Thursday, 22 January 2015

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

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[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.

Conclusion

[I forgot to insert this bit in my script:
There's a bit in 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.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy New Year

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I wish you all a happy, peaceful and prosperous 2015.  I hope it brings better tidings than seems generally to have been the case in 2014.

Friday, 19 December 2014

The State We're In, Part 3.b: Two Billion Pounds!!!

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In my post yesterday I said that the government had slashed funding for research in UK HE to 'more or less zero'.  "But, hold on there, Grumpy", you might say, "I read in the papers that the money awarded to UKHE from the REF is two billion pounds per an. - two Billion POUNDS - two thousand million pounds!  How do you call that more or less zero?"  To which I say, yup, it's a fair cop.  Two billion pounds is an unimaginable amount of cash to you or me, readers.  In fact, it's shitloads.  Why, even the highest paid man in the UK would take nearly 23 years to earn that much.

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Hang on...

...

So what we're saying is that one person could earn in twenty three years what the entire nation is willing to spend per an on the higher educational research activity of over fifty thousand academics (see below) across the entire country. (Actually, given that that salary is two years old, he probably earns more now so it'd take less time.) Let's reflect on that for a moment.  Put another way, assuming there are other people earning that sort of amount, or even slightly less, five of them would earn the same, over the next five years, as the entire nation is going to spend (per an) on higher educational research.  Or we can look at it another way. Any one of the twenty-five richest people (or people 'and family' - tax dodge) in the UK (as of May this year) could dip into their fortune and pay for the whole country's annual higher education research bill, and still leave themselves with a fortune of between 1.43 and 9.9 billion pounds. 1.43 billion quid, by the way, is 53.9 times the average wage in the UK.  In other words the average UK wage-earner would take nearly 54 years to accumulate that amount of money, and even that would assume that s/he was able to save up 100% of their salary!  As yet another abstract formulationA 10% levy on the estates of only the *twenty-five* wealthiest people in the UK (leaving them only with fortunes of between £3bn and nearly £11bn...) would yield £17.1 billion, a sum that would match the government's spending on the research activities of over 54,000 UK academics for the next eight years.   I'm just sayin'.  But let's reflect on that a little.  That tells us quite a lot, doesn't it, about wealth difference and the economic priorities of neo-liberal capitalist economics.  Is that the sort of country we really want to live in?

Anyway, let's leave that to one side for now.  Two billion quid goes to universities to pay for research.  That still can't be bad.  How does that work out?  By my reckoning, there were 54,893 academics entered into the REF.  I don't think that one researcher could be entered into more than one panel but even if they could it would be a minority.  Let's round the number down to 50,000 to be on the safe side.  £2,000,000,000 divided by 50,000 works out at £40,000 each.  That sounds OK.  At first.  But £2,000,000,000 per an won't even cover the wage bill of the academics submitted (even at 2011 rates).  Of course, academics are not only paid to research, but to teach and administer too.  The common formula for research active staff in older universities at least is 40% time on research, 60% on teaching and admin. At that rate, then, the 2 billion will cover the relevant wage bill of the full time researching academics.   But we also have to factor in the wages of fairly numerous essential lab staff in the science departments, as well research librarians and research assistants in arts, humanities and social sciences, administrative support staff and the temporary lecturing staff bought in to cover for full-time staff on research leave.  That means that the budget is unlikely to contribute even one penny to the cost of research equipment, or 'plant costs' (maintenance of buildings, electricity, etc.), which in science departments are understandably astronomical.  Even cheap humanities departments require annual library and computing budgets to maintain any kind of research viability.  All of that now has to be financed from other sources.  That means student fees to a large extent, but even then £9k per an is not far above the cost price of a university education (including teaching resources which admittedly can sometimes double for research) leaving very little for research.  Well, fair enough, you might say, if you buy into the US-style neo-liberal propaganda, why should I pay, through my taxes for someone else's university education?  Why? Because culture, civilisation ('m not even going to be drawn into the economic benefits etc).

