On The Uses of History for Life

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current profiles, Profiles

Kate Brown is Fernand Braudel Fellow in the Department of History and Civilization at the EUI until January 2017. She lives in Washington, DC and is Professor of History at the University of Maryland. Brown is the award winning author of Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford 2013).

‘Archives lie, in their own way. People’s memory is as verifiable as their dreams. But place is an archive in and of itself and has yet another narrative to tell.’

Kate Brown

Historian Kate Brown

Europe’s largest swamp is not a popular destination. Riddled with quicksand and generously irradiated by nearby Chernobyl, most people would happily forget the unforgiving Pripat marshes. Yet for Kate Brown this modernist wasteland, still reeling from the creative destruction of ‘progress’, is a rich historical landscape.

Brown studies places and people overlooked or erased by dominant historical narratives. Her recent book Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten collates a series of her experiences in wastelands around the world. Similarly, Plutopia (2015) gives voice to workers at opposite ends of the Cold War axis, victims of both nuclear success and disaster.

Brown’s work has a distinct mission. ‘We don‘t like to look at the wreckage of our creative destruction,’ she says. ‘But I’m trying to inspire people to think about the past and present in more nuanced ways. I’m trying to empower them to do something’. The communities of the Pripat marshes have survived calamity after calamity. In their determined resilience, Brown sees not pitiable peasants but unlikely heroes: ‘guides to our future, as we figure out how to live with a radically altered climate and planet encased in toxins’.

Her approach is unavoidably political. Yet Brown is reluctant to describe herself as a radical. ‘More irascible than radical’, she laughs. Nonetheless, Brown has little patience for ‘texts which privilege educated classes and people in power who usurped the ability to speak’. She prefers to record the voices of those consigned to the margins. In this, the peasants of Pripat again offer an example. ‘They observe, they adapt and they communicate. It’s very egalitarian,’ Brown notes. ‘They taught me a great deal about upturning the hierarchy of academia’.

Indeed, Brown upturns academic convention by rejecting what she calls the ‘legitimising affect’ of the historical ‘we’. ‘We are taught to shy away from the first-person because it means we are not detached or objective’, she says. ‘Yet, we know, in this post-modern period, that we are not detached and objective. History is not an unalterable truth. I am there, and this is my take on it. So why lie?’. As such, Brown understands written documents, the Pripat peasants and her own self as equally unreliable sources. ‘Whatever you want to find in the archives you can find it and you can cite it,’ she affirms. ‘Whilst the management of a wool factory 100km from Chernobyl say ‘everything is fine’, the workers say ‘look, there’s only ten of us left. Everybody else has died’.’

History is constantly rewritten and renewed, according to the events chosen to be remembered by the voices loud enough to be heard. Cross-checking documents, memory and place can reveal that which was dead is alive and what was ‘progress’ is destruction. By striving to ‘give people a voice, who haven’t had a voice’ Brown offers a different understanding our past. And a reminder, for the future, of the cost of ‘progress’.

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