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Friday, 15 July 2011

The Performance of Anger

Sometimes it matters to get angry...

[This was the most controversial post I ever put up on Historian on the Edge, the one that got me into the most trouble and indeed the one that scuppered my career in the UK, if not elsewhere.  After a few days, I was asked by the then current, now outgoing, Chichele chair of Medieval History at Oxford to remove it, which I did as a response to a request from someone I then thought of as a friend, however much I disapproved of being asked to remove it. Later I discovered that there had been correspondence between this eminent historian and my head of department in which concerns were (at least as I have been led to understand it) raised about my mental health.  I have always been angry with myself for removing the post as it seemed to me to be - in existentialist terms - an act of bad faith.  In spite of removing it, the post still cost me heavily.  Another eminent member (or two) of the early medieval establishment used it as a reason why I should not be appointed to a position I had applied for.  A former friend advised me, on its basis, that I should probably not apply for another job.  I lost an invitation to speak in Brazil.  And so on.

You might want to consider why mooting the possibility that, if someone writes things that are as likely as the ones discussed below to be (at best) abused in support of pretty unpleasant political movements without realising it, then they might be thought of as a bit 'stupid' (as a charitable option) - that is to say, might not be as capable at reflective intelligent, rational thought as one might expect from a paid member of staff at the most self-aggrandisingly prestigious university in the land - is somehow more offensive than referring on multiple occasions, in footnotes, to the views of certain historians as 'mad' (that is to say incapable of rational thought of any kind), as has been done by the afore-mentioned professor and many others of his ilk (repeatedly, for example, by Robert Markus).  To your copies of Bourdieu's La Distinction, one and all!

I did offer one of the authors discussed, to whom, for legal reasons, we'll refer to as Cyril Fotheringay-Phipps, the opportunity to respond on this blog, which he declined.  I also challenged him to make a public declaration that he did not support the xenophobic ideas to which his book could give support. He has not done this.  He did, by contrast, write an article for Standpoint, which concludes with this remark:
‘This is very convenient, because it means we Europeans, and peoples of European descent, while getting deeply preoccupied by our own barbarians and their role in history (as all these books testify), can ignore the much more important, but also much more sensitive, issue of the role of Arab and Muslim invasions in overturning the world order during the seventh century’.   
‘We’ are Europeans and people of European descent; ‘they’ are Muslims who overturned the world order.  Draw your own conclusions.

On the other hand, the post itself was alluded to, elsewhere (a very fair account, by the way) and I restored the post in terms of its URL, in order that the comments should reappear: this also to show that, outside the OX1 postcode, the response to this paper (as it was at the Leeds conference itself) was overwhelmingly positive.

I want to repost it now, not only to assuage my own self-loathing for removing it before but also because precisely these two authors have been used as the planks to bolster an anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant, right-wing, neo-conservative rant by our old friend 'Fire His Ass Ferguson' in Murdoch rags The Sunday Times and The Australian. This in turn has been used, with further support drawn from the writings of the Oxford-trained late antique historians discussed below, in UKIP News. This is the irresponsible game these people are playing, assuming (for no good reason other than charity) that their own politics don't align with either Ferguson's or UKIP's.  But, to labour the point further, you'd like to think that, if my charitable assumption is correct, that they would be smart enough to see this. Or that if the self-satisfied, airless milieu in which they were formed permits intelligent people not to see this, there is further serious need for the reform of UKHE and the removal of Oxford's (and its graduates') many privileges.

Also - finally - because I am just so sick and tired of all this: the way the elite dominates academia and access to public discussion. We saw that in the way the Oxbridge elite in politics and the press joined up to heap abuse and insinuation on Jeremy Corbyn, an outsider who dared to run for the post of, and be elected as, leader of the Labour Party; in the way Tristram Hunt rabble-roused the Oxford Labour student society as the elite '1%' who had to retake what he somehow saw as their birthright, the leadership of the Labour Party (remember that Hunt got his break as a TV historian because a 
producer left an advert in the porter's lodge of his college - they don't do that at York, let alone Keele, or Bedford).  Look at how, when confronted with the advantages bestowed upon him by his Oxford credentials (would he have got where he is without them?) Owen Jones (who has subsequently made up for a lot of this in my estimation and is certainly at least sticking to his script) let the mask slip and accused his critics of practising 'the politics of envy'.  Personally, I am sick of 25 years of what our American cousins call micro-aggressions (being told, e.g., that my book was 'surprisingly good') because I dared to get a job; sick of, no matter how hard I tried to play the game (obviously I gave that up in about 2012), fundamentally being a second-class citizen.

