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More Posts you might have missed on the other site

Here, in order from oldest to most recent are the not-exactly-numerous posts that have appeared on the other site in the past two and a half...

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Professor Grumpy's Words of Wisdom

No.1: If you've got nothing to say, say nothing.

I like to think that this blog has something to say, so I have revived it.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Gay 'barbarians' on the rampage!

This news item demonstrates other right-wing political abuses of the barbarians and the end of the Roman Empire.  This one happily cannot be linked to modern academic writings on the topic but it does show - very clearly - how it is a politically-sensitive issue and why it behoves academics who write about barbarians to at least think - just a little bit - about how they write about the subject.

Anyway, top marks to the 'barbarians' for their appropriation of the name and wonderfully surreal piece of resistance.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Heavy Armour: the debate rages...

Here is a more thoughtful piece by Steve Muhlberger on this piece of 'scientific' research.

In the meantime I am trying to get funding for my own ground-breaking theory, which is that I hypothesise that getting shot through the head is a deeply unpleasant and indeed frequently fatal experience and that this might have had a bearing on the outcome of many of history's most famous battles.  I am hoping to carry out some trials on various government ministers and University VCs and their henchmen.  First, though, I need to find me a marine micro-biologist to head up the project.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Armour 'heavy', discover scientists

In revolutionary new research discussed here, our old friends 'the scientists' have discovered that fifteenth-century plate armour was 'tiring' to wear, especially over long periods of time, something that had never occurred to anyone before. 

This project, funded one assumes by public money (remember, the public money that isn't going into the humanities any more but is 'ring-fenced' for 'useful' research in STEM* subjects, the public money that could presumably have been spent on something scientists are supposed to be useful for, like, say, finding a cure for cancer or indeed doing something that actually had a bearing on a scientific discipline instead of trading on their supposedly superior credentials to dick around in history), could have saved itself a lot of time and effort by reading any number of medieval sources (like Regino of Prum's account of the battle of Brissarthe, for armour that wasn't even plate or complete) or secondary studies by 'useless' historians.

In a masterpiece of politic understatement, Thom Richardson, keeper of armours at the Royal Armouries (Leeds) comments that  "It is interesting to use scientific method to answer these questions, and it confirms what we have always suspected - heavy armour would very much reduce your ability to run around.  But no-one wears stuff on the battlefield if it isn't useful."'  ... Begging the question of how one defines the words 'interesting' and 'useful'.

I'm wondering whether the Royal Historical Society couldn't do something interesting and useful by commissioning a survey into how much public money ear-marked for scientific research actually goes into cock-eyed pseudo-historical rubbish like this (I'm also thinking about 'historical genetics', obviously) and have it transferred from the science pot to the history research pot, where it can be used by actual historians doing something that matters.

Anyway, later on, the study revealed, through several expensive and lengthy trials, the surprising ursine tendency to defecate in woodland areas, and the pope's subscription to a generally tridentine theology.

* Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (or is it Medicine?  I can never remember.  Useful things that 'the country needs' anyway)

Friday, 15 July 2011

Why do we need the Barbarians?

[This is a slightly edited version of the paper I gave at the IMC in Leeds, shorn of my ad hominem anger against some purveyors of what I consider to be (at least) deeply irresponsible history.  I am disappointed to have had to edit this but I think the deletions make little difference to the thrust of the argument, and indeed they may strengthen it.  It still makes the essential case, which is an attempt to demonstrate, first, that the traditional narrative is empirically erroneous and, second that historians and archaeologists remain so devoted to it that they will deploy the silliest arguments to maintain it.  It then moves on to suggests reasons for this fanatical devotion which range from the weakness of alternatives, through an inability to realise that the two principal options presented thus far are essentially little more than variations on the same narrative and that there has been an alternative to both available for some time, to the political functions fulfilled by the barbarian.  A modified Lacanian approach suggests that the barbarian figure serves as a veil between the observer and the Real.  In discussion it was suggested - rightly - that the barbarian is an empty sign that can be filled by anyone: the Jew, the Algerian, the Muslim, the Mexican.  The important task facing the study of this period today is to rip that veil away.  As you can see, this is a paper that ought easily to have come in at under twenty minutes, but excessive ad-libbing, power-point animations and not a little laughter from the audience at ad-libbed gags meant it ended up over-running by quite a bit: a source of some embarassment.  My apologies for that if nothing else!]

My contribution to these sessions is essentially to sum up by asking you one big question: why do we need the barbarians?  For it seems that we really do need the barbarians.  The answer was found, or at least suggested, in 1904 by C.P. Cavafy in his famous, much quoted, poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” (even quoted, inexplicably, in the names of chic jewellery boutiques in the 7me arrondissement in Paris, as left):

“Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come
And some of our men just in from the border say
There are no barbarians any longer.

“Now what’s going to happen to us without the barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.”

He was right; the bigger question, a hundred years on from Cavafy, is probably ‘a solution to what?’  As far as I can see, the problem which they solve cannot be ‘why did the Roman Empire fall?’  The barbarians’ role in any analysis of the Empire’s collapse must surely be sought under ‘consequences’ or ‘effects’ or – perhaps better – ‘components’, rather than under ‘causes’.  If one looks at the matter in simple descriptive terms, the number of provinces or amount of territory actually conquered by barbarians during the fifth century is minimal.  Note that the general move, in the colour scheme adopted in these maps [a reference to the PowerPoint Slides, I'm afraid, but they were simply the maps in Barbarian Migrations], is rarely from white to black, from Roman rule to barbarian rule, but from white to some shade of grey, either as a federate kingdom or as an area simply where the writ of the Ravennate court did not run.

