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Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Transformations of the Year 600: A Historical Experiment (or, ‘How I learnt to start worrying and love Jacques Derrida’.)

[This is the rabble-rousing paper I gave last night to a well-attended departmental research seminar (my thanks to everyone who came, especially the students, graduate and undergraduate).  In it I talk about my two main current writing projects and how one might bring them together to create a new form of socially-committed history.]

The old joke says that ‘there’s no future in history’.  In important regards, however, it might actually be true; history as a worthwhile intellectual discipline might indeed be on the verge of disappearing.  To sum up the situation, let me offer a quote from one of my favourite philosophers, Simon Critchley, from one of his books of interviews, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying (Critchley left the UK to work in New York [as would I given half a chance], which might set this comment in context):

We're sitting right now in a university, in the business school at Queen Mary, University of London.  Universities are business schools.  At least business schools say they are business schools, which is more honest than the rest of the rubbish.  And these are places where you can no longer think.  You're not encouraged to think - it's not what you're supposed to do.  You are simply meant to produce.  At a certain point, not that long ago, universities were places where thinking took place.  Perhaps this seems an absurd and ludicrous proposition.  But thinking happened, particularly in experimental universities, that developed in the 1960s, in England: Essex, Sussex, Warwick and the rest [like, ahem, York], which are now tedious and mediocre business schools.  So it has become harder and harder to think in universities.  Something has shifted in culture ...

I will be talking a lot about shifts in culture but all this, this shift in the culture that Critchley was talking about, the fact that there has been nothing done to resist it, makes me very angry.  As some of you know, I am an angry man. Obviously this has ruined my career and personal life, but apart from that, it has provided something of a productive and rich vein in thinking about what history could or should be if we were to try and shake it out of its current complacency.  So, what I am going to do in this angry paper is to talk about two projects I have been working on, maybe for 10-15 minutes or so each, and then for the rest of my time offer a couple of frankly poncy meditations on how they might be brought together.

1: The Transformations of the Year 600

My first, and I suppose my major, project is entitled The Transformations of the Year 600 - a title I stole shamelessly from the English title of a book by Guy Bois, The Transformations of the Year 1000.  With the help of Chris Wickham, Paul Fouracre and Walter Pohl, I managed to blag a major Leverhulme research fellowship to work on this between 2009 and 2012.  Quite a few articles and seminar or conference papers have come out of this but the major publication is still a way off and indeed I am still not sure what form that publication, or that output as we have to say nowadays, ought to take – book or books, interpretive dance, beef-based recipe, range of affordable leisurewear.  Indeed that is the major issue of this presentation – it is the experiment referred to in the title, or the wager, on a new type of history, if you prefer.

Essentially, a wide array of changes took place between the last third of the sixth century and the first half of the seventh, across Western Europe.  A brief catalogue will have to suffice.  There were changes in the ways in which people were buried – a reduction in grave-goods in some areas, and especially a reduction in the number of grave-goods signifying gender (particularly feminine gender in some places), more but smaller cemeteries, the break-down of earlier community burial norms and planning of cemeteries, the (in general) end of cremation in England, the appearance of new elite burials, under mounds, in churches, in separate cemeteries.  There were important shifts in the forms and decoration (or decorative style) of artefacts: Style II in north-western Europe; more Byzantine-influenced styles in Spain, etc.  New high-status settlements appeared – so-called nuclear hill-forts in northern Britain for example; the earliest phases of new ports of trade, the emporia, possibly some high-status rural settlements in England and France (although these really appear from about 650).  New rural monasteries – frequently associated with new monastic rules – are founded across the Christian regions.  Rural churches become more common.  In some areas, towns experience something of a revival after a phase of decline and sometimes desertion.  Other economic changes include a shift in long-distance trade-routes from the so-called ‘Mediterranean’ to the so-called ‘Continental’ system, certain imports, such as Indian garnets, disappear, and there are evident increases in craft specialisation, in metalwork and ceramics.  Further changes include a rapid rise in the survival or retention of written documents, there are changes in the Law, changes in the function of ethnic identity; there are religious changes – the Anglo-Saxons convert to Christianity; the Spanish Visigoths abandon their Arianism for Catholicism, it has been suggested that an ‘ascetic invasion took place’.  There seems to be a significant change in the ideas of kingship and royal legitimacy with a growth in the use of Old Testament exemplars.  Legal privileges – immunities – increase and there are shifts in taxation and the raising of armies.  There are changes in weaponry.    At the same time there seem to be other shifts in ideas and a growth of apocalyptic thinking.  And so on.

