|firstname.lastname@example.org||# Posted on January 18, 2015 at 17:15|
3/2 Gunnel Cederlöf: India and the Environmental History of Imperialism
The seven knots of history
I have decided to write my »grand narrative« of the course spanning through one whole turbulent year of my life as a meshwork of topics and problems that stimulated my thoughts most. May this be an excuse for unsystematic, Joycean-stream-of-consciousness style of writing, since I do not know how to approach this differently (and to my defense, the instructions did tell us to write a diary). Thus, I take the knitting needles into my hands and start to weave my (hi)story and hope the pattern emerges in the process…
&&&History as politics&&&
I could not disagree with Worthy, since I cannot and do not want to separate my work as a student from myself as an activist. But where do I differ then from the ideologues behind the creation of national parks that we were dealing with at the session with Jane Carruthers? Whether it be in my country of origin, Slovenia, where after the dissolution of SFR Yugoslavia, the intellectual elite created a kind of geographical deterministic national identity that would separate it from the Balkans, i.e. the alpine identity. The creation of the Triglav National Park in the Julian Alps in 1961 makes me curious who/what was this nation in the context of SFR Slovenia? Slovenes, Yugoslavs? Anyway, what about the bureaucrats behind the creation, re-creation of national parks nowadays that strive towards various goals like biodiversity, economic activity etc.? (Re)writing history of an area makes it malleable, it makes legitimizations. Again, what makes me as a historian different? I aim for factuality, yet I clearly acknowledge my ideological bias that might skewer my interpretation of sources and indeed my choice of sources. Is it only my left-wing apprehension of the world that separates my historiography?
&&&History as imperialism&&&
I am constantly afraid that my own thinking and work might actually subdue the Otherness. As I reflected on the conversation with Libby Robin: » imperialism [is] not only a historical or political phenomenon but also a mode of conduct and thought. Such an understanding means that an empire is not strictly a geographical entity stretching over vast areas, or indeed does not have to be a geographic entity at all, but can also mean intra-state imperialism or imperialism done by scientific categorization for example.« The scientific imperialism is very much alive, for example indigenous practices clash with juridico-academic definitions of biodiversity (as Carruthers described the situation in the problematics of South African national parks), the imperialistic appropriation of the past by intellectual historians who minimalize the lives of uncanonized, everyday people, my own stubbornness in minimalizing all other issues if compared to class struggle throughout history etc. Of course scientific imperialism was and is made possible by territorial imperialism of the maritime and military powers, like the frontier usurping of the North American continent, or colonial expansion on all continents; Gunnel Cederlöf shows how it is impossible to decouple nation-state creation from the growth of colonial merchant companies and how the scale of a nation is lacking in the context of the 18th century when the economy was becoming increasingly globalized (let alone nowadays) and even more so in the context of environmental history, since national borders rarely coincide with delimitations provided by rivers or mountains (Cederlöf:2013). Or if one is interested in the dispossesion and plundering of global capital flows as Hornborg is, then the nation-state as a point of departure necessarily obscures the unequal flows and structural inequalities that are materialized in every piece of technology we own (Hornborg:2012). But I would like to return to the theatrical notion of locating boundaries in nature; I am still amused by one of events that Cederlöf describes in her book, when an East India Company officer tried to draw a border but had to go in zig zags, due to flooding (the border still remains that way…). It is a wake up call when one thinks that a vast amount of contemporary legalistic and academic notions probably originate in someone’s inflexibility of thoughts. But how to think consciousness as a phenomenon of the past? Is not consciousness always only present in the present?
&&&History as consciousness&&&
Given my tendency to sympathize with histories from below, I often ask myself how to find traces of people’s lives who left little in the way of official sources, written sources etc. How to find their thoughts if only a wooden spoon remains for example? Much can be deduced from patterns of consumption, landscape use, changes in the economy. And yet, if as environmental historians we are interested in how people perceived the environments they lived in, does this suffice? Tim Ingold’s phenomenological approach to the understanding of the subject in an Umwelt was enlightening to a degree, especially when he aimed to reconstruct the experience of a landscape depicted in a painting by Bruegel The Harvesters (Ingold:2000). It was a lovely experience to imagine the heat, the smell of harvested wheat, the chattering, the quenching of the thirst one harvester experiences etc. But, I could not get rid of the notion that I (or Ingold for that matter) am romanticizing this. This is one issue I take with this approach, how to reach the supraindividual, even if indeed we can reconstruct a taskscape; an individual hardly ever can experience themselves and other entities in a historical context, as a finished business, yet in a way we are. For example, the incense of harvest and the rays of sun might be pleasurable to the harvesters but are they aware of themselves as being exploited in an unegalitarian agrarian economy (I am just guessing by contextualizing the painting in the 16th century)? But if the notion is turned around, people’s perceptions and actions in the taskscape changed the physical environment; the path is there, perhaps where the leftovers of the harvest are left, there might be more mice, maybe someone carved something into the tree’s bark etc. Is this relevant for history? I think for environmental historians as Moore put it, albeit in a different context: »no domain of human experience is off limits« (Moore: 2011, p.135).
&&&History as atonement&&&
This will be my finishing knot. I think there is no single author that we have read or had conversations with during our sessions, that does not with their work follow Marx’s words »[t]he philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it« (Marx: 2000, p.173). I think this is something conventional historians would not like to admit, since it puts into question the factuality and objectivity of their work and to change the narrative of the past carries huge responsibilites. I have not yet included in my story any thoughts that have sprung to being with the help of Norberg Hodge, which is ironic since I was chairing that session together with Ellen. I think this is because I found her text Ancient Futures (2009) the least rigorous; the history of the Ladakhi people was dealth with like it was written with the typical tragical scheme: the innocent beginning, the meeting with the active, usually malevolent actor (the West), the fall but with the addition of a glimpse of a possible happy-end. But Norberg Hodge’s text is useful because it puts into sharp relief the pathos, which is symptomatic for many of the authors we have been acquainted with (especially the intellectual history line); it is the pathos of atonement. It is the conflation of economic, ecological, psychological, societal, intellectual phenomena into a single history of Western individualism and dissociation from »nature«, which is where we find ourselves now supposedly. This leads me back to Sörlin’s claim, that history reflects anxieties and interests of the society, in which it emerges. It seems I have knitted a circular piece of material, but I still think it is not random to choose anxiety as the starting point and maybe it is the way it should be, since it drives us away from the illusions of objectivity into that unstable in-between moments, where history and all the voices of the people from the past collide in ourselves, where the limits fall, time and space become insubstantial in one great point of clarity; the clarity that is humbleness for the times past, for the now and the humbleness we owe to the times to come. I did not want to sound so cliché and spiritual in a way books for the middle-aged want us to be. But I think that humbleness can help us when grappling with all the cliffs, hurdles, the whys, the blank spaces, the aporias when immersing in history.
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