- Practical Living
Trends in international politics toward right-wing nationalism, racism in endlessly renewing guises, and the pursuit of material short-term gain regardless of what it does to the earth's environment and national budgets: all these things make me wonder how well we remember our history beyond last year or even last month. The end of World War I led to an utterly changed, financially crippled world; World War II resulted in the physical destruction of much of Europe and between fifty and eighty million dead, only to be followed by a series of cold and hot wars arising partly from long-misguided imperial assumptions. This nation now has a president who among other things denies climate change, while the largest wildfire in California history burns along with sixteen others and the highest mountain in Sweden just lost its stature because it has melted so much this year.
Current politics and culture wars are surely a passing phase, like the reign of the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum's 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy throws a bucket of water on her, the witch will surely melt. Surely. However, given how little we appear to remember about history, one wonders if we will have to go through some cataclysm before we go for our buckets.
A couple of years ago, I mentioned in another foreword that Marc Bloch and the Annales historians were among the most notable schools of history of the last century. Bloch and Lucien Febvre, with August Comte, turned away from political and religious history—kings and queens and national conflicts—toward what might be called "human" history. They believed that the most useful historiography was detailed and empirical [End Page 5] in its approach and that it tried to document and describe what "real" people such as farmers and tradespeople knew and did at different times and places. They paid a great deal of attention to localities and the surprising differences between them, as well as to statistical information, with an emphasis on social changes over a broad span of time.
One of the inferences of this approach was that the two or three subjects that previous historians had paid the most attention to were perhaps not so all-important. Throughout most of recorded history, few people knew or cared much about leaders, nationalities, or even official religious dogmas. However, they were remarkably aware of local economies and forces, as well as the physical realities that made up their practical, daily lives. Bloch wrote a book about the different uses of the water wheel as one of the most significant developments of medieval history—more important than many of the wars of the period. The Annales historians attended to daily experience—practical living—and the economic changes that influenced the ways people lived and thought.
Despite their empirical focus, the Annales group did not believe in either simple causes or logical progression. For example, in his book about "the king's touch," a king's presumed ability to cure scrofula by touching sufferers, Bloch argues that collective belief of this sort at times may have had genuine efficacy. A myth or ritual may in some fashion "work." In his book La lutte pour l'individualisme agraire dans la France du XVIIIe siècle, he shows that the agrarian reforms of eighteenth-century France were a failed revolution because of the stubborn persistence of traditional arrangements and hierarchies. Myth was not always meaningless, and political and economic change may have been reactionary and destructive as often as it was progressive and useful. By being among the first historians to look at factual accountings of people's lives, possessions, and economies, the Annales historians sought to uncover more useful and true descriptions of life as experienced by people across classes and populations.
In this issue of TMR, daily life and practical choices play key roles in everyone's lives. Ryan Dull's "'General: Unskilled'" takes on the gig trend from a comic perspective. Mikey is an ambitious West Coast microtasker who embodies the new economy. He cheerfully tries to build his five-star ratings and clientele by...