Review Essay: Taking the Long View

Writing in 1980, Michel de Certeau took his readers to the top of New York’s World Trade Center, where, from its observation deck, they might gaze upon a city whose “gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes,” and indulge in “the fiction of knowledge.” Returning to the ground in an “Icarian fall,” Certeau abandoned the view from on high and immersed himself in a street-level perspective characterized by the intricate, intimate, and small-scale perspective of the pedestrian.1

The tower view and the street view—metaphors for different scales of knowledge. Photo by Stephan Rebernik; Creative Commons by-nc-sa-2.0 license.

Certeau’s celebration of the situated, finely woven knowledge produced by “ordinary practitioners … ‘down below'” came at a time when scholars were engaging in an open revolt against the totalizing narrative projects of modern thought. Since then, an enormous amount of work in the humanities and social sciences has gone forward at street level. But, as Jo Guldi and David Armitage argue in their feisty new book The History Manifesto, this fashion for smallness and particularity can lead to, well, a small and particular kind of writing. This has consequences not just for the theory and content of scholarly research, but also for the political and cultural work which history can perform in the world at large. In order to practice history as “a critical human science with a public mission,” must we, as Guldi and Armitage believe, return to “wide-angle, long-range views” like the kind seen from Certeau’s observation deck (123, 125)?

Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto

Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto

The authors make a strong case that the retreat of professional historians into ever shorter time frames and ever more tightly hedged claims has left the discipline unable to answer—or even to ask—the kinds of questions that might challenge the “short-termism” which predominates in contemporary business and politics. The university, they argue, ought to serve as an institution where “the guardians of deep knowledge” (5) can discern between qualities of the human condition which persist and those which are momentary. Such a task links the present to a long chain of historical causes and a long arc of future possibilities. This orientation towards the future is central to the authors’ political ambition for the book, which, as the title suggests, is meant to get our nerves up. Beginning with Fernand Braudel, they trace a long line of authors, from Eric Hobsbawm to Lewis Mumford to the University of Wisconsin’s Merle Curti, all of whom saw their longue-durée explorations as the “material for public reform” (26). Unafraid to cast such volatile themes as “destiny and free will,” “counterfactual thinking,” and “utopian thinking” as critical public commitments, The History Manifesto is a plea for historians to recover the grand, the epochal, and the engaged qualities of a discipline which has turned towards the inscrutable, the ephemeral, and the hermetic.

Guldi and Armitage are at their strongest when outlining the case for a new kind of longue-durée history, modeled after Braudel’s Annales school, which they conceive as a counterweight to both the static, economistic view of human behavior and the arcane finessing of “short-durée” case studies. Indeed, concerns about environmental degradation, economic inequality, and technological change demand a time-scale which can take in “the full sweep of human history,” since the trajectories of these transformations run all the way from geologic prehistory to the hyperspeed of modern elections. More important, though, viewing history from such great heights prompts a paradoxical reckoning with human agency. In one sense, the longue durée pins the logic of human action under vast, weighty structures of epochal change, and reminds us that humans are, like other species, ecologically constrained. At the same time, however, the longue durée proves just how consequential the choices we make have been: the societies and economies which we have built control the destinies of billions and the very chemistry of the planet.

The presence of writers such as Braudel, Mumford, and W. G. Hoskins amongst The History Manifesto‘s roll call of longue-durée heroes is a reminder that the further one zooms out in time, the more obvious it becomes that human life cannot be extracted from the landscapes that both structure and document the emergence and evolution of communities and societies. The geographic metaphor in which the longue durée becomes the view from high above reinforces the mutual link between environmental history and longue-durée history. Guldi, who has written extensively on the humanities’ “spatial turn,” is particularly attentive to this geographical way of understanding the past, and it is no coincidence that themes of environmental change provide some of The History Manifesto‘s most lucidly articulated calls to action. Noting that historians such as Libby Robin have been crucial in challenging a solely naturalistic interpretation of the Anthropocene, Guldi and Armitage argue that “one of history’s primary capabilities as a field” (31) is its ability to appreciate the complex interplay of economic forces, planetary conditions, political-economic structures, and human choices, all set into motion together across the span of centuries and even millennia.