North Africa is probably the only example of a province conquered directly from the Empire by barbarians, their occupation being recognised by a Treaty in 442.  Even then, however, quite what that ‘treaty’ implied is not very clear.  The Vandals acquired control of Byzacena, Numidia and Procunsularis but what did that mean, exactly?  I’m not sure we actually know.  More important is Huneric’s betrothal to Eudocia, something which meant that, had they had any children by the time of Valentinian III’s death in 455, they would presumably have been regarded by many as legitimate heirs to the throne of the Empire.  The Vandals regarded their links with the imperial house very seriously and, furthermore, Vandal raids on the West stopped after 442, precisely until the murder of Huneric’s father-in-law, Valentinian III in 455, when war broke out again.  Geiseric wanted to place Huneric’s Roman brother-in-law Olybrius on the throne, restoring the Vandals’ legitimate Theodosian dynastic position at the heart of the Empire. This was finally achieved, and with it another treaty recognising their position at the heart of the Empire, in early 472.  Only Olybrius’ inconsiderate death, some months later, plunged the Vandals back into the cold, where they, like all the other factional losers in fifth-century politics, settled for a kingdom.

This serves as a very good example of fifth-century western politics, which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be characterised by struggles between defending Romans and invading Barbarians.  Everywhere within the western Roman world, where we have any evidence, what we discern is the alliance between military and civilian élites, usually but far from entirely in the form of soldiers with barbarian identities and local provincial aristocrats, forming factions competing for power within the political structures established in the fourth century.  Fifth-century history is one of repeated failures by various factions to consolidate a position at the heart of the Empire by re-establishing direct control over all the other regions and their factions. Such failures were by no means predestined: sixth-century history shows how dramatic the results of a single significant military success could be.  Even as late as 471 it was far from impossible that the situation could be restored.  However, successes were indecisive, and failure usually led merely to a retreat into de facto autonomy in the region where one’s power base was located and frequently the assumption of the title of king: a pattern repeated over and over.  This point matters.  It suggests that the grand narrative of the attempts by barbarians to conquer lands and create independent kingdoms within the Empire is, fundamentally, empirically mistaken.  I cannot find any support for the idea that kingship was the preferred aim of any ‘barbarian’ leader in the fifth century – and let’s remember that most of the so-called barbarian leaders of the fifth century were actually born and raised within Roman territory. 

But that grand narrative, of barbarian invasion, conquest and kingdom-creation, is hugely problematic.  I have taught a Masters’ Degree course called ‘Renegotiating Rome’ in which we look serially at different forms of data from the fifth century – settlements, burials, annalistic sources, literature, art – and compare the story those forms of evidence tell with the grand narratives of modern histories.  What we have found (to an extent that I was quite unprepared for) is not merely that those narratives barely resemble modern reconstructions, but how another set of stories emerges.  One is how little fifth-century contemporaries were actually interested in the barbarians – except in long-established rhetorical ways.  The other - which makes a bigger problem for my own book on this period than it does for its competitors – is that the real fifth-century grand narrative concerns a shift in the way the world was divided up: from a system within which the ideal Roman male occupied the central position, with other identities – barbarian, female, animal – defined by their closeness to or distance from this single pole of attraction, to one in which the centre being competed for was defined by religious orthodoxy.  Others were categorised by their distance from this.  This is not incommensurate with the narrative of the break-up of the western Empire; it is crucial to that break-up.  Nor is it incompatible with the fracturing of political identity into a series of identities based largely, though far from exclusively, around different barbarian ethnicities.   But it does suggest that seeing the fifth-century in these terms is well wide of the mark.

Why, then, are people so wedded to the barbarians as the major cause for any and all change in the late antique west?  For they are.  Here is a, in a way quite minor, but nevertheless rather good, example that I came across in Paris a couple of weeks ago, of how anything and everything can be pinned on the barbarians, whether in terms of presence or absence.  It comes from an article about antler-working in the towns of the Meuse Valley which, for those not in the know, is not conventionally regarded as in The Germanic World.  “The Meuse valley sites, presenting continuous occupation from the Roman period into the Merovingian, show that the working of antler found its roots in the Germanic world.”   The author then moves on to explain that this is because early Romans didn’t use antler very much but late Romans did, and the late Roman period was when the Germanic ‘tribes’ (the word used) were settled in northern Gaul.  He then discusses why antler is actually a better material than bone for making combs…  Why Romans can’t just change to using a better material, within the Roman period after all, is left unexplained.
Cookhouse of the 8th Hussars

Historians are not immune from similarly bizarre reasoning, of course.  The counter-revisionist offensive against more subtle ways of thinking about the fifth century has been led by British historians from Oxford.  Peter Heather has repeatedly deployed the notion that, because wagons, women and children are occasionally mentioned in sources concerning the barbarians, the barbarians must have been ‘peoples’ on the move.  Here (right) is Roger Fenton’s photograph of the cook-house of the 8th Hussars in the Crimea, probably in 1855.  The British expedition to the Crimea is surely, uncontroversially, the movement of an army rather than a migration of people, in spite of the clearly documented presence here of A: a wagon, and B: a woman.  Actually you can stay in the Roman period and find more than enough references to wagons, women and children in accounts of the Roman army.  Such are the weakness and double-standards of the arguments in favour of the traditional narrative.  You can list many more.

