Friday, 22 May 2015

Consensus: A Historical Lesson from UKIP

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UKIP is 100% united, said Nigel Farage earlier this week, making a public pronouncement of the consensus that exists within his party in much the same way as early medieval rulers did when they proclaimed that their laws etc. had been promulgated with the advice and consent of all their leading men.  Indeed the whole episode has a sort of medieval flavour about it, if perhaps not quite as expressed here (which is hardly the first time that 'medieval' and 'feudal' get used in a rather looser way than is entirely helpful). 
Anyway, for those outside the UK, who are not familiar with the continuing tragicomic saga of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, the deeply unpleasant demagogue at its helm promised that he would stand down from the leadership if he failed to win the seat of South Thanet in the recent (disastrous) general election, making various high-minded statements about how he could not credibly lead a parliamentary party if he was unable to win a seat inside parliament.  And so he rode off like many another hero of English history (like, er, Hengist ... the immigrant) to do battle in Thanet.*  Ah, but - alas and alack - he was defeated by the Tory candidate and so had to make at least a show of being an honourable man of his word and resigning the leadership.  For many of us this was one of the few rays of light on May 8.
After three days, however, he rose again, claiming that his resignation had been refused by the party, who had begged him to stay on.  (This is one area where all this starts to look quite familiar to medievalists.)  Probably with wailing and rending of garments (...which is a horrible image that I am now trying to wash out of my brain).  When it was pointed out that the tendering of resignation had to bring about a leadership contest, various comic excuses were wheeled out about how the resignation letter had to be typed and Nigel's was only hand-written, and by the time he had got it typed up the party executive had determined not to accept his resignation.  Nevertheless, just as an early medieval king's defeat in battle produced political crisis (and the possibility of deposition or abdication) various of King Nigel's leading aristocrats stated that the whole non-resignation affair was shabby and that his leadership was less than ideal (see here and here and here).  Lesser aristocrats (local councillors) defected.  A crisis appeared to present itself.
Within a few days, however, the revolt had been squashed and the rebels punished.  Those who had spoken out resigned from their positions (stripped of their honores) and public apologies were elicited (public penance; confessions?) (see here).  People removed from their posts made public statements about how they had not been fired but had chosen to go (here).  (See also this.)  And so, having ruthlessly purged it of any dissenting voices, Farage proclaimed that his party was '100% united'.  The only person he had to tread carefully with was Douglas Carswell, UKIP's one and only MP, with whom a front of unity was patched up.
The whole story seemed to me to illustrate what I have been saying for some time about 'consensus politics' in the early middle ages.  Does Farage 'need' to rule by consensus?  No.  Clearly not.  All he needs is a public rhetoric of consensus and 'union'.  After all even the Soviet communist party liked to promulgate the idea that all were unified behind the leader and get those who were purged to admit their treason.  That rhetoric functions to deter further disagreement or rebellion.  What we normally have in our sources is the equivalent of Farage's eventual declaration of consensus, sometimes with a partisan account of the antecedent proceedings.  Many years ago, Stuart Airlie wrote a very good piece for (I think) Past and Present about the trial of Tassilo of Bavaria, reading it in much these terms, but I think the lesson is much more widely applicable to internal politics.  We need to foreground the general nastiness that doubtless preceded cosy ritual declarations of consent and union.  We need to interrogate much more critically the precise form of political community that lies behind the obsession with proclaiming consensus.  Above all we ought to beware this insidious vocabulary whether in academic politics, or in national politics, past or present.  As I argued at Kalamazoo, we need to create a politics within which disagreement and diversity are acknowledged as constitutive of community and debate, not something to be swept under the carpet.
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* - Perhaps he gets his history from 1066 And All That, where people land in Thanet by accident and therefore become king.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Political Communities? A Comparison of the Roman and Merovingian Polities

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[This is the paper I gave yesterday at Kalamazoo, in what turned out to be a very successful and (given there were a lot of clashes) gratifyingly well-attended session.  Thanks to Laurent Cases for inviting me and to Michael Kulikowski and Stefan Esders for their papers, with which I thought this meshed quite well.]

This experimental paper looks at political community.  Comparing the Roman Empire with the seventh-century Frankish kingdom it considers the link between subject-formation and membership of a polity.  The initial thesis was that a fundamental link between subjectivity and the political community would increase a polity’s resilience in the face of crisis.  Whether this is the case remains to be seen but the comparison of Roman and Frankish polities may lead to some interesting suggestions.  Finally, I will draw on this to meditate briefly on how we might rethink community in the present.

