what to exclude, but it can use three-dimensional space to weave different strands of history together.
History is further complicated because the world continues to change, day by month by year, so you’re always asking questions in relation to something that is itself not fixed. Insofar as the world is always moving or changing, our understandings of history will change too: different parts become salient, others forgotten.
Finally, you can’t help but feel a sense of awe, once you start to look at the history of the world’s geography and the human experience of continuation and change. There have been tremendous struggles and stunning inventions during the layering-up of years of human creativity and passion. We have seen power wielded sometimes wisely and sometimes terribly, sometimes by a few and sometimes by the many. History enables us to appreciate how often people doggedly go on living, despite the seemingly impossible endurance required (which is why I am sure I will persevere through the statistics class).
The history of the modern world evokes an image of the world as our home, with disparate places and people becoming connected ever more closely. It indicates that there are some processes we can influence, maybe even control, and others we cannot. There are some processes we can influence collectively, but not individually – and vice versa. It puts the twenty-first century in perspective: there are challenges that await us, the like of which we have never before faced and which may require unprecedented response. It remains to be seen whether the necessary scale of response and degree of cooperation will materialise.
Above all, world history creates a sense of legacy: of what we have inherited, and what we will leave for future generations to inherit. What does it have to do with me? It means I am internationalist in outlook and forward-thinking in ambition. Those are distant horizons, indeed, and the challenge is in finding a way to locate myself in relation to that geography.