Such a staccato catalogue ought to illustrate that a historical study of this period would be a desideratum, but it might also raise the question of why one has not been done already.  For this, the reason is I think the fragmentation of western European history into various national historiographical traditions after the end of the western Roman Empire.  Imperial history had provided a grand narrative for western Europe, even if it is sometimes complained that studies of the different provinces do not take enough notice of each other.  With the end of that master narrative, different national ‘stories’ take over, and these rarely pay much heed to each other.  Thus, for instance, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity continues to be seen as the principle event of the period and as the one upon which explanations for all sorts of cultural change should be hung, from archaeological changes through to the appearance of charters.  And yet, twenty-odd miles away, across the Channel, a very similar array of cultural changes was taking place, which cannot possibly be explained by Christianisation.  The Anglo-Saxon historiographical tradition not only forecloses a more convincing set of explanations, it also shuts down, in my view, the possibilities for understanding the nature of fifth- and sixth-century lowland Britain, its society and politics.  This is far from being the only case of historiographical isolationism, but it illustrates the issue especially well. The eastern Roman Empire and the Eastern Mediterranean have long been known to have undergone change in this period but there an imperial grand narrative continues to exist to unify various different regional studies.

So I hope one might see why even a general description of the interconnected range and extent of change in late sixth- and early seventh-century western Europe might be of value.  What is more interesting and more important is making an attempt to explain this wave of transformations.  I’d been aware of the changes in Gaul since my earliest work on Merovingian Lorraine, when I had explained it in terms of the Frankish aristocracy being able, during a period of royal minorities between 575 and 614, to tilt the balance of power away from the kings and towards themselves in a struggle for lasting control over local society.  I still think that there is much in this, and that it may have some link to changes outside Francia as well.  From there I went on to discuss the changes in terms of a collapse of the state – in a strong sense, the collapse of any polities that can usefully, analytically be classed as states; in a weak (banal) sense, of the state in its specifically late antique form.  Again, I think that this is descriptively adequate in many ways and unifies developments across a goodly swathe of the west but it also seemed in important regards unsatisfactory for one important reason.  Why should aristocrats around 600 have felt that they should or – better – could compete with kings for legitimate control of local or regional society?  This led me into thinking about legitimation, about Gramscian hegemony.  What had happened to the Roman dual idea of otium and negotium which had keyed aristocracies into the res publica?  So that led me to consider the changes around 600 as the ‘end of the Roman world’, which has become the alternative title for this project, an end brought about primarily by the wars of the Emperor Justinian between 533 and about 555.  

The physical destructiveness of Justinian’s wars has long been appreciated but for me the key issue was the ideology that produced and accompanied them.  Growing out of a situation around 510 when it looked possible that the king of the Franks or the Italian Goths might take the vacant western throne, the rulers in Constantinople began to push the idea that there could be no legitimate western emperor because the west had been lost to the barbarians.  It was, as Brian Croke pointed out thirty years ago, then that the ‘turning point’ of 476 was in his words ‘manufactured’.  This ideological output produced Justinian’s attempt to reconquer the west.  This attempt failed and because it failed it redrew a border between imperium and barbaricum.  Indeed quite early on, unsurprisingly, it saw the first formal imperial recognition of non-Roman rule over the western territories – obviously, this recognition cost Justinian nothing (in a way that would have been unimaginable to fourth-century and earlier emperors); if anything it underlined his ideology.  But what all this also meant was that for the first time no one in the old western provinces could be under the misapprehension that they still lived within the Roman Empire.  A twenty-year-long destructive war was waged to make the point.

