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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Corbyn and Nuclear First Strike: A little MAD logic

On balance I am not in favour of nuclear weapons.  I never have been (the first demo I went on was a CND one).  I was always of the opinion that the nuclear arms race was an offensive campaign to wreck the Soviet economy (and it worked - and perhaps that was for the best) rather than anything to do with defence against aggression, and I think they have become less relevant than they were.

Be all that as it may - and I accept that there are forceful arguments against that position - there has been much flak given to Corbyn for his evident refusal to be willing to launch a nuclear first strike.  A BBC Question Time audience seemed to be baying for someone ready to fire ballistic missiles at all and sundry.  By contrast, Theresa May and Michael Fallon have said they would launch a first strike.  This is apparently 'strong and stable' government to keep you safe.  It is of course nonsense and it actually shows how utterly irrelevant nuclear weapons have become.


Because the whole logic of nuclear deterrence relies upon a rhetoric of not being willing to launch a first strike.  Deterrence relies upon willingness to retaliate. (and that's where the tricky arguments actually start).  In other words 'if you shoot first, we will shoot back and everyone dies.'  That is the essence of 'mutually assured destruction' which - according to some people - prevented the cold war from becoming hot (unless you were unfortunate enough to live in, say, Korea, or Vietnam, or parts of Africa, the Middle East or Central America, of course).  The rhetoric relied upon a constant moral deterrence from using weapons, a moral weight placed upon the shoulders of those who might otherwise be willing to shoot first and start the war, a moral weight that said 'even if you win you lose'.  There was a very good and illustrative segment in 'Yes Prime Minister' in which (fictional PM) Jim Hacker was asked in various scenarios when he would launch the nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear Soviet offensive and was unable to answer positively at any point.

Think about it even for a moment.  If Cold War rhetoric had been a 'gunslinger's argument', about which side could, and was most prepared to, 'shoot first' the human race would have become radioactive toast by 1963 at least, or in the 1980s.

The fact that May and Fallon can broadcast a willingness to launch a first strike and deride those who maintain the moral reluctance to do so as being 'weak' only shows that nuclear weapons (and the geopolitical rhetorical and military value of nuclear weapons) have become quite irrelevant.  They have become a simple, meaningless football in macho internal political contests.  Corbyn may be against nuclear weapons but in fact his stance is the one that is most in line with the serious 'defensive' argument for their retention.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

From Group to Subject (and back again) : Rethinking Identity in Early Medieval Studies

[Here is the paper I gave at Kalamazoo the other week.  Thanks to Helen Foxhall Forbes for inviting me, to James Corke-Webster for exemplary chairing and to the audience for great questions.  I have reconstructed some ad libs in blue italics and another I wish I'd made in red italics!]

This paper weaves together several strands of my current work and – indeed – life. At one level I am continuing to ponder the role of the interplay of identities and groups in the political change of the fifth-century crisis and studying the renegotiation of identities around 600 as a motor of social and political change. At another I am possibly more interested in developing a philosophy of history as a mode of engagement with difference. It's that engagement with philosophy that provides the transformation – in my understanding of identity and difference – that is the subject of my paper: from thinking with social science to thinking with continental philosophy. The notions I will discuss are drawn from a battery of thinkers: Jacques Derrida above all, but also Judith Butler, Simon Critchley, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Luc Nancy. Normally this seems to provoke a reaction on the lines of ‘what's he on about now?’, ‘he’s gone completely mad!’, ‘what is this bullshit?’ and ‘hey, that's not history!’ To the last of which my response is that no, maybe it isn't. I have become increasingly dissatisfied with what history is, and interested in what it could be, and that interplay between ‘is’ and ‘should be’, between the indicative and the subjunctive is a Leitmotif of this paper. Another is implicit in that very question: is this history?  What are the politics involved in accepting the authority that goes with a subject-position?

Identity is of course a timely topic. Analyses of the catastrophic votes of 2016 have sought explanation in crises of, or imagined threats to, straight white male identity. Even I, a liberal straight white male, have begun to feel threatened by seeing people of a particular non-white skin-colour in positions of authority, that skin-colour being orange.  Some work on late antique migration has fuelled these feelings of crisis and danger, through – to be generous – careless and unsubtle populist writing, from a particular view of what historical debate is about, and above all through a conceptual/intellectual indigence that has simply failed to engage with what the key terms of the debate might mean. One only needs briefly to inhabit the social media-verse to see the work by these writers cited as proving why immigrants need to be kept out. [You will also find me described as a ‘dripping wet progressive’ for dissenting from it. That’s far from the worst thing anyone has ever said about me on the internet. “Guy Halsall is kind of a dick” is a personal favourite – and that was from one of Mary Harlow’s PhD students!  I wouldn’t mind but ‘kind of’?  Once again my quest for authenticity falls short.] And far from decrying this citation or distancing themselves from it, the perpetrators of these works seem rather to have doubled down on them.  I have spoken out strongly against this. It was a wager – I’ll come back to wagers – and I lost.  It cost me a lot – in part precisely because of the discursive constructions of authority, identity and speech that I am going to discuss – but I maintain that it was my duty as a historian to speak out, to place that wager. I also want to stress that my intervention entirely recognised these people’s authority to speak and be listened to, a recognition that has been far from mutual in the debate, before or after.

Early medieval studies are all about identity: the material emanating from Vienna and elsewhere about ethnicity; the texts and identities project; lots of papers in this conference – the use of the past, landscape, etc and identity. And yet, it is hardly conceptualised at all. In the whole oeuvre of texts and identities there is, that I can find, no sustained or sophisticated discussion of how identity works, what an identity might be or how it is understood. Even in the classic works of the Vienna School there's no substantial theorisation of identity, and nor was there in my work.  I will address this by presenting a brief historiography before critiquing current thinking about groups and identities, discussing identity and subjectivisation, and coming back to groups at the end.

Leaving aside the influential but highly questionable notion that medieval people only ‘discovered’ the individual in the twelfth century and hitherto only saw themselves as members of groups, the discussion of early identity has focused on - especially ethnic - groups of people. This has reflected developments in anthropology and ethnography. The touchstone for much thinking about identity was the publication of Barth’s Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, which crystallised then developing thought about the mutability of ethnicity, later labelled the constructivist and situationalist approach.   In later ethnography an attempt was made to reintroduce a modified primordialism by eliding ethnicity with Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus, while extreme situationalist thinking developed into a rational choice theory of identity.  Both of these were problematic: the elision of ethnicity with the Bourdieusian habitus is illegitimate and rational choice fails to deal with affective and indeed subaltern aspects of identity. Most recently, ethnography has begun to question whether the group is the correct focus for analysis at all. [I am grateful to my PhD student James Harland for filling me in on developments in that area.]

In early medieval history, debates centred then on what defined groups, and how easy, or not, it was to join them, even if the focus sometimes shifted to the agency of particular actors. Groups and boundaries. You can see this tension in Barbarian Migrations from ten years ago, which I think contains the most sustained theorization of ethnicity in early medieval studies (ten whole pages). This pursued a strand of thought first tried out in Settlement and Social Organisation (1995), based around the contingent, active interplay of different identities and the stressing of links and barriers in social relations or encounters between different people.  And yet… It was still ultimately conceived around groups and group-membership.

Much of this model was sociological in its inspiration and formulation and was concerned with how people achieve aims vis-à-vis other people.  It was concerned with status and power and principally a theory of status, value, worth and social roles.  Following on from that, the model worked according to the idea that identity was a stable entity that could be communicated more or less unproblematically.  It implied that identities were not only things that you had but also things that you were in a straightforward way. This meant that there was a sense of free choice in the deployment of identity.  You picked an identity and invoked the power that went with to achieve your aims.  This implied limited thinking about what power was, restricted simply to inter-personal relations and with a strictly utilitarian focus, and above all, crucially, about what identity was. Given that it was explicitly claimed in Settlement and Social Organisation that social change was sought in the ‘interplay of identities’ this was quite a serious but not – I think – an untypical problem.

