History of Knowledge

Seminar Series : :

Special Meeting of the History of Knowledge Seminar Series @ Utrecht University

Date: Thursday 11 February 2021
Time: 9:00-17:30 (UTC+1)
Location: Online (Microsoft Teams)

> Prof. Jürgen Renn (MPIWG, Berlin) (10:45-12:15 UTC+1)
> Prof. Deborah Coen (Yale University) (16:00-17:30 UTC+1)  


9:00-9:05 (UTC+1)
Welcome by Lukas Verburgt (Utrecht University) and Elske de Waal (Utrecht University)

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon (Bielefeld University / Leiden University)
Is There Such a Thing as Anthropocenic Historical Knowledge?

Boris van Meurs (Radboud University)
The 'Now' and the 'Instant' in Earth History

Kungzhang Guo (Université de Technologie de Troyes)
Chinese Trace Fossils in the Anthropocene: The Grand Canal of 2,500 Years

Short Break

Keynote #1: Jürgen Renn (MPIWG, Berlin)
The Anthropocene and the History of Science

Lunch Break

Thomas Moynihan (Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford)
Are We Situated Near History's End or Its Beginning?: How Discovering the Deep Past Unveiled Humanity's Deep Future

Rachel Hill (Goldsmiths, University of London)
But Which Earth? The History of Earth-Images as Iconography of the Anthropocene

Iva Pesa (University of Groningen)
Beyond Resistance and Resignation: Understanding Environmentalism in Sub-Saharan Africa

Short Break

Raf de Bont (Maastricht University)
Living With Animals: Heini Hediger, History and the Anthropocene

Adham Hafez (New York University)
Of Songs and Fish

Short Break

Keynote #2: Deborah Coen (Yale University)
Scientists and Science Studies in the Anthropocene


︎︎︎ Please click here to attend the meeting!

Since the year 2000, the Anthropocene concept has affected debates in almost every academic discipline, both within the humanities and social sciences, and has rapidly developed into an inter- and transdisciplinary object of research. At the same time, it has also undermined some of the distinctions that have long been the basis for these disciplines, especially for history - such as that between "nature" and "culture" and "geological" and human". Furthermore, while earlier conceptions of human agency, temporality and historical experience - all key to historical research - are being decentered, historians are called upon to create new big narratives linking the past to the future to make sense of our present.

This symposium takes up the Anthropocene as a key challenge for all branches of history and historiography. It is concerned with exploring how the discipline of history should be re-thought in and for the Anthropocene - and, vice versa, whether and if so, how new notions of historical thinking might be invoked to make sense of the Anthropocene.

Two keynotes and several short exploratory talks - both including Q&A - will engage with and address central questions such as 'Why and how to write history at a time of epochal rupture?', 'What does it mean to learn from history on a finite planet?' and 'Whose pasts and historical experiences tend to be (de-)emphasized in the Anthropocene concept?'.

︎︎︎ Keynote #1: “For understanding Anthropocene dynamics and trajectories, the single most crucial parameter of investigation is time, specifically the interconnections and frictions between multiple timescales and temporal processes. The keynote outlines the possible role of the history of science in understanding the Anthropocene and the role of time in it. The notion of the Anthropocene requires different historical horizons to be banded together, in particular longue durée and recently accelerating environmental and socio-epistemic changes. But the challenge of the Anthropocene for the history of science lies not only in new questions, topics, and methodological approaches. The history of science may also gain new opportunities to use its insights and reflective potential for the encouragement of innovative forms of scientific knowledge production, e.g. the need for a reorientation of the current knowledge economy away from increasingly specialized, fragmented knowledge production towards more reflection and systematic thinking, as well as greater global responsibility, including an emphasis on local perspectives and historical contexts: a shift from local universalism or particularism to a global, systematic contextualism overcoming the traditional divide between nature and culture”

︎︎︎ Keynote #2: “The Anthropocene has often been said to demand a new way of doing science, and Science Studies scholars would seem to be well positioned to theorize that transformation. First, though, we would do well to examine our own discipline’s history. After all, Science Studies scholars of the 1990s have been accused of seeding the skeptical attitude towards science that made possible widespread denial of the evidence of anthropogenic global warming. The historical record, however, shows that the relationship between Science Studies and climate change research has been far more intimate and complex than this oppositional caricature suggests. Since the 1970s, both environmental science and Science Studies have been formatively shaped by efforts to theorize the uses of science in the face of climate change. This presentation will draw on historical and ethnographic research to reflect on the evolving relationship between scientists engaged with climate change and scholars of Science Studies. This history holds important lessons, both hopeful and cautionary, for Science Studies scholars concerned with the problems of the Anthropocene today.”

︎︎︎ Zoltán Boldizsár Simon / Is There Such a Thing as Anthropocentric Historical Knowledge?

