Thursday, May 6, 2010

Dan Carlin's history musings

Earlier toady I wrote about Bingham and Souza's grand theory of history and how I liked their appearance at the podcast New Books In History. I guess I am average in this appreciation. Maybe I should have the reservations historians in particular and scientists in general have towards grand theories, but for people like me, who enjoy educational podcasts, the grand theories deliver a certain type of entertainment. Call it the satisfaction to get a grip on it all.

Another history podcast that approaches this quality is Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. I have frequently written on this podcast and emphasized its excellent narrative qualities, but together with Carlin's effective retelling of history, he also engages in exploring and analyzing generalities in history. You can call it grand theorizing, but surely it is more tentative than the thorough studies of Bingham and Souza, so it is maybe better to call it Dan Carlin's personal history musings. Dan Carlin loves to mull over history and try to discern general patterns and draw conclusions about humanity and its future. This we saw in the shows about Slavery, about Children, about Globalization and the most recent about Human Toughness.

Carlin plays with exactly the kind of thoughts I have and like to play with when having listened to one history podcast or another. One of the recurring themes in these explorations of his is how life in earlier times was so much harsher and then he assumes, if our ancestors were able to survive, what does that tell about them? Are they structurally haunted by PTSD? Should we assume they are much tougher and resilient than we are? If they were destructively traumatized, does that mean we can hope for a better future, since we are not? Or if they were stronger than we ever hope to be, does that mean we are on the way down?

What I would like to see Carlin add is the following thought: assuming that we and our ancestors are no fundamentally different, certainly biologically we aren't, could that mean we'd be able to cope with their fate just as they did? And if so, wouldn't that mean they are not more traumatized and more tough than we are? I am sure there would be things in our time that would seem traumatizing hardships in the perspective of people from other times and places- but that, Carlin never seems to consider. In spite of this reverse perspective that I find missing, Carlin dares to go where few history podcasts dare to go and he does it the best. It explains his popularity and deservedly so.

More Hardcore History:
The end of the war,
Ghosts of the Ostfront,
Dan Carlin about the East Front,

The best varied history podcast - NBIH

Anybody interested in history podcasts must keep a constant eye on the feed of New Books in History. Probably not all of the passing subjects are of your interest, but each week there is a new issue and there are over a hundred shows to look back at and there inevitably is a lot to find that is exactly to your liking.

Issues that I have browsed through over the past weeks are a couple of old ones, along with the new issues each week:
Tim Snyder, “The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of A Habsburg Archduke” An interview from 2008 about the eccentric Archduke Wilhelm of Austria.

John Lukacs, “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning” Also an old interview from 2008, about Winston Churchill's inaugural speech in 1940.

Three new recent issues were:
Andrew Donson, “Youth in the Fatherless Land: War Pedagogy, Nationalism, and Authority in Germany, 1914-1918″
Amy Bass, “Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle Over W. E. B. Du Bois”
Patrick Manning, “The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture”

I was especially inspired by the very last issue, P. Bingham and J. Souza, “Death From a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe”, which contains an interview with both these authors, none of whom are historians. They combine their knowledge in biology and social science and have come up with a theory of history. They point out how human society lives by the measure to which it can police its members and they explain the developments from the development of weapons. The weapons allow for a certain scale of policing and therefore command the size and complexity of society and hence the course of history. As the host Marshall Poe already points out, historians generally do not engage in such grand theories and it really begs the question how Bingham and Souza's work is received. For the podcast listener it is by all means interesting and thought provoking.

More NBIH:
The Caucasus,
The genocide and the trial,
Nation and Culture,
Three New Books In History,
The fourth part of the world.