To this one can add the logical knots that traditionalist archaeologists tie themselves in, to maintain that things like furnished inhumation, for which there is no prima facie evidence to support a ‘Germanic’ origin, is the sign of barbarian settlement.  Or the arguments in favour of the Grubenhaus being a similar index.  The Grubenhaus is now known from all over western Europe within and without the Roman Empire’s frontiers, in particular in North-Western Germany, northern France and in England.  It is known in northern Gaul from the third century but only from the fifth on the coastal sites of the Anglo-Saxon homelands and in England.  To make this a Germanic cultural artefact requires us to assume that two different Germanic groups with significantly different archaeology in their homelands moved to different parts of the Roman Empire, where they suddenly started producing settlements that were remarkably similar.  In any other period, even in the early middle ages, the hypothesis would be that the ‘grub-hut’ was part of a common response to similar social economic crises in different areas of north-western Europe, with influences as likely coming from the Empire to barbaricum (indeed perhaps more likely in that direction given the overwhelming direction of cultural influences documented in that period) as in the opposite direction, from barbarian territory to Roman.  Yet here we are supposed to see people’s ethnic identity, related to their geographical origins, as simply manifested in these buildings, even to the extent that minor details of planning of SFBs are alluded to, to prove their ‘Anglo-Saxon’ credentials.  Influence can’t move from the Empire to barbaricum (even though it demonstrably did!) because the barbarians didn’t move in that direction.

Thus far, I hope, I have shown that the barbarian invasions grand-narrative is, when moving from simple description to explanation, empirically dubious but that, inaccurate and misleading and mired in questionable preconceptions though it is, large numbers of archaeologists and historians continue to cling to it, to the extent of deploying some of the most absurd arguments to justify it.  Why? 

One reason is without doubt the weakness of the alternatives and responses to it.  Some have moved perilously close to denying that migrations ever took place.  A French amateur archaeologist called Alain Simmer indeed has said outright that there was no Germanic migration into Lorraine.  One reason why the traditional narrative remains ensconced as firmly as it is is that these arguments have, if anything, frequently been at least as absurd as those in favour of the old style Völkerwanderung.  Another is that most minimalist arguments do not, in fact, challenge the master narrative.  The barbarians still conquered the various territories of the Empire and thus brought down the imperial state; there just weren’t as many of them – they were a military élite.  Sometimes this is descriptively a better reading, but it doesn’t change the story except in its details and, because of that, the explanation can become less satisfactory.  The ‘late antique problematic’ has a curiously schitzophrenic attitude to barbarians.  For the last forty years or so, it has promoted – rightly on the whole – a view which sees the development of the Roman world (however defined) within the framework of specifically later Roman features, moving away from a sharp break in the fifth century.  Longer-term trajectories are preferred, and the inheritance of Rome stressed.  And yet, when it comes to the western Empire’s demise, the late antique paradigm has evidently developed no alternative to seeing the West beaten down by waves of barbarians whom it couldn’t keep out.  Partly, I am sure, this stems from the largely Mediterranean – eastern Mediterranean – focus of late antiquity studies, and from their concentration on cultural and religious history.  This ought to be an irony given what I said about the essentially religious master-narrative that our fifth-century sources actually tell.  The last alternative is the ‘Rome never fell’ approach, now sadly more or less whole-heartedly subscribed to by Walter Goffart.  This approach does not deny that there were barbarian migrations; it just denies them any significant role in history: utterly irrelevant features of a process which didn’t actually happen anyway!

Thus we have a situation where, in many people’s minds the choices before us are evidently, either, that nothing happened, or, that there was a huge catastrophe caused entirely by invading barbarians.  This is still rhetorically presented as the only interpretative choice available to us by those supporting the traditional narrative but this is far from really being the case.  Plenty of people other than me  – most famously, Walter Pohl – have written about serious, dramatic change happening in the fifth century without blaming it on the barbarians and without denying that there were migrations in the fifth century.  Yet this – if I dare call it such – third way seems nevertheless to be very much a minority position.

But I am not convinced that a simple lack of exposure to sensible alternatives really explains the continuing, fanatical devotion to the idea of the barbarian migrations, especially outside the academy.  Outside academic circles, it is certainly the case that the adhesion to the idea of barbarian invasion has a heavily right-wing political dimension.  Apart from the barbarians’ role as metaphor, already discussed, it is worth, very briefly, thinking about the other reasons why people are so ready to pin the blame on the barbarians.  Slavoj Žižek’s Lacanian analysis of antisemitism provides some valuable ways forward.  Essentially, the barbarian, like the figure of the Jew, acts as a screen between the subject and a confrontation with the Real, which Žižek sees, slightly differently from Lacan, as the pre-symbolised; things that haven’t been or can’t or won’t be encompassed in a world view.  Žižek showed that arguments that ‘the Jews aren’t like that’ are almost never effective against anti-Semites because what real Jews (or actual immigrants, one might say) are like is not the point.  Similarly, arguments about the empirical reality of the fifth-century cut little weight with those wedded to the idea of Barbarian Invasion.  Just as the anti-Semite takes factual evidence as more proof of the existence of the international Zionist conspiracy, the right-wing devotee of the Barbarian Invasions sees factual counter-arguments as manifestations of the liberal, left-wing academy peddling its dangerous multicultural political correctness.  I have read a great deal of this on internet discussion lists – including a review of my own book, and one of James O’Donnell’s!  Michael Kulikowski received a similarly-phrased review from a right-wing academic ancient historian.

The barbarian is the classic ‘subject presumed to’.  The barbarian can change the world; he can bring down empires; he can create kingdoms.  The barbarian dominates history.  ‘He’ is not like ‘us’, enmeshed in our laws, our little lives and petty responsibilities.  The barbarians in the vision of Peter Heather, are peoples with ‘coherent aims', which they set out single-mindedly to achieve.  No people in the whole of recorded human history have ever had single coherent sets of aims.  Well – none other than the barbarians anyway.

