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Unravelling Complexity: History
Frank Bongiorno
School of History
Research School of Social Sciences
Australian National University
Puzzles in Cultural History
• ‘ ... anthropologists have found that the best
points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an
alien culture can be those where it seems to be
most opaque. When you realize that you are not
getting something – a joke, a proverb, a
ceremony – that is particularly meaningful to the
natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign
system of meaning in order to unravel it.’
Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural
History, Basic Books, New York, 1984, p. 78.
Puzzles in Cultural History
‘To unlock a society, look at its
untranslatable words.’
Salman Rushdie, Shame,
Picador, London, 1983, p. 104.
Clifford Geertz
‘As much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a
golf links, at a race track, or around a poker
table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring. For it
is only apparently cocks that are fighting there.
Actually, it is men.’
Clifford Geertz, ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’, in
The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, Basic Books,
New York, 1973
Greg Dening
Death of Captain Cook
‘Sharks That Walk on the Land: The Death of Captain Cook’,
Vol. 41, No. 4, December 1982, pp. 427-37
Mutiny on the Bounty
Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992
Inga Clendinnen, ‘Spearing the Governor’, Australian
Historical Studies, Vol. 33, No. 118, 2002, pp. 157-74
The spearing of
Governor Arthur
Robert Kenny
• Why did Aboriginal people
kill so many sheep?
The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael
Pepper & the Ruptured World, Scribe,
Melbourne, 2007.
Big History
Big bang to present E.g. David Christian
and Cynthia Stokes Brown
• a story of increasing complexity
• ‘the scientific creation story’ (Brown)
• bringing history and natural sciences together
• history of human beings as a species and their
planet in a much longer sweep of time
• human beings decentred in an account stretching
over 13 or 14 billion years
In between?
• Fernand Braudel (Annales School)
La longue durée
‘surface disturbances, crests of foam
that the tides of history carry on their
strong backs’
Jared Diamond
physiology, biology, geography
• Human beings comprise a single species, yet different populations have
very different histories. Why?
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997)
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005)
Damage to environment
Climate change
Hostile neighbours
Less support from friendly neighbours
Societal responses
Environment and geography, more than culture or race, as determining
Niall Ferguson
• Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011)
• Killer Apps (What set the West apart from the
rest of the world?)
• ‘The Great Divergence’
• Competition
• Science
• Property
• Modern Medicine
• Consumerism
• Work Ethic
Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and
the Spirit of Capitalism
James Belich
Why did the number of English-speaking peoples increase so massively and spread
so rapidly over so much of the globe in the nineteenth century.
Mixture of cultural, technological, social and political factors (Not Anglo-Saxonism):
Improving reputation of settlement and migration
Improvements in use of wind, water, animals (pre-industrial)
New technologies permitted the mass transfer of people, goods, money,
information, propaganda, technology and know-how
the shifting cultural and economic relationship between old lands
Self-sustaining and self-propelling nature of colonisation once commenced
(Progress as an industry; fantasies and dreams)
Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939, Oxford University Press,
Oxford, 2009.
Ian W. McLean
• Why Australian Prospered: The Shifting Sources of
Economic Growth, Princeton University Press, Princeton
and Oxford, 2013
• 19th century: Australia probably led the world for a while
(before 1890) in terms of per capita income
• 20th century: Fell behind
• Why? (No single factor)
• 1. Interaction of factors: ‘resource abundance’ +
‘institutional quality’ OR ‘international economic
conditions’ + ‘policy responses’ (Policy innovation)
• 2. ‘shifting bases of prosperity’
• This is a fundamentally HISTORICAL account.
Wrong policy turn?
• 1900-1960?
• McLean:
• Manufacturing development behind a tariff wall made
sense in the context of international economic change
(e.g. Unstable international trading order; move to
cartels). Yielded benefits in terms of war effort (WW2)
and balance of payments after war.
• Increasingly redundant once new resources identified
and exploited from 1960
• New policy order (winding down of ‘Australian
Paul Kelly, ‘Australian Settlement’,
from The End of Certainty (1992)
• White Australia
• Wage Arbitration
• State Paternalism
• Tariff Protection
• Imperial Benevolence