A major problem is the assumed ontological primacy of the group.  So much discussion concerns things that give an identity to a group, or forge an identity for a group. Look at the titles of papers in the programme, or books on the stands, that talk in those terms.  The questions which must be asked are how that actually works and, indeed, how identity itself works.

Group and identity are simultaneous creations. To exist meaningfully qua group, a group must have an identity. Logically, if not temporally, the identity must be prior to the group. To be Derridian about it, the first time anyone said ‘we are the Goths’ to someone else (and was understood), the term ‘Goths’ already had to have an iterable place in a signifying chain. That's elementary.

No identity is immanent. All are categories: means of organising the world. As such, they are constructed as signs or groups of signs. Even where those are based upon differences that are, or might be, naturally-occurring or visible regardless (hair-, skin- or eye-colour for example; or differences in genitalia; or physiological stages of ageing), the choice to use them as categories, their precise definition, the way in which they are employed and therefore the ways in which the people of the categories so created experience their lives, depend upon their position in a contingent system of signs. As such they function textually (in the Derridean sense), within chains of presence and absence, similarity and difference. Because no concept can be understood separately from those signifying chains, or comprehended apart from its relationship with other signs, there is always something of the ‘different’ within the ‘same’ and that is very important to remember.

All identities function in the imaginary as well as the symbolic registers. That is to say that there remained (as with all signifiers) a notion of the ideal member of the category. Normally that was structured by some of the aspects which helped define the category (social and ritual mores, etc.) to create concepts of the ideal member of a sub-group within it (young woman, male elder, monk, king etc.). This has two important implications. First, social identities are constituted by performance and citation. Second, if anything even more crucially, identity is itself a motion towards an ideal. The ideal can never be attained, because it never had a pure, originary existence. It’s a motion of desire: what do I want to be, but also, crucially, what do they want me to be? As Lacan famously said, a fool who thinks he is a king is no crazier than a king who thinks he’s a king [he might better have said 'a fool who thinks he's a president is no crazier than a president who thinks he's a president].  As stated,  it's fundamental that, in order to have been capable of communicating any sort of information, any concept had to be capable of iteration, that is it had to refer not simply and exclusively to that specific instance but rather had to have the capacity to be used in others too. It already related to an ideal, which was never coextensive with that which instantiated it, and to its constitutive outside (all the things which, ideally, it was not). This implies the ever-present chance of misunderstanding or miscommunication in the interplay of identities. The social performance or citation of an identity is always, to some extent, a risk, a wager.

Those ideals, moreover, are always themselves changing in the course of social practice. They can never be entirely recreated, not least because, as I have just mentioned, there was never anything there that was susceptible to pure recreation. It is thus critically mistaken to talk of the maintenance of a Gothic or Frankish identity by a particular group, whether the guardians of the Traditionskern or an equally mythical group of Gothic Königsfreie; no such thing had ever existed that was capable of maintenance in the first place. It may be argued that the only time when subject and identity are coextensive is in death: a point of considerable relevance to early medieval studies. Even the creation of an identity may be a misnomer.

I really want to underline the textual and discursive elements that are central to identity, and the inescapable fluidity that that implies. I also want to link identity to speech, subject and authority.  To deploy, perform or cite an identity is to give an account of yourself – to borrow a phrase from a recent book by Judith Butler – but it’s also, as I said, a wager on recognition: of the identity-ideal, the signifier, and of the right to speak/act from that subject-position.  It is in the element of risk or wager that I differ from Butler.  But that links identity to subject-position, and indeed to subjectivisation.  Two years ago I talked here about how the formation of the subject/socialization in the Roman Empire – even for people thought of as non-Roman – was critically entwined with the process of becoming a member of the Roman state, giving that polity a resilience that, possibly, allowed it to endure in crucial respects for up to a century after its political dissolution.  My current work explores what happened when that was no longer the case. I contend that the fragility or fluidity of post-imperial polities was linked to a failure to link group-membership to those processes of subjectivisation in the same way – but also, when thinking about the present – that that was by no means to be conceived of as a necessarily bad thing.

As promised, I return to the group. No group can be reified as a stable entity, not least because the identity that gives it meaning is itself a shifting, eternally renegotiated ideal, with no self-present identity.  At the heart of this conglomerate of ideas and signs, this ideal, as stated, is never reached and only exists extrinsically to the subject. Group membership is a discourse over what this ideal is and to what extent you approximate to it, or can approximate to it.  The ideal of what membership means is then always the object of a gaze, from without. To borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Nancy, it is ‘an ethos, a habitus, an inhabiting’. No group can thus ever be a totality, it is always itself – in its idealisation - a libidinal motion towards, an unfinished project.

As I have argued before, what is at stake in many of the texts supposed to give identity to groups – the Franks for example – is not some sort of cosy unifying consensus but active attempts to control the discourse of identity. To define who’s in and who’s out. And note too that the discourse over who is or is not ‘in’ is by no means coextensive with the boundary between – say – Goths and non-Goths, about the exclusion of outsiders trying to get in. I would contend that it it is at least as much about  controlling who is, or is not, legitimately authorised to speak from the subject-position of Goth.

It's not difficult to find examples which this theorisation helps us think with. Panegyric for example: the holding up of the mirror of what it means legitimately to hold subject-position of king or emperor; it’s the means by which the king or emperor argues that doing X or Y falls within the sphere of legitimate royal/imperial activity. Both are wagers. I would also cite Michael Kulikowski’s recent discussion of Alaric as subaltern (it would work as well for Stilicho or equally many a Roman who fell from grace). From what subject position is Alaric allowed to speak and when?  Sometimes as Roman soldier, sometimes not. And when not, when he speaks as a Goth, the occupation of the Gothic position is similarly discursive.  What is going on in all those stories of Gregory of Tours about royal interactions with aristocrats? What is going on at the heart of sixth-century Gothic politics, or at its edges? What is wagered by the adoption of a certain costume, or the presentation of a dead relative in a particular way?

I’m not arguing that ‘we (let alone ‘you’) have got it all wrong’, that this is what identity is – not least because that would fundamentally contradict most of the points I have been making. Rather I want to suggest some points or – maybe – sites within or between which we can talk about identities and groups, and that might allow us to think whether or how we are talking about identity at all: some things that might both inflect discussion and in turn sharpen the conceptualisation. Or they might help retain the fuzziness, contingency, chance and indeed incompletion of identity.

When we talk about texts, brooches, monuments, latinity, are we helpfully discussing the construction or creation of identity, or rather identifiers? Sites of discourse or debate about authority, legitimation and recognition of subject-positions? Discourses of power and exclusion within group politics?

We have to keep risk, we have to keep dissent, we have to retain incompletion, the motion towards.  We must avoid the temptation to accept the totalising discourse of consensus and group-identity whether in our sources or in our historical practice. To accept the messiness and incompletion of identity and of the group allows us to listen to other voices and perspectives, past or present, and in turn, through our teaching, perhaps enable a more ethical engagement in the politics of our own day.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Forgotten King Arthur

[I was commissioned to write an article for BBC HISTORY in connection with the new Guy Ritchie King Arthur film.  This is what I gave them. I was quite pleased with it but they didn't 'think it was right' so there you go. Another attempt to get past the gate-keepers of public history thwarted... I post it here instead and hope it entertains at least.]

