Updated: Sep 15, 2021
Historical consciousness has revolutionised human thinking. Knowing history, existing as part of it, even thinking of ourselves as historical - which is to say, temporal - beings, is now a commonplace. Intended to orientate us in the world, this ‘synthesising consciousness’, remarks Frank Kermode, apprehends a simple fact: that things are not the way they were. Life continually changes into new and unexpected forms, forever departing from its previous iterations. Although existing in relation to the past, we keep moving forwards into the future; a future whose form remains a possibility inscribed into the present. Gripped by this realisation simultaneously monumental and banal, historical consciousness attempts to bridge the chasm between the before and after; to link our transience to something solid and dependable. Although our lives figure as passing murmurs on the surface of infinity, by conjuring bonds of connection between past and future we reassure ourselves that we exist in a meaningful relationship to both. That’s why, for Thomas Carlyle, ‘history is a looking both before and after’, and why, for Hannah Arendt, ‘the thread of historical continuity’ provides the succession of events with significance.
In this revolutionary turn, history morphs into ‘Humanity’s knowledge of itself, its certainty about itself’. Hence, as Johann Droysen continues, ‘what their genus is to animals and plants… History is to human beings’. This raises the stakes of history considerably. It becomes less and less plausible that anything could be understood without it. If one wants to understand something, one investigates its historical development. That’s why history is constantly extolled as the substance which ‘binds’ us together; that without history we wouldn’t know who we are, because we wouldn’t know who we were. To this extent, historical understanding has always been premised upon an enduring compatibility between mind and world. In the world created by human historical action, mind and world align. Due to this self-encounter of the mind, human beings recognise themselves, know themselves, in the world they have produced. So, Martin L. Davies points out, ‘whenever the sense and meaning of human existence are at issue, recourse is inevitably made to history – as the ‘common memory’ of humanity, as the story of the development of a human world’. Traditionally, then, history safeguards the meaning of human existence, showing that one’s life matters in relation to both the past and future – that it’s part of a larger historical ‘context’ or ‘process’.
That’s the general idea, anyway. Yet what interests me here is what can only be described as the growing disparity between historical consciousness and the actual circumstances of immediate existence. The historical de-synchronisation forced upon the mind in the face of ecological catastrophe involves a form of self-alienation, since the promise of history was above all the promise of belonging, of historical identity fulfilled in an encounter with a truly human - and therefore comprehensible - world. To put it bluntly, the curiosity of our current situation is this: because the world has exceeded the bounds of historical understanding, and has therefore ruptured the continuity on which historical understanding depends, consciousness is insufficiently able to navigate its surroundings or invest them with historical meaning.
For what does this consciousness confront? Scarred by ecological breakdown, the world is no longer a safe operating space colonised in the human interest, but a hostile environment from which we hope to escape. Reflecting back upon humanity its centuries of ceaseless industry, the effluvia of capitalist production envelops the earth and penetrates into its very depths, while the toxic run-off reappears in human tissue. Geochemical processes set into motion mere decades ago intrude to devastating effect. Human beings now create more history than they can manage or comprehend. Through its self-compromising mode of economic production, humanity forecloses upon a viable future, leaving it staring out in frustration at a world forever trammelled by its past. Trapped in these inadequately managed surroundings, consciousness confronts the untold waste of bygone centuries. In geo-historical terms, the whole of human history has begun to supersede itself: consistent with its modern impulse to keep getting ahead of itself, to keep innovating, to keep seeking the latest source of capital, humankind turns itself inexorably into a thing of the past.
Accordingly, its fate historically pre-empted, anticipating a second Fall, consciousness surreptitiously slips into survival mode, dissociating itself from its entropic historical trajectory. On the silver screen, it dreams of emancipating itself from the wreckage, of gearing up and lifting off. Martian colonies, planetary exploits, and fresh beginnings speak to the unerring desire for catharsis. Fearful of confronting the chaos within, we look in vain to the void without. In Ad Astra, for example, arriving on the Moon after being royally ripped-off purchasing a hot towel on his outward journey, Brad Pitt finds it has become an exploited way station, a dreary, sub-optimal outpost. The dream of space dwindles into a commercial opportunity; just another corporate wasteland. The dream of historical escape evaporates.