This led me to see the transformations of the year 600, at all sorts of levels, as the playing out of responses to this idea of not being Roman any more.  All sorts of forms of power, whether royal, aristocratic, gendered, needed new justifications, new underpinnings.  There was one further point that emerged from this. For centuries the Roman Empire had been believed by Christians to be commensurate with the Sixth Age of the World, the last before the Second Coming and the Kingdom of God.  After all, had not Christ been born in the reign of Augustus, the first emperor?  And had not, as Gregory of Tours added, Saint Martin been born in the reign of the first Christian emperor, Constantine?What now? Now that the Empire had – obviously – ended in the west?  There is a distinct rise in apocalyptic thinking around 600, clearly manifest in the works of both of the Gregories, Gregory of Tours and Gregory the Great, and I think that this – encouraged also by the sheer destructiveness of the Justinianic wars and the terrible Great Plague of the 540s – was also key to the shifts in ideas that occurred in this period.  These included the growth of typological thinking, the increasing use of the Old Testament in politics and so on.  Interestingly there was a shift in views of time in writers like Gregory of Tours.  How do you conceive time that is effectively after linear time?  The concern with permanence, with things that endure in saeculo saeculorum, has to be read in the light of the idea that ‘for ever and ever’ might have been thought to be a very short period indeed.  Gregory of Tours really was writing a history that had no future.  There is no future in this history.  I will come back to this at the end.  What I hope I have at least suggested, though, is that it really was the period of one of the most important shifts of culture in western European history, and that it has not had the recognition it deserves.

2: Why History Does Not Matter

Now, all this might or might not make for a decent and interesting historical work.  Most days, I think it would.  But I did not, and do not, want just to produce Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West Volume 2, even if that would be a perfectly good REF output.  Don’t get me wrong – I am very proud of Barbarian Migrations, which I see as (to date) my magnum opus, even if, to borrow something from Learnng to Live Finally, Jacques Derrida’s last interview, I simultaneously but sincerely hold the incompatible views that it has already come, gone and been forgotten, buried under big, heavy, populist, heavily-marketed UKIP-friendly tomes by P*t*r H**th*r – and, at the same time, that as yet people have not even begun to read it properly.  But I wanted to write something different.  For several reasons.  First, unlike P*t*r H**th*r, I have a bit of a horror of writing the same book twice (let alone six times).  Second, I was stung into some action by one of those micro-aggressions that you have to learn to live with if you are a medievalist who didn’t go to Oxbridge – when one of the glittering great and good said to me, about Barbarian Migrations, ‘you must realise you’ll never write anything that good again’.  And third and most important, I was motivated by my sense that there is a crisis in the state of history.

Ever since the linguistic turn, we have, surely, all known that history in the Rankean sense of telling it ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ is an impossibility; that history itself (if you think history aspires somehow to the rediscription of the past) is, in important senses, impossible.  This has left the discipline of history in a difficult position. It doesn’t seem to know what it is for any more.  The abdication of the claim to know, and be able to tell it, how it was better than anyone else has in many ways abandoned the field to the likes of Dan Snow and other more or less unqualified populists, who give the public what it wants (or rather what it is told it wants) from history – entertaining stories (and note that nowadays it is these people to whom governments turn when they want to discuss what history teaching should be about – not actual historians: that sums it up).  Within history, there seem to have been only two responses to the situation, a philosophically lightweight wishy-washy relativist nihilism associated with Keith Jenkins and his acolytes on the one hand and, on the other, an attempt to go on writing and evaluating history in the old way, as if it were possible to tell it how it was, even though we know it isn’t.  Žižek refers to this as the ideological fantasy: ‘je sais bien mais quand-même’ (‘yeah, I know, but still...’).  I don’t have much time for Žižek but I think this idea works. 

All those shifts in the culture of universities to which I alluded at the start (more specifically the fixation on league-tables – and at the moment of course we love league-tables – and big research grants) threaten to bed this down into a solid, self-perpetuating cycle of crypto-Rankean positivist archive-bothering, a fact-producing, on-line searchable list-producing service industry, whether for the PR departments of Big Pharma, or for the populist producers of TV and bookshop history, or for the tourist industry, GB PLC.  Public history: safe, conservative, identity-affirming, identity-perpetuating cosy history.  History that tells us who we are and how we got here.  None of this especially matters in some ways.  We might stop thinking, we might lose scholarship in areas that are insufficiently attractive in the NSS-led student-choice market, but history departments will continue to recruit mostly nice, mostly white, mostly middle class students who know that a degree in history is a good bet for a career in the law or the City but more entertaining than law itself or economics.  What threatens to happen, and what will happen unless we somehow do something to resist the culture shift – although we won’t because the profession has no leadership, the RHS being the most gutless of the professional bodies, and historians are proportionately over-represented within the management machinery of UK higher education, which has done so much to bring about this shift – is that history will descend into something intellectually meaningless.  Something really with no future.