Spoiler: anthropocenic historical knowledge, I think, is in its formation. In this talk, I will present a few thoughts on what constitutes anthropocenic historical knowledge. The talk will be based on a joint conversational piece that I currently co-write with Ewa Domanska and Marek Tamm for the theme issue “History during the Anthropocene” of the journalRethinking History, in which we roughly refer to anthropocenic historical knowledge as historical knowledge being attuned to the Anthropocene predicament. On this occasion, I will present my views as explicated in our larger joint discussion of three tenets of such knowledge in its formation: first, the extension of the territory of the historian; second, the development of a scientific literacy in historical approaches; and third, the potential attribution of a future-oriented and even an anticipatory character to historical knowledge.

︎︎︎ Boris van Meurs / The ‘Now’ and the ‘Instant’ in Earth History

In the Anthropocene, human action thoroughly affects Earth’s history, and yet it is far from obviou that a unified history of human and planetary affairs can be written. The mode of access earth’s ‘planetary time’ is quite different from the methods that historians have to describe the human past. The first is governed by a natural scientific approach to complex systems, whereas the latter will
always circle to some degree around man-made documents that once played a role in a human world. What are the obstacles for a much needed transition and dialogue between these two realms of knowledge?

In my presentation, I will address this question on the basis of the work of Paul Ricoeur. In Temps et Récit, Ricoeur has argued that an unbridgeable rift exists between the time of the (planetary) sciences and that of the humanities. The sciences would deal with a time ‘without a present’, that is, a time of pure succession in which no moment has any priority over any other. On the other hand, human history would remain bound, however indirectly, to a lived-through present that can indicated reflexively: the ‘now’, that is fundamentally different from the past which no longer is and the future to come. I will argue that Ricoeur’s distinction helps to critically reflect on some overeager attempts to simply merge planetary time with human time. However, I wish to end my presentation with pointing out the possibilities within Ricoeur’s own work for a fruitful engagement with Earth system science. Although this will not end in a unified history, encompassing both the earth and humans, it will reveal how our understanding of the human historical condition can be deepened by the work of geologists.

︎︎︎ Kungzhang Guo / Chinese Trace Fossils in the Anthropocene: The Grand Canal of 2,500 Years

This presentation will extend the narratives of the Anthropocene that have been revolved around the global north, and enrich the perception of the technofossil record of humans dominated by sophisticated tools and technologies since the mid 20 th century. To start with the examining of, the oldest and longest artificial river in the world, the Grand Canal initiated the fifth century B.C. that has been renovated successively until the 21 st century and other antique environmental modification constructions that still function today in China, this talk will present how the oriental activities respond to the current interpretations of the Anthropocene in terms of wars, economics and ecology, such as Thanatocene (McNeill, 2004; Hupy, 2008). Furthermore, in the quest for the Pre-Qin philosophy permeating through Chinese civilization, I reveal a traditional Chinese view of nature that could contribute to the historical existence of the Grand Canal and might underlie the present mechanisms for governing the biosphere in China. In conclusion, the talk will emphasize that the way we treat historical culture are the prospects and limits of knowledge for dealing with the Anthropocene, arguing that the history of the Anthropocene “is borne by cultural and ideological devices that are contemporary with it and still active today” (Bonneuil et Fressoz, 2016:189), through the rethinking of the Pre-Qin philosophy and anthropic trace fossils of massive terrestrial constructions remoulding the Earth in technostratigraphy (Zalasiewicz et al., 2014).

︎︎︎ Thomas Moynihan / Are We Situated Near History’s End or Its Beginning?: How Discovering the Deep Past Unveiled Humanity’s Deep Future

Philosophers and ethicists have argued that human extinction would be uniquely bad precisely because humanity may be at the very start of its historical career. For example, the retrospect of recorded history is dwarfed by the prospect of Earth’s remaining habitability. It is argued that, should we survive, the preponderance of achievement and value might lie, ahead, in this future. That is, our notion of what is a stake in our history—of what value there may be in keeping history going—rests on our awareness of our placement within nature’s wider, epochal history. But this insight is, itself, historically novel. It rests on the discovery that time is not eternal but epochal. From Plato to Stanisław Lem, this talk thus explores how the discovery of Earth’s ‘abiotic’ past encouraged thinkers to speculate about its ‘psychozoic’ future: to think of a future organized by the activities of mind, rather than the arbitrariness of inorganic process. To close, we explore the observation that we do not appear to live in a galaxy that has entered into its ‘psychozoic era’, and what this might tell us about our own historical trajectory.

︎︎︎ Rachel Hill / But Which Earth? The History of Earth-Images as Iconography of the Anthropocene

In their ubiquity, images of Earth taken from space have become synecdoches for ecological fragility, galvanising many forms of environmental activism and action. Enabled by spaceflight infrastructures, these visualities run the gamut from iconic Earth-images such as The Blue Marble (1972: figure 1), to an ongoing relay of data capturing ecological decline in real-time. And yet, the correlation between Earth-images and ecology has not always been obvious. Instead of inspiring affective relations between humankind and the biosphere, the earliest images of Earth--such as those taken by the Dodge satellite (figure 2)--elicited bemused responses from the general public. Rather than singular and cohesive, a look at the morphing histories of space-based Earth-images provides an index for changing conceptualisations of the planet; conceptualisations which are proven to be contingent on the technological processes which make such scales legible. In other words, the way we perceive the Earth is deeply informed and continuously recalibrated by the technical means through which we view it. Sensitisation to the deleterious effects of spaceflights technological assemblies, which encompass the distribution of transatmospheric, orbital and oceanic pollution, demonstrates that Earth-images are (ironically) imbricated within, and accelerate, the decline they map. Despite this contradictory visual history, collectively these images are central to the iconography of the Anthropocene. This paper will therefore rereads the visual history of Earth images as a means of gleaning greater insight into how increasing awareness of declining biospheric conditions have evolved. I will ask: how does interpellating spaceflight infrastructures within the histories and advance of environmental collapse reorientate how both astronautic missions are understood and the Anthropocene is (en)visioned.

