Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History

In his essay “Farther Away”, Jonathan Franzen discusses how he, during his life as a writer, has come to experience his own life as a story. The way he expresses his relationship to his own story made me think about how we, as human beings, relate to history. It made me ask the question: When does history begin?

Franzen writes as follows:

Even at fifteen, in Idaho, I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it, and now, all the more so, the stories that mattered to me were the old ones – selected, clarified – in retrospect. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

What Franzen discusses is his relationship to the past, in this case his own past. For him to relate to his past, Franzen states that a certain time has to pass before stories can be told based on his life experiences. Franzen’s relationship to his past is similar to the relationship of the historian to history.

Simply put, history consists of all events that have occurred in the past. However, although the terms “history” and “past” are used more or less interchangeably, they do not refer to the same thing. The past consists of events that have already taken place. History is the interpretation of those events.

If history and the past are different things, the consequence of such a statement would be that only sections of the past are included in history.

History is the academic research discipline that interprets and organizes the past with the purpose of increasing our understanding of it.  Swedish historian Göran B Nilsson has called history “retrospective process analysis”, which indicates that for history to be written, a course of events in the past needs to have been finalized so that the process as a whole can be interpreted. In the words of Franzen: “[…] selected, clarified – in retrospect.” Put together, the statements of Nilsson and Franzen would indicate that the answer to the question when history begins would be that a period of time needs to have passed between the present and the completion of the process of which the event was a part.

In other words, history seems to begin in the near past. However, such a conclusion can only be reached if one writes history backwards. Here on this blog I have argued for the necessity of writing history forwards. Consequently, the search for the beginning of history needs to be undertaken at a different place in time.

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Rune stone at Botkyrka Church, Diocese of Stockholm, Botkyrka kommun.
Source: Håkan Svensson (Xauxa)

The academic discipline of history interprets and organizes the past using written documents. Therefore, the beginning of history is connected to the introduction of writing, but the introduction of writing is not equal to the beginning of history. For history to happen, society needs to be literate. In other words, society needs writing to function. Furthermore, enough written material needs to have survived to the present day for the historian to be able to perform a systematic analysis of its contents. This is the reason why the Scandinavian Viking Age with its runic scripture is not considered part of history. Viking society was based on an oral culture and the writings that have been left behind for us to read are mostly short statements, for example on rune stones or weapons. These messages tell us about the people who inhabited Scandinavia during the seventh through tenth centuries, but they do not convey enough information for a process analysis to take place. Consequently, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, when literacy is introduced through the conversion of the region to Christianity.

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Scroll for Zhang Dong (c.1100).
Current location: Princeton University Art Museum

If history begins when a society can be said to have become literate, it would mean that history begins at different points in time in different parts of the world. As stated above regarding the Scandinavian Viking Age, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, in this case dated to the middle of the eleventh century. Compared to, for example, China, Scandinavian history is short, due to the fact that China has been a literate society for so much longer.

In conclusion, history can be said to begin both in the distant past and in the near past. It begins in the distant past when a society turns to literacy to function. It begins in the near past because for a process to be interpreted, that process, or at least parts of it, needs to have reached some kind of conclusion. Or as Franzen said:

[…] I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it […]. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Jonathan Franzen Farther Away (Picador, 2012)
Göran B Nilsson “Historia som vetskap”, Historisk Tidskrift 2 (2005) pp. 189–207

Note:
Images of the Botkyrka run stone and the scroll for Zhang Dong have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Historical Science in Science Fiction

Say the phrase “science fiction”. What do you see? I would bet an image of the Universe has appeared in your mind. The science of science fiction is most often associated with the natural sciences – physics, chemistry, medicine, biology. The fiction of science fiction seeks to answer the seemingly eternal question of what it means to be a human being. However, the natural sciences do not primarily exist to answer the question posed by science fiction. The science that exists to answer the question of what it means to be a human being is historical science.

Historical science is an academic discipline dedicated to the study of human activity. The aim of historical science is to answer the question of why human society is organized the way it is and what role human beings, as groups or as individuals, have played in the historical process. Historical science does this by applying theories and historical methodology to written documents produced by human beings who lived in the past. The theories applied by historians are taken from a vast array of sciences. The most interesting application of a theory to an historical process, that I have come across, is the application of the theory of relativity to the creation of a feminist movement in post-communist Eastern Europe.