You can see all this in discussions of why history matters.  John Tosh’s book on the subject with that title is a good example.  Politically, it is on the side of the angels but, like pretty much every other attempt to argue for the relevance of history, or of one type of history as opposed to others, its arguments all collapse the very moment that you concede the point that history is about more than the accumulation of facts, of things that did or did not happen, in the past; that it is about something more than chronicling or antiquarianism (even if the university culture shift threatens to restrict it entirely to those areas).  Once one accepts that the fundamental value of history lies in two key areas – a radical scepticism (the critical analysis of all sorts of information) and a simultaneously critical listening to and understanding of other human beings, an appreciation of the diversity of human experience – then one has to concede that any kind of history is potentially as ‘relevant’ as any other and that at the very core, the beating heart of history is very much the opposite of comfort, justification and reassurance.  History should be disorientating, uncomfortable, dangerous (which is why governments are so worried about it).

So, what I want to propose is – in a way – return to pre-Rankean history, a return to history as philosophy teaching by example, albeit in a different form: case studies of humanity, with which we can think.  If there are no ultimate, final right answers in history, or no historical ‘outer text’ against which to measure the accuracy of our efforts to describe it, we must I contend embrace the transience of history, in the present, in the form of debate.  That’s where its value lies.  This does not mean that anything goes, or that we can abandon method or rigour; quite the opposite.  Derrida once said that the critique of reason can only be made from within reason; the critique of historicism can essentially only be carried out from within historicism.  But it does mean that macho debates about who is right or wrong in particular empirical areas of history, attempts to win a debate about some issue by getting everyone to agree and to defeat one’s opponents – in their usual terms – are games that are not worth the effort.  There is a pointlessness here – a lack of a future – that needs to be embraced.  History should be about a constant debate and discussion. The possibility that there may be a point where our accounts of aspects of the past might map directly onto the past as it happened may be a constitutive fiction for all historical activity, but we need overtly to recognise that it is a fiction, that it is a horizon that can only exist in the act of being motioned or gestured towards, not one that can ever be reached.  This the case not least because – since there is no outer-history against which to measure our attempts – there is no way of knowing whether it had been reached, or even passed through; it is a spectral horizon.  Recognizing this allows us to fix our gaze on a different horizon, beyond.  What this would be, in the terms I think first coined by Maurice Blanchot and if I have understood it correctly, would be a désoeuvrement – an ‘unworking’ – of history.  I will shortly come back to a different aspect of désoeuvrement.

One aspect which also needs to be appreciated is that understanding why what happened in history happened requires us to consider all the things that did not happen, but could have done – including many of the things that people wanted or were trying to do; all the things that were once possible but that are no longer; all the things, in short, that had no future.  That is what I have meant when I have said to my students, gnomically, that history is about keeping faith with the impossible.  I tried to do that to some extent in the middle section of Barbarian Migrations, an attempt to write a narrative history in the ironic mode.

Meditation 1: Politics, community and subjectivisation

So, for the rest of my time, what I want to propose is two examples of how a meditation on some aspect of the Transformations of the Year 600 might produce a history of the type I have just been discussing.  What I propose is a slightly different way of producing, through writing but also and perhaps especially through teaching, a socially- or politically-committed history.  There is a lot of talk of socially-committed history but a lot of the people who posture on that front reveal themselves to be, when push comes to shove, deeply – viciously – conservative defenders of the status quo.  I’ll shortly come on to how that has happened.  To put it briefly, though, there is more to social commitment than dribbling out the occasional Marxist platitude at high table.