Under these conditions, despite the usual exhortations to know more history, knowing how things historically happened no longer resolves or repairs anything. The sense of congruence or compatibility between mind and world on which historical knowledge is premised fails to emerge. Rather, consciousness experiences a radical break with the world, a further disarticulation of the historical fabric, as the interface of historical knowledge reveals its own redundancy. The world has become something other, something strange and eerie: something ultimately beyond the reach of historical knowledge.
Gertrude Stein once remarked that ‘history has really no relation to the human mind at all, because history is the state of confusion between anybody doing anything and anything happening’. Cryptic, this observation makes one wonder: in facing historical circumstances of an unprecedented nature, how does consciousness contend with the exhaustion of history as a means of understanding, with the stark lacuna between historical comprehension and the world it is supposed to comprehend? Doesn’t the lack of connection between what happened before and what is happening now, between what existed before and what exists now, seem irrevocable? Forced to identify with a history which has resulted in catastrophe, and after being constantly told that our identity is historically based, we can hardly bear to suspect that history no longer supplies the semblance of existential assurance it previously offered. Yet it seems that knowing history is not, after all, to know oneself - that in history one discovers not who one is, but who other people were.
There is the sense that, no matter how much historical study in which one engages, no matter to what extent one knows how things got to be the way they are, the world cannot be reconciled with one’s historical knowledge of it: that the ecological crisis has invalidated the historical coordinates by which previous generations navigated. That’s why the ecological crisis is at once a crisis of history; it is destructive of the possibility of historical sense. We have lost not only our historical bearings, but the semblance of rationality, of necessity, driving history forwards. If, in its obsolescence, historical knowledge cannot be depended upon to guide our present and future conduct or confirm our historical identity, we face an unprecedented crisis in the very nature of historical reasoning. Accelerating beyond the orientating narratives and categories of the past, the technologically amplified world exceeds history’s power to unite what was with what is, or what is with what was. Here history fails to compute because it’s lost its computing power.
Consequently, attendant to its sense of apprehension, a sense of resignation, even detachment, pervades consciousness. The dissociation between the lived occurrences of one’s life and the ecological consequences to which they contribute becomes palpable. In the discourse of environmental crisis, as Timothy Clark remarks, ‘a sentence about the possible collapse of civilization can end, no less solemnly, with the injunction not to leave electronic equipment on standby’. In this world, he notes, there exists a crevasse ‘between the human sense of time and slow-motion catastrophe’, as well as a ‘disjunction between the destructive processes at issue and the adequacy of the arguments and measures being urged to address them.’ Now we realise more than ever that the individual lives in a different dimension of time to that of the world; that there exists a discord between the human life-span and the scale of human – let alone planetary – history.
That these temporal dimensions fail to align is the disquieting discovery of modern science. The more we look before, the more remote seem our lives in relation to the aeons preceding us. Similarly, the more we look after, at the encroaching expanse of time from which we are likewise excluded, the less consequential seem our daily concerns. Those who reflect on what is happening to the biosphere will perhaps recognise the sense of despondence this mismatch provokes: how can individual efforts register in the face of billions of years? What difference can my life make on the scale of planetary history, as human civilisation slowly sinks into the sediment of deep time? The spectre of climatic crisis widens these temporal discrepancies, evoking images of the future disconnected from either past or present.
Ultimately, if ‘there is no pristine, no Nature, only history’, as Bruno Latour claims, then human identity rests, disturbingly, on the redundancy of history: on the already superseded, on the already antiquated, on the already expired. Yet with nowhere else to turn, with nothing else against which we can measure ourselves or use to determine our historical significance, history is now to be summoned without end: its spectres fated to haunt us. Like Nietzsche’s Last Men who know all that has ever happened, and thus condemned to ‘the infinite retrospective of all that has preceded us’, as Jean Baudrillard muses, we find ourselves already living in the aftermath, with nothing but history left to look forward to: an endless inventory of the irreparable.
Alexandre Leskanich is a copy-editor at Evental Aesthetics, and is currently completing a Ph.D. in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, Royal Holloway, University of London. His work can be found at https://royalholloway.academia.edu/AlexandreLeskanich.
Art by Julia Jones