Fundamentally, an identity has no fixed and stable meaning present in and to itself.  The failure to appreciate this vitiates all work treating early medieval ethnicities (like the Gothic) as unchanging monoliths. It’s difficult to see how such views could ever have gained any traction had history paid attention to philosophy. As categories into which the world is divided, identities are signs (or complexes of signs) and function, as such, as combinations of signifier and signified.  One implication of this is that they can only be located on endless chains of signifiers, each sign bearing the trace of all the signifiers and signifieds to which it’s linked. But although signified may be linked to signifier in the realm of the Symbolic, there is no fixity about what, say, ‘Goth’ may mean in the Imaginary – the complex of ideals, identifications and differences that make up the ideal ‘Goth’. That changes contingently, through time and space.  Furthermore there can be no absolute guarantee that  someone’s understanding of the signified ‘Goth’ is precisely the same as anyone else’s.  Political communities do attempt to limit this fluidity.  In the UK, efforts to fix a signified to the signifier are manifest in periodic hand-wringing about what it might mean to be British or, especially, English, or in confident, ill-informed proclamations on the subject by nationalists.

Identities are never immanent, but manifested by various forms of what Butler termed citation, and especially performance. Here is where we consider subject-formation.  As a child enters the world of language, she learns what the society into which she’s born considers to be correct behaviour.  In some thinking, adopting Bourdieu’s ideas, this point has been employed to allow a form of primordialism to re-enter the discussion of ethnicity by the back door.  This approach nonetheless ultimately fails to rescue the concept of unchanging, primordial ethnicity. It assumes that such ideals as are manifest in, in Bourdieu’s terms, habitus and doxa can be transmitted in static form.  More importantly, it equates habitus with ethnicity.  That is the key relationship I will explore.  My contention is that this is less problematically the case in the Roman than in the later Merovingian example.

The crucial point concerns the linkage between correct performance of masculinity (or femininity) and Romanness.  For now, we can bracket the sometimes-alleged distinction between Romanness and ethnicity.  Correct conduct, as a man, defined the core of legitimate political behaviour.  To behave as a man – a Ro-man – was to be capable of involvement in the Roman imperial body politic. Appropriate  behaviour could bring a barbarian so closely within imperial structures as to efface any trace of non-Roman origin.  As Michael Kulikowski has cogently argued, furthermore, the deliberate performance of non-Romanness, when excluded from government, became an established strategy within political dialogue.  This in no way challenged the link between legitimacy and Romanness.

This can be explained by considering the young Roman’s socialisation, which, as is well-known, involved induction into the ideals of correct civilised, masculine behaviour: reason, moderation, the control of emotions and bodily urges, and so on.  Performing these traits manifested  suitability for political office.  They also, as is equally well-known, demonstrated correct leadership of a family and control over women, children and dependents.  The male Roman’s ego-ideal was central to involvement in the sex-gender system, and both were inextricably tied up with membership of the imperial polity.

One could not, therefore, turn one’s back on Romanness without calling into question aspects of identity that enabled local leadership and even participation in marriage politics.  This goes far towards explaining how the Empire endured the so-called Third-Century Crisis.  The absence of a real alternative meant – briefly – competing empires but no fundamental challenge to Romanitas’ monopoly of legitimate political expression.

When Laurent and I first discussed this session, I believed that the third- and fifth-century situations were fundamentally different; I still thought that the key explanandum of the fifth century was the demise of the Western Empire, which had survived the third century.  I wanted to explain the divergent outcomes of the two critical periods.  Having been working on the sixth century, I now think those situations were rather more similar than I imagined.

There were nonetheless important differences. A rival, martial form of Roman masculinity, playing with traditional Roman ethnographic ideas to stress non-Romanness, emerged in the post-Tetrarchic army.  The fundamental point remained, though, that, like the performance of an anti-Roman stance discussed by Kulikowski, even this remained nested within standard Roman world-views and, as – again – Kulikowski has demonstrated, only underlined the importance of a link with the Emperor in ensuring the legitimacy of claims to Romanness.  Nonetheless, as I have argued before, martial masculinity with its citation of barbarisms, and the equally performed anti-Roman stance in political dialogue, provided resources which gave fifth-century political history a different texture.