What do we get if we lift the veil of the barbarian?  We are presented with a picture of a world where things were much messier, where the barbarians did not occupy a separate world, which existed in binary, frequently hostile, opposition to the Empire.  Where a dominant culture has a responsibility to those it dominates within its world and where it becomes responsible for stress in that other part of the world which it dominates, including stress that results, unsurprisingly in migration towards and into the dominant civilisation’s territory.  Move the barbarian ‘subject presumed to’ and we have to face up to the historical reality of destructive stress caused by social inequalities, by self-serving rivalry amongst the political élite, rivalry – at base - to control more of the material and cultural fruits of the surplus generated by the empire.  It is a picture where history unfolds as ‘contingency, singularity [and] risk’, to take a phrase from Roland Barthes – events occurring in chaotic constellation and kaleidoscopic sequence.  This is not a comforting vision.  Far better to hang the veil of the barbarian, the subject presumed to evade all the normal rules of history, between us and it.  If the figure of the barbarian ruins everything no one can be blamed for that; no one can control the barbarian.

If we, as late antique historians and archaeologists wish to do something more than inhabit an airless ivory tower, if we want to take our responsibilities to society seriously, then the most important duty facing us today is to rip that veil away.

The Performance of Anger

Sometimes it matters to get angry...

Preliminary/introductory points:

1. In Barbarian Migrations I argued (among many other things) that one thing that might have happened in the post-imperial era was that, just as romanitas had been something performed as a claim to a legitimate political status, so people might also have performed their barbarism, once barbarian identities became associated with the highest levels of secular and military power.  In classical ethnography, one of the things that distinguished the civic Roman from the barbarian (and just about anyone else) was the control of emotion.  Barbarians had no such control.  Because they could furnish no reasoned grounds for being angry, or happy, or sad, they swung wildly from one to the other and back again.  [Actually in my own case, as a northern barbarian, I have often thought that this was less of a piece of ethnography mired in rhetorical topoi than value-neutral reportage.]  Thus, when barbarian kings throw tantrums or similar public displays of emotion they are in a sense performing their identity and therefore their right to be kings.  Now, even when I wrote that book I was aware that this was not a thesis that could stand in any crude form, and may well (as I just learnt from an interesting paper on weeping men in Late Antiquity) be even more complicated than that.  Nevertheless I think there's something in it.

2. In an earlier development, some historians have been discussing the 'socially-constructed' nature of the emotions.  On balance I am (as a barbarian; see above) pretty unconvinced by all this but again the way that emotions could be 'performed', independently of actual physiological stimuli, was an interesting off-shoot of this on which I was (at least in part) drawing in my views on performed barbarism.

3. Now, one reason why academics can come up with an idea as crazy as the one that emotions are entirely socially constructed is that academics (American academics even more than British, British even more than mainland European) inhabit a largely emotion-free environment, in which the expression of any sort of feelings (assuming they are actually capable of any) is - as in the world of antique paideia (the culture of the rhetorically-educated graeco-roman male) - viewed as very much infra-dig.  This is one reason why I am such a rubbish academic.

4.  All that said, many (perhaps even most) of the frighteningly long list of 'incredibly dumb' things I have done in my life have actually been the result of deliberation, rather than of 'flying off the handle', which accounts for most of the remainder (or of being drunk, which accounts for the rest).  More evidence, perhaps, that Pliny, Vitruvius, Strabo and the rest were right about people born too far to the north...

[See now this post, although - despite it having done enormous damage to my career - this post is not something I have enormous regrets about.]

Performing anger at the International Medieval Congress

So ... As you know I am actually pretty angry about the way in which some British historians have been writing books about the barbarian migrations characterised by (at best) such an indigence of reflection that they play straight into the hands of the Far Right, the 'anti-immigration lobby' and what Leo Lucassen calls 'Fact-Free Politics'.  As I just intimated, this really is the most charitable interpretation of these works.  [If you want to see just how they are playing into the hands of these people read the 'boneheaded' (J. Jarrett) review of my book on amazon.co.uk and especially the 'comments' on that review.  Be warned, though: there are some pretty offensive views expressed there, especially if you open the comment hidden because of negative feedback.]

As a result of this, I organised a series (a 'strand') of four sessions of papers at this year's International Medieval Congress on 'Beyond the Invasion Narrative', the aim being twofold: to mobilise historians and archaeologists who do care not only about more subtle ways of thinking about their subject, but also about making sure that these more subtle and thus more socially responsible readings get out beyond the academy, and to develop, refine and publicise (within university teachers of late antique and early medieval history) those alternative readings.  For reasons beyond anyone's control, I lost a couple of papers and one way by which the slack was taken up was by me giving an introduction to the sessions explaining the reasoning behind them.  This focused upon the fact that sometimes it matters to get angry.  Historians aren't supposed to get angry.  Partly this is because the demonstration of anger erodes the cultural capital which is still the most important matter in furthering a career.  Principled anger has also disappeared from the repertoire of British academic history because it has been replaced by grubby collusion and self-interest, as a result of the material rewards - the funding, the grants, that are now the other means by which one rises up through the ranks (rather than actual historical creativity and talent).  Thus the absence of any real opposition to the most serious offensive ever launched by a British government against liberal, humane education: the absence of any leadership (in opposing this) by 'Universities UK' (in which historians are disproportionately represented).  Thus - with the noble and notable exceptions of Mark Humphries and Ian Wood (both present in my audience) and a couple of others - British historians have been silent about the intrusion of political slogans into the AHRC's delivery plan.  There was, I said, a deficit of principle in the British historical profession.  But it mattered, too, to get angry about the abuse of late antique and early medieval history by the Right.  A speech in Rome by Geert Wilders (a far right-wing Dutch politician) makes extensive use of the barbarian invasions as an example that we, who share Europe's alleged 'Judaeo-Christian heritage' (1) must learn from in the face of the 'Islamic threat'.  I adverted to the fact that a series of other examples would be presented in Philipp von Rummel's paper later in that session.