Almost all of the people mentioned above and below come from the same social and educational background.  They really believe that that ipso facto makes them cleverer than everyone else and that their ideas are by their very nature better than everyone else's.  I know this because some have said so, on my Facebook page, etc..  (See also Tristram Hunt, above.) Look at how the members of this club discuss the historiography; whom they fete; whom they just ignore.  But they really aren't nearly as clever, or nearly as good historians, as they think, and that makes their domination of public discourse and their active exclusion (or silencing - see above) of everyone else, downright dangerous.  As one or two of you know I am right now suffering from bad depression and considering whether or not to leave academia.  I have already paid enough for expressing these ideas; I don't think I have anything more to lose.  These things need to be said and it may as well be me who says them.]

Preliminary/introductory points:

1. In Barbarian Migrations I argued (among many other things) that one thing that might have happened in the post-imperial era was that, just as romanitashad been something performed as a claim to a legitimate political status, so people might also have performed their barbarism, once barbarian identities became associated with the highest levels of secular and military power.  In classical ethnography, one of the things that distinguished the civic Roman from the barbarian (and just about anyone else) was the control of emotion.  Barbarians had no such control.  Because they could furnish no reasoned grounds for being angry, or happy, or sad, they swung wildly from one to the other and back again.  [Actually in my own case, as a northern barbarian, I have often thought that this was less of a piece of ethnography mired in rhetorical topoi than value-neutral reportage.]  Thus, when barbarian kings throw tantrums or similar public displays of emotion they are in a sense performing their identity and therefore their right to be kings.  Now, even when I wrote that book I was aware that this was not a thesis that could stand in any crude form, and may well (as I just learnt from an interesting paper on weeping men in Late Antiquity) be even more complicated than that.  Nevertheless I think there's something in it.

2. In an earlier development, some historians have been discussing the 'socially-constructed' nature of the emotions.  On balance I am (as a barbarian; see above) pretty unconvinced by all this but again the way that emotions could be 'performed', independently of actual physiological stimuli, was an interesting off-shoot of this on which I was (at least in part) drawing in my views on performed barbarism.

3. Now, one reason why academics can come up with an idea as crazy as the one that emotions are entirely socially constructed is that academics (American academics even more than British, British even more than mainland European) inhabit a largely emotion-free environment, in which the expression of any sort of feelings (assuming they are actually capable of any) is - as in the world of antique paideia(the culture of the rhetorically-educated graeco-roman male) - viewed as very much infra-dig.  This is one reason why I am such a rubbish academic.

4.  All that said, many (perhaps even most) of the frighteningly long list of 'incredibly dumb' things I have done in my life have actually been the result of deliberation, rather than of 'flying off the handle', which accounts for most of the remainder (or of being drunk, which accounts for the rest).  More evidence, perhaps, that Pliny, Vitruvius, Strabo and the rest were right about people born too far to the north...

Performing anger at the International Medieval Congress

So ... As you know I am actually pretty angry about the way in which some British historians have been writing books about the barbarian migrations characterised by (at best) such an indigence of reflection that they play straight into the hands of the Far Right, the 'anti-immigration lobby' and what Leo Lucassen calls 'Fact-Free Politics'.  As I just intimated, this really is the most charitable interpretation of these works.  [If you want to see just howthey are playing into the hands of these people read the 'boneheaded' (J. Jarrett) review of my book on amazon.co.uk and especially the 'comments' on that review.  Be warned, though: there are some pretty offensive views expressed there, especially if you open the comment hidden because of negative feedback.]

