My previous post offered a retrospective take on my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ post cycle that I completed a while back. I thought I might now turn to another such retrospective, this time on my recently-completed ‘History of the world’ cycle. So I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the way we think about history, with the help of a couple of books from my recent reading.

JG Ballard’s Crash is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read – a novel about people who are sexually aroused by cars, and in particular by deaths and injuries in car crashes, deliberately orchestrated or otherwise1. It’s a disturbing, semi-pornographic and some might say depraved book, to which a publisher’s reader of the draft manuscript famously wrote “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish”. It’s also, in my opinion, completely brilliant. I can’t imagine what the hell was going through Ballard’s mind in writing it, but for me it touches on two themes relevant to this blog.

The first is that we tend to talk about technology nowadays as if it’s something that’s radically separable from what it is to be a person. So with cars, for example, we might draw up some kind of balance sheet where we say that the advent of the automobile has been positive, because it’s allowed us to get to places quicker and more freely, while acknowledging the downsides – road injuries, air pollution etc. I take Ballard to be saying that this way of thinking is flawed. Cars have changed who we are, and bled into the very fabric of what it means to be a person in the 20th or 21st centuries. So asking if they’re a good thing or not is an incoherent question, because to answer it depends on there being some kind of contemporary human point of view that’s entirely independent of the car itself – and there isn’t. Generalise that to any technology – farming, for example, or a 3KWh/person/day energy economy – and suddenly we’re mercifully freed from all our chatter about backwardness, progress and so on. Of course, it works the same in reverse. We can’t say that people lived at a more unhurried pace in the 19thcentury before they had cars, so if we only got rid of the automobile then our lives would resemble the unhurried ones of a bygone age.

This all suits me just fine. I’ll admit that Ballard stretches a point with his rather extreme illustration, and that there are clear continuities between what it means to be a person in the 21st century and the 19th, and indeed very much further back than that. Still, I think Crash makes a nicely relativizing move. What are the grounds on which we judge the currents of history or morality? They’re less clear cut than we often like to think. People are always engaged in often mutually exclusive current projects of future history-making (eg. ecomodernists versus neo-agrarian populists) which usually invoke some kind of historical warrant for their choice. But although we can no doubt learn some things from history so long as we’re conscious of the way they’re refracted in our present gaze, these historical warrants are usually quite illusory. What really matters is the current projects.

The second point I derive from Ballard is our tendency to read present tendencies moralistically into the future as utopias or dystopias, which again I take him to be resisting. So for example an ecomodernist might say that if we could only make cars using clean renewable fuel available to all in the future, then truly we can have a great Anthropocene. Utopia. A more traditional environmentalist might say that if we don’t end our infatuation with personal motorised transport, then a grim future of runaway climate change, collapsing ecosystems, choking air pollution and social isolation beckons. Dystopia. I think Ballard is saying ‘Just look around. Utopia and dystopia are already here, depending on how you choose to see them’. Take this passage:

“The entire zone which defined the landscape of my life was now bounded by a continuous artificial horizon, formed by the raised parapets and embankments of the motorways and their access roads and interchanges. These encircled the vehicles below like the walls of a crater several miles in diameter”.

For the protagonists in Ballard’s story this is a world full of beauty, stories, alluring dangers and sex. Utopia. For me, it’s hell on earth – and I used to live there. Dystopia. But I can find beauty, stories, alluring dangers and, er, well maybe sex in less wholly humanised and technological environments. The present global situation is such, I think, that we need to talk about the future more urgently than any generation ever did before, but I still think Ballard is right to warn us away from projecting our desires and fears moralistically into the future. What are we fighting for politically? Whatever it is, it’s not the future but what’s around us right now. Let’s sharpen our focus on the way we want to live right now, rather than trying to transcendentalize it with reference to the past or the future.

The second book I want to mention is Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris2, professor of classics at Stanford University and based on his Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University – so not at all semi-pornographic or depraved, then. Morris offers a grand survey of human history, the sort of enterprise to which of course I’m wholly sympathetic, but to be honest I feel rather more in tune with Ballard’s line of thought than with Morris’s. I’ll concede there are some definite riches within Morris’s pages, but here I’m going to focus on just one aspect of his thinking that it suits me to analyse for my present purpose – essentially his view of historical development, which I find problematic.