As a result, I decided that, in my own paper, the last in the strand, I would to some small extent step outside the usual bounds of polite academic discourse.  I repeated the passage from my Brussels paper on rethinking the migration debate in archaeology, about unthinking academic uses of migration as explanation (the one concluding ‘one cannot help but wonder whether these authors are wicked, irresponsible or merely stupid’).  I repeated the point that (the historian we shall call) Cyril Fotheringay-Phipps' book essentially argues three things and places these three arguments side-by-side: 1. that the Roman empire fell because it was conquered by migrating barbarians (they might not have meant to destroy the Roman Empire, says C.F.-P., but they did); 2: that the end of the Roman Empire was the end of a civilisation; and 3. that we have to be careful to preserve our own civilisation.  Now, I'm not saying that C.F-P is a fascist - he would make a somewhat unlikely fascist, I concede.  However, I did add a comment about the fact that he has nevertheless been happy to write on this subject for Standpoint, neo-liberal rag founded by Michael Gove (q.v.), a magazine that prints regular attacks on multi-culturalism.  Has he not thought about the company he is keeping there? 

Now, as I just said, I'm not saying that he subscribes to the views of the xenophobic Right but, if you want to argue that he does, while that position at least credits him with intelligence, it could hardly be said to make for a rosy picture of our author.  If you don't want to suppose that, you might suggest that he is pandering to those who do hold these ideas simply to sell copy and make money.  This seems to me to be the least likely option, I admit, but if that's your view, it paints C.F-P in the least flattering colours: smart enough to put together a convincing argument for that audience but lacking even any conviction in his argument.  More positive, perhaps (and the option I have heard most often) is that he is simply putting these ideas about out of a sense of mischief, because he wants to 'wind people up'.  This credits him with enough intelligence to put together a stylish argument (and it is stylish, I admit).  Furthermore, no one ought to be more receptive to a bit of mischief and stirring than me.  But this does not seem to me to be a charitable reading because it simultaneously suggests that he is so irresponsible that he is peddling ideas to the general public that could cause serious damage to real live human beings (cp. my 'Unbearable Weight' posts) in the brutal world outside the groves of academe, simply as a form of silly academic parlour game, as some sort of ridiculous macro-scale Oxbridge tutorial sophistry. 

If you leave these aside, what other interpretative options are available?  One is that he actually thinks that this is the historical 'truth'.  I don't actually believe that, because the argument contains distortions that he must know are distortions (most notably the misrepresentation of the South Etruria Survey).  So, all told, the most charitable readings of this argument turn on the fact that this is a writer who just didn't think that these were arguments that could be seized upon by the xenophobic far Right as a historical, factual buttress to their nasty ideologies and the equally unpleasant policies they want to adopt (cp. Wilders' Rome speech), or notice that he had presented these arguments in a particular way that meant his book hardly even needed editing to support these views.  This writer, having presented those arguments in those ways in a book aimed at the general public (without, remember, realising the damage this could do) then wrote for a notably anti-multi-cultural magazine, without realising what the audience of the piece would be or in what ways they could use his views (although to be fair, he does not push his own view in this piece, the readers would surely go back to his own contribution to the 'Industry').  If you accept all that, then the shocking but actually, by the foregoing process of elimination, as we've seen most charitable alternative is that this is someone who has not thought very hard about things at all.  People with well-paid university jobs are paid to think - well, they used to be; now they seem to be paid to make money.  Thus, in someone with a publicly-funded university post, you might say that that suggests, relatively-speaking of course, a bit of a deficiency 'between his ears'.  That might be shocking but it is, actually, the most charitable reading.  But you decide.

There were audible intakes of breath.  This was, incidentally, quite different from the Brussels response, which was much more of the 'yay: go Guy!' variety.  I think history ought to make you uncomfortable, and I did do this deliberately, because I knew that this - this performed stepping outside the bounds - would shock that audience.  But that was deliberate.  What I hoped it would - or at least might - make them reflect upon is what we ought to get shocked or angry about.  Is it a senior British academic 'taking the gloves off' in response to what is at best a sort of irresponsible abuse of academic position?  Or is it the fact that someone with a nice cosy job in the hallowed halls of one of the wealthiest, most prestigious and most privileged of British HE institutions can't (or can't be bothered to) think hard enough about what he's writing to see what it might do outside those halls? 

Or is it the fact that a British historian, one who earns (I guess) in excess of £70k of public money a year to occupy an established chair of medieval history in a leading British university, a chair previously occupied by a usually extremely ethically-minded medieval historian [actually I would not say that any more...], can publish the following sentence?:
'the connection between immigrant violence and the collapse of the western Empire could not be more direct'
Let's think about that.  Presumably, and assuming, because it would be uncharitable not to, that when (the historian to whom we shall refer as) Gussy Finknottle decided to commit those words to paper some form of thought-process was involved, the option was available to him to write this sentence:

'the connection between barbarian violence and the collapse of the western Empire could not be more direct.'