As a result of this, I organised a series (a 'strand') of four sessions of papers at this year's International Medieval Congress on 'Beyond the Invasion Narrative', the aim being twofold: to mobilise historians and archaeologists who do care not only about more subtle ways of thinking about their subject, but also about making sure that these more subtle and thus more socially responsible readings get out beyond the academy, and to develop, refine and publicise (within university teachers of late antique and early medieval history) those alternative readings.  For reasons beyond anyone's control, I lost a couple of papers and one way by which the slack was taken up was by me giving an introduction to the sessions explaining the reasoning behind them.  This focused upon the fact that sometimes it matters to get angry.  Historians aren't supposed to get angry.  Partly this is because the demonstration of anger erodes the cultural capital which is still the most important matter in furthering a career.  Principled anger has also disappeared from the repertoire of British academic history because it has been replaced by grubby collusion and self-interest, as a result of the material rewards - the funding, the grants, that are now the other means by which one rises up through the ranks (rather than actual historical creativity and talent).  Thus the absence of any real opposition to the most serious offensive ever launched by a British government against liberal, humane education: the absence of any leadership (in opposing this) by 'Universities UK' (in which historians are disproportionately represented).  Thus - with the noble and notable exceptions of Mark Humphries and Ian Wood (both present in my audience) and a couple of others - British historians have been silent about the intrusion of political slogans into the AHRC's delivery plan.  There was, I said, a deficit of principle in the British historical profession.  But it mattered, too, to get angry about the abuse of late antique and early medieval history by the Right.  A speech in Rome by Geert Wilders (a far right-wing Dutch politician) makes extensive use of the barbarian invasions as an example that we, who share Europe's alleged 'Judaeo-Christian heritage' (1) must learn from in the face of the 'Islamic threat'.  I adverted to the fact that a series of other examples would be presented Philipp von Rummel's paper later in that session.

As a result, I decided that, in my own paper, the last in the strand, I would to some small extent step outside the usual bounds of polite academic discourse.  I repeated the passage from my Brussels paper on rethinking the migration debate in archaeology, about unthinking academic uses of migration as explanation (the one concluding ‘one cannot help but wonder whether these authors are wicked, irresponsible or merely stupid’).  I repeated the point that (the historian we shall call) Cyril Fotheringay-Phipps' book essentially argues three things and places these three arguments side-by-side: 1. that the Roman empire fell because it was conquered by migrating barbarians (they might not have meant to destroy the Roman Empire, says C.F.-P., but they did); 2: that the end of the Roman Empire was the end of a civilisation; and 3. that we have to be careful to preserve our own civilisation.  Now, I'm not saying that C.F-P is a fascist - he would make a somewhat unlikely fascist, I concede.  However, I did add a comment about the fact that he has nevertheless been happy to write on this subject for Standpoint, neo-liberal rag founded by Michael Gove (q.v.), a magazine that prints regular attacks on multi-culturalism.  Has he not thought about the company he is keeping there? 

Now, as I just said, I'm not saying that he subscribes to the views of the xenophobic Right but, if you want to argue that he does, while that position at least credits him with intelligence, it could hardly be said to make for a rosy picture of our author.  If you don't want to suppose that, you might suggest that he is pandering to those who do hold these ideas simply to sell copy and make money.  This seems to me to be the least likely option, I admit, but if that's your view, it paints C.F-P in the least flattering colours: smart enough to put together a convincing argument for that audience but lacking even any conviction in his argument.  More positive, perhaps (and the option I have heard most often) is that he is simply putting these ideas about out of a sense of mischief, because he wants to 'wind people up'.  This credits him with enough intelligence to put together a stylish argument (and it is stylish, I admit).  Furthermore, no one ought to be more receptive to a bit of mischief and stirring than me.  But this does not seem to me to be a charitable reading because it simultaneously suggests that he is so irresponsible that he is peddling ideas to the general public that could cause serious damage to real live human beings (cp. my 'Unbearable Weight' posts) in the brutal world outside the groves of academe, simply as a form of silly academic parlour game, as some sort of ridiculous macro-scale Oxbridge tutorial sophistry. 

