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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Myth of Relevance (Part 1)

[I have, you might have noticed, been rather creatively 'blocked' for the past few months.  I am trying to get myself back into writing, especially my book Why History Doesn't Matter, of which I have posted draft elements in the past.  To try and help in the process here is part of a chapter I have just recommenced working on (chapter 4), with the same title as this post.  This section was largely written about a year ago.  As ever, all (constructive and polite!) comments, criticisms and suggestions are welcome.]

Thus far my argument has been composed of elements which are quite familiar within discussions of historical practice.  Yet, it is has also become clear that these apparent commonplaces have had little effect either upon how history continues to be written or upon how historical study is justified.  Indeed, it would seem that the implications of the points made have either not been followed up carefully or have been ignored as inconvenient.  This chapter pursues the exploration of this crucial disjunction.

We have seen in chapter 1 that history us more than the simple chronicling or description of past events or facts.  Chapter 2 demonstrated that the narratives of the past are artificial constructions that were rarely if ever experienced in the way recounted.  Chapter 3 developed this point to argue that, therefore, the story of the past does not tell us who we are and how we got here.  All this cannot but have a serious and detrimental effect upon the usual arguments for the relevance (or otherwise) of history.  Obviously, this matters.  People ignorant of the subject often claim that History is irrelevant.  Their claim is far from justifiable but the usual defences of the relevance of historical study are, on the whole, equally weak.  That weakness means that those who wish to deny the importance of an historical education can easily bypass them.  The form that such defences take is profoundly damaging to the discipline of history itself.     

What kinds of history, in what periods or places in history, are relevant and to whom?  And why?  The usually-deployed arguments for historical relevance have a tendency to valorise some forms of history (usually modern, often very modern; sometimes specific regions or historical themes) over others (ancient and medieval, or unfashionable thematic areas like diplomatic history).  The problem is that, especially when combined with the academic politics to which I will return, this can lead to an ever-increasing concentration on ever narrower themes and time-spans.  One might say that this need not matter; that, although breadth of knowledge or awareness never did any historian any harm, the simple knowledge of a wide range of things that happened in the past is in itself fundamentally unimportant to the value of historical study.  That argument has some logical force.  However, range and diversity in historical endeavour need defending on different grounds from those usually employed.  If it is properly carried out, all historical study is of equal value and relevance (albeit in different ways from those usually proposed), whether one studies Hitler or the Hittites.  No period or topic has a greater claim to being more relevant than any other.  According to the criteria by which historical relevance is normally accorded, though, nohistory is actually relevant at all.  Judging history according to the usually-assumed criteria of relevance is a mistake; it perpetuates a myth.

Part of the problem with traditional justifications for history originates in the acceptance, castigated in the previous chapters, of the idea that each episode in a historical narrative finds its necessary and sufficient cause in those that precede it.  Using the metaphor of the snooker balls [A crib from Bertrand Russell, IIRC [actually Hume and billiard balls - with thanks to a Mr Danny Chaplin]: you can observe a sequence of events but not causation itself or whether the results are determined by intention: I hadn't actually written this bit up when I wrote this about a year ago and I stll haven't! So I can't remember quite what I had in mind!] we saw that this is a very poor way of envisaging historical cause and effect.  If this argument is accepted, then a critical weakness is exposed in the claim that, to understand how things are here and now we need to comprehend things that happened, here, immediately beforehand.  But, even if this critique is not accepted, one is left with the problem of how far back ‘relevant’ history goes.  If the events of 1945-2015 can only be understood in by reference to those since, say, 1939-45 then surely the events of 1939-45 can themselves only be comprehended by reference to those of 1914-39, which in turn can only be  grasped via study of the period 1870-1914, and those events make sense solely in the light of history between 1815 and 1870.  And so on, back to the earth cooling.

The only means of escaping this bind come through the simple exercise of academic power.  Most historians are specialists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and so have a vested interest in staffing their departments with ever more specialists in ever narrower and more specialised areas of modern history.  Once a critical mass is attained, the dynamics of university departmental politics make it increasingly difficult to change this situation.  As more members of staff offer increasing numbers of modern options then, logically inevitably, more students take modern history.  This fact is then read après coup to argue that modern history is what most students want.  When a particular era dominates school curricula and when the burden of fees and debt understandably reduces an undergraduate intake’s confidence in trying out new periods and places of history, the two points merge and a sort of cock-eyed market principle comes into play to underline departmental politics.  We must give our student-customers what they want.  As pre-modern history becomes more marginal, specialist staff are called upon to teach ever longer and broader stretches of history, usually well beyond their detailed knowledge.  This in turn underlines the idea among students and specialists in later eras that nothing much of importance changed or happened across these millennia and thus that a single lecturer can reasonably be charged with covering the entire period between the fall of Rome (or, in the States, ancient Sumer) and the Italian Renaissance.  And so the log-rolling continues apace.