That would have been fair enough as a sentence. One might or might not have agreed - one might want to debate it historically - but it would remain firmly locked within the discussion of the past, and within that discussion's terms of art.  Now, there would of course be nothing to stop some loony right-wing reader making a link between that sentence and modern immigrants but it would be difficult to blame the author for that.  No.  At some point Finknottle chose (chose) to write:
'the connection between immigrant violence and the collapse of the western Empire could not be more direct'
What sort of person can choose, can decide, to use that word - 'immigrant' - without being aware of its status within modern political discourse, and write it (as with C.F-P) not in an obscure learned journal but in a book aimed at a wide public, outside academe?  Without being aware - without (one hopes) even having thought, at all - about the serious human damage it could do?  What sort of person?  The occupant of handsomely-remunerated academic chair of history? 

Do you not find that shocking?  Do you not find that more shocking than the fact that, for about two minutes, I chose not to play within the rules of academic paper-giving rhetoric at an academic conference?  Does that not make you angry? If you don't, or if it doesn't, then I am glad I shocked you because it is high time you took a long, hard, serious look at your own basic assumptions.

Of course, me being me, I have actually spent a long time since then worrying and wondering whether I should have done this (just as I wonder on a weekly basis whether or not I shouldn't delete this blog), but on balance I don't think I regret it.  Actually, right now, as I write this post, I don't regret it for an instant.


1: This attempt at an alliance between the xenophobic European far right and the Israeli Zionist right is one of the most grotesque aspects of the current anti-Islamic immigration debate.  Seventy years ago no one would have described Europe as having a 'Judaeo-Christian' inheritance, largely because the political precursors of Geert Wilders were trying to herd the ancestors of the Zionist Right into the gas chambers.  It also, the historian must point out, ignores the vitally important Islamic input into European culture (in Spain especially), not least in preserving many of the Graeco-Roman classics.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Norman Hampson, 1922-2011

More sad news as another former professor of the University of York, Norman Hampson, well-known and respected historian of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, passed away last Thursday.  I can't claim to have known Norman or to have met him on more than a couple of occasions.  Nor did he really teach me, as such.  He did nevertheless have a profound effect on me as an undergraduate. He gave some of the general introductory lectures to us, as the new intake of first-years, about the nature of history and what it meant to be a history student, as well as an introduction to the period between c.1750 and c.1900.  These few lectures are etched on my memory for several reasons.  One is their humanity - the way he told us to work but also to enjoy ourselves and make the most of the opportunities of university.  Another is their humour; he had a wonderful laid-back, dry sense of humour in his lectures.  All this was very important to me as they suggested that history lectures could be stimulating and fun, not simply to listen to but to give (some other lectures by Jim Sharpe had a similar effect).  They suggested that lecturing might be a good thing to do.  Thanks for that, Norman; it's something I have always acknowledged and will ever remain profoundly grateful for.  Rest in Peace. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Judging History … Or why historicists are the real relativists (The Unbearable Weight, Part 3-ish)

Si rien n’est vrai, rien n’est possible
(If nothing is true, nothing is possible)
-          A. Camus, L’Homme Révolté, p.98

Nietzsche (according to Camus) said something similar.  So did Lacan, again starting from the widely-cited but evidently erroneous ‘quotation’ of Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov that if god does not exist, everything is permitted.[1]  Lacan said that if you didn’t accept the existence of someone or something that you accepted could permit, then (logically enough) nothing could be permitted.  It’s not just about the semantics of the verb to permit; what, like Camus and (apparently) Nietzsche, Lacan meant (as I understand it, anyway) was that the absence of some sort of accepted yardstick against which things can be judged means that there are no grounds for acting for or against anything.  So much for the continentals.  One of the founding fathers of hard-line analytic philosophy, A.J. Ayer, said that ethics were not a true subject for philosophy because they were metaphysical (which he thought wasn’t proper subject-matter for philosophy).  You couldn’t make a logical argument for something being good or bad; all ethical arguments reduced ultimately to the equivalent of ‘yay, charity; boo, theft’.  Put in historical terms, you could transpose that to ‘yay, FDR; boo Hitler’.  Actually, that's a bad example, because I want to separate the judgement or assessment of individuals from judgement or assessment of their actions: let's instead say 'yay: founding the Red Cross; Boo: the Nanjing massacre'.  In its way, this is the same argument as Lacan’s/Camus’/Nietzsche’s.  However, whereas, because there was, for Ayer (a hard-line atheist after all), no acceptable, rational, neutral yardstick, it was pointless to attempt to discuss it, I would follow the continentals into the solution of discussing these things other than in purely rational terms (as in the first part of these thoughts).  And so what I am going to attempt to argue in this latest in my inchoate series of meandering ‘thoughts’ (if they can be dignified by that term) is that it is not those who are influenced by continental philosophy who end up in a position where they are disabled by relativism but actually the historicists, and by the logic (such as it is) of their own arguments.

With that in mind I am grateful to ‘ADM’ for her comment on the last instalment of these wafflings, essentially because it suggests to me a number of points I have often heard and with which I could not disagree with it more!  I can say that without any trace of personal disagreement or animosity because these points that ADM sets out so well pretty much represent, I would say, the orthodoxy of the historical profession - and because they points I will respond to aren't quite the one's she is making!  Me?  Not following the orthodoxy?  I know you will find that an absurd idea![2]

Essentially, and to anticipate my argument somewhat, I think that the debates on judging history have the whole problem the wrong way round.  There was quite a useful representation of what I mean in a forthright review-article [3] by Roger Collins of several recent works including a book containing an essay by Lisa Bitel which argued for a politically-committed teaching of medieval history.  Collins is quite right, that finger-wagging at the past for its sexism, racism and so on is an empty gesture, aiming, I would say, at little more than the facile, grandiose public occupation of some sort of moral mole-hill.  And yet, I would also say that Bitel is right that a politically-committed historian cannot unproblematically pass things over in silence.  To do so is tacitly to acquiesce in it.  It is surely pointless now to tut-tut about Charlemagne executing thousands of Saxons in the 780s, in itself, but to pass over the massacre of Verden as simply ‘what people did in those days’ (what can you do, eh?) is ethically highly questionable.

