Crisis, Uncertainty, and History: Trajectories and Experiences of Accelerated Change

Thousands of protesters gather at Fifth Avenue and Washington Street in downtown Seattle

The Ohio State University Center for Historical Research
2021-2023 Series

Historians study trajectories of change through time. We are concerned with the pace and causes of change and we are concerned with its experiential impact and societal outcomes. And sometimes change accelerates, in a swirl of dynamic interactions that take us by surprise, leading us out of routines into unfamiliar spaces.

The CHR presents a two-year series on the problem of crisis in history. This series was launched in the spring of 2020 by the sudden challenges and uncertainties in our recent and ongoing experience with the Covid-19 pandemic: our opening conversations revolved around the sudden impact of epidemic disease but soon broadened out into a consideration of the more general nature of crisis. Since our first conversations the explosive sequence of events unfolding with the death of George Floyd, the 2020 election, global fires and floods attributed to anthropogenic climate warming, and most recently the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan have made our inquiry into the dynamics of crisis all the more pressing. We hope that as the series begins the public and academy will want to engage in an assessment of our longer moment of crisis, and to situate in into a sequence of conditions, impacts, and consequences: what we might call the “before, during, and after” of the events of 2020-2021.  We hope that our presentations over these two years will help up with this assessment of these recent experiences, as well as those of people in moments of crisis in times past.

2022-2023 EVENTS

We are happy to announce that the following scholars will be presenting in our 2022-2023 CHR-Crisis Series.

The series will feature the following events, some hybrid, some live-streamed only.

AUTUMN 2022:


Friday, Sept. 16: Joseph Manning, Classics, History, and Law, Yale University
“Climate and Society from Egypt to India to China: A Regional Crisis at 160BCE?”
A Hybrid Event: 168 Dulles Hall and Live Streamed, 3:30-5:00PM  

View video of the talk.

Author of The Open Sea: The Economic Life of the Ancient Mediterranean World from the Iron Age to the Rise of Rome (Princeton, 2018).

Followed by a comment by James Stagge, Civil Environmental and Geodetic Engineering, Ohio State University.

Event co-sponsored by the Departments of Classics and Anthropology, the College of Earth Science, and the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.

Abstract: The 160’s BCE was the critical decade in Ptolemaic history. Environmental factors have never been considered until now in the understanding of social dynamics, or in the economic, military and fiscal history of the dynasty. The decade has often been marked as the beginning of serious state decline. The causes of this decline have often been identified: internal problems (ethnic tension between Greeks and Egyptians; over-extraction of resources leading to unrest, sometimes serious and sustained,, currency inflation), depravity of the kings themselves, and the increasing political and military domination of the Mediterranean by Rome. Polybius adds political neglect, moral decay, and Ptolemy IV’s love of opulence and a succession of young kings after Ptolemy IV. A new chronology of volcanic eruptions from polar ice core analysis affords us an opportunity to reevaluate historical dynamics within Egypt, to examine more critically how shocks to the annual Nile flood may or may not have played a role in “decline” and social unrest. Ice cores also allow us to tie events in Egypt to those across the Indian Ocean in the same years.

Sarah MuirFriday, Oct. 7: Sarah Muir, Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center
“When Crisis Becomes Routine: Notes from Argentina, 2001-2022.”
A Hybrid Event: 168 Dulles Hall and Live Streamed, 3:30-5:00PM
Author of Routine Crisis: An Ethnography of Disillusion (2021).

Register here.

Sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Department of Anthropology.

Abstract: At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina seemed to embody the hopeful promise of modernity: a fast-growing and democratizing country of immigrants where anyone could find work and build a prosperous future. Over the next hundred years, repeated political-economic crises rendered that promise more and more outdated, a process of obsolescence that culminated with a massive financial crisis in 2001-2002. In those years, half the population plunged beneath the poverty line, there were deaths from malnutrition in one of the most agriculturally productive nations on earth, the country declared the largest sovereign default in world history, and the value of its currency declined overnight by three-quarters. A seemingly endless stream of historical research has sought to explain this dramatic, century-long transformation by attributing causation to factors such as populist politics, international finance, oligarchic monopolies, mistaken monetary policies, and cultural predilections, just to name a few. Whatever its causes, one result has been that, in the aftermath of 2001-2002, a wide range of Argentines took up the paradoxical historical stance of routine crisis, in which crisis is unsettling and unmooring but utterly unsurprising, and in which the future is not one of assured progress but of inevitable decline. Building on an engagement with the past twenty years in Argentina, this talk considers how the concept of routine crisis can offer analytical purchase on the political impasses and obsolete commitments that inhere within other contexts—a continually evolving pandemic, a looming climate catastrophe, a rising tide of neofascism, perhaps—in which the capacity to imagine the future is structured by the grim sense that, as bad as things may be, something worse is on the horizon.

Bedour AlagraaFriday, Oct 28: Bedour Alagraa, African and African Diaspora Studies, University of Texas at Austin. Visiting Research Scholar, Princeton University, 2022-2023.
“Bad Infinities: Catastrophe and its ‘Changing Same’.”
Live Streamed via Zoom, 3:30-5:00 p.m.

Register here.