︎︎︎ Iva Pesa / Beyond Resistance and Resignation: Understanding Environmentalism in Sub-Saharan Africa

The Anthropocene presents itself as a turning point in human history: if current fossil fuel dependency is not reversed and if economic thought is not reconceptualised to question the logic of growth models, the earth’s future will be imperiled. Viewing the Anthropocene from the perspective of sub-Saharan Africa shows the need to ask different questions, which challenge the singular and universal nature of the Anthropocene. Based on three empirical
case studies of localities of resource extraction in the twentieth century (gold mining in Johannesburg, copper mining on the Central African Copperbelt and oil drilling in the Niger Delta), I wish to highlight lived experiences of historical environmental change. In particular, responses to environmental transformation will be interrogated, to go beyond binary categories of either resistance or resignation towards industry and pollution. Environmentalism could be expressed in numerous ways, not just through protest movements. Moreover, in certain cases resource extraction – despite its environmentally destructive characteristics – could feed into positive values of national sovereignty economic independence and industrial development. Being attentive to the plural meanings of resource extraction offers a more complicated story of the Anthropocene. Whilst on a planetary level, access to copper and oil will remain crucial to envisaging Anthropocene futures, it is important to pay attention to the unequal histories which have brought about our current predicament.

︎︎︎ Raf de Bont / Living With Animals: Heini Hediger, History and the Anthropocene

The advent of the Anthropocene, environmental historians often indicate, has had huge consequences for ‘wild’ non-human animals. The stories of these consequences are often told in terms of extinction rates, biodiversity loss or habitat destruction. Such stories are undoubtedly important, but they also leave crucial aspects of animal lives out of view. Notably the way wildlife navigates the changes brought upon by the Anthropocene usually only receives scant attention in historical scholarship.

Coming from the history of science, I would like to use the work of the Swiss biologist and zoo director Heini Hediger (1909-1992) to think historically about animal lives in the Anthropocene. More in particular, I am interested in Hediger’s fieldwork of the mid-twentieth century, which aimed at understanding the ways ‘big game’ interacted with humans in the national parks of the Belgian
Congo. Hediger tried to develop methods to study how animals moved through the space at their disposal, how they responded to increasing human presence, and how they experienced the (changing) landscapes surrounding them. While Hediger’s publications and archives tell as much about himself as they do about the animals he researched, I believe his work also offers critical perspectives valuable to animal historians. Notably Hediger’s ambition to research the ‘subjective world’ of animals made him look beyond ‘natural habitats’, and pushed him to analyze the animals’ ‘roads’, ‘territories’ and ‘dwelling places’, as well as the lived realities of the changing landscapes they inhabited.

Congolese national parks might not offer the most prototypical Anthopocenic landscapes. In my paper, however, I will argue that the sensibilities that Hediger developed there can help us understand the ways in which free-ranging animals have historically interacted with the spaces we more typically associate with the Anthopocene – spaces such as urban gardens, highways, sewer systems or landfills.

︎︎︎ Adham Hafez / Of Songs and Fish

It was 150 years ago when the Suez Canal was inaugurated. One of the largest man made canals in the world, the structure connected the massive Red and Mediterranean seas, opening the two water bodies towards each other, leading to the irreversible and enormous migration of sea creatures known as the Lessepsian Migration. At the same time when the canal was being dug using forced labor and slavery practices in Egypt enforced by the colonizers, European art forms and architectural practices were instituted in Egypt by settler colonialists, and elevated to a higher pedestal, while local artistic practices and ways of living were shunned, banned, or criminalized. Over the period of the past 150 years, fishes have migrated north away from their homes in Egypt, creating a massive loss of biodiversity in the Red Sea, and northern European artistic practices have been ingrained in Egypt as the only viable aesthetic canons. Parisian boulevards erased earlier city structures, Opera replaced Taqateeq, and Ballet banished Zar. This paper traces the massive anthropocenic event of the inauguration of the Suez Canal, together with the inauguration of the Khedivial Cairo Opera House, and argues a loss of biodiversity that includes fishes, songs, dances, birds, streets and shrines. It looks at the term ‘lifeform’ as an expanded term that includes natural, human, cultural or biological entities. As an act of rethinking history of artistic practices in contemporary Egypt today, this presentation traces the story of the Suez Canal, the loss of biodiversity, the disappearance of work songs, the disappearance of Suez dances, and looks at this history through a critique of cognitive injustice in order to address contemporary aesthetic consensus, allowing us to think of the finite planet’s resources as we meditate on the finality of our songs and dances