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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Historian as Anti-Hero

[This is a snippet that I came across while putting my ideas in order for 'the next book' - which is provisionally entitled Escaping the Past: Why History Doesn't Matter.  In the interim I thought it might amuse you if I put it up here, and perhaps provoke some comment.  You can see that it is not unrelated to my previous thoughts about history and ethics.]

Feelings ran high at the International Charter Studies
Conference when Whittaker suggested that Chiklis'
reading of Sawyer 301 ignored the possibility
that it was a forgery
Historians used to be fond of the metaphor of the historian as detective, uncovering the truth about the past. As doubts have grown about the possibilities of historical ‘truth’, the metaphor has waned but it or something like it still seems to lie, implicitly, behind a great deal of writing about the practice of history. Historians now recover lost voices and uncover silenced pasts. The historian continues to play a heroic forensic role. In terms of method, there is (or there ought to be) something in the analogy but if I have a metaphor to offer it is rather the historian as the ‘Internal Affairs guy’. This is a well-known figure in popular TV ‘cop shows’ and rarely a ‘good guy’. He or she is there to suppose that the hero has lied or done something wrong and that the villains might have been wronged or be telling the truth. The character rarely turns out to be as unsettling as that but it works as an analogy.* For me, the historian is not there to provide comforting truths but to question them. The historian must always be prepared to wonder whether the ‘heroes’ of history are not, in fact, the villains, and whether, by contrast, the ‘villains’ have had a fair hearing. The historian, in this view, is rather more of an anti-hero. It is not the historian’s role to provide narratives that succour political or religious dogma or nationalist or racial chauvinism: quite the opposite. History should be troubling or unsettling in some aspect – at least – of its practice, and if it is not then I suggest that it is probably not being done properly.
The initial stance of the historian must be one of radical, almost Cartesian doubt. Until proven beyond reasonable doubt to be otherwise (and however little time it takes to do so) the possibility must always be retained that anything and everything might not be true, might be myth, might even be a tissue of lies in fabricated documents. Nothing at all can logically or consistently be excluded from the possibilities of such doubt. Indeed I maintain that to maintain democracy, it is dangerous to remove anything at all from such procedure (even if, to repeat, that procedure lasts barely a minute). Note, though, that I have employed the British legal qualification ‘beyond reasonable doubt.’ In purely philosophical terms, it is very difficult to get off the ‘lonely rock’ of complete Cartesian scepticism about the reality of the exterior world but in practice we have to do so every day. History must have a practical value, even if not in the usual ways, and this demands that we be pragmatic in our acceptance of basic ‘fact’.

The essential tenets of my stance are that historians (especially teachers of history) must take a politically-engaged stance; history is inevitably political; and an ethics inheres within its practice, which implies that the politics of good history are of its very nature those of the left (even if of the moderate or even centre-left): undogmatic, humanist and politically liberal. I will not convince everyone; I trust – even hope – that I will annoy a substantial number of practitioners of history (not all of whom I would classify as historians). Much of this argument, if carried through, will initially at least be disturbing, possibly even superficially offensive to people on the left as well as the right. This does not trouble me; as I have said, it is the role of the historian to make things uncomfortable. What I hope will be the case is that, at least after closer reflection and consideration of its thesis, an argument on these lines will provide a manifesto around which left-leaning practitioners of history can cluster. Using the thought of so-called post-modernists or ‘continental’ philosophers, as drawn from their actual writings rather than as glimpsed by unsubtle imitators or as caricatured in the scare-mongering or ill-informed (sometimes both) works of its opponents, whether historians or analytic philosophers, and whether from the political right or the left may suggest a means of using history to navigate between various unhelpful doctrinaire positions, for instance between moral relativism on one hand and claims to the superiority of modern western ideas on the other, while still giving it a vital political importance. It will also propose a consistent means of pedagogically employing a left-leaning political conception of history and its practice, influenced by the so-called ‘post-modernists’, in other words one that does not ultimately founder hypocritically on issues of academic power or on ill-theorised differentiation between contemporary and ‘secondary’ writings.

* The pic accompanying this post is from Season 6 (I think) of The Shield.  In Season 5 an IA man played by Forrest Whittaker was introduced by the writers to shed a light back on the fundamental nature of the lead character, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a corrupt cop whose approval among the show's audiences had risen to surprising levels.  However, to their surprise, Whittaker's character came to be seen by viewers as the 'Bad Guy' and Mackey's approval ratings soared even higher!


  1. Right on! That's all I have to say for now. Cheers, Eileen

  2. Still have to answer, and it might be long enough for my own post. Stay tuned to find out why you're right, but for the wrong reasons. Or possibly wrong, but for the right reasons. But I think I'm going for the first.


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