- The River of History: Trans-national and Trans-disciplinary Perspectives on the Immanence of the Past
Without judging the book by its cover, the reader of Peter Farrugia's collection of essays cannot help but pause before opening The River of History to contemplate the stunning cover photograph. The view is from an airplane. From upper left to lower right, a dark river eases through a broad and murky, water-channelled wetland. Beyond the river, the land rises gradually and darkens with heavier vegetation, fading towards a distant horizon, partially lost in the haze of a purple sky. At the lower left, on the near wetland shore, is a white concrete segment of bridge, cast into bright relief by its oblique, late-afternoon shadow. The structure ends abruptly at the river's edge, inexplicably unfinished, going nowhere.
It is an intriguing image, as is its relation to the title of this wide-ranging set of essays. 'The river of history' is a reference to the ceaseless flow of time. But what a problematic metaphor! Where are there active human agents in the metaphorical current? Are they simply borne along, trying to keep their collective heads above water? Is history best conceived as such an impersonal force? And even more problematically, where does the historian stand as she charts the course of 'the river of history': is she flying in the airplane with the photographer; or is she watching, static, on the boggy shore; or is she being swept along in the stream with the rest of humanity?
The puzzles, contradictions, and challenges of the cover and the title metaphor echo through the rest of this stimulating but frustrating collection. The large question that underlay the project is that of the relationships between past, present, and future. The book has four sections. The first examines two contrasting mediators between past and present: one chapter by Robert Wright on television (largely in the form of History Television), and another by Leo Groarke on academic historians. Both are critical of their subjects but read like the products of scholars' dabblings in a foreign field in the name of 'interdisciplinarity.' Groarke's message was better said by Carl Becker in 1932.
The next section, on history, colonialism, and the land, is far more successful. It exemplifies the connections among legacies of the past, [End Page 197] understandings in the present, and policies for the future, by examining conceptions of property as sites of conflict. John McLaren ties together the cases of colonialism in Canada and Australia in a description of his legal history course. Nancy Wright and A.R. Buck extend these ideas with close studies, respectively, of a serialized novel and property legislation in New South Wales in the mid-nineteenth century. The section paints a complex picture of conflict not only between settlers and Aboriginals, but also between settler classes, with important implications for contemporary policy.
Section 3 is highly eclectic. The thread that holds it together – the idea that authors of history are shaped by influences other than 'that noble dream' of objectivity – is not the most interesting aspect of what each of the essays has to say. The final section's three essays on technology and historical change similarly appear to be parts of other debates, with an essay on the writings of Grant, Innis, and McLuhan, a sketchy treatment of urban and suburban transportation development over the past 130 years, and an abstract but persuasive argument for policies of caution when the stakes are really high (e.g., irreversible environmental disaster), even if scientific evidence is not conclusive.
As the recent editor of a similar volume, I well appreciate the challenge Peter Farrugia faced in bringing coherence to a diverse set of symposium papers. I find it hard to imagine a better frame for the papers he was dealt. But most of their value – highly varied – will be realized more in the context of the other discussions to which they contribute, than to their furtherance of a discussion...