The past is what happened. History is what we remember and write about that past, the narratives we craft to make sense out of our memories and their sources. But what does it mean to look at the past and to remember that "nothing happened"? Why might we feel as if "nothing is the way it was"? This book transforms these utterly ordinary observations and redefines "Nothing" as something we have known and can remember.
"Nothing" has been a catch-all term for everything that is supposedly uninteresting or is just not there. It will take some-possibly considerable-mental adjustment before we can see Nothing as Susan A. Crane does here, with a capital "n." But Nothing has actually been happening all along. As Crane shows in her witty and provocative discussion, Nothing is nothing less than fascinating.
When Nothing has changed but we think that it should have, we might call that injustice; when Nothing has happened over a long, slow period of time, we might call that boring. Justice and boredom have histories. So too does being relieved or disappointed when Nothing happens-for instance, when a forecasted end of the world does not occur, and millennial movements have to regroup. By paying attention to how we understand Nothing to be happening in the present, what it means to "know Nothing" or to "do Nothing," we can begin to ask how those experiences will be remembered.
Susan A. Crane moves effortlessly between different modes of seeing Nothing, drawing on visual analysis and cultural studies to suggest a new way of thinking about history. By remembering how Nothing happened, or how Nothing is the way it was, or how Nothing has changed, we can recover histories that were there all along.
Contents and AbstractsIntroductionEpisodes in a History of Nothing chapter abstractWhat does anyone really mean when they say, "Nothing happened" or "Nothing is the way it was," or "Nothing has changed"? One word, Nothing, is used to express the most essential feature of historical experience, a perception of change over time. This book illuminates the variety of meanings that have been attached to a single, multivalent term when modern people in the Americas and Europe were thinking about the past. Nothing is a ubiquitous historical object that transcends classical frameworks of historical chronology. I present diverse episodes of Nothing happening and Nothing being remembered as a history of historical consciousness to show how Nothing always means Something.
1Studying How Nothing Happens chapter abstractNothing is happening, all the time, but how does it get remembered? Once we start seeing Nothing as a historical object, we have a new way to understand remembering and forgetting and new questions to ask about the past. A history of "doing Nothing" means not only appreciating diverse forms of inactivity but also understanding unconventional topics, such as inertia, sleep, silence, and boredom, as sites of historical human activity. This episode explores how "Nothing happens" and "knowing Nothing" have become objects of inquiry, the subject of -ologies (agnotology, "gerundology," amnesiology). These historical objects include ignorance; blank pages, bare walls, empty spaces, and terra nullius; silences in musical performance and empty theaters; memorial tattoos; and doing nothing for medical research in the Dallas Bed Rest and Training Study.
2Nothing Is the Way It Was chapter abstractThe second episode considers the pain, shock, grief, and nostalgia that often accompany a sense of loss, when the past is seen to be insurmountably distant from the present-even when, and especially when, those who feel that Nothing is the way it was have lived through the transformation that produced the loss. In this episode, analysis of visual culture plays an important role. Photographs of wartime and Cold War ruins, alongside postcards from war-torn Europe, offer insights into the experience of historical consciousness produced by the same rapid and violent traumatic change that turned environments into rubble. Photographs made by urban explorers document the experience of perceiving oneself to be living through historical change and desiring to preserve memories of abandoned sites.
3Nothing Happened chapter abstractThe third episode considers diverse examples of how historians, poets, and filmmakers have remembered when Nothing happened, ranging across both humorous and traumatic events in modern Europe and the Americas. The 1968 film Why Man Creates illustrates how standard narratives of Western civilization referenced the medieval period as an era when Nothing happened. Historians noted when Nothing happened, whether as uneventful moments or as efforts to erase memories of political turmoil. Late-twentieth-century faux historical markers asserted that "on this site in 1897 nothing happened." Scholars have evaluated the inevitable and repetitious failure of millenarian movements, when nothing happened on the day when the world was supposed to end. Poetry and films have drawn attention to the dire circumstances of those for whom justice is deferred, delayed, and passionately desired, when Nothing happened to the perpetrators whose surviving victims are still powerless in the face of their persecutors.
ConclusionThere Is Nothing Left to Say chapter abstractWhen there is Nothing left to say about the past, we will say that Nothing happened and that will be where histories begin.
"Written with both wide-ranging intelligence and intellectual courage, Nothing Happened is a book of striking interest and originality. Susan A. Crane mobilizes a remarkable range of material and knowledge, creating her very idiosyncratic, and serially insightful discussion on a single unfathomable paradox." -- Geoff Eley * author of A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society *"A startlingly original book: incisive, layered, punny and funny, politically sensitive and passionate, feisty, and thoroughly unimpressed with authority even when impressed with authority's insights." -- Peter Fritzsche * author of Hitler's First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich *"Nothing's left? What does it mean to say that-of a page, of a photo, of a street, of a city, of a loved one? Susan A. Crane, in her invigorating and often funny study of Nothing, tells us vividly why saying Nothing reveals so much about its speaker and so little about history." -- Peter Toohey * author of Hold On: The Life, Science, and Art of Waiting *"Nothing Happened is a delightful romp through what is really meant when nothing is invoked to describe something. This is a remarkably original book that transforms how we see history. It is clever and funny and serious and illuminating. You won't want to put it down." -- Marita Sturken * author of Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero *
Susan A. Crane has been a professor of history at the University of Arizona since 1995. She is the author of Collecting and Historical Consciousness in Early Nineteenth-Century Germany (2000) and editor of Museums and Memory (2000) and The Cultural History of Memory in the Nineteenth Century (2020).