If you leave these aside, what other interpretative options are available?  One is that he actually thinks that this is the historical 'truth'.  I don't actually believe that, because the argument contains distortions that he must know are distortions (most notably the misrepresentation of the South Etruria Survey).  So, all told, the most charitable readings of this argument turn on the fact that this is a writer who just didn't think that these were arguments that could be seized upon by the xenophobic far Right as a historical, factual buttress to their nasty ideologies and the equally unpleasant policies they want to adopt (cp. Wilders' Rome speech), or notice that he had presented these arguments in a particular way that meant his book hardly even needed editing to support these views.  This writer, having presented those arguments in those ways in a book aimed at the general public (without, remember, realising the damage this could do) then wrote for a notably anti-multi-cultural magazine, without realising what the audience of the piece would be or in what ways they could use his views (although to be fair, he does not push his own view in this piece, the readers would surely go back to his own contribution to the 'Industry').  If you accept all that, then the shocking but actually, by the foregoing process of elimination, as we've seen most charitable alternative is that this is someone who has not thought very hard about things at all.  People with well-paid university jobs are paid to think - well, they used to be; now they seem to be paid to make money.  Thus, in someone with a publicly-funded university post, you might say that that suggests, relatively-speaking of course, a bit of a deficiency 'between his ears'.  That might be shocking but it is, actually, the most charitable reading.  But you decide.

There were audible intakes of breath.  This was, incidentally, quite different from the Brussels response, which was much more of the 'yay: go Guy!' variety.  I think history ought to make you uncomfortable, and I did do this deliberately, because I knew that this - this performed stepping outside the bounds - would shock that audience.  But that was deliberate.  What I hoped it would - or at least might - make them reflect upon is what we ought to get shocked or angry about.  Is it a senior British academic 'taking the gloves off' in response to what is at best a sort of irresponsible abuse of academic position?  Or is it the fact that someone with a nice cosy job in the hallowed halls of one of the wealthiest, most prestigious and most privileged of British HE institutions can't (or can't be bothered to) think hard enough about what he's writing to see what it might do outside those halls? 

Or is it the fact that a British historian, one who earns (I guess) in excess of £70k of public money a year to occupy an established chair of medieval history in a leading British university, a chair previously occupied by a usually extremely ethically-minded medieval historian [actually I would not say that any more...], can publish the following sentence?:

'the connection between immigrant violence and the collapse of the western Empire could not be more direct'


Let's think about that.  Presumably, and assuming, because it would be uncharitable not to, that when (the historian to whom we shall refer as) Gussy Finknottle decided to commit those words to paper some form of thought-process was involved, the option was available to him to write this sentence:

'the connection between barbarian violence and the collapse of the western Empire could not be more direct.'

That would have been fair enough as a sentence. One might or might not have agreed - one might want to debate it historically - but it would remain firmly locked within the discussion of the past, and within that discussion's terms of art.  Now, there would of course be nothing to stop some loony right-wing reader making a link between that sentence and modern immigrants but it would be difficult to blame the author for that.  No.  At some point Finknottle chose (chose) to write:

'the connection between immigrantviolence and the collapse of the western Empire could not be more direct'

What sort of person can choose, can decide, to use that word - 'immigrant' - without being aware of its status within modern political discourse, and write it (as with C.F-P) not in an obscure learned journal but in a book aimed at a wide public, outside academe?  Without being aware - without (one hopes) even having thought, at all - about the serious human damage it could do?  What sort of person?  The occupant of handsomely-remunerated academic chair of history? 

Do you notfind that shocking?  Do you not find that more shocking than the fact that, for about two minutes, I chose not to play within the rules of academic paper-giving rhetoric at an academic conference?  Does that not make you angry? If you don't, or if it doesn't, then I am glad I shocked you because it is high time you took a long, hard, serious look at your own basic assumptions.

Of course, me being me, I have actually spent a long time since then worrying and wondering whether I should have done this (just as I wonder on a weekly basis whether or not I shouldn't delete this blog), but on balance I don't think I regret it.  Actually, right now, as I write this post, I don't regret it for an instant.


1: This attempt at an alliance between the xenophobic European far right and the Israeli Zionist right is one of the most grotesque aspects of the current anti-Islamic immigration debate.  Seventy years ago no one would have described Europe as having a 'Judaeo-Christian' inheritance, largely because the political precursors of Geert Wilders were trying to herd the ancestors of the Zionist Right into the gas chambers.  It also, the historian must point out, ignores the vitally important Islamic input into European culture (in Spain especially), not least in preserving many of the Graeco-Roman classics.