Third-century polities opposed to the nominally legitimate emperor at, in theory, Rome either took the form of rival empires or attempts to usurp the ‘legitimate’ title.  Either way, as for dmuch of the fourth century, the lesson was evidently that rival empires governed by different dynasties would inevitably face off for control of the whole.  Perhaps this dynamic goes all the way back to the Republic’s death-throes.  It seems to have been clear by 425 that third-century tactics no longer worked and politics took on a subtly different aspect.  In particular, polities outside the Emperor’s sphere could establish a different legitimacy as ‘barbarian’ kingdoms.  The mistake is to assume that these realms constituted the political aims of non-Roman peoples.  This is to fall victim to two teleological fallacies: one of intention – that what eventuated was what people wanted – and the fallacy that what turned out to work was what was best.  As I have said before, kingdoms are for losers.  The leaders of all the barbarian kingdoms or, better, the regionally-focused Romano-barbarian factions, wanted to control the centre.  Kingdoms were a temporary expedient: a means of legitimate government and dialogue, faute de mieux.  The problem was that, after the Theodosian dynasty’s extinction, no faction was able to subdue the others.  When eventually even the Italian faction was declared to be in the political cold and so took the ‘kingdom’ route, the whole pars occidentis found itself in an indecisive face-off between different political units.  By way of analogy, imagine that neither Marc-Anthony, nor Octavian, nor Lepidus was able to eliminate either of the other Triumvirs and so politics settled down into regionally-based Republican successor states.

This constituted only (to modify Piganiol once more ) a ‘first death’ of the Roman Empire: in the order of the Symbolic.  In the order of the Imaginary, the Empire lived on until its ‘second death’, during Justinian’s wars of reconquest. I can find no evidence that between c.475 and c.525 westerners believed that the traumatic and unprecedented non-existence of a western Empire, which they certainly noticed, or the stalemate between the kingdoms, constituted a permanent state of affairs.  I would even suggest that the situation emerging c.510, in which Theoderic and Clovis, both of whom allowed themselves to be called augustus, were evidently squaring up to each other, might have been perceived simply as the next round in the Gallic-Italian factional rivalry for control of the West.  The ongoing importance of by now quite traditional Roman political discourse and bases of legitimacy meant that the West maintained a significant existence as a political unit – in the Imaginary – long after its evident dissolution.

The ideological and military offensives of Justin I and Justinian ended this situation.  They involved the strident proclamation of the West’s loss to barbarians and exclusion from the Empire.  For the first time, therefore, an Emperor could unproblematically acknowledge barbarian control of formerly imperial territory, as when Justinian recognised Theudebert’s rule over Provence during the Gothic Wars.

The political options available around 400 allowed the Empire to endure the fifth-century crisis in ways that have some analogies with but also certain differences from its survival of its third-century problems.  However, that situation also eventually permitted the rug to be cut from beneath old expressions of legitimacy.  This caused a profound crisis: the end of the Roman world.

It’s clear that by this time, the later sixth century, the Merovingian family had created a monopoly over legitimate rulership, such as eluded all other post-imperial dynasties. I suggest, however, that one root of the earlier Merovingian state’s cohesion was the continued significance – in subject-formation and socialisation – of behavioural ideals still ultimately underpinned by relationship to the Roman Empire; that – in however spectral a form – the figure of the Emperor still bound civic
Roman and martial barbarian identities into a whole.

The Justinianic wars’ effects were visible in the rapid evaporation of a meaningful Roman civic identity within the Merovingian realms.  It even appears to have become a derogatory term for ‘southerner’. Seventh-century Frankish leaders made various proclamations of political community but I think that historians have seriously overestimated the extent to which their declarations described – or could describe – a reality.  We must reconsider how the later Merovingian kingdom functioned and what, if any, sort of political community it constituted.

I will have to be telegraphic.  No seventh-century linkage between subjectification and socialisation and the polity existed. If one can identify attempts to perform a martial Frankish identity, one must remember that that ethnic identity was not coextensive with the kingdom. Several other ethnicities could claim legal recognition in seventh-century law, and the Frankish army’s multi-ethnic character is described by Fredegar in ways that seem subtly different from Gregory of Tours’ accounts.  If the triumph of the martial model of secular masculinity produced a common aristocratic identity it was not one intimately connected to membership of the Frankish polity.

Christian behaviour, the other basis of the ego-ideal, can claim no more linkage with the Merovingian kingdom.  There were, however, ways in which the different role of religion in politics from c.600 undermined old forms of community.  Especially interesting in subject-formation is the introduction of confession and private penance.  This form of the narration of the self underlines the importance of a Christian ego-ideal, not specifically connected to a polity; it also, as Foucault said, marks a change from public forms of giving an account of oneself, in which communal behavioural ideals might play a part.

Monastic developments, including aristocratic sponsorship of new types of rural monastery, fostered
the linkage of Christian ideals with family identities, also strengthened at this time, but which equally bear no connection with the Frankish kingdom as such.  If kingship was becoming a ministry, as one can suggest from Guntramn’s reign onwards, with a king responsible for the good Christian behaviour of his subjects, that still did not somehow specifically link the latter to the former.

