Short Takes: The Matter of History

Bill Caraher

The past two decades have seen an explosion in work on the environmental history and a growing interest in materiality. These two trends intersect in the work of scholars who have come to question whether the division between humans and nature is a useful paradigm for understanding the relationship between the bundle of characteristics generally called “culture” and our physical environment, ecology, and material worlds. Embracing concepts like the Anthropocene, which proposes that the most recent geological era should reflect human’s role in shaping the planet, and calls for the ethical treatment objects, animals, and the environment, scholars and activists have sought to challenge the intellectual traditions that seek to locate humans, human culture, and even science separate from the realm of nature.

9781107592704Tim LeCain’s first book, Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet (2009) offers a particularly compelling example of the scholarly tradition. LeCain unpacks the role of copper and the massive mines, industries, and companies that produced copper wire in the creation of the modern world. His appreciation of the interconnection between men, mine, and metal made me particularly excited to read his newest work The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (2017). LeCain engages the recent interest in materiality in history and situates it as a response, in part, to the growing dissatisfaction with so-called constructivist views of the past. These views, championed by critical theorists of the 1970d and 1980s, “marginalized matter” by viewing the world as a cultural construct established by a dense network of relational ontologies. While this remains a tremendously influential method for understanding texts, historians and archaeologists have typically approached these ways of thinking with a bit of ambivalence. After all, historians and archaeologists build arguments from evidence and, as a result, view these pieces of evidence as somehow being sufficiently essential to support our arguments for a real past.

For LeCain, this view of the past as real opens the door not to some kind simplistic epistemology that sets the past up as a kind of immutable reality to be mined by the historian for facts, but rather provides space for the place of matter – in all its myriad forms as objects, animals, buildings, landscapes – in our understanding of the world. For LeCain, the matter of history is quite literally matter itself. By allowing matter space in the world of the historian, LeCain recognizes that humans are material and the materiality of both human things and non-human things constrains and enables humans to act.

While this might sound like the fairly heady (if increasingly typical) and philosophical stuff circulating widely in the world of new or neo-materialists, LeCain grounds his commitment to empiricism in a series of compelling case studies that range from the fate of long-horns in the Deer Lodge Valley in Montana when confronted by the polluting smoke of a smelting furnace to the role of the silkworm in modernizing Shimotsuke, Japan. LeCain’s arguments develop from his significant understanding of copper mining and smelting on a global scale. In both Montana and Japan, the expansion of copper production compromised local agriculture and sericulture by introducing sulfur, arsenic, and other heavy metals into the local ecosystem. The conductive properties of copper were vital to the electrification of the modern world and advancing the ambitions of Japan on a regional and ultimately global scale. By interweaving humans, animals, industry, chemicals, and even the very much elemental cooper and downright molecular quality of electricity, LeCain works to demonstrate the fundamental continuity between aspects of the world frequently divided into categories of “nature” and “culture.”

Butte MT Berkeley Pit April 2005 Composite Fisheye View

Historians are nothing if not practical in their approach to the past. By challenging the divisions between the natural and the culture in our world, LeCain not only offers a compelling critique of the once-pervasive constructivism, but also establishes the practical value of the new materialism for historical work. Over the last decade, this critique has frequently come from scholars eager to recognize the agency of things. In many cases, this has resulted in making things oddly human with biographies and agency that frequently do little more than present the “life of things” as a superficial reflection of how we have traditionally seen ourselves. As a result, we avoid dealing with the “thingness” of things, but slotting them into an existing ontology that is ultimately derived from the very nature-culture division that we’re seeks to subvert. LeCain’s book avoids this common challenge in talking about things by both recognizing the humanity of humans as vital for understanding the world (there is, after all, a limit to our powers of empathy; it is pretty much impossible to feel for a hammer or an atom of copper), but not as something that exists outside the world. Things of all kinds – from silkworms and longhorns to arsenic – are allowed to thrive in LeCain’s narrative, but they do not bear the burden of a concept of agency built upon an assumption of human dominance of the material world.

Instead, LeCain might be accused of limiting, in a cautious and deliberate way, the agency of humans in their control over the world. His book starts with a discussion of the symbiosis between various gut bacteria, mineral resources, and the long trajectory of human evolution and recognizes the place of humans within a world that we frequently set aside as “natural.” He thoughtfully engages R. G. Collingwood’s critique that all history is the study of thought (and thought is manifest, in part, by human action) and not the study of the unthinking material world of nature and things, and in some ways, LeCain’s book is in many ways a response to Collingwood’s views which have cast a long shadow over historical thinking for the past 70 years. For LeCain, the division between the material and the human is illusory because we cannot separate thinking about things from thinking with things. If Collingwood celebrated the transcendent and even disembodied human mind as the locus of history, LeCain returned the mind to both the body and its place in the world. In his hands, this proposition seems less of a radical explosion of centuries-old divisions between mind and matter and more a commonsensical reminder of the real task of the historian is to unpack the complexities of human action in the world.

Bill Caraher is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Dakota and is as strong as 10 men.