As an academic historian of the early middle ages, obviously, a great deal of my time is spent concealing the truth about the real King Arthur.  Or so I am led to believe by the many books that claim to have unearthed the ‘secrets’ of the legendary ruler.  The real Arthur has, in the last year or two alone, been discovered to have lived in two different areas of Scotland, and in the Yorkshire Pennines, Shropshire and Wales, as well as – most fascinatingly of all – being revealed to have been Jesus (albeit not the Biblical Jesus, but the real Jesus, who was a King of Edessa – confused yet?).  Even this is to ignore the sadly as-yet unpublished discoveries, vouchsafed to me in an anonymous letter a couple of years ago, that there had really been three king Arthurs, one of whom was killed in Kentucky.  When I wrote Worlds of Arthur I rashly described the argument that you could plot the movements of the historical Arthur from the distribution of pubs called The Black Horsemen as ‘the craziest’ Arthurian theory but it’s now clear that its originator was a mere tiro in the world of pseudo-historical lunacy.

‘Post-truth’ ‘alternative facts’ and a disregard for wicked so-called ‘experts’ are nothing new to academic historians.  While Holocaust-deniers are the most serious, dangerous and downright wicked practitioners of the fake history genre, the mental gymnastics involved in their fabrication of alternative histories and the scale of the requisite truth-concealing conspiracy are as nothing compared to those of the people who want to claim that the entire second half of the first millennium was fabricated by the Emperor Otto III [the fact that it was Otto the Third always seemed to me to be a bit of a fly in the ointment for this theory]or that neither the Romans nor Charlemagne ever crossed the Rhine, or that Jesus grew up in Somerset … or even of those who wish to argue that King Arthur  lived in Edinburgh and knew Beowulf (I am not making any of this up by the way, I promise you).  Sadly, closer inspection sometimes also reveals the proponents of these pseudo-histories not to be harmless cranks but people with unpleasant nationalist and even islamophobic agendas.

Fortunately for me, the effort required to cover up the truth about Arthur is minimal.  There is no truth about Arthur that anyone can reveal.  That is not – let’s be clear – to say that there never was a real Arthur: simply that it’s impossible to know.  The flaws of the surviving evidence are certainly insufficient to prove that there was no historical Arthur, that there was no ‘fire’ behind the ‘smoke’ of legend, but nor are our sources good enough to prove that a real Arthur existed either and therefore – logically – they can tell us nothing about that figure if he did exist.  There might have been a prototype for the legendary Arthur; or there might not.  And that is that.  Anyone who claims to have proven the case either way, let alone who claims to have proved that Arthur lived in such and such-a-place at such-and-such a time and that his battles occurred at specific places, is trying in effect to pull the wool over your eyes, even if they have managed to convince themselves.  The fact that the wildly different theories above (even the Arthur-Jesus one, though probably not the Kentucky Arthur thesis) all base their arguments upon exactly the same ‘evidence’ proves my point.

Only three sources from before (or in one case probably before) 1000 mention Arthur.  They are the History of the Britons attributed in some manuscripts to one Nennius (composed in 829-30), the Welsh Annals of the late tenth century and the epic poem Y Gododdin written down some time before the twelfth century, although quite when is debatable; it could have been as early as the seventh century or it could have been much later though on balance probably still before 1000.  That’s it.  Three sources.  Not only that, but it must be remembered that the so-called Dark Ages, while certainly very dark in Britain between c.400 and c.600 in terms of written accounts, are nowhere as dark as people might think.  We have one vaguely historical account of this era, the On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain by Gildas.  Gildas is unfortunately undatable and unlocatable with any precision and his work was a sermon largely addressed to the British clergy.  He did include an allusive account of recent history but it is very vague and highly stylised.  Arthur makes no appearance there, but that is not decisive (for one thing, Gildas might have been writing before Arthur lived).  There are, however, many, many other sources that originate in Britain between c.600 and 1066.  Other than the three mentioned earlier, none of them has anything to say about Arthur, whether as a historical or a legendary figure.  Furthermore, some of them, such as the tenth-century Welsh poem Armes Prydein (The Great Prophecy of Britain) are precisely the places where you might expect to find a reference to Arthur.  Armes Prydein is all about the Welsh and their friends uniting to push the English back into the sea whence they came.  Given how Arthur is deployed as the pan-Welsh anti-English ‘leader of battles’ in the History of the Britons, you’d think that this poem’s argument made it the ideal place for him to feature but he is entirely absent.

The silence about Arthur is deafening. Not only that; these documents contain the names of hundreds of people who lived in Britain between 600 and the eleventh century.  After three Arthurs who occur in Welsh king-lists and who all seem to have lived around 600, not one of these people is called Arthur.  All this suggests strongly, and I would say conclusively, that if there was a historical Arthur figure, or even if there was an Arthurian legend, he (or it) was hardly known in Britain before 1000.  The people who knew about it were limited to Wales and possibly to a smallish circle even there.  After all, the Welsh author of Armes Prydein seems not to have heard of him or, if he had, didn’t think he was worth using as an example or rallying cry.

The problem with the sources for British history between 410 and 597 – those that mention Arthur and those that don’t (Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, etc.) – is not that almost all were written centuries later.  Writers wanting to believe their account have attempted to circumvent that problem by adducing ‘oral tradition’ or ‘lost sources’.  Superficially these look like fair points.  Certainly, there are many accounts of historical events which seem to be trustworthy despite their late date, because of these kinds of factor (most of the surviving accounts of Alexander the Great, for xample).  Sadly for the romantics, the argument doesn’t work for early medieval Britain.  It’s clear, for example, that Bede knew as little about this period as we do.  Apart from where he obtained the names of some of his protagonists, such as Hengest, Horsa and Vortigern (which, let it be noted, he simply adds into the story he drew from Gildas), all the sources for his narrative are known; they still exist.  Consequently, we can also unravel what he has done to their accounts, and why. We can suggest that, like Bede, sources like the History of the Britons drew upon stories, legends and traditions – oral and written – but it is impossible to know when they originated during the centuries between the late fifth century and the time of composition (some might indeed pre-date the ‘Arthurian’ period), or how reliable they are. Given that they seem pretty wild, legendary and – where they can be checked – usually erroneous, it is quite a reach to argue that they must be accurate contemporary records.  It is impossible to identify any passages from lost sources that have been simply incorporated into, or fossilised within, later accounts. Put another way, if such accounts have been used, the author of the surviving work has woven them seamlessly into his account.  It's therefore impossible to know what he may have done to them in the process.

This is clear with the most famous candidate for being a ‘fossilised’ ‘lost source’: The History of the Britons’ list of Arthur’s battles, once thought to represent an earlier heroic poem.  Close study shows how the History’s author, whether Nennius or not, constructed the passage – in Latin – in an elaborate way and how it and (crucially) the surrounding passages about the origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms function as a hinge between his account of the south and his history of events in the north of Britain.  The ‘battle-list’s’ references to icons and the cult of the Virgin Mary also make far more sense in an early ninth-century context than a sixth-century one.  Wherever the author got his information from, the story of Arthur's battles that he gives us is his Latin composition of 829-30, and not a fossilised fragment of a sixth-century Welsh heroic poem.  Arthur, it is also worth saying, was a legendary figure even by the date of this, his first definitely-datable appearance; the author of the History mentioned him twice in his list of ‘the wonders of Britain’.

That raises a crucial point. These authors did not write simply to preserve a value-neutral record.  They had specific agendas.  Gildas, our only contemporary author, was composing a sermon, as we have seen.  Bede, writing in the 730s, painted a picture for contemporary kings and churchmen of an ideal past wherein his people, the English, seized the green and pleasant land of Britain from the sinful Britons, punished by God for their wicked backsliding.  For him, if the English of his own day did not mend their own ways, they too would be punished similarly (when the Vikings turned up sixty years later his status as a prophet was only enhanced).  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle constructed a demonstrably artificial account of the fifth and sixth centuries (and, in part at least, of the seventh, eighth and early ninth centuries too) to justify the dominance of Wessex and specifically of the House of King Alfred.  The West Saxons’ conquest of the land from pre-existing British kings and their followers (most of whom were simple inventions) justified this; disputed portions of this land could not possibly, therefore, have ever belonged to the rival Mercian kingdom (although – clearly – they had).  As the Chronicle continued into the age of Æthelstan and his successors, the West Saxon conquest of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria and the establishment of a kingdom of All England with dominance over neighbouring Welsh and Scots, this narrative of the conquest of Britain became more pronounced: see, for example, the heroic Song of Brunanburh incorporated into most manuscripts of the Chronicle under 937.