Connected to this, one can identify a privatisation of political space.  Many monasteries – and at least some aristocrats - were granted immunities, removing them from the usual ecclesiastical hierarchy and protecting them from governmental imposts like taxation and military service.  Royal officers could not enter these zones to collect such revenues or collect fines. The immunities represent small holes appearing in the coverage of the kingdom’s ability to penetrate local politics.  Even if the immunity grant worked, as patronage, to bind the recipient into the kingdom’s government, as has plausibly been argued, the basic fact remained.  Other holes appearing in the kingdom’s political space are revealed by a shift in politics’ focus away from the public administrative nodes – cities and small towns – to royal and aristocratic monasteries and estate centres.  The imperial or royal court had always been a focus of activity but it seems now to be more rural in its location and – functionally – to seem like a variant on the usual, privatised foci of political behaviour.

Without the Empire’s social foundations of political community, therefore, the effort expended on seventh-century proclamations of consensus seem to me to reflect contingent factional claims for legitimacy: not claims, as in the Roman situation, to lead the community, legitimately, but to be the community.  Early medieval historians’ obsession with reifying consensus has meant that the insidious nature of this vocabulary and of the work it does – then as now – has not been duly acknowledged. These statements define who is in, for sure, but also who is out.  Those who are excluded are held to have withdrawn themselves from the community, depicted as refusing consensus.  This was the inevitable correlate of civil war for control of the palace and of Frankishness.

We must not overstate the differences.  Controlling the royal court exerted a powerful attraction, ensuring the realm’s continuing existence as a political arena, in the Imaginary. Exclusion could find regional and ethnic expression, but the kingdom’s poly-ethnic nature meant that a link to the Merovingian king was still important in relating to other groups.  Peripheral ethnic groups did not therefore become kingdoms, even if they may have been to all intents and purposes independent of royal rule.  This led to very fluid boundaries, that in turn drew out Carolingian military campaigning
In the 730s-740s the Merovingian kingdom functioned without a king for six years.  This illustrates the extent to which it functioned in the Imaginary but also the – by this date – obsolescence of the Merovingians themselves. Without stronger bases, the integrative forces weakened over time.  The revived kingdom of the Carolingians needed new bases for community.

So: a few unsurprising conclusions and the promised meditation.  The close linkage between subjectivisation and membership of the Roman polity gave the Empire remarkable resilience in the face of political crisis and even fragmentation.  It facilitated its effective functioning as a state, by anyone’s definition. The late Merovingian kingdom’s longevity and coherence are striking but there is no doubt that it was less cohesive than even the fifth-century Empire. Nor, I think, more controversially, is it helpful to classify that realm as a state, unlike its earlier precursor.  The lack of linkage between subjectivisation and membership of the polity makes a crucial difference.

None of that may be especially surprising, and perhaps not even very interesting.  What interests me more is using this as a springboard for thinking community and its possibilities in the present.  There is much discussion of integration in current European politics, especially as regards immigrants and above all Muslim immigrants. But into what assimilation is sought remains, at best, ill-defined – a buzz-word in dog-whistle politics, contingent and inconsistent when probed.  If, as I believe it should be, history provides a means of challenging the accepted bounds of the natural or the possible, then the discussion of late antique political community provides some interesting parameters.

The current rhetoric of assimilation and integration, of subscription to norms, the disagreement and conflict over what those norms might be, seems to me problematic and indeed dangerous.  For, just as in the Frankish case, these notions of community are in fact predicated upon exclusion and intolerance. In this case there is no recognition of dissent within the community.  Although politically more coherent and resilient, and much more successful in, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s term, ‘working’ a community, one can ask whether the Roman model is ultimately much better.  For, although the models of behaviour held to underpin the Romanness of the community allowed the inclusion of outsiders, this was based upon sometimes vicious intolerance.  Again it has its modern parallels in the discourse on integration, when we hear calls for immigrants to adopt western ways.  We will tolerate you, they (like the Romans) say, as long as you promise to be like us.  That, as many have said, is not toleration.

In her 2007 book The Politics of the Veil, Joan Scott talks of the pressing need to create forms of community that accept difference. The Roman-Frankish comparison might help us think this further.  On the one hand, as in the Roman case, community should be linked to engagement in its structures.  It should, like the Merovingian, lack a hegemonic identity, but unlike the Merovingian, not strive to create one. Within a common legal framework it would nevertheless have a meaningful existence in the Symbolic. In Nancy’s terms, an ‘unworked’ community hesitates permanently at the moment of mutual recognition, within the Hegelian Aufhebung, recognising difference within community but without seeking to remove it. Meditating on the diversities of the past to help us push the bounds of the possible in the present may be one way of allowing History to face up to its most important humanist responsibilities.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The ghostly horizon of the year 600

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[Here, for your comments and reactions and to help me get back into it, is the current draft of the opening to my book of the Transformations of the Year 600 - or whatever I decide to call it in the end.  As with other recent posts, it was mostly written over a year ago]

Spectres stalked western Europe in the decades around 600.  The Western Roman Empire was dead.  In the last decades of the sixth century surely no one could any longer be in any doubt about that.  The last legitimate western emperor had been murdered in 480 but, even so, the body of the pars occidentis (Western Part) had remained, like a body that no one was quite sure had breathed its last.  For a good half-century, western European politics had carried on as though the Western Empire still lived, encircling its still-warm carcass as though it might at any moment sit back up.  At certain times it seemed that someone – Theoderic the Ostrogoth or Clovis the Frank – might yet even be able to breathe life back into its lungs.