Michael Williams, To Pass On A Good Earth: The Life and Work of Carl O. Sauer

Michael Williams, To Pass On A Good Earth: The Life and Work of Carl O. Sauer

But if what we are really after is the wedding of time and space in pursuit of an explanatory mode which is both chronologically long and spatially wide, we need a disciplinarily expansive geography as much as we need a disciplinarily expansive history. Michael Williams’s new biography of Carl Sauer, the founder of American historical geography and an influential figure in the study of landscape change, serves as a timely reminder of geographers’ significant but institutionally troubled contributions to longue-durée historical thought. Sauer does not appear anywhere in The History Manifesto. But his highly original synthesis of regional geography, cultural anthropology, and historical reasoning, coupled with his public role as an early critic of limitless economic expansion, makes Sauer a crucially important longue-durée thinker—and one who remains relevant for today’s questions. Drawing on the Anthropogeographie of German geographers like Friedrich Ratzel, Sauer built partnerships with his Berkeley friends Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie in anthropology and Herbert E. Bolton in history, insisting that geography must reach back to “the farthest corridors of human time” in search of explanation (115, 201).  “History was integral to Sauer’s geography,” Williams writes, and Sauer’s work, whether in the Pennyroyal region of Kentucky or in Mazatlán, portrayed “landscape as a palimpsest of past human presence” (59).

Carl Sauer photographed by Dorothea Lange. University of California-Berkeley.

That a historical geographer like Sauer could serve as a model example of how to think historically on a broad scale should not be surprising—after all, the Annales school was in many ways the product of a geographic approach to history that emerged in France in the first half of the twentieth century.2 Marc Bloch, one of the original Annalistes, was heavily influenced by the regional studies of the geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache.3 And Jean Brunhes, one of Vidal’s students, wrote the essay that introduced Sauer to the work of George Perkins Marsh—widely considered one of the forerunners of American environmental history (Williams, 94).  All of which is to say that the historical geography of the early twentieth century was, in a very real way, a prototype for the longue-durée studies that the Annales school made famous and which Guldi and Armitage now wish to reclaim. That it appears almost nowhere in Guldi and Armitage’s intellectual history is not entirely the authors’ fault. Geographers ourselves bear some blame for leaving thinkers such as Sauer and Vidal behind in a ceaseless chasing of theoretical fashions.

A map of long geographical history from Sauer’s “Agricultural Origins and Disperals” (1952).

Where, then, does that leave us? As proof of their argument about the narrowing focus of history, Guldi and Armitage offer a dataset of the time periods covered by history dissertations, which by 1975 had shrunk to an average of about 30 years (43–44).  Like the fictional young historian of Kingsley Amis’s 1954 novel Lucky Jim, whose inaugural work, “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485,” represented, in Amis’s turn of phrase, the “niggling mindlessness” of historical hyperspecificity, Guldi and Armitage worry that historians’ professional anxieties are the chief culprit behind the collapse of the longue durée (49–50). And, as any graduate student in any field will readily confirm, the systemic pressures of research training do, indeed, guide students to topics sufficiently isolated in the safety of an impenetrable idiosyncrasy. Writing longue-durée history is not only difficult. It is also risky, for it leaves open undefended flanks, and tempts the writer into the sweeping generalities which can easily decay into breezy unseriousness.

Lewis Mumford, writing a 30-year reflection on his book The Golden Day, took aim at the critics who considered his attempt to “produce a unified image out of a vast welter of details” as a scholarly tendency which was “superficial, if not somehow illicit, indeed, downright disreputable.” For Mumford, historical generalism worked to give meaning and orientation to the infinite variety of facts recoverable from the past. “The need in every generation for performing this kind of inclusive generalized critical revaluation,” he wrote, “should be plain, for the mere piling up of details tends to obscure the design of the picture as a whole, thus making the smallest and least important part hold the eye so closely that one has no sense of the whole and no sense at all of relative values. This was not proper work for a specialist, but rather for one who, like myself, was dedicated to the complimentary role of generalist.”4

I agree with Mumford—and also with Guldi, Armitage, and Sauer—in the recognition that there are “complimentary roles” for both the specialist and the generalist, for both the fine-grained excavation of material from the past as well as for a broadly general construction of this material into long-term, widely cast arcs of meaning and continuity. Such work requires cautious discernment to separate grandness from grandiloquence. When undertaken skillfully and humbly, though, the long view of history reveals stories of human inhabitance on the earth which are, frankly, impossible to portray from Certeau’s “street level”—and these stories compel us not only to think but to act.

Garrett Dash Nelson is a graduate student in geography who works on historical geography, landscape and community planning, and intellectual history. His dissertation research follows the search for the “unit landscape” at different geographic scales across a 150-year arc of American land planning. Website. Twitter. Contact.

  1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984 [1980]), 92–93. 

  2. Alan R. H. Baker, “Reflections on the Relations of Historical Geography and the Annales School of History,” in Baker and Gregory, eds., Explorations in Historical Geography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). 

  3. Susan Friedman, Marc Bloch, Sociology, and Geography: Encountering Changing Disciplines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). 

  4. Lewis Mumford, The Golden Day: A Study in American Literature and Culture (New York: Dover, 1968 [1957/1926]), xix. 

10 Responses

  1. Alessandra says:

    A thoughtful piece about both the virtues and pitfalls of taking the long view. Thanks for sharing!

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