Tamurlane: Misunderstood
You can’t say that Hitler is just different from Charlemagne, because he is more recent and some of his victims and/or their children or relatives are still alive.  There is no historical statute of limitations.  Otherwise, at what point do we start discussing the Holocaust as just another historical atrocity, like Tamurlane’s slaughtering of the inhabitants of central Asian cities (millions of dead, some people estimate)?  Well, it was just an extreme case of the antisemitism that pervaded much of Europe at the time, wasn’t it?  Who are we to judge?  But people died; human beings like us.  There’ll always be something qualitatively different, unique about the Shoah (with luck, by which I mean I wouldn’t want repetitions) but there seems to me to be no compelling reason to enshrine this as the only atrocity of history deserving of ethical treatment and comment.  There is an annual remembrance day and pressure groups that preserve its memory, for sure, but people have died in horrible circumstances throughout history.  Pity the victims of the Armenian genocide (which Israel has accepted Turkey’s denial of, shockingly), or – even more so - those of the ‘colonnes infernales’ in the Vendée in the 1790s, or the victims of the massacre of Thessalonica in the 390s who have no one to speak for them.  They were human beings, like us, too.  If you accept that the Shoah was ‘all bad’ (as anyone sane surely must) the only logically consistent conclusion you can draw from that, without descending into grotesque Zionist arguments, is that all massacres are Bad Things, just different and (usually) on a smaller scale.  Let me make it quite clear that I’m not trying to reduce the significance of the Holocaust to being just another bad thing[4]: quite the opposite; I’m moving the scale in the opposite direction.  Here in some ways I return to my points about the universal in the particular.

The way out of the impasse is, I suggest, by acknowledging that both sides in the debate as usually rendered are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.  The issue of an ethical engagement with history is not about us judging the past, but about the past judging us or, better, about us judging the present through the prism of the past.  I came to this point of view via a comment made by Slavoj Žižek in In Defence of Lost Causes (I think) about the issue with Marx today not being about what Marx has to say to us but what we would have to say to him (or something like that – anyway it was the same general point).  So, to return to the massacre of Verden, what I suggest is that the event is viewed as a focus for thinking about – an opportunity to meditate on – such actions in general.  These were the ‘dark ages’, right?  What light does it shed on our supposedly more ‘advanced’ civilisation?  Put another way, to consider the massacre (say) as an historical phenomenon can (and should) include its ethical treatment without it necessarily becoming in any way about ‘judging the past’. 

One of my innumerable teaching mantras is ‘to explain is not to excuse’.  Of course one must see things within some sort of context, but ethically things should not stop there.  One reason why they should not concerns causation.  If historical context becomes an explanation in itself, as it inevitably does in the historicist way of looking at things, then no one has any agency or moral responsibility at all.  You can’t make any exceptions to this rule that will withstand any close analytical scrutiny. 

"A regrettable incident"?
2nd SS 'Das Reich':
"Men of their times"?
But the moment you allow individual agency into the equation the ethical issue surfaces.  If that person had a choice (as surely s/he did) then you need to explain why s/he made the choice that s/he did.  And this of course has to take into account the commonly-accepted options of the time and the reasons why people saw some choices as valid and others as not.  But people did not always make the choices that ‘their time’ demanded of them.  If they had not done, nothing in the world would ever have changed (and furthermore, such an approach leaves one wondering where the accepted options available at any one time actually came from if not by people actually making new choices further back in the past).  This is where the historicist position reveals one of its many internal contradictions.  Most historians will have no problem with the historian who writes that Charlemagne executed 4,500 Saxons at Verden because he thought it would put an end to the Saxon revolt, and leaves it at that.  But that is not an ethically neutral statement.  It is no more ethically neutral than one that says that men of the SS 'Das Reich' division wiped out the village of Oradour-sur-Glane because they thought it would put an end to Resistance attacks on them, and leaves it at that.  What, exactly, was Charlemagne doing in Saxony?  In fact the statement is no more ethically neutral than the statement that Hitler killed six million Jews because he thought it would bring unity and benefits to the German race, and leaves it at that, or one that says that Stalin wiped out however million Kulaks because he thought it would further the dictatorship of the proletariat, and leaves it at that.  Leaving things unremarked upon tacitly approves them.  It buries the victims just as surely as the perpetrators did (if not better in most cases).

There are very many, very common ways of approving and disapproving in historical writing, without actually saying ‘This was A Good Thing’ or ‘That was A Bad Thing’ (which I used simply as 1066 And all That short-hand).  The orthodox position generally sees no problem with the approval or admiration of things past.  Presumably, when a historian expresses admiration for Charlemagne’s energy and ability to organise (I have praised this myself), that is OK.  Think about it; instances of this will be littered throughout the works of all kinds of historians whom I regard as very fine practitioners of the art.  Aesthetics work in the same unidirectional fashion.  You can coo over early medieval metalwork or manuscript art, or the beauty of the space of the Hagia Sophia without exciting comment, but you can’t say (as I have done) that this is ‘obviously rubbish’ or that the decoration on an early Parisian plaster sarcophagus was ‘clearly not the work of a well man’, except for comic effect.  Indeed I well remember David Ganz getting physically irate with me for describing Venantius Fortunatus as the ‘W.T. MacGonagall of his day’ (fair enough; it was at best a pretty flippant gag).  Thus, in fact, in practice, the historicist position says we are allowed to commend, but not to criticise.  There is no consistency, methodological or theoretical, here.  It allows ethical and aesthetic judgement in one direction but not the other.  Actions, productions and results transcend their time if we like them, but not if we don’t.  What this is, is the position that allows us overtly to praise Mussolini for getting the trains to run on time (if indeed he did) but prevents us from openly condemning him for dropping gas bombs on Libyans and Ethiopians.  Charlemagne?  Wonderful organiser and strategist, you know; lovely sponsorship of learning.  But a cold-hearted murderer of thousands in an afternoon, just to shore up his conquest of their land?  Ooh no: now you’ve gone too far; you’re allowing your own feelings to influence your judgement. 