But the most obvious attempt to do so – by the eastern Emperor Justinian – had put it beyond doubt that the West was no more.  It was an ex-Empire. It had ceased to be.  It is difficult to see how things could be otherwise.  After all, Justinian’s had self-consciously been an attempt not to revive a comatose body but to reanimate a corpse.  It had begun by pronouncing the Western Empire dead and specifying the cause of death.  It had, said Justinian, been murdered and, indeed, the murderers were the very people who at that moment were wondering whether there remained any life in the old body, the ‘barbarian’ kings of the West.  Justinian’s ultimate failure to bring the Western Empire back to life as a territory directly administered by an emperor left ’Rome’ as something that henceforth could have only a spectral existence in the West.  It had lived and it had died; it might return but only as a ghost.  And that not yet.  In the century or so after the traumas of the Western Empire’s death agony in Justinian’s wars, it seems that Rome was simply dead.  And gone.

There was, however, another, much more important ghostly presence haunting Western Europe around 600, the ultimate revenant expected any time soon: the Messiah, Christ himself.  The demise of the Western Empire was but one of a number of signs and portents that seemed to announce the Second Coming.  For several hundred years, Christians had lived with the idea that the Roman Empire was commensurate with the Sixth Age of the World.  Had Christ not been born during the reign of the Empire’s founder, Augustus?  Now that the Empire no longer existed, surely now was the time for the Kingdom of Christ to come.

In the writings of the period there is a very clear sense of living in time ‘out of joint’.  The present is a fleeting, spectral moment which no one can grasp, an ever moving threshold between what is coming and what has gone.  For those alive around 600, it was as though that fleeting moment had opened up to encompass a whole epoch out of time.  Events were seen not as elements in a continuous sequential narrative or chain but as reappearances of stories told in the scriptures.  Individuals and actions stood as repetitions of types.  The characters of the Old Testament, in spirit, walked the earth again.  In a time out of time cause and effect stood not in relation to contingency or as responses to previous events, not – in other words – in a linear, horizontal sequence but in a vertical relationship between man and God.  Any action had its forerunner in the tales of the Bible and its consequence could be seen accordingly as direct punishment or reward.  This, after all, was a world in which the not only the tombs of the saints but also their relics operated as timeless points of contact between the earthly and the celestial.  Holy men did not live particular lives but shared, said one contemporary, a single life, regardless of time or place.  In this world the past had gone and yet endured.  Figures long dead inhabited the actions of living men and women.  All deeds and all persons could be seen as further reapparitions of these ghostly forerunners.  But as time seemed to stand still all appeared to herald a future long predicted, an end of worldly time.  The world of 600 was haunted by spectres of the remote past and by the expectation of a messianic future. 

One might even get a sense of this by leaving the world of the learned men, churchmen most often, who narrated, insofar as they could narrate, this ghostly time out of joint – or perhaps within the joint of past and future – and entered (where better?) the cemeteries wherein ordinary folk laid their kin to (as they hoped) rest.  Here too there was a sense of timelessness – perhaps there always is in graveyards.  The rites for the dead were transient, leaving little by way of visible monument.  Across much of western Europe north of the Loire, the dead were interred in a ritual that was played out for an audience, often seemingly a large audience of local people, that conveyed much about the deceased and his or her family and how they wished to be seen.  That involved gift-giving and feasting among the living and dead and the corpse was accompanied into the tomb by objects deemed appropriate.  It is these and the skeletal remains of the dead that permit an insight into society at a local level, such as frequently eludes the attention of the authors of the written sources.  The deposition of grave-goods was, however, governed by rules, albeit ones which changed in detail at least from one area to another.  Those rules or norms determined what sorts and numbers of objects were appropriate for people of a particular age and sex.  The effect of this ritual was frequently to telescope the time that had lapsed between this and the last interment of a person of the same category.  This surely worked in a way to normalise quite abnormal and traumatic events, reassuring the bereaved but at the same time the very sameness of time, the taking of the specific out of the normal temporal sequence, meant the haunting of the ceremony by the ghosts of previously departed people of the same age and sex.  In many ways the funerals of north-western Europe operated in a fashion that was as typological as the writings of hagiographers and theologians.