So, here’s a question: why was the Roman Empire so resilient?  My answer to that would turn on the linkage between the processes of subjectivisation and socialisation and the Roman polity itself.  The ideal of the Roman male was something that had to be learnt and performed for participation in legitimate politics or the wielding of legitimate authority at whatever level from the family to the empire itself.  As something constantly performed, it was only ever a motion towards, but it was held to constitute what differentiated Romans from non-Romans.  Divergence from it risked removal from any political circle, forum or activity with any claim to legitimacy.  There were some changes, I have suggested before, in how this worked during the fourth century, which in some ways enabled the provincial population to negotiate the storms of the fifth century but which also facilitated the disintegration of the Empire, but it is also true to say that that general system persisted into the earlier sixth century.

It was one of the most important foci of the key changes that took place in the decades around 600.  Briefly, in the period that concerns me, the old idea of a civil aristocracy or bureaucracy, the idea of a civic construction of manhood, disappeared; the militarisation of the aristocracy – outside the Church (and sometimes inside...) was complete and remained so for much of the succeeding millennium.   That change happened in connection with the removal of the idea that both types of aristocracy – civil and military – had been legitimated through an ultimate connection with the emperor, something that could not be maintained after the Justinianic wars.  Outside Rome itself, Roman identity declined to being a dependent, semi-free category; the principal activities in which the civic aristocracy had participated – taxation – withered. 

At the end of the period I am working on, though, the outcome of all this was the end of any link between the formation of the subject and the polity.  One might locate the elements that might feed into an ideal towards which a subject moved in the process of subjectivisation, in religion, in ethnicity, in familial identity, but by the seventh century there was no necessary connection between any of these and a political unit, something which had not necessarily been the case in the sixth century.

This means we have to rethink quite significantly what we might consider to have been the operation of political community in the very early medieval world.  Above all it means rethinking the notion of consensus, which has dominated thinking on the subject since the 1970s.  What is the reality of political community in the seventh century and after? On the whole, historiography, under the influence of Janet Nelson, has tended to accept the description of community put forward by contemporaries.  But this is a very problematic approach, deeply conservative in its assumptions.  We need to explore the insidious vocabulary of consensus, which has operated, by a sort of double move, accepting the dangerous dominant vocabulary of power while simultaneously foreclosing historical debate and disagreement.  ‘Consensus’ is a mask for the operation of power.  It conceals exclusion or the removal of opposition by declaring opponents to have removed or excluded themselves.  The regnum francorum, for example, as it appears in laws, charters and narratives does not faithfully describe a real, inclusive community, but reflects the active exclusion of opponents.

Here it is interesting to think about Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophy of the ‘communauté désoeuvrée’ – the ‘unworked community’ – a community which lacks a unifying, underlying ideology, in which people come together in mutual recognition of difference.  Now this was certainly not what seventh-century and later political communities were aiming at, for sure, as I have just said, but it may in practice frequently have underlain how they operated.  There was in any case for a long time a failure to work any sort of political community, perhaps until the days of Charlemagne – and maybe not even then.

Thinking through this gives us some means of considering how we might think political community in the present.  It seems to have some kind of contemporary resonance in the context of talk of integration and multi-culturalism, which needs directly addressing.  Especially when, as I have alluded to already, the vocabulary of populist and heavily-marketed historians like Br**n W*rd-P*rk*ns and P*t*r H**th*r panders to the anti-immigration dog-whistle politics bandied about by the Right in various countries, what we may have is a resource for a historically-grounded political counter.  It enables a consideration of toleration and justice.  Toleration is not an exchange, as some people have been telling us in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings; tolerance requires no reciprocation.  We have to value opposition and disagreement.  Justice and revenge are potential topics for other meditations on the changes that took place around 600.  What I am not saying here is that politics around 600 followed some sort of post-multi-cultural post-integrationist ideal model, but that a consideration of the dynamics at work, and especially of the possibilities that it opened, permits a thinking of alternatives in the present.  A historical examination should tell us that things we are told are impossible are not necessarily.