That narrative mattered, albeit for opposite reasons, to the Welsh.  The History of the Britons was written at a time of English (West Saxon and Mercian) military aggression into the Welsh kingdoms.  Its argument was that exactly 400 years had passed between the crucifixion of Christ and the arrival of the Saxons, and exactly 400 years had now passed between the arrival of the Saxons and the present.  Now was the time for the king of Gwynedd, Merfyn ‘the Freckled’, to lead his fellow kings to drive out the English, fighting like ‘Arthur the soldier’.  And if Merfyn’s royal credentials were less than ideal (and they were), not to worry; so were Arthur’s.  The next appearance of Arthur in Welsh historical sources underlines the point.  The Welsh Annals were written at the time of the English kingdom’s apogee, with its tribute-taking from Welsh rulers and imposition upon them of humiliating rituals of submission.  It was written at about the same time as Armes Prydein with its furious resentment of English arrogance – and as The Song of Brunanburh, which celebrated it.

Our historical narratives, then, make use of a shared, politically usable vision of the fifth- and sixth-century past, where one ‘people’ (the Anglo-Saxons/English) gradually conquered the land from another (the British/Welsh).  This circumvents none of the problems of knowing whether Arthur existed but it just might provide a clue as to why, if he did exist, he seems to have been so thoroughly and – let’s repeat – irretrievably forgotten.

The idea that the fifth century saw the conquest of land from Romans by the invading barbarian tribes from whom later rulers claimed descent was common by the early eighth century when Bede, our earliest historian, wrote. Four years before Bede finished his Ecclesiastical History, an anonymous writer in the north of France composed the Book of the History of the Franks.  He saw the establishment of Frankish rule in Gaul in similar terms to Bede’s image of the English take-over of lowland Britain: a steady conquest of land and the displacement of its inhabitants.  This was, as in Britain, a ‘usable past’.  Yet, because we have many contemporary sources for the fifth- and sixth-century history of mainland Europe, we know this image was wide of the mark.  Far from the common image of barbarian invasion, the history of the last seventy years of the western Roman Empire was one of faction-fighting and civil war.  Actual barbarian invasions were not especially common and rarely successful.  Most wars were between regionally-based alliances of provincial Romans (especially aristocrats) and soldiers of barbarian descent (or who adopted their identity).  All this faction-fighting was indecisive but it tore the western Empire apart until the different regional factions settled down into the various kingdoms more or less recognisable in medieval history.

‘Roman’ generals led ‘barbarian’ armies and vice versa and some of them very nearly disappeared from history altogether.  In the late 470s or 480s a Roman general, Syagrius, competed with Clovis the Frank for the control of the Paris basin (an area the size of much of southern England) and its largely-Frankish army.  Syagrius’ father, Aegidius, had, for eight years, apparently even called himself King of the Franks.  Yet Syagrius would be unknown to anyone had Gregory of Tours, writing in the late 570s, not encountered him in a miracle story, probably in a now-lost life of Saint Remigius of Reims.  It is clear from the origin-stories of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that there were, similarly, Romano-British elements in their early histories.  A historical Arthur could – like Aegidius – have been a ‘Roman’ leader in command of a ‘barbarian’ army, or – like Syagrius – have competed for control of a realm that later became ‘barbarian’.  He could have been part of a confusing whirl of factional politics, such as may be glimpsed in Gildas’ account (if we stop viewing that through the prism of Bede’s later reworking), fighting other Romans and other barbarians.  Especially if such a figure, like Syagrius, left no dynasty, he would similarly serve little purpose in the histories needed by eighth-century kings.  In that context, our (possible) Arthur was left with nowhere to go except legend and it is probably only by chance that a couple of fragments of his legend survived to be blown up, after the Norman Conquest, into the wonderful tales of the Once and Future King.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Post-Modern History: A critique (for students) of Keith Jenkins’ Re-Thinking History

(Non) Credo
I do not believe that the point of history is to seek the ‘truth’, at least as usually conceived.  Nor do I think that historical research is capable of recovering such a thing even if it were its purpose.  As I have said repeatedly on this blog, the purpose of history (as opposed to chronicling and antiquarianism) goes far beyond the establishment of things that did or did not happen (politically useful though those limited objectives might sometimes be), which nevertheless remain the (not always easily-established) base upon which the practice of History itself takes place.  As I think I have said before, the base of much physics is mathematics, but that does not mean that theoretical physics reduces to maths.

The 1990s saw a number of debates about the nature of Truth, sometimes referred to collectively as ‘The Truth Wars’.  One of the less intellectually-improving skirmishes around the edge of this cultural moment concerned ‘postmodern history’, specifically the publication of Re-Thinking History by Keith Jenkins, and various responses to it. This book occasioned a flurry of books by Jenkins and his acolytes (most notably Jenkins’ side-kick Alun Munslow, who must rank as the most un-self-conscious sycophant in the recent, or possibly the entire, history of the discipline) and a journal of Re-Thinking History.

One of the reasons why this book continues to have its doleful influence is that most of the responses to it were very weak, especially Richard Evans’ In Defence of History.  Evans sought to defend history from an ‘onslaught’ of postmodernist critiques, although it is very strongly suggested by the book’s argument and footnotes that Evans had read, first-hand, hardly any at all of the works of hardly any at all (beyond some Foucault) of the philosophers whom he bracketed as being at the root of this onslaught, much less understood them.  Indeed, there are some reasons to suppose he had not read some of the ‘postmodern’ critical articles that he did cite (at least in their entirety).  You might ponder that that was a pretty serious (and ironic) flaw in a book trumpeting the virtues of empirical research amongst the documents, but there we are. 

Be all that as it may, one argument (amongst other ad hominem critiques) was to attack Jenkins for not being ‘a proper historian’.  There are, to be sure, points where some better-founded knowledge – not necessarily first-hand experience – of how historians go about their research would have saved Jenkins from some misunderstandings. But whether or not Jenkins is an historian, a ‘working historian’, a ‘proper historian’ or whatever, misses the point.  Do you need to be a painter to theorise about aesthetics?  Do you need to be a practising scientist to think about the philosophy of science?  If the issue is epistemology, the status of historians’ truth-claims, of course you don’t need to be someone who actually researches and publishes about the past.  Jenkins took his stand as a philosopher of history, not as an historian.

Another response to Jenkins was the glib one often thrown at ‘postmodernists’, that goes: ‘aha: you say that all arguments are positioned and their authority only relative, so your argument must be, too!’  To which I assume that Jenkins would reply ‘Erm, well, yes.  That is kind of the point.’ [Although it would be somewhat undermined by his later claims to have ‘won’ the debate.]  The argument that there is no single objective truth is not some version of the Cretan (or Epimenides’] Paradox which is rendered false by being true or vice versa: e.g. ‘all statements are lies’.

Critiques which started (or derived authority) from the position of being ‘a working historian’, saying – in effect – that is not how we do it would find it difficult to really land an effective blow as, rightly or wrongly, they could themselves be dismissed as positioned, self-interested defences of the status quo.