And yet, although there was a clear similarity between the thinking of these people at quite different levels, which surely emanated in some way from their shared milieu, there were important differences.  The transience of community ritual in the earlier sixth century, which finds parallels in rites and ceremonies unconnected with death and mourning, appears to originate in the world of uncertainty that surrounded the first death of the Western Roman Empire.  Had the Empire gone, or not?  The fifth-century crisis had undermined centuries-old social hierarchies in the provinces north of the Loire.  Social and economic stress and competition meant that a position in local society was likely to be transient, within a lifetime and could be projected into the future, from one generation to the next, only with difficulty.  The funerary rites just mentioned were one means by which people attempted to deal with the crises in local society which death brought about.  The future was uncertain and there seemed little point in investing in it.  An irony came in that, around the end of the sixth century this fluidity of social structure in the former provinces of the north-west (and beyond the former limes too) was beginning to settle down into a more stable social organisation.  One might begin to project a family’s status into the future with some confidence. Yet, especially if one took part in the sorts of Christian commemoration that were becoming fashionable among a newly-emerging aristocracy, one might well do so in the knowledge that such a future might be very short.  The idea of permanence might be tempered by an awareness that the days of tribulation were upon us.  Or nearly so.

These developments themselves raised ghosts.  An élite only just establishing itself, whether as a noble caste in some areas, or as a royal one, perhaps, in others felt the want of a direct pedigree.  Again the typological, the vertical link to God, would stand in for the linear, the sequential or the horizontal.  And so, again, the spirits of the biblical past came to possess the living.


The apocalypse was expected, and soon, but quite when no one knew.  In this strangely still time, out of time, the present was part of the past and part of the future, part – indeed – of the end.  The horizon formed by that end was, therefore, not fixed.  It remained open, fleeting, moved towards, a future that was ever-present, spectral in itself.  It was with a gaze fixed upon that ghostly open horizon that the people of western Europe passed from the Roman world and into that which, with the passage of centuries, would come to be called the medieval.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

A comment on Medieval History and its value

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If you check out the BBC History Magazine 'special edition' on Medieval Life, which is surprisingly good, featuring articles mostly by actual eminent medievalists (Arnold, Hatcher, Rawcliffe, Ormrod, Hudson, Carpenter, Barron, Bovey...), if also one by Dan Snow, you will find that the last word goes to 'Historian Guy Halsall' in a little comment piece that I am quite pleased with - even if I most certainly *don't* say that "our medieval ancestors helped shape today's world", as is claimed on the contents page (or at least I don't think that's what I say, but perhaps it is further proof that, as ever, Derrida was right and nothing has a stable meaning...).

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Myth of Relevance (Part 2)

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[Here is the next installment of the chapter.  As last time, it was mostly written a year ago.  It is very much a draft and most if not all of the 'facts' mentioned still need to be double checked!]

There are other arguments presented for limiting the time and place of relevant history.  These can be illustrated by a series of different examples.  Some of these are taken from John Tosh’s interesting and valuable Why History Matters.  I disagree quite seriously with the line that Tosh takes but I am profoundly sympathetic to his overall project and certainly find myself in the same general part of the political spectrum.  In other words, I think he is firmly ‘on the side of the angels’.  My disagreement concerns the argument he has chosen to make in defence of the discipline and its value, which I think is mistaken in that I hope to demonstrate, that there are better, stronger arguments available to serve his purpose.

One argument for the relevance of history in the present is that it helps us understand current situations in the world.  The middle east, Iraq or Afghanistan furnish potential examples but so too do the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland or the conflicts in the Balkans after the fragmentation of Tito’s Yugoslavia.  Here the argument goes that if one knows about the historical ‘chain of events’ in the area under discussion, then one will gain a better understanding of the problems in the present.  The situation in the Balkans – the tension between different ethnic groups – is to be understood as the product of a particular series of events. Again, though, this argument for relevance presents numerous problems in its implications about the nature and purpose of historical enquiry.  The problems should by now be familiar.  The current state of affairs is assumed to be the automatic, logical outcome of preceding events.  That, in turn, implies some problematic assumptions about the objectivity of historical narrative and about causation, which we have already discussed.  The narratives used to explain or justify current political action are no less chosen, no less artificial, than the ones employed to explain ‘who we are and how we got here’.  Those alluded to by politicians in modern conflicts are  often no more constructed – even if they frequently are less empirically accurate.  Our modern nationalists are not operating under compulsion from the Past. As I have already argued, the Past has no power; it’s dead and gone.  It cannot even be properly conceived of without the deliberate construction of narrative, and all the problems that that entails.  It cannot make you do anything.  These modern politicians and their followers are, like the people involved in the Northumbrian Feud or the hypothetical diarist of Chapter 2, choosing events from their understanding of the past to justify what they are doing or what they want to do in the present.

