Thinking through change, thinking through empire

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June 15, 2020 by Andrew W M Smith

Whatever else happens, the sense of change swirling around the world at the moment is palpable. We do, as they say, live in Interesting Times. Apocryphal Chinese curses aside, we are in a moment which offers opportunities to question our perspectives. For my own part, an errant chain of thought led me to consider ways of thinking through the intersections between my research and my studies in light of current events. In this instance, these lenses were “change” and “empire”, the forces of which are currently topics of national and international discussion.

When I say “studies”, I don’t mean some pretentious way of referring to my work. Instead, I’m referring to the Degree Apprenticeship I’m currently enrolled on. Today’s sessions looked at ideas of strategic planning, exploring how organizations can keep pace with (or even outpace) the changes that occur around them. During the session, we discussed how strategic planning took place: core planning questions help identify and rank drivers of uncertainty, and then we can model future scenarios on this basis. That simplified model (which glosses over the research and discussions which need to accompany each element of that process) was contextualized by a discussion of outcomes and causality. We view the future through the lens of the present and meet it in light of our past preparations.

With a historian’s eyes, this type of discussion led me perhaps inevitably back to Walter Benjamin and the Angel of History. My fuzzy memory led me to google a quick quote (most of my books are locked away in my office, which I haven’t visited since March, owing to the aforementioned Interesting Times). I found the quote from Benjamin I was looking for on the Verso blog, which helped me frame what I was trying to articulate in terms of storms, wreckage, and the beating of angelic wings. As these things often do, that blog pointed me in turn towards a piece by Terry Eagleton from 2009 published in the New Statesman. In that piece, Eagleton’s frames President Barack Obama’s election in the context of US history, and considers Benjamin’s discussion of past, present and future:

“With the privilege of hindsight, we can inscribe these events in a broader narrative, making more sense of them than Robespierre or Trotsky were ever able to do. The price of this superior knowledge is impotence. There is no way we can use this knowledge to undo past catastrophes.”

This suggests a meaningful way of understanding political narratives, while putting an increased emphasis on our shared responsibility when considering and narrating the past (yes, predictably, I think history is quite important). It also puts an emphasis on the way that our narratives of the past clash, interact and can be twisted or distorted by contemporary pressures (and vice versa), as has been argued strongly by both Dave Andress and Robert Gildea in recent years.

I have to say that in most cases I will run screaming from discussions of US politics. Yet, there is no avoiding the way in which the disfunctions of the American carceral state and its instruments of order have recently served to illuminate wider global inequalities (especially in Western Europe, where the legacies of slavery and empire are piled high). As Eagleton argues presciently in his 2009 piece:

“Obama’s victory does not make up for America’s horrific racial past. The lynched, castrated and humiliated of earlier times can be granted no literal redemption. Our more optimistic ancestors sometimes thought of history as a kind of train, pulling us up from the dark valleys to the sunlit uplands. But if history is a train, then we need to commemorate those who never arrived at their destination – those who died in the sidings or jumped despairingly on to the tracks.”

We can see that in the world around us, in the necessary protests which affirm that Black Lives Matter, the abhorrent persistence of racist violence, and in the ever-clearer need to unpick broader systems of structural inequality. In David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity, he discusses the idea of “problem spaces” (something I encountered in discussion with my colleague Tommy Lynch, oddly enough in preparation for a university open day). That seemed another useful way to understand how those temporal relationships (of past, present, and future), relate to narrative and how we ask questions about the past (in the organizational literature, the “core planning questions” I mentioned earlier. In an interview with David Scott, Stuart Hall unpacked that concept in the following way:

“Since our questions about the present depend on how the historical past is constructed in relation to them, we need to narrate the relation of past to present differently in order to highlight different aspects.”

That quote seems really interesting to me both in the context of the apprenticeship I’m working on (it reinforces the absolutely central importance of diversity and inclusivity in recruitment and organizational culture), but also in terms of contemporary debates around memory and history relating to protests around racial inequality.

Last night, I watched Emmanuel Macron address the French nation, listening out for historical references and ways to discuss it later in a scheduled interview on France24. To any historian’s ear (and indeed, to many more), his discussion of history was… striking. He said:

I say to you very clearly, my dear compatriots, that the Republic will not wipe away any trace or any name from its history. It will not forget any of its works. It will not take down any of its statues but look together lucidly at our history, our memory, our relationship with Africa in particular, in order to construct the present and a possible future, from one shore of the Mediterranean to the other, with a desire for truth and without denying or revising who we are.” [my translation]

This was a defence of what he went on to call Republican Patriotism (which put me strongly in mind of the ‘muscular’ description of ‘neo-republicanism’ offered by Emile Chabal). It was, however, a disappointing response to change and of calls to reframe the past in light of new presents and new perspectives, especially from someone like Macron who has in the past attested to his appreciation of history (and memory). Hiding behind the concept of ‘communautarisme’ (or community separatism – anathema to a universal Republic which purports to see no race or creed, only French people), jarred while acknowledging where real structural inequalities persist. Notably, however, in the context of this topic, Macron called for a truthful construction of the present in serve of a possible future. Yet, in his inflexible stance on memory and history, the questions which the French state can frame about the present are constrained, as per Stuart Hall earlier.

That questioning impulse calls for a reframing of the present in the same way that strategic planning calls for continuous review of different potential situations. In re-examining how we construct our past (and I mean we expansively, in the context of either organisations, communities, or nation-states), we gain new perspectives with which to understand future scenarios. This is the very lifeblood of the historian, as Charlotte Lydia Riley wrote recently: “We are constantly engaged in a process of re-evaluating the past and reinterpreting stories that we thought we knew.”

When I was younger I had a pretentious design poster on my wall that contained Goethe’s refrain that “refashioning the fashioned, lest it stiffen into iron is the work of endless vital activity.” This is, then, perhaps a call for myself and others to reformulate our questions of the present. To think through concepts in order to better construct the future is not to rewrite or wipe away history (which is distinct I think from memory, and certainly distinct from statuary), but rather to open ourselves to understanding the future through different eyes, of valuing the diversity of the past and present as a stepping stone to better preparing ourselves to meet the future. The structures and functions of organizations present meaningful forums on which to demonstrate inclusion, in which to value diversity of thought, and in which the thought of someone like Stuart Hall or David Scott can offer us a sense of the positive ways in which we can reshape our futures. The pressing question is, when thinking through change, or thinking through empire, how do our narratives of the past contextualize present struggles, and how might they help us work together to prepare a more just future?

One thought on “Thinking through change, thinking through empire

  1. Rob Warwick says:

    Great to see you today and love the blog. I guess I got to a similar place by a different path. I’ve been taken by the ideas of the pragmatist philosopher GH Mead and his thoughts on process, dialectics and the like. In The Philosophy of the Present he wrote: “The pasts that we are involved in are both irrevocable and revocable. It is idle … to have recourse to a “real” past within which we are making constant discoveries; for that past must be set over against a present within which the emergent appears, and the past, which must be looked at from the standpoint of the emergent becomes a different past (Mead, 1932, p36)”. Not the words that most historians would welcome I guess. At moments of upheaval in the present I guess it gives us new eyes to see the past.

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