Thus attacks on the book from without – that is to say critiques of the degree of fit between its arguments and the external object of the practice of history – tended to be deflected and were indecisive.  We can more effectively critique it from within, by studying its own arguments.  Such a critique will reveal that it is a patchwork of straw men, category errors, muddle and self-contradictions that actually collapses from the inside.  Furthermore, its author seems not even to have understood the ideas of the authorities he uses as the basis of his argument.  In short, the weaknesses of Re-Thinking History lie not in its author not being ‘a proper (or ‘working’) historian’ or in it, as a book, supposedly not being good history but in the fact that it is a shockingly bad piece of philosophy.  And I say that – let’s be clear – without (unlike Jenkins) claiming to be any sort of trained or qualified philosopher.

There are valid points of critique within the book.  Historians are very often un-self-conscious about what they do.  And it is true that a lot of history goes on being entirely unreflexive about what it does or why.  I would say (I’ve said it before) that the discipline is complacent, and that it has no clear idea of what it is there for.  Books published in 2009 still claim that history is about a verifiable search for truth, and so on.  These are all areas where History does need to be called out.  In this sense Re-Thinking History and the similarly weak books that poured forth in its wake have had a negative effect.  It remains on many historiography courses (like ours) but I suspect as a kind of straw man, almost as a false-flag operation by traditionalist positivist empiricists.  It is so bad that Evans (vel sim) can be deployed as riding to the rescue of beleaguered Klio with all his easy humour, bonhomie and good old common sense and all can go on as before.  Phew! Hurrah! Re-Thinking History can be deployed as a smoke-screen to mask rather better work (often pre-dating its publication) with better and more germane critiques of the discipline.  So here is my critique, from a position of someone who has tried to write self-reflexive history for over twenty years and who does believe that (more or less) plausible, (more or less) patchy and (always) incomplete re-descriptions of the past (as it impinged upon the people who produced its traces) are possible but who also thinks that that is not ultimately the purpose of history, who doesn’t think that ‘truth’ is (or can be) attainable and who believes that history, narratives and so on are present constructions which are not imposed by the past as it was lived.[1]  In other words, if anyone ought to have been at least vaguely sympathetic to Jenkins, it was me, but I’m not.

So the point in this piece is to provide a brief (roughly a page and a half) but fair summary of the text, which will save students having to read it, and a detailed critique that will provide them with the arguments they need to dismantle it on its own terms.  But, that critique is not one which will let traditional positive empiricism or current complacent historical practice off the hook.  If that looks like a rather naughty way of undermining everyone’s seminars on ‘postmodern history’,[2] that is because it is.  If we drop Re-thinking History and the drivel it inspired from our historiography courses we can forget the whole sorry episode (or at least look back with embarrassment, roll our eyes and ask 'wtf?') and clear the way for some more rigorous questioning of, and self-reflexivity about, the practice of history.  Students: read, use freely, and share widely!

The argument
First of all, though, a basic summary of the argument.  Within the constraints of space, I will strive to make this a fair account.

In Chapter 1 (What History Is: pp.6-32), J argues that History is not in itself The Past.  As a result, it cannot provide an objective account or recreation of the Past.  History is and can only be a discourse.  The historian’s view is conditioned by his/her time, social background, institutional position.  History is about stories, but the past comes down to us as stories (p.11) so there is no way of breaking out of a linguistic ‘bind’.  Language always supports multiple readings.  It is always the historian’s personal construct and the choices of topic, the kinds of evidence or the weight assigned to different pieces of evidence is governed by this.  History is given shape by the historian.  So history is something that is made at particular points in time and space and ‘imprisoned’ by that fact, rather than something that is, and is reachable, ‘out there’.   Consequently, all histories are logically equivalent and one cannot be chosen over another on the grounds of ‘correspondence’ with the objective truth of history.  ‘Everything is relative (historicist)’ (p.30).  The only way one history gains ground over another is through the operation of power.  Some discourses are dominant, others subordinate.  The truth claims of academic history stem only from universities’ position as the guardians of ideological control.  Consensus only occurs, says J, where dominant voices silence the others (p.23).  All accounts are relative and problematic (p.30).  J argues that this is empowering: history can be whatever you want.  But also, not being able to judge between histories on account of ‘correspondence’ is not entirely disabling: to understand different histories you have to analyse the power relations in which they are enmeshed.  You should ask not ‘what history is’ but ‘who history is for’.

Chapter 2 (On Some Questions and Some Answers: pp.33-69)
In this chapter J discusses a number of key issues in historical research, beginning with ‘truth’ (pp.34-39).  In this section he argues essentially that the desire for truth is a sort of basic psychological need and that we fear being cut off from this.  Using a discussion by Foucault of a passage from Borges about a Chinese encyclopaedia with strange categories,[3] he suggests that we abandon what we think of as objective categories and embrace uncertainty.  The connection between word and world is arbitrary he claims, using various thinkers including Derrida.  Truths are just ‘useful fictions’ (p.39).

Moving onto the issue of facts (pp.40-44), J says that Historians are concerned with more than discrete facts. They combine them into arguments and think that the resultant arguments/interpretations are true.  This is because they think that facts render arguments true/accurate.  He cites an article by Skidelsky claiming that interpretation only exists peripherally around a core of accepted factual knowledge.  J then points out that the ideas of ‘centres’ (like that factual core) cannot be seen as other than contingent, placed on a sliding spectrum.  J moves on to some fairly unremarkable comments on ‘bias’ (pp.44-47), concluding that because they see their centre position as objective, empiricists see bias as something only affecting others, although they cannot be unbiased themselves. 

On that basis J moves on to spend ten pages (pp.47-57) on empathy, in which he decries the attempt to try and think yourself into a past world in order to understand and explain.  Philosophers like Wittgenstein have discussed the problem of ‘other minds’ and how difficult it is to know how someone else feels, so how much more difficult must this be with other periods and places?  People in the past were different from us (p.56).  J argues that the attempt to think yourself into the past is an attempt to colonise the past with modern bourgeois, liberal, capitalist attitudes.   So, as with the attempt to portray an objective empiricist view as a neutral centre, this would seem to argue that empathy is an attempt to show certain modes of thought as transcendent and normal [at least that is how I understand the argument to go].

The discussion of sources (pp.57-53) develops the main thrust of the argument to claim that evidence is only used to support arguments, and so is not itself free from the discourse.  The past happened and it leaves traces which exist whether we look at/for them or not, but these traces only become evidence when used in a positioned way to support an argument. Citing Roland Barthes (pp.60-61), J states that what history is inevitably only a copy, in discourse, of something that exists in the ‘Real’ but which cannot be captured independently of discourse.

The section on causation essentially repeats the point made already that issues like causation etc. cannot be a fact, or ‘true’, and argues that one interpretation only wins out over another because of strategies of discourse of which academic historians are the guardians.  In the conclusion to the chapter (pp.66-69), J says he thinks that relativism and scepticism are a basis for social toleration, using a lengthy quote from Hayden White to support the point.

Chapter 3: (Doing History in a post-modern world: pp.70-84)
This chapter begins with J’s definition of post-modernism.  All the old gods, the old certainties, have turned out to have feet of clay, to be temporary fictions.  He moves on to give a lengthy (pp.72-75) [historical] account of how this happened.  The ‘dominant underlying presuppositions of ‘our times’’ are provided by scepticism, he says, and bolsters this with a discussion of Richard Rorty’s pragmatism.  The bonus, in J’s view, is that there are now myriad forms of history to be used or abused and only some ill-defined figures [presumably academics in old universities: it’s not clear] control the bounds of what is ‘proper history’.  Some ‘brilliant histories’ are marginalised because they are unpalatable to these people (p.79).  But new histories can still be found, that have been hidden away.  Our approach must be to deconstruct and historicise historical accounts. ‘Always historicise’, urges J (p.82).  So the purpose of history is to help us ‘understand the world we live in and the forms of history that have both helped to produce it and which it has produced’ (p.83).