Here the argument for ‘relevance’ shifts ground to claim that historical study enables us to challenge the ‘abuse’ of history for political ends.  We can stop to think more closely about the underlying implications of this argument.  Obviously it should be stated at the outset that this argument is motivated by the best of intentions.  The problems occur in the nature of history that is assumed.  The   implication is, firstly, that history is first and foremost about the collection of empirical facts.  This  happened like this; that did not happen, or did not happen like that.  That is, as I have been at pains to argue, not only a pretty low level of intellectual expectation for an academic discipline; it is fundamentally not what history is about, as opposed to chronicling and antiquarianism.  The second point follows from this and is that this argument for ‘relevance’ assumes that there is a single, univocal object history that is capable of being abused.  The only level of abuse that can reasonably be encompassed within the argument is the telling or presentation of falsehoods.  A questionable, if factually reliable, reading of history, based upon the available data, cannot easily be called an abuse without implying that there is a finite array of acceptable, non-abusive interpretations.  The argument may then move to discuss the motivation for such presentations of history, claiming that using history for political purposes is abusive.  It assumes, therefore, that history is capable of being written without some element of the political, broadly defined, entering into the process.  Or it supposes that there is a range of acceptable non-abusive motivations for historical writing: the simple neutral disinterested furtherance of knowledge for example.  Even if this were possible it could only function  at fundamentally non-historical levels of antiquarianism and chronicling.  Then we might reasonably ask what this deployment of erudite, accurate, factual history (itself non-political? non-abusive?) might practically achieve.  What, for example, might be attained by pointing out the factual flaws in nationalist historical narratives?

Let’s look at the problem more closely. We can again draw some examples from modern trouble-spots where nationalism rears its invariably ugly head.  Let’s take, for example, a modern Ulster Unionist or Irish Republican, or a Serbian nationalist (or a nationalist from any other area). Does a knowledge of the history of Serbia or Ireland help us understand his actions (let’s assume it’s a he)? No it doesn’t. For one thing, we’ll soon discover that the ‘history’ that he uses to justify his case or actions is cock-eyed and wrong.  Does it help just to know the events he makes reference to, that he keeps harping on about – the Battle of Kosovo Pole or the Battle of Boyne, say? Does it help to know that in reality King Billy’s army was paid for by the Pope, or alternatively that Cromwell’s troops killed rather more English soldiers than Irish civilians at the sacks of Drogheda and Wexford? Does it help to know that for most of their history Serbs and Croats and Bosnians rubbed along together in their communities just fine (think about it; if they hadn’t, ‘ethnic cleansing’ wouldn’t have been ‘necessary’)? Does it help, when confronted by Greek nationalism (as represented by the neo-Nazis of ‘Golden Dawn’ for instance), to know that in the 1830s 80% of Athens spoke Albanian? That the reason that (allegedly) Socrates could still read a Greek newspaper if he came back to life is not the allegedly millennia-long continuity of Hellenic culture and language but that Greek was reinvented on more classical lines, and purged of Slavic and Turkish words in the late 19th century (as was Romanian, which is the only reason why it is as close as Italian is to Latin)? Would it avail you much to point out to a Scottish nationalist that the Declaration of Arbroath was copied from an earlier Irish letter and that (contrary to the impression one would get from visiting the battlefield memorial) it post-dated the Battle of Bannockburn?  No.  All of these things might get you punched in the face, or worse, but would not help you to understand why.

Obviously, a simple and entirely valid advantage is conferred by the collection of accurate historical information and that is the ability to see through the truth claims of others when these are based around an appeal to history.  The counter-arguments provided might be ‘true’, in that they are based upon empirically-demonstrable historical ‘facts’.  Yet, they carry little practical weight.  Although such factual correction might influence third parties and, with luck, cut the ground from beneath some propaganda, it is unlikely to change anyone’s mind.  Frequently the result will simply be to entrench the idea further that some vague power is controlling and distorting ‘the truth’ in order to further their oppression.  As Slavoj Žižek has repeatedly argued, using the psychoanalytical concepts of Jacques Lacan, empirical arguments rarely cut any ice in such discussions because the root of the problem does not lie in the register of the Symbolic (crudely, the factual; that which can straightforwardly be represented in language) but rather in that of the Imaginary (the ideal/idealised).[This last bit needs re-doing.]

