In the business of looking to the past

2015-01-21

Illustrated medieval calendars often begin with an image of Janus, the Roman god of doors and gateways, to represent the month of January. The medieval artists drew Janus as two-headed, moving from the year behind into the year ahead. In some cases, a young man’s head looks back to the left from whence he came while an old bearded man looks ahead to the right. Time, age, and gaze co-exist together in the moment.

Janus representing the month of January in the Shaftesbury Psalter, 12th century. BL Lansdowne 383, f 3. Image in the public domain, courtesy of The British Library.

Janus representing the month of January in the Shaftesbury Psalter, 12th century. BL Lansdowne 383, f 3. Image in the public domain, courtesy of The British Library. 

This image of Janus is a fitting start to 2015 and my time as blogger for the Curie blog because it encapsulates what I think being a historian is all about. Janus in medieval illuminations is two-faced not because he is deceitful or misleading (even though that is what the phrase “Janus-faced” has come to mean), but because he looks into both past and future as he crosses the threshold.

Historians are in the business of looking to the past, as Janus is. We examine the years gone by, often trying to pick up the details and nuances that have been glossed over or forgotten by later generations. As an environmental historian, I’ve looked at an array of different time periods and places to recover some of those lost stories: from sanitation concerns in 15th and 16th century towns to animal reintroductions in Scandinavia in the early 20th century to the reuse of offshore oil infrastructure in the global oceans from the 1980s onward. I use “stories” purposefully in the sentence above because historians construct narratives out of evidence rather than to insinuate that historians make things up. To tell those stories about the past, we rely on a plethora of evidence. My stories have relied on years of digging through documents, both published and archival; looking at photographs and art; visiting museums, zoos, and aquaria; and, in the case of the offshore oil project, interviewing people involved in the historical events. Historians are always taking deep, long looks in the past.

But historians do this backward looking while being very much situated in the present, just as Janus stands in the doorway. We cannot help but be “presentists”, as Naomi Oreskes has rightly observed, because as historians the things that interest us in the past are most often dictated by what we want to explain now. I have chosen all of my projects because there was something in it that urged me to explain how humans have understood and still understand what is natural, what is artificial, what is technological, and where the intersections are.

On my twitter account, I have one highlighted tweet: “I study history not to understand how people were in the past, but rather why we are the way we are now. This is the value of history.” Whenever the age-old debate about the humanities being a waste of time rears its ugly head, I just shake my head in disbelief that there are people who really think they can understand the present without the past. It just isn’t possible to understand where we are without looking to where we have been.

Yet Janus does not stop at the present—his other head is looking into the year ahead. I believe that this too captures the historian’s task. Now, there are many historians that will balk at any suggestion of history as a “futurecasting” tool. I am not saying that history can predict what the future holds. History is full of contingency, the unexpected. History, however, can prepare us for the future by showing us how the past led to the present. Only with that knowledge can society face the future head on. So I think it’s important for historians to not shy away from advocating the past to shape the future into something more livable for humans and non-humans alike.

Over the next few months, I’m going to take readers on “An Expedition into the Heart of the Humanities” via this blog. I want to show you some of the nitty-gritty of historical research and writing, and take you with me as I travel to present my work abroad. I want to give you some insights into what it means to be a historian in 2015, particularly as a soft-money researcher within the Swedish university context. Throughout the adventure, I will hold up Janus as my guide: examining the past as I step through the present into the future.