✿ Roy Scranton ✿

Which history? Whose? To whom? When? And what do you mean by “mean”?

The Arch of history

Published in Nuda:Terra

Pangloss taught metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigoly. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds, My Lord the Baron’s castle was the best of castles…. ‘Tis demonstrated,’ said he, ‘that things cannot be otherwise; for, since everything is made for an end, everything is necessarily for the best end. Observe that noses were made to wear spectacles; and so we have spectacles. Legs were visibly instituted to be breeched, and we have breeches…. and as pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all the year round; consequently, those who have asserted that all is well talk nonsense; they ought to have said that all is for the best.´
– Voltaire, Candide

I think that a philosophical gnat might claim that the gnat society is a great society or at least a good society, since it is the most egalitarian, free, and democratic society imaginable.
– Karl Popper, Of Clouds and Clocks: An Approach to the Problem of Rationality and the Freedom of Man

What does this history mean? Such a question, of such blinding simplicity, barely even makes sense. Its articulation founders against a further wave of questions: Which history? Whose? To whom? When? And what do you mean by “mean”?

To begin with, any perspective on historical knowledge that aspires to prove itself even halfway responsible to that junkheap of broken contracts, tall tales, score settling gossip, chipped crockery, obsolete tech, and dubious data collected by questionable means we call the archive must proceed by granting that any history is inevitably partial, in every sense: a fabric woven from gappy flotsam, material and textual, that can never fail to provide a painfully inadequate sense of “what is was like,” inspire skepticism as to how “objective” any projection of the present onto the past might ultimately prove, and make answering the question of “what really happened?” and “why?” seem despairingly complex, not to say hopeless. Any genuinely empirical view of the historical record, that is, must admit that its meaning is at best the kind of thing which is today called a social construction, more or less a fiction, though in this case, as with scientific theories, built from more-or-less robustly defended interpretations of interpretations, i.e., those bits of reality we mark out as “facts” or “evidence,” like the chalk outline of homicide. Which is not to concede to relativism, but only to say that fidelity to evidence demands a nearly Socratic epistemic humility. In order to responsibly say we “know” something, we must begin from the shifting, narrow ground on which we know nothing at all.

Being social beings whose lives are held together by narrative, we are inescapably trapped in reconstructions of the past.

Well and good, granted, okay, fine, whatever – never mind all that. Because here we are and we’ve got something to say. The spirit moves us. Our conscience demands it. The situation compels. And for all your epistemic folderol, it’s self-evident that history has meaning, right now, and is being used to make meaning. This is what humans do, have always done, since long before Herodutos: we tell stories about who we are. To call history a “social construction” is merely to say that it makes up the part of the collective linguistic and conceptual apparatus through which human beings perceive and act upon the word – what the Buddhists call the veil of māyā – without which the universe would seem a whirling void and action incomprehensible.

Being social beings whose lives are held together by narrative, we are inescapably trapped in reconstructions of the past. These reconstructions live in our minds as the stories of who we are, and are embodied in art, architecture, technology, city planning, cultural practices, and language. Even as we strain to free ourselves from these pasts, toppling monuments, renaming libraries, we can ultimately do a little more than twist ourselves up in our chains. One might even go so far as ot say that history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, with due recognition that any such awakening could only come into being as a great forgetting, an evacuation of meaning so total liberation would be synonymous with death. Until that apocalyptic morning, history remains a collective dream we live out day by day.

What, then, is the meaning of the dream? The empiricist meaning of history is only one possibility, a conception of the past holding that the accumulated residuum of human life can provide a coherent vision of who were were and who we are. One can adopt this perspective with rigor, humility, and a commitment to the Enlightenment values in which it is grounded. One may be a serious historian. It’s also possible to drape oneself in the mantle of empiricist history, stage-manage the contradictions and gaps in the record, and use a pseudoscientific sleight hand to make it seem as if the dense tangle of human life on Earth over the past ten thousand years or so – not to speak of the two hundred thousand years before that – build inevitably toward one clear conclusion, which, it usually turns out, is the one already hidden behind the curtain. That is to say: one may be a charlatan. One may be a cheat.

Yet an important point should be made. it’s not the charlantan’s intention that makes them despicable, but rather their pretense of empirical rigor, or more specifically, the disjunction between that pretense and their ultimate goal, which is to shape the meaning of history toward some predetermined end. The empiricist historian examines the evidence to draw conclusions, risking on one side disintegration of comforting verties du jour and on the other hand being devoured in vortices of documentary copia, in order to tentatively recover some fragile insight. The charlatan, conversely, begins with his conclusions and assembles the evidence to hold them up, risking nothing, sacrificing nothing, learning nothing, all the while claiming the authority and gravitas due those who would risk true knowledge.