All this is one reason that everything has begun to turn on research grant income, at the expense of research quality, the thing that drove ICL's Professor Grimm evidently to take his own life (on that subject I can recommend nothing better than this post by the Plashing Vole).

I am also assuming, in all the above, that the money would be divided equally.  But obviously the point of the REF is that it isn't.  It is moderated to some degree by a department's place in the league. Therefore, for every person or department whose research is only adequately funded, let alone those few whose budget is enlarged, there is another department, or someone else, who is correspondingly underfunded, whose institution is no longer able to pay for them to research.  This may drive those people out of the profession, force them to teach more and research less or even force them onto teaching only contracts with no time to research at all (and while we are on that subject, you can't say, that's OK - academics should spend their time teaching the paying student: if you want to teach someone how to be, say, a historian you have to be a practising historian), force them out of the country to work elsewhere, force departmental closures, and so on.  All this seriously diminishes UK culture.

Let's look at it a third way. As of 12 September 2011, the UK had spent £123.9 bn on the bank bailout (but had planned on spending - and been exposed to the risk of spending - one and a half trillion pounds (£1,500,000,000,000).  By comparison, then, the bankers received what, at current rates (assuming our £2bn is an annual budget), the UK would be willing to pay for all of higher academic research for the next sixty-two years.  As I have said, £2 bn does not cover the cost of research.  Let's assume that the actual cost of UK academic research is three times that.  It still means we have spent on the bank bail-out enough to cover two decades of top-level research in all disciplines right across the UK (and stood ready to shell out the equivalent of full funding all university research in the UK for, at current rates, over two centuries...).  And one might want to ask what would be a better use of the money: bailing out irresponsible unregulated money-launderers who hold the country to ransom (we allegedly can't touch them because they'd all leave and now - post Thatcher - our entire economy is supposed to be dependent upon the financial wild west that the City has become), or people who work hard to improve, in all sorts of ways, the quality of life (leaving aside the economy etc etc) of the nation.  Well, you decide.  Maybe tell your MP...

But either way, two billion quid is really not a lot for what the nation as a whole gets back.  You have to ask whether, as a reward, it is worth the financial and cultural costs (not to mention the stress, the suicide) that come with the REF.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The State We're In, Part 3.a: Listmania

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So.  The results of the REF (Research Excellence Framework for non-academics, or non-UK academics or UK academics that have been hiding in a cave for eight years) are in (or out, depending on your preferred idiom).  Consult the lists to your heart’s desire.  They will be spun one way or another, stressing one performance index over another, on every university website across the country for months to come.  This seems as good a time as any to resume my thoughts on ‘The State We’re In’ (Part 1; Part 2; plus search for the 'State we're in' label for other scattered interim thoughts on various issues)

Well, there’s (I suppose) good news, bad news and (actual) good news.

First the (I suppose) good news.  My department came 2nd out of the 83 history departments in the exercise.  Yay, woo!  And actually this is in some important ways good news.  It is good news because some of my colleagues, notably our chair of the research committee and our head of department put in very long hours of tedious work, not always helped enormously by somewhat thuggish ‘powers that be’ higher up in the university, and it is very good news that that hard work gets some sort of serious recognition.  It is also good news in that it represents in some ways the culmination of a process that has been under way for ten years and in which I think I have played a significant part, of turning the department from one that had for decades had no ambition (other than to be some sort of Oxford feeder college) and had more or less institutionalised mediocrity, into a serious player in historical research in the UK.  This provides some reward to all the people who have contributed to that.  It is also good news because we are a very good history department.  I have some very good and interesting colleagues, especially at the younger end, doing good work in new areas.  It is good to have some sort of public indication of that fact; it is good to get some reward for the hard research work we have all put in.  It is, furthermore, good news to see some departments who are somehow supposed to be ipso facto the best in the country slither down to something approximating their actual intellectual worth, though only because it might (though actually it won’t) make them think twice before assuming that anyone graduating from or working at another university is somehow some kind of lesser intellect, and about instilling that misplaced sense of intellectual superiority in their students.  It might make someone in the general non-academic world realise that there is a disjuncture between privilege and prestige on the one hand and merit on the other.  It might even make prospective students (graduate and undergraduate) realise that going to those gilded places will not necessarily get them the best tuition, or expose them to the best historical minds. 

