29 August 2007

Time after Time

I'm back in town.

So, what should we talk about today? This: someone asked me recently, pretty much out of the blue, what I would list as the ten most important events in the world since 1993. I was allowed to interpret the word "important" any way I wanted to.

I composed a list. But I'm not going to share that with you until tomorrow. Today, I want to discuss the nature of such questions.

I can only understand such a question as an effort to predict which events will make it into the history books of our posterity, and how much text or emphasis each will receive there. Of course a phrase like "our posterity" is still vague, but we might just for fun pick the date 2107. What will a historian, writing then, regard as most important to know about the years 1993-2007?

I suspect that history will remain a matter of constructing narratives, and won't deteriorate into a mere data base. Narrative history responds to the human love of stories, of plots, and adds the assurance, "by the way, it really happened." Contrary narratives keep the blodd boiling and the word processing software upgrades selling.

Furthermore, I'm going to indulge for now in the supposition that anarchists aren't going to prevail in the world any time soon, and that the central narrative of history books written in 2107 will continue to involve sovereignty. Various governments claiming sovereignty over various chunks of the earth, and their clashes with rebels who deny that authority as well as with foes from outside their chunk. History will continue to be largely (though it won't of course be entirely) a matter of past politics, past military actions, past diplomacy.

Other sorts of history (the stories of technical inventions, of commerce and finance, of everyday life) will continue to make contributions, but developments in each will be perceived as "important" to the extent that they feed into the central narrative of sovereigns, rebels, and foes.

To illustrate, here are ten events from the period 1842-1856.

We'll start with international war and diplomacy:

1. The Anglo-Chinese, or Opium, Wars.
2. A wave of revolutions, 1848-49, swept the occidental world from Brazil to Hungary.
3. November 1853, a battle between the Russian and Ottoman fleets ended in a clear victory for the former and began the Crimean War.

Now let's say something about the national politics (narrowly understood) of some of the leading powers of the day.
4. May 1846, the UK repealed its "corn laws," allowing the unimpeded importation of agricultural products. This became a key victory of free trade as a political/ideological platform.
5. December 1851, Louis Napoleon dissolved the National Assembly in France, effectively ending the life of the Second Republic.
6. 1855, the first legislature of the territory of Kansas in the US convened, and started enacting pro-slavery legislation.

What else? Well, let's try a bit of everything else.
7. 1844, in Illinois, religious leader Joseph Smith is murdered
8. 1845, the beginning of the potato famine in Ireland
9. 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention, in New York
10.1849, a Russian court sentences Fyodor Dostoyevsky, student activist/revolutionary, to death. (The sentence is later commuted, and the experience has enormous traumatic consequences for the budding artist.)


This is a thoroughly objectionable list, surely. You might object for example that I've given scientific and technological achievement no place at all. Morse's telegraph, Siemens' improvements upon it, and the creation of the Siemens corporation in 1847, all have one might argue importance as great as that of anything I've listed.

Or what about the discovery of gold near Sacramento in 1848 and the subsequent rush of would-be prospectors?

And so it goes, on and on. At least in arguing about inclusion and exclusion we have the benefit of the practices of contemporary historians to work from. We aren't forced to speculate about the contents of texts still unwritten. Tomorrow then, we'll do just that. We'll return to the original question, most significant world events from 1993 to the present.


Henry said...

Dostoevsky's traumatic experience is really literary history, because its significance is the effect it had on his writings. And, if you're going to include literary history, then you might note that four of the most famous works of American literature were published during the years in question: Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Walden, and Leaves of Grass.

Christopher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.