Author of The Interminable Catastrophe, in preparation.

Event co-sponsored by the Department of African and African American Studies

Abstract: In this paper, I present the first half of my re-conceptualization of the catastrophic, via the invocation of the lens of ‘cruel mathematics’ (quoting from Camus), ‘breathless numbers’ (to quote from McKittrick) and an engagement with Hegel’s conceptualization of ‘the bad infinity’ regarding the idea of terminality (which burdens the anthropocenic lens). I extend Camus’ question, posed in The Myth of Sisyphus: “what are these cruel mathematics which command our attention?” I offer my own extension of this verbiage, following the openings provided by Katherine McKittrick’s conception of ‘breathless numbers’ and thread the needle backwards, to the conversations which dictated early empiricist and theological debates concerning ‘calamity’—including Cuvier’s preoccupation with extinction, and Darwin/Malthus’ theorizations of ‘natural scarcity’ , which set the scene for the development of what Sylvia Wynter calls ‘the non-human archipelago’, tied the rise of capitalism, and the biocentric conception of the human, all of which might be aggregated into a meta-paradigm called cruel mathematics. I also consider the manner in which interminability might be thought of inside of the concept of cruel mathematics. I consider the interminable in/against  Hegel’s conceptualization of the ‘Bad infinity’, which he argues ‘sets itself over and against’ the finite, delaying the infinite and stabilizing the idea of the finite, rather than giving us an understanding of the infinite itself. As such, I consider the manner in which the interminable sets itself ‘over and against’ the terminal, leading to what Hegel calls ‘a piling up of numbers’ but not an approximation of infinity itself –  as such the interminable catastrophe appears to be never ending despite drawing its coherence from a conception of the End. Ultimately, this chapter charts this computational language in its many forms, and considers how these conversations concerning calamity, scarcity, labor, and speculation, laid the groundwork for what we understand as the ‘breathless’ numbers, the cruel mathematics, and the ‘piling up of numbers’ in this bad infinity/interminable catastrophe.

Serhy YekelchykFriday, Nov. 18: Serhy Yekelchyk, History and Germanic & Slavic Studies, University of Victoria
“The Long Prehistory of Russia’s War against Ukraine”
Live Streamed via Zoom, 3:30-5:00 p.m.

Register here.

Author of Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know (2020); Stalin’s Citizens: Everyday Politics in the Wake of Total War ( 2014); Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation (2007).


This talk will discuss the history of Russo-Ukrainian relations and its  representation in both countries following the Soviet collapse in 1991. It will demonstrate how Putin’s nostalgia for the tsarist empire made Ukraine the likeliest target of Russian aggression and how Russia’s rejection of democracy determined the timing of the invasion.

Born and educated in Ukraine, Serhy Yekelchyk received a Ph.D. from the University of Alberta. He is the author of seven books on modern Ukrainian history and Russo-Ukrainian relations including the award-winning Stalin’s Citizens: Everyday Politics in the Wake of Total War (Oxford University Press, 2014). A professor of History and Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria, Yekelchyk is current president of the Canadian Association for Ukrainian Studies.

Event co-sponsored by the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, the Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, and the Department of Political Science.


SPRING 2023:


Adam ToozeFriday, Jan. 13: Adam Tooze, History, Columbia University
Live Streamed via Zoom, 3:30-5:00 p.m.
Author of Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (2018); The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (2014); Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2006).

Event co-sponsored by the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, the Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, and the Department of Political Science.

Ed FoleyFriday, Feb. 17: Edward Foley, Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University
A Hybrid Event: 165 Thompson Library and Live Streamed, 3:30-5:00PM
Author of Presidential Elections and Majority Rule (2020), Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States (2016) drafted Principles of Law: Non-Precinct Voting and Resolution of Ballot-Counting Disputes, and co-author of Election Law and Litigation: The Judicial Regulation of Politics (2014).

Event co-sponsored by the Mershon Center for International Security Studies.

Adia BentonFriday, Feb. 24: Adia Benton, Cultural Anthropology, Northwestern University
A Hybrid Event and Live Streamed, 3:30-5:00PM
Author of HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone ( 2015), Winner, 2017 Rachel Carson Prize, Society for The Social Studies of Science.

Event co-sponsored by the College of Public Health and the Department of African and African American Studies.

Ling ZhangFriday, April 14: Ling Zhang, History, Boston College
A Hybrid Event and Live Streamed, 3:30-5:00PM
Author The River, the Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128 (2016).

Event co-sponsored by the Institute for Chinese Studies and the East Asian Studies Center.

View past events in this series here.


Painting - Julius Caesar Assassin Ides of March
CHR-Crisis Steering Committee:
Sara Butler, History, CHR Director
John Brooke, History, Series Chair
Joan Cashin, History
Jeffrey Cohen, Anthropology
Amy Fairchild, Dean of Public Health
Anthony Kaldellis, Classics
Peter Mansoor, History
Dorothy Noyes, English and Comparative Studies
Chris Otter, History
Paul Reitter, Germanic Languages and Literatures
Tina Sessa, History
Jennifer Siegel, History
Sarah Van Beurden, History
Ying Zhang, History

Please send any inquiries regarding this program to John Brooke,