A more positive impact might be to make political parties eschew any reference at all to the past.  This, one must admit, need not be a bad thing.  It might, especially, be no bad thing if it ended cheap demagogic appeals to a supposed national historical heritage (see above).  One might see an example of the cutting away of the grounds for such an appeal in the cross-party response to the British National Party’s employment of a picture of a Spitfire in its 2008 election leaflets.  It was rapidly pointed out that, such was the party leadership’s ignorance, they had picked a photograph of a Spitfire flown by a Free Polish pilot.  Indeed one could say that, rather than (as intended) symbolising the Battle of Britain as a fight against encroachment by foreigners, their picture actually illustrated the historical benefits of immigrant eastern European asylum-seekers taking ‘British’ jobs!  Had the ‘historical’ argument been developed, it might have undermined all future use of Churchill, the Battle of Britain and the Second World War by the xenophobic right – if the point had been made more forcefully that most of the Conservative Party in 1940 was in favour of a negotiated peace with Hitler, that Churchill’s biggest supporters in the ‘dark days’ of 1940 were members of the Labour Party and that certainly by the end of 1940 the war had ceased to be a national conflict and taken on some features of a ‘crusade’ for the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny – in other words for an engagement and involvement with Europe, not isolation from it.  None of this would have been without value.

Within this line of argument, it is clear, modern history does indeed normally have a prior claim to ‘relevance’; arguments against xenophobic nationalism that are based on the English ‘nation’s’ formation through the migration into Britain of Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans are, though not without use, easily enough dismissed as referring to something that happened ‘a long time ago’ or that was somehow ‘different’.  The longer ago that something happened, the less use one can make of it in discussing modern politics.  This is usually the case, but not always; the end of the Roman Empire, allegedly at the hands of invading foreign immigrants or because of supposed moral degeneracy is frequently deployed by right-wing commentators as a ‘lesson from the past’.

Nonetheless, as mentioned the key drawback with these arguments is its reduction of historical activity to simple chronicling; historical ‘truth’ means factual accuracy.  Wherever a claim cannot be refuted on straightforward factual grounds, as the element of interpretation involved becomes greater the value of historical argument to modern politics incrementally lessens.  When academic opinion is divided (no matter how unevenly matched the sides in the debate), politicians have repeatedly been able to bat away objections produced by professional expertise with a sort of relativist line that it represents ‘only one opinion’ (as for example even with the reality of climate change).  One could claim, and legitimately enough (see chapter 1), that a formal historical education – or at least the existence of a class of historical professionals – is unnecessary for the furnishing of this level of historical argument.  Non-academic writers about the past could fulfil the need for factual data every bit as well as ‘professionals’. 

Another weakness of the traditional line about the value of historical knowledge is that it is frequently somewhat essentialist.  Specific types of people placed in a particular context are likely to behave in the same (or similar) ways to those observable in the past.  Thus the key flaw in John Tosh’s argument that historical awareness might have led to an avoidance of the (at best ill-advised) invasion of Iraq in 2003.  A knowledge of the problems and parallels that could be extracted, interestingly enough, from the study of the British occupation of Mesopotamia in the 1920s not only represents, at the level of historical endeavour, the simple accumulation of facts (chronicling, again), as just discussed.  It also – if, to take a hypothetical counter-factual situation, wherein historians are called in to advise the leaders of Britain and the USA in spring 2003, deployed as a warning  – makes the implicit assumption that the inhabitants of the region would behave in just the same way as they had done eighty years previously.  It is not difficult to see how easily such arguments could have been refuted, logically and indeed reasonably, by a president and a prime minister already bent on launching the invasion.  The argument that things ‘were different’ after the First World War is reasonable enough; so would be an accusation of a form of essentialist orientalism on the part of the historical advisers.  So?  These things happened in the past.  If one moved on – as the true historian (as opposed to the chronicler) must surely move on – from the cataloguing of verifiable events to their explanation, one would soon find oneself in the midst of discussions of the precise context for the events following the First World War and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.  Discussion of this context would rapidly differentiate the recorded events of the 1920s from the likely consequences of actions in the 2000s, unless, that is, one did assume a set of timeless Arab attitudes, grounded in a view of the Muslim culture or tribal structures of the area as fixed and unchanging.  Such a view, it would correctly be pointed out, would deny the people of Iraq any capacity to act as independent historical agents or to make their own choices.  Once these assumptions were (rightly) exposed and questioned, the ‘relevance’ of the historical knowledge to the present would be seriously compromised.  These arguments against the war could furthermore be deflected in slightly different, if all-too-familiar, less confrontational fashion by thanking the historian-advisors for their input and suggesting that the historical knowledge they had provided would help avoid the repetition of similar mistakes…

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Myth of Relevance (Part 1)

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[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, no history 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.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Belatedly - Thanks to James Aitcheson

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The historical novelist James Aitcheson very kindly listed Worlds of Arthur as one his top books of 2014.  I am afraid I only came across this recently, but many thanks to him for that.  'History writing at its best' he says, more than generously.  Read his review here