Even as we strain to free ourselves from these pasts, toppling monuments, renaming libraries, we can ultimately do a little more than twist ourselves up in our chains.

Were the charlatan to throw off their pretense and simply admit they were making myths, that they were using the past to shape the dream we live within, to move our sould, instruct, inspire, “to change the world,” then we might look upon their efforts with more sympathy. Who would claim the only legitimate historian’s ideal is Funes the Memorious, so consumed by the past he remembered everything, in every detail, and was damne dto spend his days in total, paralyzing recollection? While history as a discipline may aspire to surety and completeness that would, in the words of one disciple, “be for mankind a sort of conclusion and a settling of accounts,” even the most sedulous antiquarian may find themselves in the position of needing to use history toward some other end than the accumulation of a more comprehensive selection of rags and bones – and a better world, for instance.

History can be a testament to hope, or a warning against folly. It can be a story about how we live in the best of possible worlds, or a story about how everything keeps getting worse. It can be sacred altar to our ancestors, or it can be the enemy against whom we sharpen our righteousness. It can be a blindfold. it can be an oubliette. It can be a weapon. It can be a foreign country or an alien planet. It can be a scrying glass. It can be a mirror. yet whatever end we turn our history toward, be it justice, piety, or hope, it must ultimately be reconciled with that ineradicable, indigestible ding an sich, reality, which at present means a planet in the midst of irreversible and, from any human perspective, cataclysmic transformation.

There is global warming, with its familiar litany of wildfires, floods, agricultural collapse, heat death, hurricanes, and droughts; and there is climate change in a broder sense, including long-term transformations in regional climates, ocean acidification, new global weather patterns, coral bleaching, and an annually ice-free Artic Sea. But the problem is not merely carbon emissions. If it were, the situation would be less intractable, since reducing global carbon emissions is, at least in principle, quite straightforward. It should be admitted, of course, that even the simple task of brining carbon emissions to zero, which would merely require banning any new fossil-fuelled power plats (including natural gas), any new cars, trucks, ships, trains, or airplanes that weren’t 100% electrical, and any new oil wells or coal mines, while also rebuilding global infrastructure, developing and implementing at scale several novel technologies (including carbon capture and various forms of renewable energy production), and rethinking the fundamental principles of the global economy, just for starters, does face a few minor obstacles, for example, the reluctance of wealthy and powerful actors to sabotage the sources of their wealth and power, the independent legal authority of nation-sates, institutional inertia, sunk costs, poorly educated electorates in increasingly dysfunctional democracies, greed, self-delusion, a general unwillingness to make painful sacrifices of faith, a thorough-going lack of political accountability, an no clear ideological framework giving form to a persuasive collective good beyond the less-than-inspiring hope that maybe future generations won’t suffer quite as much as they will if things go on as they are, but at least it’s unambiguous on paper, which is more than can be said of any number of other problems.

The pillaging of natural resources and the ignorant modification of natural ecosystems to satisfy outsized human consumption from an outsized human population has created a world unrecognizably different from the one that existed even a century ago.

We are, for instance, currently living through a planet-wide ecological crisis characterized by a stark collapse in biodiversity, profound changes in land composition, the proliferation of toxic and radioactive waste into every niche of every ecosystem, and massive perturbations in slowly-evolving water cycles, nutrient cycles, nitrogen cycles, and food webs. There is no simple solution for this, and perhaps no “solution” at all within human reach save self-annihilation. The pillaging of natural resources and the ignorant modification of natural ecosystems to satisfy outsized human consumption from an outsized human population has created a world unrecognizably different from the one that existed even a century ago, a world which may well be doomed to catastrophic malfunction as regional diebacks and extinctions cascade into global agricultural and ecological collapse.

Meanwhile, the UN estimates that as of 2018, 821 million people were chronically undernourished and more than two billion did not “have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.” Four billion people – about two-thirds of all humans on Earth – experience “severe water scarcity” at least one mouth of the year and about half that number face more consistent water stress. many of these people have had to leave their homes in search of a better life, or any life at all: across the world, almost eighty million people have been displaced, about two thirds of those internally and about a third – more than twenty-six million – having become international refugees.

These horrific statistics are symptoms of staggering economic inequality – worse in the United States than it was under the Roman Empire, and globally even more dismal – that only continues to increase, as reactionary populist parties stroke fear and hatred against refugees and immigrants for political advantage, and international corporation work to simultaneously circumvent and sabotage national democratic rule. Then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent worldwide economic recession – expected to be the biggest since World War II – the full implications of which are only beginning to become apparent.

