Forensic History: New Material Sources and Methods for Historians of the Anthropocene

AHA Session 39
Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Sutton Center (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Kate Brown, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Megan Black, London School of Economics
Dagomar Degroot, Georgetown University
Bathsheba Demuth, Brown University
Timothy James LeCain, Montana State University
Kate Brown, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Session Abstract

When the archives present a stumbling block, what do historians do? What role does the material world play in historical narratives, and how to include its many facets? This round table aims to connect these questions by exploring how new forensic technologies and material sources open wormholes into past events and phenomena that have long been considered inaccessible. The panel will bring together scholars with a wide range of geographical and temporal expertise and a diverse set of historical questions to discuss the challenges and opportunities of using evidence beyond the archive.

The historians on this panel draw from a varied palette of research techniques shaped by the questions they asked in their research. How do satellite image databases function as an archive – and how can they be tied to historian’s ability to think vertically, connecting the atmosphere with the different subsoil regimes that help shape human history? How can textual and paleoclimate proxies - tree rings, ice cores, marine or lakebed sediments, the length of earth's day, as well as computer model "hind casts" of regional or local climate changes - be brought into dialogue with one another? How do historians use such data to think across different temporal and spatial scales? What does the environmental history of outer space look like? What tools do historians possess to write the idea emerging among biologists that animals other than humans – whales and wolves, for example – have cultures, into a discipline that has generally focused on humans? Do epistemic cultures other than history – particularly indigenous knowledge practices and histories – offer examples? How can observation, science, and new technologies from the physical and biological sciences be used alongside textual sources? While their separate presentations cover substantial temporal and geographical space, they share an interest in new methods and sources.

These questions point to an expansion of theoretical work on “neo-materialism” from its ontological and philosophical roots toward practical epistemological questions about how historians can use material things, organisms, and landscapes as sources – a sort of "post-anthropocentric" methodology. We ask, in essence, what we can learn about human history by bringing in the non-human things with which humans interact. The goal of the panel is to open a discussion of these methods for a broad audience of historians, and explore they can expand our questions, actors, and interpretive lenses.

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