history doesn’t bargain

“Do you know what happened after the Black Plague ended?” sci-fi writer Wesley Chu tweeted yesterday (then deleted). “The Renaissance!”

I won’t get into the issues with this tweet as history. I don’t need to, because Eleanor Janega has it covered (1; 2; 3). In a way, historical accuracy is beside the point. Chu’s tweet irritated me more for its rhetoric. It suggests that history bargains. Debit: one plague. Credit: one renaissance. It is comforting to construct a redemptive moral framework to absorb a catastrophe.

The alternative perspective is terrifying but, I think, important to try to conceive: history doesn’t bargain. No one is keeping a ledger. There are no IOUs. The violence of today isn’t redeemed by great expectations for the future. (Corollary: the violence of the past wasn’t redeemed by anything that followed.) History does not unfold according to a moral logic–or any knowable logic. A better metaphor than the interval-and-rebirth metaphor built into the terms medieval and renaissance is the metaphor of drift. History drifts. It enacts “a movement toward a future that is ultimately inapprehensible” (Davis 127). That’s Kathleen Davis summarizing Bede’s conception of history. Her point, in context, is that this is not an attitude we were led to expect from a European monk writing deep in ‘medieval’ time, when faith in God supposedly precluded a sense of expansive possibility for human action. But there it is anyway, latent in Bede’s writings. An enigmatic (or apophatic) conception of history is compatible with faith. And, conversely, believers aren’t the only ones who moralize history today.

Do you know what happened after the COVID-19 pandemic ended? No, you do not.

further reading

Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.