The Politics of Inevitability and a Generation Without History

“By embracing the politics of inevitability, we raised a generation without history,” writes Timothy Snyder. The politics of inevitably is a confidence trap — a lulling sense of a security in fixed trajectory laid before us. It’s society on autopilot. To the extent that ‘progress’ becomes the assumed course, the necessity of teaching history diminishes, and in the decline of a historical consciousness comes the decline of progress itself.

In this complacency, history is forgotten. It is made to seem useless, irrelevant to ‘modern’ concerns. Indicators of Snyder’s “generation without history” are rampant. In a recent talk, The Swindle of the New, Terry Eagleton proposes: “The fact is surely that any society which only has its contemporary experience to live by is poor indeed. And that surely is becoming increasingly the case in our own time, where the past has been reduced to spectacle, packaged heritage, consumable commodity, or recyclable style.”

A critical mark of a “generation without history” is the prevalence and commercialization of authenticity. Adherents to the cult of authenticity, in Eagleton’s words, “hold the unconscious conviction that [they] are self-authoring, self-generated, sprung from [their] own head, and thus entirely entirely autonomous and self-determining.” Only in “generation without history” can one imagine themselves as capable of total self-definition, which is the cornerstone assumption of the authenticity value system and identity matrix. “The modern age is the only one I am aware of that regards authenticity as involving a clean break with the past.”

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Whose version of the past counts? Do the residents of Utopia have a history? What makes time invisible?

The past, it seems, does not exist anymore. It is inaccessible and unalterable. Once the egg is scrambled and fried, it can no longer be reshaped and reconstructed into its oval shell. As far as human perception goes, the arrow of time goes decidedly in only one direction.

But the past also seems very much a part of every moment. The chair you are sitting on came from somewhere in history, but now it is inexplicably part of your present reality. When we react to the past — whether to heal from its scars or celebrate its highlights — we find our immediate priorities being shaped by a history we can no longer access.

The past, even though it is gone, always seems to be part of the present. As T.S. Eilot wrote,

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

For humans, time is about much more than eggs and chairs. Time becomes inseparable from our identities and the narratives we use to orient ourselves in the world. Does our position or role in society shape the way we think about time? Why do different people and different cultures have such distinct differences in the way they think about their history and lineage? After we recorded the podcast, Jasmine minded me of this quote from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son:

social affairs are not generally speaking the writer’s prime concern, whether they ought to be or not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.

The Panel

Jeremy Nathan Marks is a writer, researcher, podcaster. His podcast, ‘Talking to Canadians’ (co-produced with historian and PEI-based writer Ryan O’Connor) debuted in January of 2017. Jeremy is also a published editorialist, essayist and poet and his work has appeared in the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Europe.

Jasmine Jasani (@_jasminejasani) thinks time is fascinating. Both tangible and abstract, time exists within spaces of paradox, intrigue, science, and folklore. Jasmine does not question whether time is real, but the ways in which it is constructed at different times to be real, and the impact it has on our imagination and existence. She has time, or is it hers to have? Either ways, she will be making the time to talk about time, hoping that in time she will understand time.

Thomas Peace (@tpcanoe) is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Huron University College. His research focuses on the diverse ways in which Indigenous peoples in the northeast and lower Great Lakes engaged with colonial schooling and colonial colleges at the turn of the nineteenth century. He is also one of the founding editors of ActiveHistory.ca.

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Live theatre as co-creation: how to produce a 2.9 kiloton explosion on stage

At a panel discussion at The Grand Theatre on Thursday, playwright Trina Davies said that the distinctive difference between theatre and film is that the experience of a live performance is co-created with the audience. At the movies, the actors don’t know you are there. There is no relationship whatsoever. In theatre, the experience is produced together. A production without an audience does not ‘produce’ an analogue experience to what happens in an auditorium full of humans.

Davies described the difficulty of writing Shatter, a play set in the aftermath of the Halifax explosion of 1917 — the largest human-produced explosion before Hiroshima that killed 2,000 people. How can you reproduce the sense of a blast of this magnitude on a stage? You can’t do it physically. It defies even the biggest special effects budget (unless, I suppose, you have an extra half-mile radius of city blocks to incinerate at each show). The ‘experience’ of what the explosion looked, felt, and sounded like could only be recreated through the words and actions of her characters. The audience could only ‘feel’ the size and devastation of the disaster in their minds, not their eyes.

With CGI, of course, you could visualize a 2.9 kiloton explosion convincingly. (But it’s only one vision, and it probably belongs to the executive producer.) The profundity of live theatre lies in this act of joint imaginative production — a kind of collective make-believe. We’re not convinced of the explosion by the clever arrangement of pixels on a screen — or because we somehow forgot about the curtains — but because we empathize with characters in a narrative. This participatory group empathy session yields something that is more ‘real’ than even the most convincing special effects on a one-dimensional screen. This is why live theatre can never be supplanted by Netflix.

Dennis Garnhum — who I recently interviewed about the connection between theatre and civics — was also on the panel. He observed that producer Cameron Mackintosh’s visions for plays like Cats (1981) and Les Misérables (1985) mark the beginning of a trend towards evermore elaborate staging expectations. But with the demand for greater effects comes the demand for bigger budgets, which subsequently drives the cost of experiencing theatre into a distinctive and exclusive socioeconomic class of its own. (One of Garnhum’s initiatives is recalibrating the cost and accessibility of live theatre for high school students.)

Listening to the panel, a few things ‘clicked’ for me. I have always loved the ‘flesh and blood’ dimension of theatre. In an entertainment landscape dominated by prefabricated, play-on-demand experience, a live stage is a place of attention tuning: at this time, in this place, we will ‘story’ with one another. Here the actor is a human, without digital enhancement. What I wasn’t able to articulate before was the co-creative dimension of the experience. In a way, going to the theatre is like reading a book: the explosion is only ‘real’ to the extent it exists in the imagination of the reader. But in the imagination, the explosion goes far beyond the mere words on the page. So too in theatre: the experience of the explosion goes far beyond the raw mechanics of the set design, costumes, and script. I am beginning to think of live theatre as a kind of ‘mass reading’ of a text — it is like having a book read to you along with an auditorium full of people imagining and feeling the scene together.

Eventually, we might get tired of watching pretend explosions on three-story screens. We might discover that being in the same physical room as imperfect, dynamic, adaptive storytellers makes for a richer experience than watching the carbon copy reruns of the ‘perfect takes’ spliced together.

Imagining the explosion is more impactful than seeing it.

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The sooner you realize

The sooner you realize that you’re gonna be just another irrelevant footnote in the bargain bin of history, the sooner you can get on with the marvellousness of living your life.

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