Meditation 2: The Nature of History

My second meditation returns us to the historical writing of Gregory of Tours.  Gregory’s Histories have a very disjointed structure.  They seem like – well, they are – a sequence of independent self-contained stories.  For a long time – and you can see this in Ernst Auerbach’s famous discussion of  Gregory – this was assumed to result from a sort of common man’s artlessness; Gregory was a naïve idle gossip who wrote down whatever stories came his way.  We have long moved beyond that view of Gregory to a much better understanding, but explanations of the Histories’ disjointed structure – such as Walter Goffart’s theory that Gregory was writing satire – have not always convinced.  In my opinion, Gregory wrote his historiography in the same way as he wrote his hagiography, as chronologically loosely sequential self-contained stories in which a good or bad action was rewarded or punished, a bit like a game of consequences.  But why?  Earlier I mentioned the possibility that Gregory and some of his contemporaries saw themselves as in a sort of temporal limbo after the end of the sixth age, with the imminent coming of Antichrist and then the kingdom of God.  In this I think Gregory was much more like his namesake Gregory the Great than has widely been appreciated.  What seems to be at stake here, in a conception of time after linear time, is a view of causation that works as it were, vertically – from God – and typologically.  The penalty for – say – adultery will match the similar rewards for such transgressions of divine law recorded in scripture, which become types for contemporary events.  That things match typologically without lineal descent is something of a valuable resource in a world of new beginnings, where new powers seek legitimation.

But what might we make of this in the twenty-first century?  I would like to suggest that this conception of time and history may – even though I assume that we would not want to write it quite like that now – have more to offer us than might at first seem apparent.  For one thing it points towards an emancipation from the standard view of linear history, or linear causation, from the teleology of conventional historical narrative.  It is important to recognise that we are not bound by history, by the past, that we are not condemned to keep on doing things because of what happened in the past, within the tramlines set out by the past.  What it points towards is the importance of agency and decision in the present.  What we have is a conception of the active present radically independent of the past and only putting a wager on the future.

We would not want to follow the idea that analogous events in the past, and their consequences, are types of events in the present – that after all is the fallacy of the ‘warning from history’ school of thought that, as in John Tosh’s discussion of why history matters, suggests that a knowledge of what went wrong after the 1918 British occupation of Iraq should have warned us what was going to go wrong in 2003.  But, as I have suggested before, we might want to think ethically about events of particular types in the past when comparing them with those in the present. Not, I should say, to wag our finger at them from the perspective of the present but, turning the telescope round, so to speak, using them to think about the present.  Cutting the chords of linear time or indeed of geography, which are what have been used to limit claims for historical relevance, allows us to think more typologically about history and its value in the present.


[I forgot to insert this bit in my script:
There's a bit in The Life of Brian where 'Loretta' says she wants the right to have a baby.  One of the other rebels asks 'where's the foetus going to gestate?  Are you going to keep it in a box?'  This produces the following exchange:
"No, it is symbolic of our struggle against oppression"
"It's symbolic of his struggle against reality."
I can't help feeling when I give papers like this that it is me banging on about our struggle against oppression while the audience is thinking "your struggle against reality, more like".  But then, as Critchley says in his book on humour, the ability to laugh at yourself is an important resource in any seemingly hopeless struggle.]
Of course, there may very well be no future in the historical experiment I am proposing.  The dice are doubtless already stacked against my wager.  There is certainly be no future in it if we are to listen to the dictates of those who are supposedly in the know about Universities and their future; all their beloved euphemistic phrases about strategy, sustainability, what will or ‘won’t happen’ come and circle around it like vultures.  That, though, is precisely why one should take it seriously – if the lesson of history is to keep faith with the impossible, or what we are told is impossible.  It is, however, something that it is up to my generation to do something about – it is pointless to try to inspire students with new ways of thinking and expect them to embrace those approaches if the system seems explicitly designed to stifle them.  But what my generation can do and should do is to try to repair some of the damage it has already done to thought, culture and society, to create openings, a space for younger scholars to do something more radical and interesting.  What does that mean in practice?  It means providing some sort of leadership which is not in craven subservience to the demands of neo-liberalism, the market, or short-term contingent local advantage.

OK, one might lose.  There may well be no future in that struggle.  But as Kierkegaard would have said, it is the real test of faith to wager on the impossible.

Most of all, I would like to suggest that it might at least be better to die on your feet, thinking, than to live on your knees, filling in grant application forms.