And most people don’t think much about the more than 13,000 nuclear warheads currently in the arsenals of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, even though both Pakistan and China are currently involved in violent border disputes with India, liberal American news media seem intent on firing up hatred against Russia, Israel remains entangled in a long-term regional realignment in the Middle East some commentators have compared to the Thirty Years’ War, and armed conflict between the United States and China seems to be taken as inevitably by the US foreign policy establishment wherever it’s not being actively pursued.

Worse in the United States than it was under the Roman Empire.

By the time you add the emergence of surveillance capitalism and its capture of human behaviour as an extractable resource, the challenges posted by automation and the development of artificial intelligence, and the more complex question of the long-term psychological and political effects of the transference of large portions of human social life into commercial online network, you might be forgiven for wondering in despair what good any use of history might serve, or, to put it another way, you might be forgiven for wondering what’s the point of telling our story at all, except maybe to witness and archive civilizational burnout for the sake of, I don’t know, xenoarchaelogists from Alpha Centuari, five hundred thousand years from tomorrow.

The last two centuries and particularly the last seventy years have seen an astonishing growth in aggregate human wealth, human population, human energy use, and human impact on the planet, all powered by fossil fuels extracted from deep within the earth. This was a one-time gift, an anomaly in human history, and it was also a curse, for the unintended consequences of this human energy surge have not only pushed Homo sapiens well outside the boundaries of sustainable life, but they have also radically and irrevocably transformed the environment our spices lives within, in ways we have yet to fully understand and which will remain in effect long after we’re gone. The next several decades will offer the unprecedented spectacle of global ecological transition from the moderate, fecund, human-friendly and biologically rich world of the Holocene to a depauperate, hotter, wetter, drier, nastier, and more chaotic world that will not much favour human growth and development. Leaving aside the possibility of some truly miraculous technological innovation, the best-case scenario is massive global political upheaval followed by some kind of coordinated mitigation and adaption, which seems highly unlikely.

What kind of story might make sense of this wholesale failure of human sapience?
The Enlightenment dream of collective rational self-determination lies in tatters. Condorcet’s idea of social progress seems at best an accident of empire and geology, at worst a sick joke. Reason has been defeated by the arrogance of its proponents, or turned into a degrading rationality of calculated oppression, transforming human beings into alienated, narcissistic hosts for the parasitic extraction of behavioural data, like dairy cows hooked up to a vast machine, or those human pods in The Matrix. Hope, in this situation, can only mean the complete destruction of the status quo, throwing the dice in a game the stakes of which are more or less everything we recognize as civilization.

Reason has been defeated by the arrogance of its proponents, or turned into a degrading rationality of calculated oppression, transforming human beings into alienated, narcissistic hosts for the parasitic extraction of behavioural data.

It is here, finally, from this grim vantage, that we might begin to appreciate, the charlatan’s abuse of history. For if the situation is truly so dire, the odds so slim, and the stakes so high, then perhaps the best history we can tell ourselves and each other is whatever fable makes us feel good, whatever genial deceit eases our anxious souls – a kind of oxygen mask, as it were, to keep us calm through the final descent. If the plane is going down anyway, there’s no sense in panicking. We might as well just tell ourselves that the flight crew in the cockpit have everything under control.

Humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide. Increasing aggregate wealth and technological development will inevitably lead to lower ecological impact, as the human world “dematerializes, decarbonizes, and densifies.” Despite increasing inequality and profound gaps in opportunity, overall wealth will translate into a more educated populace in general, which will of course make people care more about the natural world. Problems are solvable by the same forces of modernity that have brought us to where we are, including the extraction of irreplaceable natural resources for short-term human gain, faith in individual greed, international aggression, and investments in corporate science and military technology. How could it be otherwise? Human history is a story of a hard-won moral and technological progress, ever-increasing peace, ever-increasing prosperity, ever-increasing knowledge, a long arc bending forever toward more perfect and perfectly rational forms of life.

So as civilization screams earthward in what may be its final, fiery plunge, be at peace. Look over the burning wing out the window at the horizon sinking into the sky and take a deep breath. Remind yourself that it’s gonna be okay. Even better – it’s gonna be great. Because we don’t just live in a good world. We live in the best world, the best of all possible worlds: a world born of human reason.

WordsRoy Scranton

Roy Scranton is an American writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. His essays, journalism, short fiction, and reviews have appeared in magazines and journals such as The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and The Nation. He is mostly known for his award winning best seller book Learning to die in the Anthropocene, published in 2016.