Lying down with the dogs

“Because the individual, narrowly restricted by his senses and power of concentration, never perceives more than a tiny patch of the vast tapestry of events, deeds, and words which form the destinies of a group, and because, moreover, he possesses an immediate awareness of only his own mental state, all knowledge of mankind, to whatever time it applies, will always derive a large part of its evidence from others. In this respect, the student of the present is scarcely any better off than the historian of the past” (Fudge, 16).

Like the other readings throughout this course, the reading for this week was thought provoking and added to my understanding of the ever-growing (and much broader than I was previous aware) field of history. Once more, I went through the increasingly familiar process of reading through new material, reflecting, and wondering why I had never considered these perspectives before. However, I feel as though the shock that came with that process at the beginning of the semester has now subsided, to be replaced by comprehension of how the new material fits into the dialogue that we’ve had in our discussions up to this point.

The discussion of agency is one that I was introduced to Sophomore Year of college, while studying the history of the African Diaspora. However, it wasn’t until taking Environmental History later that same year that I began to consider different types of agency, and the different actors that display it. In terms of the environment, these actors can include trees falling in the forest, diseases wiping out native populations, natural disasters that destroy the lowcountry coast, etc. Suffice to say that these actors cannot demonstrate the same type of agency that humans might—deliberating and deciding on a course of action or considering the consequences of those actions. Yet, these nonhuman actors have, in a variety of ways, transformed the course of history.

The most significant takeaway from the readings was the suggestion that actors do not always act individually and that agency does not require rational thought. As Chris Pearson described in his “Dogs, History, and Agency,” there are multiple kinds of agency, of which, the reason-based intentionality displayed by humans is only one (Pearson, 133). In order to allow nonhumans to become active actors in history, historians have to reconsider the qualifications and definition by which they determine and understand agency. In the case of the World War I, dogs provided services such as delivering messages, tracking down and identifying wounded soldiers, and providing emotional support. Though reason-based, human agents may have determined their role in the war, dogs reciprocated action. Without considering the actions of these dogs, much of the history of the Western Front during the First World War could be misunderstood, or even lost. However, by remolding traditional limitations and understandings of agency, the realm of actors with agency in the ongoing narrative of history is blown open.

These readings fit in perfectly with all of the previous readings that we have done for this course thus far, supplementing the theme of an ever-evolving discipline. Just as the field of history has transformed to accommodate new or missing information or practices, my understanding of the discipline has followed suit. If the most current efforts within history are to reconsider the role of nonhuman agents, I feel fully confident that the field can and will accommodate them. On a final note, I was very intrigued by the anecdote about Temple Grandin in Fudge’s “Milking Other Men’s Beasts.” Perhaps those most qualified to understand what role or thought processes that nonhuman entities posses are not those whom, traditionally, have been considered historians. This speaks to the recommendation by Smail in our previous readings that we must be willing to look outside of the discipline or outside of our definition of who is “qualified” to help piece together the historical narrative. I am becoming increasingly convinced that this is the best way to overcome many of the obstacles that the field faces.

5 thoughts on “Lying down with the dogs”

  1. Carmen,

    This is a great, thought-provoking post (no surprise there!) and I enjoyed your inclusion of environmental history and the agency of other nonhuman entities besides animals. I do wonder, however, what are your own thoughts on agency? Do you believe that trees can have agency? Or dogs? Are there varying degrees of agency? Some historians have argued that even food can have agency. Do you think that is a step too far? I will be curious to see what you and everyone else has to say on Tuesday 🙂

  2. Laura,

    I apologize for not making my opinions more explicit–I think I did not completely get my thoughts into the post. I do believe that nonhuman entities possess and demonstrate agency, and I believe this agency can be found in animals, diseases, or a tree falling in the forest, disrupting its habitat in the process. However, I believe the levels or type of agency of entity differs depending on the actor. Additionally (and I hadn’t considered this until writing comments on blogs), perhaps one way to determine the type of agency that an actor has is to determine whether the actor merely possesses the agency, or demonstrates it. This speaks to Chris Pearson’s discussion of intentionality–which I do not believe is necessary in order for agency to exist–but I do believe it can help draw the line between the different types of agency.

    In terms of food or atoms or any other number of objects that might be considered agents by some…I do not know. In a way I believe that anything that makes some sort of difference in an agent, yet at the same time, I recognize how limitless that type of thinking might be. I look forward to discussing this further in class.

  3. You can’t imagine how gratifying it is to read a post like this, Carmen! You’ve helped me see the course material in a new way and confirmed my sense that we could somehow get from Ranke to animals in one semester and that the journey would help us see how nuanced and evolving historical inquiry is and always will be. Temple Grandin!!!! Is coming to VT on Thursday: http://news.cals.vt.edu/insights/2014/11/save-the-date-temple-grandin-speaking-on-december-4/ I can’t go but maybe some of you can?

  4. It’s always nice to read your posts, Carmen, as they make me reflect on our readings in a new way. I think your comment on agency is very well thought out, and I agree with you that, I just don’t *know* about the level of agency embodied and practiced by living organisms. I agree with your statement that “In a way I believe that anything that makes some sort of difference in an agent, yet at the same time, I recognize how limitless that type of thinking might be.” But, in the end, I just conclude that we are supposed to be learning how to be historians, and that part of that is thinking, questioning, and embracing new thoughts. Which you’re doing!

  5. Hi Carmen,

    So do you see agency as a continuum, with natural disasters, urban landscapes, and other non-living shapers of history on one end and humans on the other?

    Claire

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