A Critique
Let us assume, on the basis of its essential thesis, that the book’s claim to be taken seriously stands or falls on the basis of the coherence of its argument.  Critique based upon its degree of ‘fit’ with an external reality (‘how the practice of history is’) can be shrugged off according to the book’s points about either the ‘situated-ness’ of the critique or the vested power-interests of the critic (or MRDA[4]: ‘[you] would [say that] wouldn’t [you]’).  The ‘correctness’ or otherwise of the use of authorities is a similarly insecure point from which to critique the book, given the argument made (rightly or wrongly) about the infinite readings of text.  Any such criticisms have to be secondary.

A: Straw Men?
In some ways this is a minor point but it is worth asking yourself, as reader, how convinced you are about the reality of the ostensible target of Re-Thinking History.  How many actual historians are cited?  And how recent are they?  E.H. Carr and Geoffrey Elton are frequently cited: their books on what history is/was were twenty-four to twenty-seven years old when Re-Thinking History was published.  Arthur Marwick’s was twenty-one and Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory a mere whipper-snapper of a book at only thirteen years old.  A trawl through the footnotes provides very few traces of any engagement with (then) recent thinking by historians (say, less than ten years old in 1991).  Is J setting up a straw man to knock the stuffing out of just for his own self-aggrandizement as, one might suspect, might be the book’s own question turned on itself?  The point is that the book does not make the case very convincingly that it is engaging with a current topic/debate.[5] Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. The text itself leaves you with room for serious doubt.

B: Category errors
The next heading under which I want to group my critical points concerns areas where it is simply not clear what J is actually talking about, as the target of his critique seems to slide about between analytically different things, suggesting, at best, some pretty muddled thinking.

J is frequently unclear when it comes to discussing the related network of concepts, truth/fact/interpretation.  See pp.14-15, where J slides from a discussion of events to one of hypotheses and interpretation.  At the top of p.14 he argues that a historical account cannot be checked against the past but only against other accounts.  And yet later (p.40) he is happy enough that events – ‘discrete facts’ (how discrete if, as p.14, already enmeshed in discourse as ‘accounts’?) – exist.  Later still (p.60) he says that traces of the past exist whether or not we look at them (and so are, equally, fundamentally independent of modern constructs).  Thus Jenkins is happy to accept the independent existence of traces of the past and the possibility of establishing ‘discrete facts’ (which surely would be the basis of even the most traditional historical research), yet he seems to want us to believe that we cannot check a historian’s account against anything other than other historians’ accounts (p.14).[6]  He does this essentially by a sleight of hand that puts interpretation and hypothesis in a supposedly-claimed category of fact/truth.  Of course, interpretation, hypothesis and causation cannot lie in the realms of fact or of truth/falsehood.  But interpretation and hypothesis can be judged (not as true/false but as more or less plausible) according to their degree of fit with J’s own categories of ‘discrete fact’ and ‘trace’.  This is a more serious flaw than simply setting up a straw man.   All this relates to what ‘truth’ it might be that J is discussing.  Is it a ‘true picture’, i.e. this did or did not happen to these/those people in this/that order?  Or is it some sort of more transcendent order of truth? 

Here, J is not alone as this is a problem that bedevils discussions of historical truth.  It is this muddle that allows people to argue that so-called postmodernism in history permits, in and of itself, holocaust denial.  No philosopher of whom I am aware, amongst those grouped (usually wrongly) under the heading of postmodernist – and especially not Derrida – would deny that the holocaust happened, or that it and its details are empirically true and indeed verifiable via the sorts of procedures used by, e.g., Deborah Lipstadt or Richard Evans. But equally no historian would argue that there is a single true story of the holocaust.  And what is the truth of the holocaust beyond that (or beyond the obvious point that it was a very Bad Thing)?  That is the level of truth that most of those philosophers are dealing with if and when they say that truth is unreachable.

Essentially J’s argument is based upon his own assumption that interpretations can - ideally - be true.  His argument for the ‘logical’ (rarely has the word logical been used so frequently and with so little irony) relativism of history (contra, e.g. Geoffrey Elton) is essentially that ‘true’ explanations of the past cannot be reached.  Put another way, History = X; therefore, if X is impossible, History is also impossible.  But, if you don’t agree that History is X in the first place (because, say, you never thought that history was about [or capable of] establishing true/false distinctions in interpretation/hypothesis/causation), then the question of the possibility/impossibility of History remains open.  Ultimately, J’s argument is only possible because he has accepted (and shares) Elton’s ideal of what history is; they just differ on whether that ideal is attainable (though see below).  He bolsters his argument only with a quote by Robert Skidelsky in a piece in the TES, which raises a series of further questions. Essentially, what J comes close (on p.13) to realising but ultimately fails to grasp is that what he sees as history's impossibility is its very condition of possibility in the first place.

A similar and related problem arises in J’s discussion of the concepts evidence/source/trace.  Exactly what is he talking about when he discusses the material with which historians work?  Early in the book, he says that the evidence for the past comes always-already in the form of stories.  But is that always the case? He says that the past leaves traces (as we have seen) which can be left undiscovered.  If that is so, how (at least on the first occasion it is encountered and used) can such a trace come ready-made in a story?  The trace/evidence distinction (between traces of the past and evidence used in support of an argument) is well made but is only, to all intents and purposes, a slight reworking of Carr’s fact/evidence distinction from 1964.  But note how the subject of the discussion slides about between the categories of trace and evidence.  Sometimes, in other words, he is treating ‘traces’ as ‘evidence’ and vice versa.

C: Confusion
What kind of history?
Ask yourself what sort of history J thinks he is talking about in his critique.  Does he know?  I do not mean the difference between a right-wing imperialist, a socialist, a feminist or a postcolonial history of the same events (say the Great Bengal Famine of the 1940s), but the different thematic varieties of history.  It seems to me from the text that J is envisaging narrative political history alone as constituting the ‘history’ that he is putatively re-thinking.  But how would the same critiques apply to other types of history (intellectual history, say, or the history of mentalities, both of which relate to my meta-critique, E, below)?

Discourse, Power and Relativism
J seems to me to be pretty crucially muddled about discourse and the operation of power.  For now we must leave aside the issue of whether that is how things work in practice (for what it's worth, I think J’s view is so unidimensional as to be little more than caricature, but we can bracket that).  How well does the concept work within his argument? I am not sure.  J seems to want to believe that you can have any history you like (p.13) and that any historian’s historical work represents, and is dependent upon, personal constructs (pp.14-15).  All historical accounts are ‘imprisoned in time and space’ (p.19).  But he simultaneously wants history to be locked into a constructed discourse (p.11).  It is the discourse, formed over time, that makes you, qua historian, see and read the traces of the past in a specific way.  Discourses are always on the move (ibid).  But in that case it is pretty unclear what concept of discourse J is using (from the text it appears to be Foucault’s but we have to bracket whether or not that concept seems properly to be employed).  How does discourse structure history (and how is history a discourse) if history can be so individual that anyone can make of it what they want?  This would seem to make history not a discourse – a historically-contingent episteme, imprisoning the values and terms of discussion – so much as a discussion, structured around and between kaleidoscopic arrangements of situational, contingent, political alliances of particular individuals, each with their own separately-, individually-produced ideas of history. In that sort of formulation the ideas of discourse and ‘discursive formation’ are pretty much evacuated of any analytical value. What sort of analytically-meaningful discourse, in any case, (you might ask) is so fragile that one professor (J) can come along and say “hey, everyone, do your own thing! Break out of the discourse!”...?

[You might also wonder how this essentially free market consumer-choice model of what history can be – or the ‘liberation’ he sees as being represented by free market choice of histories – fits with J’s posturing about being on the Left and his critique of empathy on the basis that it supposedly normalises free market liberal capitalist thinking, but I digress.]

