Literature and memory

As a way of finding some interesting distraction in the social isolation of Covid-19 I have been reading Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. The book primarily treats the way that literate English soldiers, educated in a certain way and immersed in a particular public school culture, found words and phrases to capture part …

History of the present

What is involved in writing a history of the present? It's not quite the oxymoron it may appear to be. It is often enough that we find ourselves in the middle of complicated, confusing, and interwoven events locally, regionally, or globally -- events that require much the same sort of conceptual and integrative work that …

Wartime China

Photo: Robert Capa's photograph of The Boy Soldier, Hankou, China, late March 1938 © Cornell Capa / Magnum International Centre of PhotographyChina's experience of World War II (1937-1945) was in some ways as destructive and horrific as that of the Soviet Union. Japan's occupation of many parts of China was extremely brutal, with terrible massacres …

Objectivity and bias in complex happenings

Complicated things happen: riots occur, military coups take place, governments collapse. The happenings consist of a myriad of events and actions, many social actors, and a range of political interests and grievances. We want to know what happened; who did what; and who is responsible for the course that events took. It is one of …

Maps, narratives, and abstraction

It is obvious that maps are selective representations of the world. They represent an abstraction: a representation of a complex, dense reality that signifies some characteristics while deliberately ignoring other aspects. The principles of selection used by the cartographer are highly dependent on the expected interests of the user. Topography will be relevant to the …

Narrative history

People sometimes imagine that history is narrative, full stop. This is not the case; there certainly are important forms of historical writing that do not take the form of narrative. But let's consider some of the logical features of narrative, since there is no disputing that this is one important variety of historical knowledge. What …

Why does unrest spread?

Why does social unrest occur and spread?This is a little bit of a trick question. It really implies three questions: What are the circumstances that make unrest in a population possible or likely? What circumstances need to occur in order to precipitate expressions of unrest in particular places? And what circumstances are conducive to spreading …

Marx’s historical thinking

Marx's theories are deeply historical, in that he wants to explain the dynamics of change of large historical formations such as capitalism or feudalism, and he insists on putting social events into historical context. And, of course, Marx is most celebrated for developing a general approach to historical explanation, the theory of historical materialism. But …

Turning points

Are there turning points in history? How would we know if we're in the midst of one? Does the current financial crisis represent a turning point in the development of the US economy? Did the election of Ronald Reagan represent a turning point in American politics and government?Often what is announced as a turning point …

History, memory, and narrative

What is the relation between "history", "memory", and "narrative"? We might put these concepts into a crude map by saying that "history" is an organized and evidence-based presentation of of the processes and events that have occurred for a people over an extended period of time; "memory" is the personal recollections and representations of individuals …

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