When I was a budding student of anthropology at university, an intellectual crime that my teachers were especially anxious to stamp out in us was teleological functionalism. Quite a mouthful, so let me explain if it’s not clear3. ‘Functionalism’ refers to the notion that the forms societies take can be explained in terms of some kind of function that they perform. This approach rode high in early 20th century social science, and there are doubtless some sophisticated forms of functionalism that may still have something to commend them, but generally the approach has fallen by the wayside. ‘Teleological’ refers to a process that is goal-directed through time. So to give an absurd example of a teleological functionalist approach, you might argue that the driving force of human societies has always been the urge to put people on the moon. If you were then asked why societies historically transitioned from foraging to farming, you might say that it was necessary to have a complex division of labour in order to develop craftspeople and other such specialists who would eventually learn to devise spaceships. If you were asked why the Neolithic gave way to the Bronze Age, you might say that learning to smelt bronze was a necessary step on the way to creating the modern alloys that are necessary in order to have spaceflight. And so on. The obvious flaw in this is that you can’t logically invoke a phenomenon as an explanatory factor for societal changes that have not (yet) brought that phenomenon into existence. More generally, social explanations of the kind ‘Social form X occurred in order to make Y possible’ are suspect – unless Y was an explicit intention of the people bringing X about, which is rarely the case in most forms of teleological explanation.

Morris is smart enough to avoid obviously teleological functionalist arguments most of the time, but they shadow his whole thesis and sometimes rise to the surface, as in this passage on ‘Agraria’, the term he borrows from Ernest Gellner to describe inegalitarian, preindustrial farming societies:

“each age gets the thought it needs. In the absence of fossil fuels, the only way to push energy capture far above 10,000 kilocalories per person per day is by moving towards Agraria, where economic and political inequality are structurally necessary, and in the face of necessity, we adjust our values. Moral systems conform to the requirements of energy capture, and for societies capturing between 10,000 and 30,000 kilocalories per person per day, one of the most important requirements is acceptance of political and economic inequality”4

The obvious objection to this is that, while it may be true that in the absence of fossil fuels you can’t push energy capture over the 10,000 kilocalories figure without instituting inequality, there’s no particular reason why you should choose to, and indeed throughout most of the history of our genus nobody did. The fact that in the last few thousand years the amount of energy capture and the amount of inequality have increased are both social facts that demand explanation – the former fact does not explain the latter.

I think this matters for two reasons. First, Morris’s stance erases and effectively validates the ideological processes by which the elites of Agraria formed themselves and created effective ‘acceptance’ of political and economic inequality. I don’t think this was a matter of everybody choosing the right morality to fit their new agrarian circumstances. It was a matter of people jockeying for advantage within the ever-changing constraints that they found themselves in, much as they do now – albeit that over time those constraints do tend to congeal into various enduring ‘common sense’ ideologies such as the equality of all, or the obviously natural differences between noble and commoner. Second, it makes history the servant of some ineluctable dynamic, in this case that of increased energy capture, and it usually throws in an accompanying dose of implicit or explicit moral approbation – it hasn’t all been great, but look at all the wonders civilisation has given us that could never have been achieved in a foraging society! Perhaps we could call it the Pinkerization of history.

To my mind, the world is much more contingent than this. Increasing energy capture is not a historical dynamic, but a byproduct of the will to power and status that aligned in this direction – but could align in numerous other ways. Each age doesn’t get the thought it ‘needs’ – it’s both enabled and constrained by the thought it inherits from its predecessors, it wrestles with their contradictions and the dilemmas of its day, then it hands on the mess to its successors.

So having finished writing my history of the world, I shall be turning to contemplate its future. The author I’d prefer to keep in mind while doing so is Ballard rather than Morris.

Notes

  1. J.G. Ballard. 1973. Crash. London.
  2. I. Morris. 2015. Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. Princeton.
  3. In the last week, the word ‘teleological’ has suddenly arisen to public consciousness in the UK as a result of our hapless foreign secretary using it to justify his opposition to the EU – Steven Poole provides a neat antidote here.
  4. Morris op cit, pp.83-4.