“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.