It is also, and I think this is very important, good news – indeed an excellent outcome – given the generally humane way in which my department (and our university management on the whole) have managed the whole REF business, compared with horror stories from elsewhere.  There have been no threats or other bullying strategies, and I hope that perhaps university management culture might make a note of this.  Sadly that wasn’t the case in the institution which produced the top placed history department, which drove at least one fine historian out of the profession altogether.

[Personally – and I take no pride in this but I have to be honest here – I also take some unedifying satisfaction in seeing departments that drove me out through bullying, or which have serially considered me to be beneath them, or which contain other people who have actively hindered my career, come out many places lower than the department where I work. This, the 'ha, fuck you then' response, is the natural response; it is the response encouraged by the system; it is the wrong response.]

But (the Bad News) this all comes at a cost. 

I am happy for my colleagues that they have got a serious reward for their hard work. I am happy that we have serious recognition as a good history department.  Don’t get me wrong about any of that.  

But I am very wary indeed of the bragging that might ensue, wary of suggesting that this means we really are better than (almost) anyone else, even contingently, temporarily, even taking (as I said in part 1) the exercise to be a sort of FA Cup contest, as though historical scholarship were like a race or FA Cup contest where one side definitively could be better than another.  I am wary of suggesting that my colleagues in other departments might be worse than us on this basis.  The risk of suggesting the above is serious and inherent in the league table culture.  We must work hard to counter it (though we won’t for the reasons I set out in Part 1)

Then, where is the real reward?  When the REF (or RAE as it was then) started, the point of the exercise was to divvy up the money the government gave out to universities to fund research.  Now of course, the government (and indeed the last Labour government – let’s be clear) has basically cut that to more or less zero.  So where do the rewards lie for all the hard work put in by chairs of department, chairs of research committees, and the ordinary rank and file researchers? The reward is located first and foremost in university bragging rights (‘we did better than you, ha ha ha’ [see italicised paragraph above!]), league table positions and so on.  This is good news for Vice Chancellors looking for an excuse to increase their pay packet yet further (while putting a brake on that of all the people who did the hard work) but not so much for the rest.  Why?  Because now there is precious little government funding so universities have to find other means of finding money.  And those means put them all in competition with each other.  To get funding we have to attract students, in a zero-sum game, and the league tables’ only value is in that game.  Or we have to get grants (in a situation that has led to at least one suicide in recent months), in a climate where grant income counts for more than actual research value.  All this ends (well, it ended some Time ago) the situation which ought to exist, where academics see themselves as collaborative, cooperative, fellow seekers after knowledge rather than members of competing cells.  Second the participation, the general gloating and publicity all strengthens the whole dynamic that I discussed in Parts 1 and 2, which produces the situation where any government can get the HE sector to dance to any tune: that, in other words, produces the state we are in.  This is all a high price to pay.  It is bad news.  I feel that someone in a department that (deservedly) did well in the exercise and who has put in good submissions in the last two exercises is best placed to make that criticism.

The other bad news is that proportionately far less goes on recognising actual quality research than it used to.  On the one hand part of the submission in terms of research environment concerns research income (see above).  But research income is not a valid recognition of research quality.  For one thing it is what comes out of a project that should count, not the amount of money that went in (however much the latter delights university accountants).  Secondly, what gets the money very often constitutes intellectually pretty lame projects, listing things and putting them on line.  On the other hand, a large part goes on ‘Impact’ – the many drawbacks with which have been pointed out over and over (not least by science departments, who have done best by the system and thus are best placed to make the critique) and hardly need repeating.  As far as history is concerned though, one additional problem is that the system provides little benefit to those who do not work on British or modern (or preferably modern British) history.

