This is a seminar about ‘what this thing called nature is’ and how students could write its history. This is urgent, especially now that we have entered the Anthropocene, the geological age of humanity destroying something historians haven’t properly come to grips with.
This seminar proposes that we accept that politicians and natural scientists act faster than historians can write: we need to learn how to analyze nature politics and science on the go. In order to do that, we at the same time need to adopt a broader perspective on ‘nature’. This seminar proposes that in order to do more-than-human history, we first need to accept that ‘nature’ has a human history, both conceptual and social. Cultural historians do not need to imitate biologists, geologists and meteorologists but should apply their own historical expertise in the Anthropocene debate. They can draw lessons from the social history of knowledge, use their pragmatic constructivism and add a pinch of ‘common sense humanities’ to a complex competitive knowledge scene.
This workshop focuses on a specific topic in the social history of nature knowledge: the cultural history of the practice of ‘rewilding’ and making ‘new natures’. It connects recent Dutch history with a longue durée global history. It first deals with the concept of ‘nature’ in the humanities, then analyzes the curious case of the Dutch Oostvaardersplassen, and then zooms out to the global tropics between 1870 and 1940 and the emergence of nature as a ‘world laboratory’. As will become clear, when we zoom in, we learn that the history of nature is also the cultural history of ‘local experiments’. However, when we zoom out, suddenly global empire formation emerges.
Speakers and seminar leaders are 1) historian of biology, animal husbandry and agriculture Bert Theunissen (Beauty or Statistics? Practice and Science in Dutch Livestock Breeding 1900-2000 (Toronto 2020), and 2) Robert-Jan Wille, historian of European and colonial science in the field (Mannen van de microscoop. De laboratoriumbiologie op veldtocht in Nederland en Indië, 1840-1910 (Nijmegen 2019)).
This workshop consists of three sub-sessions which will be spread over two days. The assignment will be have to handed in a month later.
- Session one (day 1):
In this session we rethink traditional and less traditional ‘nature’ concepts. We will ask the participants to think about their concepts of nature before and after reading these texts. The simple dichotomy culture-nature will be dismantled. Do we need to rethink and expand ‘cultural history’? The work setting is that of a ‘conceptual seminar’. More instructions will follow after subscription.
- Session two (day 1):
In the second session, we will take a look at the Dutch situation. We will watch a documentary (De Nieuwe Wildernis) during the session and apply our nature concepts on a larger than life current case, the Oostvaardersplassen. The work setting is that of a anatomic cutting room, or ‘snijzaal’.
- Session three (day 2):
In the third and final session we will zoom out again and look at global history. We will read Hennessy, Popov and Shih in advance. The key question here is: how can we write about a field where we have never been and are dependent on indirect sources. In a way, to turn upside down L. P. Hartley’s famous quote, a foreign country is like the past: you can analyze it even if you have never visited it.