Related to this is J’s muddled thinking about the operation of power within historical debate. Generally, J sees this as the guardians of the dominant discourse (whatever that may be: see above), who he appears to think (pp.65-66) are ‘university historians’ (all of whom, for some reason, appear amazingly to have agreed on what history is and how it is to be done/used, even though it can be anything,[7] so that one quote from Skidelsky suffices to illustrate what university historians all think).  These people keep unpalatable or unconventional histories/historians in their place (p.23; p.79).  J, however, thinks that his relativism (which he bases on his claim that there are no value-free facts in history, which he later contradicts, as above) is ‘politically enabling’ as it allows millions of different histories to flourish, breaking out of the confines of this elitist domination.  This is where he can indeed be attacked for enabling far right-wing, pro-Nazi, holocaust-denying history. For how, within his model, does one tackle such history if all histories are equally ‘positioned’ and ‘logically’ epistemologically equal?  The only way within his argument (and this is where things get ironic) would be on the basis of de facto power-operations, where the guardians of the discourse, the professors (the Richard Evanses and Deborah Lipstadts) stamp down on the Nazis, not on the basis of greater and more sophisticated fit between interpretation and the traces of the past but by sole virtue of their greater academic/cultural capital.[8]  If J supports the political Left then he would have to welcome such an operation of power, which his whole book is supposed to be criticising and trying to counter…. The problem is that J’s type of relativism is in fact entirely politically disabling. It provides no basis at all on which to challenge dominant views.

D: Self-Contradiction
There are some serious points at which J contradicts himself.  One is in his discussion of empathy. As noted J wants to suggest that other minds cannot be entered into.  To be crude, the other minds argument in philosophy asks questions like ‘how do you know that the colour I call ‘red’ is the same as the colour you perceive as red?  Or, ‘if I stick my hand in some boiling water and scream, how do you know that I am feeling what you would think was pain?’ ‘If I see a crocodile and run away screaming, is it because I am experiencing what you would call fear?’ And so on. [It is an essentially unsurmountable issue that the whole ‘History of the Emotions’ fad conveniently agrees to ignore.] What J seems not to realise, though, is that you can’t somehow ring-fence that problem.  Once you have let it out of the bag, you have no more logical basis for stating that past minds were different from ‘ours’ than for saying that they were just like ours and are entirely reachable on the basis of the statements they left behind.  If you think past minds and ideas can’t be grasped then you simply can't know whether they were the same or different and so the argument that they can be grasped proceeds on the same basis as the belief that they can’t, in other words on the basis of faith alone.   What's more, the fact that Wittgenstein and co said you could not be sure that you know, is not a basis for saying (as does J) that you can’t know.

More to the point, once one gets to pp.52-53, we find J citing Collingwood and Steiner to support an argument that past cultures were different.  But on what basis can such a judgement be made (and its truth-claim be accepted), other than on the basis of the standard historical mode of enquiry and a degree of argument-source/trace fit that J is allegedly re-thinking?  On p.54, furthermore, J cites J.S. Mill and his idea of freedom.  Here, then, J feels sufficiently confident of having been able to get into Mill’s mind, via his texts, as to be able to redescribe what Mill thought about freedom, in spite of his belief (‘I think’, p.56) that past people were ‘very different from us in the meanings they gave their world’ (p.56).  At what point, one might ask J, does he think the past inhabited by ‘past people’ begins… Before John Stuart Mill, evidently. To restate my point, if you think that you can use Mill’s writings to redescribe his views of the world that impinged upon him, and identify differences from modern ideas, then you can logically do the same to find areas of similarity.

This applies to J’s general appeals to authority.  Throughout the book he appeals to other commentators on modern academic practice, sometimes historical, more often not, as furnishing a basis and support for his critique.  But here, quite apart from asking what authority these thinkers can carry according to the terms of his argument and thus why we have to take their views seriously (are they somehow less ‘positioned’ and imprisoned in language/discourse than historians?), we can also ask how he can tell from their writings that what they are talking about is what he understands them to be talking about.  This is where the ‘other minds’ problematic won’t go back into the bottle once you have let it out.  What basis does J have for understanding and agreeing with their account of the world other than a kind of recognition and empathy?  Why is Terry Eagleton’s mind more accessible to others, via his texts, than, say, a Roman centurion’s?  If the answer is that Eagleton and J inhabit the same general cultural milieu or (in Foucauldian terms) episteme then where does that cultural milieu begin and end?  And how can one know other than via an essentially historical enquiry?

[This, incidentally, is where it becomes more than a tad sticky to use Foucault, whose work (whatever you think of it) essentially took the form of historical enquiry predicated on the ability to be able to describe past modes of thought, ideas, techniques of the self, and so on, and changes therein, as a basis for an argument rejecting the possibility of doing any of those things.]      

E: The meta-critique: historicising history
And so we arrive at the most significant problem that besets Re-thinking History and which, more than anything else, tears it apart from within. As we have seen, J’s key argument is that all historical works are ideologically situated (fair enough).  They cannot be judged better or worse according to their fit with an external past reality (we have seen there are problems within his argument there but let us continue) so we can only arrive at the ultimate goal of the book – to understand the world through the histories it has produced – via the analysis of the power-relations involved in the production of different histories, at their various ideological[9] or discursive situations.  All being products of a time and place, his injunction, as we have seen, is ‘always historicise’ (p.82). And there: boom! The whole argument of the book implodes. For how does one go about historicising a text and its author, if not by precisely the sort of historical methodology he wants to reject? How does one situate a book’s author other than by finding out about him/her from the evidence of her/his texts or from other sources of information (the epistemological status of which is exactly the same as that of historical sources)?  How does one situate a historical author within a socio-economic structure other than through a fundamentally historical process of enquiry, by analysing sources of information and putting them together to make up some sort of general picture?  Is this any more possible for modern writers than for people writing in the tenth century?  Probably, but only because we have more data and the gaps in the picture or the story might be smaller or less problematic, but does anyone want to suggest that the picture thus presented of current society and power-structures is going to be any less problematic, any less ‘situated’, any less the product of our discursive formation than the picture we might put together of twelfth-century society, or than the pictures of their world put together by twelfth-century people?  Can my picture of the world in 2016 and how and why it works the way it does, and thus my argument about where Historian X’s writing ‘is coming from’ and why (my historicising of Historian X), be judged better or worse than anyone else’s on anything other than a degree of fit with the evidence produced by or about the world and Historian X? If it can't, then basically I cannot analyse the power structures or discourse producing/produced by Historian X and his/her works? And if I cannot do that (as logically J’s argument suggests I can’t) then I cannot obey his injunction always to historicise.  Or, alternatively, if I can do that, then there is no logical reason why I cannot do the same (albeit, to various degrees, to patchier effect) with, say Matthew Paris, or Herodotus, or Gregory of Tours, or Jules Michelet, or Edward Gibbon, or the person who wrote an early Frankish charter or a diarist during the Hamburg cholera outbreak.  Note though, that I have not taken J’s injunction to historicise him; I have simply analysed the coherence of his text, not least because, as I said at the start, attempts to historicise him have ironically been rejected as the simple products of the critics’ positioning (which again turns the book’s argument inside-out, if you accept its claim that we can meaningfully evaluate historians’ accounts, and understand the world, on the basis of historicising their authors).  Further, if one accepts that historians are imprisoned in language then historicising implies a world outside language (yet a third self-contradiction inherent in the injunction).

If the argument on pp.1-82 (leaving aside the earlier reference to historicising on p.30) is correct, historicising is impossible and the injunction on p.82 is entirely fatuous and, if the instruction to ‘always historicise’ is to be taken seriously, then the book’s entire argument up to p.82 is pointless.  So we must conclude that Re-thinking History is, after all, a Cretan Paradox, and on a grand scale.  If we could be sure that it was deliberate it would be a literary achievement worthy of considerable respect and/or a hoax which worked better than J could have ever have imagined.  Too well, perhaps, as J has been compelled to maintain the pretence, keep playing the role, for the subsequent quarter-century.