I have witnessed these dynamics in action with modern historians but the attitude is contingent; it is not intrinsic to modern history.  Historians of other times and places are equally capable, when in positions of dominance, of justifying their own prejudices with high-sounding principles and using them to entrench their current superiority.  I have also experienced much the same dynamics in other institutions among medievalists and have seen traces of it among classicists and early modernists too.  This is well attested in the US as well as the UK.  Nor is this sort of academic politicking confined to history.  It is visible across many other disciplines.  Witness changes in subject matter and coverage    in modern language departments, again frequently to the detriment of the earlier periods taught, or the witch-hunt against continental thought in British philosophy departments.  The point is that what is presented as logical, natural or automatic is usually the product of specific, local operations of power.  Indeed I will be arguing that teaching and learning this point is one of the most important purposes of history.  Thus the arbitrary cut-off points used to determine when history ceases to be relevant are part of a battery of tactical ruses within the petty departmental politics of the university, not something that would emerge from serious historiographical theory.

One can isolate similar contingent political principles used to justify the arguments in favour of the history of a specific region being more ‘relevant’ than that of another.  Here, the pressures usually – though sadly not always – come from outside academia.  Typically they originate with politicians of a conservative bent who wish to present a particular national narrative to the schoolchildren of their country.  This has been a much-debated issue in the United Kingdom for some time but it is by no means limited to, or especially extreme within, British politics.  French history has been subject to analogous pressures and the political demands made of US public schools by conservative state governments are often much more disturbing.  The idea that one particular narrative is natural or represents ‘the truth’ is highly questionable.  Such narratives, as we have seen, are artificial constructs designed to make a particular point.  A key issue is the arbitrary selection of the geographical zone in question.  In the British example, the determination of a particular off-shore archipelago might reasonably be seen as a solid enough justification for the geographical delineation of a long-term historical narrative.  Of course, it is never so simple.  It is a commonplace that ‘British history’ all too often means ‘English history’, with Scots, Welsh and Irish playing only walk-on parts or, as I once put it, walked-on parts.  What is England or Scotland or Wales in a long-term context?  All these are specific units of the earth’s surface with no natural connection and, perhaps as a result, no very long-term social or political unity.  England has existed, as currently defined geographically, for under 1000 years and yet is, by that definition, the oldest of the four British polities by some margin.  Even then, the precise delineation of the Anglo-Scottish border was only fixed in its western reaches after  the Union of the Crowns in 1603.  As far as Berwick upon Tweed is concerned, the issue has been debatable even longer.  Although Berwick is currently located administratively in England, Berwick Rangers play their football in Scotland.  Scotland only acquired the isles at various points in the later Middle Ages.    Wales never had a unitary existence before English conquest and administration except, conceptually and inversely, as that part of southern Great Britain which was not ruled by an English king or kings.  Ireland has never been politically unified, and certainly was not before the Anglo-Norman landing in 1166.  All these points render questionable the idea that the history of these regions should naturally or automatically be relevant to all those who currently live within them.  And that leaves aside the even thornier issue of whether all those people who currently occupy these zones constitute any kind of unitary ‘nation’ in any case.  The issue, obviously, is not limited to the British Isles.  Exactly the same points could be made, usually with even greater reason, in more or less any other country of the globe.  The issues of the relationship between history and modern identity will resurface later. [In a chapter entitled '"We are not "them"; "they" were never "us"']

The only way to combat these points would be to use the history of the regions to question the usual assumptions, to show the historical disparity of the people who come to occupy England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland today, to show the fortuitous, accidental un-natural means by which these portions of territory or space have been thrown together as political units.  This might, one could reasonably argue, have a relevance to the modern population of a particular country.  At the same time, though, a couple of other points would be implicit.  One would be that the usual presuppositions according to which a regional history would automatically be more relevant to its modern population than the history of another area would be undermined.  The assumptions according to which the inhabitants of a geographical area naturally constituted a nation with a shared history would be – in the correct sense of the word – deconstructed.  Crucially, the value of history would be displaced, from the transmission of narratives of ‘who we are and how we got here’ to the critical questioning of claims to be able to say either who ‘we’ are or how ‘we’ got here.  The lesson would be quite the opposite of that which is usually claimed as relevant.  History would rather be concerned with how ‘we’ could have got somewhere else and how what ‘we’ mean by ‘we’ (and thus, implicitly, ‘them’) changed constantly through time.  ‘We’ have not always existed.  The exercise would be one of critically thinking through how the past is presented and manipulated.


  1. "If the events of 2014 can only be understood in by reference to those since, say, 1939-45 then surely the events of 1939-45 can themselves only be comprehended by reference to those of 1914-39, which in turn can only be grasped via study of the period 1870-1914, and those events make sense solely in the light of history between 1815 and 1870."

    I'd like to suggest that the problem is even worse.

    We look at the more distant past through the lenses of the more recent past and the present. Many people, particularly narrative historians, popular TV history presenters and politicians, use the state of the nation today and modern prejudices and ideas to construct narratives about the past which are then used to justify their political positions today and their partcular ideological agendas. If we look at the Great War, for example, modern revisionism writes a narrative of "defence of liberty and democracy" and "British sacrifice" to serve the cause of a right-of-centre and essentially anti-European political message. The simple fact that all male German combatants had had the vote since 1870 and many British combatants were disenfranchised is studiously ignored. Of course, there are many more examples, most far less obvious, but essentially we see the reinvention of the past via modern narratives as an essentially circular mechanism. We take the present to reinvent the past to justify where we are now as a historical "inevitability".


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