This year marks the first Rhodes Humanities Forum, and to mark this occasion as a speaker, I have one question to ask.
Does it take just one angel- Walter Benjamin’s - to see human history as the shards of a single catastrophe? Or Emmanuel Levinas’ encounter with a single dog in a concentration camp to understand the disgrace of our inhumanity? The withholding of one word—the name of your language, or the word agriculture—to understand the meanness of colonisation for Indigenous peoples like Jakelin Troy and Bruce Pascoe? Just one action hero, Rambo, to win the Vietnam war at last?
Or do we need to stretch back to the big bang as David Christian implores us in big history, to see the tragedy of the commons for climate management? Is it a case of appropriating the the word holocaust for bacterial history to highlight humanity’s recentness and foolishness, as Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan have done? Might we change scales of abstraction as Luciano Floridi does to manage the rise of artificial agents in our ‘hyperhistorical moment’, or as the Indian historian Romila Thapar gently implores us, to tell and to re-tell our stories over and over again, to open our minds to the future?
My scholarly life is dedicated to the study of how and why people do and don’t tell histories: the stories that often explain why people are angry, why they have no living relatives, why they hold silence, or even why they engage in acts of violence towards one another.
The paths I travel have taken me from everything from a 44-volume universal history that I struggle to lift, through to an 8.5cm (3.3”), 29-page children’s world history which argued sometime around 1965 that Britain has been trying to shipwreck Europe since Napoleon. The everything in between that I read, watch and listen to has not the sense of panic that we might be tempted to associate with the current world news cycle, for history makers don’t do panic, if anything they do resignation. We have seen idiots and brutes before, and unfortunately, we are likely to see them again.
Except we are not certain about it, at least in the way of deniers or hate historians who want to fix the past in an all or nothing.
And our lack of certainty reflects our status as an ethical legacy that we are yet to fully appreciate and to enact.
Ethics, Aristotle tells us in Eudemian Ethics and the Nicomachean Ethics, is inexact, imprecise. It is not a tick box activity where we go through the motions in making a fair, just or good world. We, no one but we, oversteer between the vices to stumble our way to the virtues. In this we walk as if in a dark tunnel, always bumping into the sides. We also use carpenter’s logic, he tells us, not the precise logic of the mathematician, to explain how little goods make big ones.
There is no set size or scale for a history, no one way of explaining what a fair, just or good world is or might be. In this sense histories are stubbornly pre-industrial, and I mean this in the nicest possible sense. We history makers turn out slightly wonky stories that bear our fingerprints: too baggy or too tight, too calm or too angry, curly, misshapen. We are this way because ethics implies our thinking it through, and our decisions and responsibility. We have no replication crisis because any two history makers agreeing should be greeted with suspicion. And because we do not replicate, we have the opportunity not just to reflect various ethical approaches and theories, from virtues talk through to swarm intelligence or quantum entanglement ethics, but to create new approaches to ethics with our dance of the scales of time and space.
Our not appreciating this role for history makes our work look like a high rational burden for the world we make history for. People are irritated by our calmness, our anger, our constant re-telling. Get it right, they demand, and we don’t have a well-enough explained answer for that.
This is because the ways we talk about ourselves, our codes of conduct, are all the equivalent of the ethical bond between a GP and patient. We focus on the relationship between the single historian and the single historical agent: angel, dog, colonised person, all the while missing our equivalent of population health. Our population health is the variety of our stories, and the contributions they can make to the unending burden of ethics, including to the logic that drives machines, or to the popular tellings of who we are and might be, whether via Netflix or twitter.
It does take one angel, one dog, one word. But it also takes one universe, one swarm, one endless cycle of retelling to appreciate that the size of history is no more and no less than every moment in which we, and no one but we, decide and act for a better world.
Marnie Hughes-Warrington is Professor of History at the Australian National University. From 2020 she will be Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise at the University of South Australia.