My conclusion[10], then, is that this is a book which is entirely incoherent and self-contradictory.  The proposal it makes for dealing with the problems of historical accounts flatly (and completely) contradicts its own analysis of those problems.  You have to ask why a book this bad (as noted, to the extent of being a 90-page paradox) not only gets a place on reading lists (outside a course on ‘how not to argue’), let alone should still be in print in revised editions, having even generated its own literature.  Ironically, the most convincing argument in support of J’s claim for the theoretical/philosophical impoverishment of the historical discipline is the fact that his book was not trashed decisively as soon as it came out.


[1] In other words, we can produce all kinds of stories about the past that are entirely consistent with its traces and which fairly re-describe a past as experienced by actual people – and that matters – but those stories not only do not equal an object history (or The Past) and they were almost certainly not experienced as those stories at the time.  The stories, the linkages of events, the causation and the interpretations are ours, imprisoned in language, sometimes (perhaps usually) unconsciously.  Thus no one single story or account is or can be imposed by the past itself.  Which is ‘the true story’?  Provided they fit the available traces of the past, all of them. Or none.

[2] Theorists in other humanities have tended to look a bit askance at references to ‘postmodern’ historians, as postmodernism is a moment, not a movement, and most of the philosophers claimed to underpin it where quite clear about not being postmodernists (e.g. ‘a term I am on record … as disapproving for both philosophical and sociological reasons’ – Simon Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, p.xxvii).  In a sense it is about as meaningful as calling Descartes a ‘Seventeenth-Centuryist’ philosopher.  Mostly ‘postmodernist’ is, in Critchley’s term, a traditionalist’s bogeyman (I have been accused of it often enough even though I reject the category), an empty catch-all for ‘things I don’t want to have to think about’.

[3] Entertainingly (or ironically), J seems not to realise that the work by Borges cited by Foucault was a work of fiction.

[5] The defence, I assume, would be that the fact that the book caused a furore amongst historians proves that it was dealing with a hot topic.  Maybe so.  But if I wrote a book which tore into archaeology on the basis of archaeological thinking and practice from the ‘sixties or ‘seventies, arguing that one ought to be entirely skeptical of anything that archaeologists said, or their ability to say ‘reliable’ things about the past, and that any reading of archaeology was ‘logically’ as good as any other, and this books sold thousands of copies and made a big splash, I think it would be fairly safe to assume that it too would cause a furore.  It’s the first (f)law of citation indices: if you want to get lots of citations write something terrible.  In any case, this critique takes the text entirely on its own terms and for the most part eschews external referents.

[6] Ask yourself on what basis J claims to be able to judge the alleged brilliance of the ‘brilliant’ works of history supposedly silenced by the dominant discourse. A distinction between an object past and historians’ writings is also implied in the phrase ‘the past can sustain countless narratives’ (p.22).

[7] Anyone who has ever attended a university history departmental meeting will be especially interested by the idea that academic historians can agree on any important (or even unimportant) topic with anything like unanimity, but I digress again.

[8] In any case, the really tricky issue for non-relativist, politically-engaged historians to confront is not what one does with holocaust-deniers, which easy enough, so much as how one deals, within historical practice, with holocaust-approvers.

[9] I’m not, incidentally, always clear from the text on how J understands ideology (according to Terry Eagleton seems to the only answer it provides), but there we are.

[10] I had initially thought of discussing a range of other problems, external to the text itself, such as whether the ideas of Foucault, Derrida etc. are being used in any way ‘canonically’ or, if they are, whether they support the argument being made, or are consistent with each other, or whether the analysis of historical discourse and its university-based ‘guardians’ stacks up, and so on, but in the end it seemed unnecessary.  Suffice it to say that they are there.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Value of a 'Knowledge of History' in Post-Brexit Britain

The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has announced that the Conservative government of the UK will (or is at least considering whether to) introduce legislation to compel firms to produce lists of foreign employees.  On this basis it can - allegedly - shame them for not employing enough British people.

Lists of 'foreigners'.  To be distinguished from those people who happened to be born in the contingently-defined area of the earth's surface now recognised as comprising the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  That, after all, is fundamentally how you define a nation in the modern world.

Brexit secretary Liam Fox wants to differentiate between immigrants who arrive “without ever having created anything” and those who -presumably - have created 'something'.

I confess that I find all this terrifying. 

Some people dismiss it as simple pandering to racist elements, things that could never be made workable.  I am not so sanguine about that.  What I am perhaps too sanguine about is that I steadily refuse to believe that everyone who voted for Brexit really thought that it would lead to this or approves of it.  I don't even believe that all Tories approve of this, and indeed Anna Soubry evidently spoke to another fringe group at the same time as Fox was speaking, arguing that politicians had a responsibility to counter, rather than to fuel anti-immigrant feeling when it arose.

More than a few people have pointed out that compiling lists differentiating 'foreign workers' from people with UK citizenship ought to ring some serious alarm bells.  James O'Brien at LBC eloquently pointed out that it has more than a slight ring of Mein Kampf about it (you can possibly find the clip here).  Rudd herself apparently got very annoyed by this sort of rejoinder, claiming that she had been careful to avoid that sort of language - presumably by studiously refusing to quote Mein Kampf in the original German.  One response to the situation has been that if you aren't worried by these developments you need to read more history.

But do you?  Is that the value of a historical education?  Being able to say "Ooh, hang on, isn't that a teeny bit Third-Reich-y"?  With broad historical knowledge you could compile a long list of unsavoury regimes that have done things like this.  In the period I study, the Visigoths passed laws criminalising entire communities who failed to grass up any unconverted Jews in their midst. And so on.

But then so what?

The political come-back to all that is to claim that that is just hysterical.  How can you call us Nazis?  What do we see now in the US if not the fact that the general ubiquity of accusations of Nazism (Goodwin's Law) since 1945 has robbed them of any efficaciousness even when staring something like the real thing right in the face? One problem in political dialogue is that, somehow, accusations from the right of being 'just like Stalin/the Soviet Union' have managed to retain some sort of effectiveness while appeals to similarities with the Nazis are (except on the Far Right, where it is in any case a source of pride) seen as over-the-top.  Has the unique, unimaginable awfulness of the Nazis taken them entirely out of the realms of discourse?  Are they now linked solely to one historically-specific, unrepeatable signifier, with no content in the realm of the imaginary?

In any case, as I will argue in Why History Doesn't Matter, the simple deployment of 'warnings from the past' is very easily countered by any politician worth their salt.  The politician will say that it is an over-reaction; the politician will claim it is a misplaced analogy, for reasons A-Z; the politician will thank the historians but assure them and the voters that policies will be in place to prevent that, or will say that, by learning from the past they will ensure such mistakes do not happen again.

And do you actually need to have amassed that knowledge via a historical education to see that this is a pretty terrifying development?  I don't think so.  Surely, all you need is a minimally-developed sense of basic humanity and power of imagination.  It would be in that sphere that I would claim lies the value of a real historical education.  The critical investigation of what you are told, to be sure, but also the exercises in imagination necessary to conceive of other world views, held by other actual people, and the capacity to be able to listen to those views and trying to understand them - critically of course, and without refusing judgement in the final analysis. You cannot really be critical of something until you have tried to understand it.  The act of understanding and explaining in my experience inevitably dilutes senses of 'otherness'.

That makes it very difficult to write off other human beings simply by attaching to them a set of labels provided by a governing party.

That's how we need to think historically.

My experience of the study of History leads me to conclude that we need to oppose Theresa May, Amber Rudd, Liam Fox and the rest, not because their policies look a bit like those of the Nazis but because by any even entry-level standards of humanity they're just not right.