A third piece of bad news concerns the numbers themselves, which are entirely subjective judgements made by small panels, not always of the most respected or research productive academics within fields.  Some would say that the data are not robust.  More to the point, the fact that the numbers can be arranged sequentially is highly misleading.  Look at the history list and you will see that Lancaster University comes in twenty-three places below my department.  “Woo”, you might say, “the Lancaster historians must be loads worse than those at Poppleton.”  But look again at the evidence (and essentially to be a historian is to master the art of looking again).  If you count the GPA of Birmingham (in 1st place) as 100%, then Lancaster came in with 94%, whereas we got 99.6%.  That is a pretty fine difference for twenty-three places in the league (or visually, on the page or computer screen, a big drop of the eye).  Indeed by the same reckoning, the history department that came in thirtieth was still scoring near enough 91%.  So all these league tables, all this listmania, have a seriously misleading effect, in addition to all the other detrimental effects the league table culture has on higher education, scholarship and research.  Yet, those big visual drops of the eye (rather than the actual numbers) are what will put some people's jobs under pressure.

But here I want to shift tack again and spin this a slightly different way to end on what I think is some (actual) good news.  One bit of good news is that the table does at least shake things up a bit and suggest that the many good universities of the UK are all really pretty similar – that it is not a case of Oxbridge and a couple of others versus the rest of the pre-‘92s and then all of them against the post-‘92s.  What I would hope is that this shaking up might make research students apply to the university where the scholar best –placed to supervise them is working, rather than according to established institutional prestige.


More importantly than that, using the criteria mentioned above, even the bottom-placed history department scored 58% compared with the top.  The departments at the bottom of the top 51 were scoring 85%.  What I would like to suggest this means, and what I would like to suggest would be the best, the most humane, conclusion that the British historical profession ought to take away from the REF league table is that historians working in UKHE – across the board, from the top to the bottom of the list are producing significant amounts of good work.  That is actual good news and I want to end on this point, for now.  This is what as a profession we should be proud of, not institutional bragging rights.  Or, as Young Mr Grace used to say, “you’ve all done very well.”

A Review of Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West

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[I was recently sent this very kind review by Professor Hal Drake of Barbarian Migrations... Sadly this never made it into press as apparently the journal to which was sent went bankrupt.  I hope you will not mind me posting it here.  It means a lot to me, as someone trained essentially as an early  medievalist and who then drifted backwards into Late Roman history,* to receive these words of approval from a highly-respected specialist scholar of the late Roman Empire.

(*I think it is still true to say that most late antique specialistare trained as classicists and drift forwards.)]

Guy Halsall. Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. NewYork: Cambridge, 2008. Pp.xvi, 591. $41.99 (US), paper.

Of the many debates that perennially swirl around the topic of the Fall of Rome, none is more enduring than the one between those who blame it on internal problems (corruption, decay) and those who cite external pressures (barbarian invasions). The latter view was memorably formulated by André Piganiol in the 1940s: 'Rome did not die a natural death; it was assassinated.' In this refreshing, detailed, and highly informative look at the period of Rome’s fall in the West, Guy Halsall comes down decidedly on the side of the internalists, but with a new twist. The depredations caused by the arrival of new peoples receive short shrift in his pages, but old-fashioned moralizing is replaced by a keen understanding of the role patronage networks, political structures, and social identity played in binding provincials to the imperial center By blending detailed local analysis with the traditional high politics, Halsall depicts the fall as the 'cumulative effect of myriad choices by countless people' who were 'frequently, if not always, trying to do the opposite' (168-9). Far from passive and dissolute, the empire did not die quietly: 'It went down kicking, gouging, and screaming' (281). The result is a Solomon-like contribution to this debate: 'The Roman Empire was not murdered and nor did it die a natural death; it accidentally committed suicide' (283).

