Carolyn Holbrook interviews Anna Clark, author of Making Australian History (Sydney: Vintage, 2022)
Congratulations on the publication of this fascinating, thought-provoking and highly readable history of Australian history-making. The book eschews a linear narrative in favour of categories of analysis, such as ‘Silence’, ‘Distance’, ‘Time’, ‘Imagination’ and ‘Contact’. Can you tell us how you arrived at your categories?
Thanks Carolyn—I appreciate the kind words! I really wrestled with the structure of the book. I didn’t want it to be a strict, dry chronology, because the ‘story’ of Australian history isn’t linear (for example, the inclusion of Indigenous history and Deep Time in the discipline have only been relatively recent, somewhat paradoxically). For that reason, I wanted to think about how the discipline a bit more like a map, in which answers to questions such as ‘What is history?’ and ‘Who is a historian?’ change according to each generation asking them.
Your writing style is personal, engaging and noticeably free of difficult academic language. Can you tell us how you approach the task of writing and what audiences you aim to reach?
I really hoped this would be a relatively accessible book, mostly because I don’t like reading jargon, so tend to avoid it myself, and also because Australian history has been hotly contested in public debates in recent decades, so I wanted to write a publicly accessible account of the field.
Do you think that academic history is irresolvably entangled with the rise to global dominance of the ‘West’ since the sixteenth century? If ‘History’ has been part of the ‘architecture of colonisation’, as you have said, what are the characteristics that have made it so?
This is something I wrestle with throughout the book and isn’t really resolved within its pages. On the one hand, History (capital H, disciplinary history) has been complicit in narrating and justifying narratives of colonisation; on the other, History has also been a capacious, expansive approach to understanding the past, absorbing and engaging reflexively with challenges from feminist, postcolonial, Indigenous and environmental critiques.
To what extent can Indigenous and other non-Western understandings of history be combined with Western conceptions, and what might be some outcomes, both in terms of what we call History, and how we live our lives?
As well as offering important ways of understanding the past, providing critical readings of disciplinary practice, and sharing ways of learning, I think one of the most important lessons discipline-trained historians can learn from Indigenous knowledges is that our own knowledge is positioned. ‘Objectivity’, ‘truth’, ‘evidence’ and ‘archive’ are all vital components of our practice—but they aren’t neutral.
In your chapter on ‘Nation’ you talk about eighteenth century historians writing a ‘narrated past’ of the nation, while nineteenth century historians strived for a ‘recorded past’. How did this historiographical timeline affect Australia, given we arrived late on the nation-making scene?
I think that this timeline actually mapped onto colonial and national historiography pretty neatly in the Australian context. As Australian historiography became increasingly professionalised and rationalised around the turn of the twentieth century, that scientific approach to the discipline in a sense reified the Australian story of nation-making and progress. Until then, while the story of British imperialism and Australia’s colonisation was understood as ‘Providential’, the evidence and sources of Australia’s national identity, expansion and progress gave the national story an even stronger, demonstrable legitimacy.
The rise of empirical history has been linked with phenomena such as the nation-state, racialism and imperialism, in rightly negative ways. Empirical history is also intimately linked to the rise of Western democracies. As we watch the potential slide of the United States into autocracy, abetted by ‘alternative facts’, should we be more rigorous in our defence of empirical history?
Great question! I think one of the really valuable components of disciplinary historical literacy is source criticism—it’s an inheritance from Scientific History’s heydays in the late nineteenth century, and gives us the tools and the language to interrogate historical evidence and narratives. While critiques of the discipline have been vital to our understandings of Australia’s settler-colonialism, and rightly expanded it to include a diversity of history-making, foundational skills of historical thinking are also important in order evaluate and discern those diverse historical interpretations.
What do you think of the idea that Australia, which came fairly late to the nation-making scene, strived for a ‘narrated past’ in the twentieth century?
One of the things I wanted to show in this book is how generations of historians have attempted to produce defining accounts of the nation… in a way, I wanted this book to be both a history of History and also a history of Australia more broadly, through that historiography. So, in a word, yes, Australian History’s ‘story’ is very much about striving for a unifying narrated past—but in the debates and generational change over that narration, we actually get a sense of the changing (and contested) nation itself. (I hope!)