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.

Deep Thinking on Deep History

“By adding deep historical perspectives to the critical impulses of postcolonial historiography, perhaps we can decisively break free of the self-justifying myopia that is the hallmark of modern historical consciousness. As the “pre” and modern fall away, the potential for speaking new languages of past and present will flourish in their place” (Smail and Andrew, 737).

Prior to beginning the reading for this week, I had resigned myself to the fact that it would most likely be fairly dry and tough to muddle through. Much to my surprise, I was fully engaged when reading On Deep History and the Brain. Though there were intense sections of psychology and physiology that I did not fully comprehend, I came away from the book with a better sense of the field of history, its limitations, and its potential, as I have with most of the readings for this semester. Though Smail’s work offered numerous takeaways, I believe the one that struck me most was his explanation of why historians work the way they do and what opportunities are available if the discipline were to open itself up to other disciplines and knowledge, as well as new methods of doing history.

In Chapter 2, the author discussed why historians have held so tightly to written documents in the past, and why some are still reluctant to loosen the grip. This was particularly striking to me because, as we’ve discussed in class, we historians like having evidence. The more evidence available, the more factual or legitimate we deem the source or event. However, as often as I have spoken of or defended ample evidence, I had never realized how often the evidence I was referring to was written documents. On some subconscious level, I have always considered these documents or records to be the pinnacle of evidence in the field of history. Yet, as this book explained, limiting history to that which has been recorded results in a very short chronology. Initially, historians considered the civilizations or peoples that had written documents to be those that had a history. Certainly, this frame of study excludes not only those peoples who did not have written records, but also anything that occurred prior to written work. In the twentieth century, there was a shift toward a focus on social history, in which the cultures and societies that had been overlooked or not adequately historicized were included in the conversation. However, there still seems to be a gap between the Postlithic and Paleolithic, and much of that gap can be attributed to a lack of written evidence. Smail suggests that only by considering the work and knowledge of other disciplines and recognizing written documents as one form of trace, will historians be able to weave together a narrative that includes deep or prehistory.

Though the lessons from this week’s readings seem logical during reflection, most of the main points had never occurred to me before. As a fledgling historian, I have prided myself in being able to discuss how things came to be with other historians or people who might not have any historical background. However, when understanding of the past begins at an arbitrary date or “turning point” in the historical past, a large section of the narrative is lost. In order to fully grasp the way civilizations form, or why humans in different cultures act or structure themselves in certain ways, the deep history has to be considered. To achieve this deeper understanding, Smail suggests, “For this to succeed, historians will have to become more scientifically literate, and biologists and physiologists, many of whom have ceased to be historically minded, will have to learn to think again with history” (73). I agree that deep history cannot be understood without knowledge of other disciplines, but I wonder how exactly this knowledge will be gained. Will more classes in science or other disciplines be required to gain degrees in history? Or will previously existing curriculums in history be modified to include prehistory? I wonder what the impact of Smail’s assessment has been, and am interested to see what comes of this call for deeper understanding of deep history.