Halsall divides his study into three major parts. The five chapters in Part I, 'Romans and barbarians in the imperial world,' bring readers up-to-date on the debates and issues surrounding this period, which saw the Roman empire in the west replaced by numerous successor kingdoms. The central part, 'A world renegotiated: Western Europe, 376-550,' covers the period frequently characterized by the 'barbarization' of the Roman army and the depredations of barbarian invaders. In these seven chapters, Halsall meticulously surveys changes in the provinces as well as the imperial center. Part III, 'Romans and barbarians in a post-imperial world,' moves beyond the immediate question of Rome's Fall to consider the means by which new states were formed out of territories formerly ruled by Rome. Overall, his aim is to show how Rome dominated the prestige market in the early centuries, and through patronage and gift-giving made barbarians as much as provincials eager to identify themselves with Roman government. This Roman monopoly broke up in later centuries, leaving the way open for new identities to form around the nascent kingships in the western territories.

If all of this sounds like simply another way of saying 'Rome fell,' it is because no summary can do justice to the richness of Halsall's presentation. He demonstrates complete mastery of issues old and new, and puts advances in archaeology to especially good use. Particularly important is his use of processes of identity formation that have been developed in recent decades to counter 19th century notions of a static ethnicity produced by inherent racial characteristics. He is withering in his critique of this outdated concept, which underlies most of the standard accounts of 'barbarian invasions' and 'Germanic kingdoms.' In his pages, ethnicity is an acquired, not a hereditary, trait, something that is continually changing and adapting to new circumstances. In line with much recent scholarship, Halsall also disputes long-held theories of Rome's military decline, arguing that 'barbarization' was actually the result of conscious decisions by Romans to adopt such a persona (90). Instead of focusing on population decline, Halsall points out that the empire continued to possess 'considerably greater resources of manpower than the barbarians' (144).

Halsall's gift for capturing dense issues through an apt analogy helps the reader grasp the import of his findings. At one point he likens the emperor to 'a small, and not especially powerful, light-bulb' (141) to explain the importance of patronage; at another, he conveys the political and permeable nature of the northern frontier by likening it to an 'Iron Curtain' (141). As these and the quotations in this review indicate, Halsall is a vigorous stylist. Although he uses the newest techniques, he is not a slave to them, and while he is judicious, he does not mince words. Migration theory, he points out, 'has yet to be employed to explain anything' (418), and a new fascination with DNA evidence reflects a 'current vogue for forcing modern archaeological science to yield answers to old-fashioned and crudely formulated historical questions' (452).

Efforts to minimize the impact of the invasions produce some tortured reasoning, such as his argument that the barbarians amounted to no more than 'a small percentage of Europe's population' and their movements no more disruptive than that produced by the transfer of a few Roman regiments (455-6), or his argument that the constant squandering of resources in internal disputes proves that Romans themselves did not think these incursions significant (chs. 7, 8). If there is a whiff of special pleading in such assertions, it is a small price to pay for a book that contains so many treasures. Halsall has pulled off the difficult trick of writing a textbook that can be read with profit by anyone interested in this large and enduring question.  
H.A. Drake University of California, Santa Barbara

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Thank you!

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At some point this evening, HotE passed the half a million hits mark.  I appreciate that the number of what one might call 'genuine' hits (i.e. by people actually looking for this site or the articles on it) will be considerably fewer but it is still a milestone, so I would like to say thank you to everyone who has been interested in or has engaged positively with this blog in the four and a half years or so since I started maintaining it properly.  Cheers!

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Another post updated: Transformations of Romanness

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I have updated this post from last year, to represent the finished text sent for publication rather than the one originally delivered.