Historical science thrives on investigating and interpreting civilizations that are alien to us. Although these civilizations once existed on Earth, because they existed in the past their culture, laws, language, morals and ethics can be far removed from ours. My field of expertise is urban history in Europe and North America. To be able to understand how and why cities appeared in Europe more than 2,000 years ago, I have to step outside of myself in the 21st century and wrap my head around the civilization that existed at that time. As I have stated previously on this blog, this mind exercise is equivalent to time travel. Once the temporal destination has been reached, I then have to learn how to interpret a civilization different from my own. Truly, it is as if I am stepping out of a TARDIS.

Historical science offers a way to answer the question of what it means to be a human being. For example:

Historical science asks the question why past societies differ from ours.

Historical science asks why our way of interpreting our surroundings is different from the interpretations prevalent many centuries ago.

Historical science asks the question what it is to be woman or a man. The views have differed through the centuries and are not necessarily the way we choose to categorize gender today.

Historical science asks the question what is a criminal act. The value of human life has differed throughout the ages and the compensation for loss of life is not necessarily what we today would consider sufficient.

Historical science asks the question what is knowledge. It investigates on what basis we know what we claim to know. It points out that change in knowledge is not necessarily equivalent to progress.

In my work as an historian, I am an inter-disciplinarian. If an academic discipline different from my own can help me in my historical argument, I do not hesitate to utilize the results of that discipline. This is especially helpful when researching cities the way I do. Cities as objects of study are by nature interdisciplinary. By integrating the results of several different disciplines, such as archaeology, geography, oceanography, physics, and economics, I have come to appreciate the value that the interdisciplinary method adds to an argument.

Classic science fiction takes place in space. And so it should continue to do. However, in my opinion, by adding historical science to the sciences of science fiction, there is much to be gained.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

This post can also be read at Suvudu Universe (8/1/13):
http://universe.suvudu.com/post/historical-science-in-science-fiction

The Literary Anthony Bourdain, Master Chef and Traveler

There are more TV chefs than we can count.  There are also more cooking shows than we can count. You find these chefs and shows all over the entertainment spectrum – from “very entertaining” to “why-is-this-on-TV”. Some chefs and shows actually teach you something. Some chefs and shows actually give you ideas. Most of the time, however, neither of these instances occur. Not so with Anthony Bourdain.

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Anthony Bourdain being interviewed in the WNYC Radio Studio, June 21, 2006
Source: WNYC New York Public Radio

Anthony Bourdain has hosted a series of interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining shows. My personal favorites are No Reservations for the Travel Channel and Parts Unknown for CNN. The premise for these shows is the same: Bourdain travels the world looking for local foods to try out. This sounds like any other regular chef-on-TV-with-a-travel-account but when put in the hands of Bourdain the result is very different indeed. The places he visits are places where most people just would not go, for example the Congo, Libya, or Iraqi Kurdistan, or places most people are not aware of, such as the Missouri Ozarcs.

The goal of his travels might be food oriented, but the reason for his travels sometimes are not. In the case of his visits to Tangier and the Congo (Parts Unknown) and to the Ozarcs (No Reservations), the destinations has just as much to do with food as it has to do with literature. It is his personal relationship to the creative work of William S Burroughs, Joseph Conrad and Daniel Woodrell that makes him book the trip.

It is the literary spin that sets Bourdain apart. By incorporating his love of literature, and seeking out authors he admires, Bourdain demonstrates what we all know but rarely consider, that to live life is to live art. Food, books, and travels are part of the life experience and it is life experience that makes art. By taking part in life, we also take part in the creation of art. This is true for everyone, not just writers, actors, painters and what-have-you. This is what Anthony Bourdain shows us.

Or perhaps I enjoy the work of Bourdain as much as I do because he reminds me of another man whose work I have followed for many years: Jeremy Clarkson of BBC’s Top Gear. He, too, travels the world, not to find food to try out, but to find a road to drive down.

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Jeremy Clarkson on the set of Top Gear, May 17, 2006
Source: Ed Perchick, flickr

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.

Note:
Photos of Anthony Bourdain and Jeremy Clarkson have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.