The Microcene

TL;DR

COVID19 has inserted the non-human world into the drama of history; we can no longer write history as the history of our species alone.

I want to explore three cognitive stages of history writing, one ancient; one from the last two hundred years and one that doesn’t exist yet. This isn’t meant to be a history of history writing.


Stage One: Personalized History

Like every other academic discipline, history also emerges from widespread human needs and capacities. For history, that visceral need is the link to our ancestors which is prized by every culture. History gives that connection a coating of objectivity.

Individual people aren’t the only consumers of personalized history. Nations are even more obsessed with personalization for language, religion and history are what make nations into what they are.

A common tactic in nationalist and ‘cultural’ history writing is connecting the present with a glorious past. For example, to be a ‘cultured’ westerner is to have some sense of the Greek origins of western culture and there’s always the connection to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Which is both comic and tragic, since the connection to a Greek or Christian past also involves the erasure of any Celtic or Gaelic elements. Why the pope and not the druid?

Personalized history - especially when it’s made up - answers the question “why am I the way I am?” and history-weaving is a common mechanism for personalizing the nation. Consider the Indus Valley Civilization. Indians are taught to draw a personal link between that vanished culture and their current situation even though very little of that civilization has survived in the languages we speak or the artifacts we create. I may have no connection whatsoever to a bricklayer in Harappa but the Indian nation is imagined as the latest stop on a winding road that started on the banks of the Indus.

Personalized history is the history of the count noun - the king ruling with the mandate of heaven or the prophet leading his people to the promised land. When we tell the story of Ashoka stricken with remorse after killing thousands on the battlefield and promising to rule with kindness, we are reducing the acts of millions to that of a single person. In order to bring the ‘masses’ into history, we need historical agents that are collectives rather than individuals.


Mass Noun History

Count noun history has two versions:

  • there’s the history me of me, i.e., the path connecting me to real and mythical ancestors; if you’re a north Indian Hindu you can go to Hardwar (to this day!) and ask a brahmin to recount your family history - there will surely be a few gaps but you will still get a way of orienting your own life within a lineage tied to a sacred landscape.

  • the history of heroes and villains, of Alexander defeating Darius and making his way to India where depending on whom you ask, he was either scared by the elephants of the Nandas or his soldiers wanted a break from the constant fighting.

Only in the last two or three centuries did a new form of history become possible, the history of the mass noun. We discovered new agents: ‘peoples,’ ‘populations,’ ‘classes’ and other entities that can only described by mass nouns. The proletariat class or the capitalist class isn’t a person and is never meant to be one, even metaphorically; unlike the nation, which is a mass noun in some contexts and a count noun in others.

Mass noun history says: my individuality matters a lot less than my membership in certain collectives; the real levers of history are modes of production and the social classes that replicate those modes: labor, serfdom, etc. Alexander isn’t the hero anymore; neither is Chengiz Khan. Instead it’s the specific modes of warfare that the Greeks and the Mongols pioneered that created previous political cultures.

Warfare becomes a mode of production, i.e., a way of organizing means of violence that in turn controls other social categories. In this new form of historical explanation, the gunpowder empires ruling over much of Eurasia arose out of a class - the military elites - who could exploit all other classes, just as today the capitalist elites can exploit all other classes and the real historical transition is when military elites ruling agrarian masses were replaced by capitalist elites ruling over the laboring masses.

The discovery of mass noun history makes certain kinds of investigation possible, even attractive. While Abul Fazl dazzled us with the Akbarnama, he never wrote a history of Mughal innovations in weapons manufacture and military deployment. Such a text wouldn’t have struck his scholarly peers as a historical text. We, on the other hand, might be more fascinated by the technological advances in the Mughal era than in recounting Akbar’s successful campaigns. We can also subvert the Mughal empire or the British empire altogether by writing histories of subaltern populations in those eras, assuming we have access to primary sources.

What’s as important is a transformation in the exercise of power.

Akbar operated in count-noun history and did not have to explain himself to a nation on a daily basis; there were no sovereign ‘people.’ In contrast, even a brutal dictator today has to justify his existence in terms of the ‘people’ he represents.

The mass noun is truly an agent of history.

Once the mass noun enters our conception of history, it changes how we write the past too. It’s not only that labor and capital are the mass-nouns of today; we look to the past and discover mass nouns that mattered then - whether the merchant classes and trading routes that made the spread of Buddhism possible or the agrarian communities in the Yangtze river basin that formed the basis of Chinese civilization.

What’s common to Count Noun history and Mass Noun history is that humans (both singular and plural) are the only agents worth noticing. Labor shapes an otherwise inert nature into a form that creates value - for humans, of course. In its most extreme version, human activity so dominates the planet that we are beginning to call our era the Anthropocene.

But what about the nonhuman masses?


Inter-Species history

Imagine writing a natural history of antelopes without mentioning that lions prey upon them. Or writing a history of lions without mentioning they eat antelopes and other ungulates. It’s count noun natural history, except that we count species instead of individuals, i.e., I don’t write a history of this lion or that antelope but of lions as a whole and antelopes as a whole. That’s because other creatures are deemed unworthy of the kind of individuality that makes personal history possible.

More on that mistake on another occasion; I will stick to interspecies human history.

Predator and prey species enter into the natural history of every other species except ours. One reason is that no other species of comparable size is a threat to our existence. I am not worried about being eaten by a lion on the way to school. Count-noun interspecies history of the lion-antelope kind doesn’t apply to our situation in an obvious manner.

What about mass-noun interspecies history? That’s where viruses, bacteria and mosquitoes come into the picture, since they have killed and continue to kill humans at a rate that nothing else comes close. We have known that truth for a while, and books such as Jared Diamond’s “Gun’s Germs and Steel” trace the successes and failures of human societies to micro-organisms.

But still, the bugs aren’t the stars in show; they are the supporting cast. That has to change if we want to understand the world we are in today. COVID19 shows that microorganisms have agency of their own, and climate change shows the even bigger agency of carbon in the atmosphere.

Imagine writing the history of the human body but not as a thing in itself, but as a home for microbial communities in our guts. We are their environment, not the other way around.

If and when that happens, we will have accomplished the final dethroning of anthropocentrism - post Copernicus, we aren’t the central object in the universe; post-Darwin, we aren’t the central species in the universe and post-COVID, we aren’t the central agent in the universe. A special issue on Multispecies Studies starts with the following quote:

All living beings emerge from and make their lives within multispecies communities

But then the question arises:

How do we tell the story of those multispecial lives?

My response to that question is based on two instincts:

  1. we have always lived in the microcene, that bugs have ruled for ever.

  2. the planet isn’t a backdrop to the drama of humanity, but the primary agent that contains all other agents of history.


It’s time to go back to the exploration I started in March with “The Bug is a Feature.” I had some books in mind when I wrote that essay:


To which I want to add a few more:

and more and more and more


At that time, I said:

Goal: write an essay one or two times a week connecting the reading of these books to a reading of the world hoping the weekly meditation will clarify the question of planetary governance.

Which was immediately derailed as I went off on a detour about citizenship and states of exception, but now that I am back on track, I want to emphasize an additional goal I took on a couple of weeks ago:

(EL5) To say it like we are all five years old

Time to get going.