History and the Problem of Auto-referentiality

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by Jeremy Nathan Marksblackbird

Historical writing has long suffered from the problem of auto-referentiality. Auto-referentiality, as I define it, simply means historians are writing only in reference to human subjects and human problems. I don’t mean to say that historiography is populated only by human beings but we do not currently possess an extensive literature where humans are not the protagonists.

Fortunately, in recent decades, environmental historians have set themselves to telling a more complex story about human and non-human interactions. Interestingly, what environmental history as a field has not been able to do is reflect a non-utilitarian understanding of nature and this, I argue, is a problem.

I use the word utilitarian because the natural world is still principally understood as a resource for bringing the greatest good to the largest number of people. Scientific innovations in agriculture, mining, and energy, for instance, are designed to bring higher standards of living to larger numbers of people and a humanitarian case can be made for this. Still, there is something disquieting about utilitarianism.

In the hands of a philosopher like Peter Singer, utilitarianism can seem quite humane and his 1976 book Animal Liberation makes a principled plea for vegetarianism and for ending industrial slaughter houses, high density feed lots, and scientific testing on animals because of the pain and suffering it causes them. On the other hand, utilitarianism often leads to an instrumental logic that treats animals as public goods, an abstract entity that is radically de-contextualized. In his work The End of History and the Last Man the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama illustrated this darker side. He observed that claims for animal rights would lead to the dismissal of a superior human dignity which, in turn, could cause moral anarchy. If humans are no longer situated at the apex of creation human beings will no longer be able to pursue development projects designed to curb famine or end suffering because the concerns of other animals will be paramount. Worse yet, he assumes that environmental disaster will be seen as retribution for humanity having tampered with the ecological balance (see pp. 296-298 in his book).

These are startling assumptions and Fukuyama appears unwilling to consider that animals can be treated as anything other than public goods. Modern economic development and “progress” rest upon an ever increasing control and management of the natural world. Still, this is not without its problematical aspects. He admits that modern science has undercut the traditional assumption that dominion over nature is based upon the moral superiority of human beings or what was once understood as the metaphysical separation between man and nature. Even reason, which was supposed to prove human selection from the rest of nature, is a product of biological evolution. This upsets the traditional notion of humankind’s moral superiority and leaves little more than technology as the basis for dominion over nature. Technology has no innate moral purpose but is an instrument of power. In the absence of morals technological power is simply another manifestation of what Friedrich Nietzsche called “the will to power.” The Canadian philosopher George Grant once observed that technology without morals leaves human beings confused about the difference between what is necessary and what is good.

History might help us begin to rethink this problem by leading us to reconceptualize the historical basis of human achievement. For instance, in 1972 Alfred W. Crosby published The Columbia Exchange which illustrated how the introduction of foreign plant and animal species was instrumental in the European colonization of the New World. Thanks to Crosby’s work we are now able to argue that the dominion of one civilization over another (the Spanish over the Amerindians for instance) is about far more than the technological or reasoning capacities of a colonizing people. Human history is both far less rational and far less anthropocentric than previously admitted.

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera beautifully illustrates this point in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by asking why history has to be interpreted primarily as the story of human civilization. He argues that perhaps it is the invasion of the modern city by blackbirds, who have forsaken their traditional habitat, which is the most startling development of the past two hundred years: “A change in the relationship of one species to another (fish, birds, people, plants) is a change of a higher order than a change in the relationship of one or another group within the species.”  The most powerful force militating against this unconventional approach to historical writing is precedent and even professionalization and Kundera argues that while we focus upon what we believe to be most important “what we suppose to be unimportant wages guerilla warfare behind our backs, transforming the world without our knowledge and eventually mounting a surprise attack on us.” (See pp. 196-197 in his book)

If science has taught us that human beings have a biological kinship with the animals and if social science cannot prove the superiority of mankind without relying upon technological achievement as its metric, are we as scientists and social scientists not then left with the disquieting recognition that what is considered good is really only synonymous with what we deem necessary? And if we accept this in principle, are we not acknowledging that what is good for human beings is not universally good?

We cannot begin to give these questions serious consideration until we start addressing the problem of auto-referentiality. The historical narrative of human civilization is incomplete if we as historians cannot or will not discuss the relationship between people and non-human nature beyond the bounds of utilitarianism. If social science lacks the tools for such a discussion then historians might choose to turn towards other literatures to tell a more complete and humane story of human development. Historians have the luxury of eschewing abstract models of human behaviour which means we are also free to tell a story that crosses the bounds of anthropocentrism.

Jeremy Marks is a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario.  He studies the relationship between intellectual and political conservatism and environmentalism.

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