This is why the orthodox historicist position is in fact one of disabling relativism.  It allows no position to act in the present on the basis of an understanding of the past.  Because actions in the past cannot be condemned (only praised or commended), because they have to be understood in context, then nothing in the present can be combatted or condemned either.  They also have to be understood in their context, which evidently explains and excuses all.  Everything is valid on its own terms.  As we have seen, this approach enables no means of criticising history written to support extreme and distasteful political positions (on right or left), as long as that history does not falsify evidence or deny the reality of events or commit other obvious sins of method.

To explain, however, is not to excuse, but both elements of that equation need to be present for good history.  In fact, what I think we would agree on is that it is not the commendation or condemnation of past events that makes a bad historian but one-eyed condemnation or commendation.  A historian that goes out of his or her way to explain away the ‘stains on a reputation’ and ‘big up’ the good things is probably not a good historian.  Nor is the historian who condemns in simplistic fashion, without the ‘explaining’ element of the equation.  But it is the lack of even-handedness that makes them that way, not the recognition of and commenting upon good and bad things.  If all history that approves or condemns is bad history, as ADM suggests, then all history is bad history, by its very nature (as I will return to explain below).

Here is where I return to the first part of these musings about history and ethics.  There is, I argue, a contradiction inherent in this historicist position, especially when used to espouse what I consider to be ethically and politically dubious positions.  When approaching the evidence, all schools of thought, I think, accept that (as I argued before) one does so in a spirit that allows the preserved voice of the past to speak and be heard (in the first part, I argued that that ethical demand was actually inherent in what I called the ‘aesthetic moment’ – the decision to study history in the first place).  As we’ve seen, we then listen and we grant that voice some priority as that of another human being.  That does not imply that one must purely take it on its own terms – that approach would logically lead us to a place where all we could do was to re-describe the past as manifested in the surviving evidence, without comment.  That is chronicling and antiquarianism, not history.  I don’t think that that is a controversial statement.  But once we permit some people (those whose voices are preserved) to be examined with that respectful but critical scrutiny then the implication is that we allow all people – all fellow human beings – that same respect.  That means that the voiceless victims cannot be passed over in silence as collateral damage for the ambitions of the great and the good.  We are back with the universal in the particular, inherent in the ethical demand that is itself present the decision to study history, but none of this is really controversial.  In a way, women’s history and then gender history have been about recovering the experiences of those who do not dominate the record, and the same is true of Black history and other sub-types of the discipline (actually I am opposed to ‘interest group history’ but that’s a different matter [I no longer, at 19/11/2021, have any recollection of what I meant by this]).  All I am really trying to do is to bring out and develop an ethical dimension (indeed a demand) that is actually already implicit within accepted historical ‘good practice’, in a way that would be empowering and enabling for politically-committed historians.  In that sense, then, I disagree that this is something that is going far beyond history.  Far beyond antiquarianism and chronicling, perhaps…

Ludwig von Wittgenstein: Anyone
else think he looked like the late
Patrick Wormald?
Wittgenstein, in one of his apparently increasingly numerous manifestations,[5] said (in yet another version of the argument I started with) that:

“Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world, dead or alive and that he also knew all the states of mind of all the people that ever lived and suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgement or anything that would imply such a judgement.  It would of course contain all relative judgements of value and all true scientific propositions and in fact all true propositions that can be made. … Our words, when we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense.  Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only contain water and if I pour out a gallon over it."[6]
I would adapt that to say that if all the events of the past – thoughts, words, deeds, justifications, etc. – were recorded in a Great Book of All The Past, it would not contain a word of History.  And it couldn’t contain History any more than a teacup could contain a gallon of water.  As I just said, the ‘teacup’ is just antiquarianism and chronicling.  What happens when we start history is that we start analysing, commenting and explaining; all things that in a way are transcendental.  Such analysis, comment and explanation is, as I have tried to argue, not ethically neutral or disinterested.  If one looks for a value to history, the usual defences (‘relevance’; ‘learning how we got where we are’) are pretty weak if scrutinised closely (I’ll have to leave why for another time) and certainly of little comfort to medievalists.  For me the key (not the only) purposes of a historical education are twofold: the ability to scrutinise what you are told critically, sceptically, and understanding other people and their cultures.  These are both things that make history a dangerous subject.  In both of these dimensions there lies the ethical demand of history to treat the other human being (the ‘autrui’ of Levinasian ethics) with priority and respect.  Where history is written in a way to justify unethical politics and positions in the present – whether of left or right – by writing off the suffering of human beings, without further comment, as some sort of unavoidable collateral damage on the altar of some principle then, I maintain, it contradicts the principles and demands inherent in the process of historical analysis itself.  It thereby becomes ‘bad history’.

Thanks for all your comments thus far, for helping me see what needs further justification and explanation.  Keep ‘em coming!

[1] I’ve never read The Brothers Karamazov so I wouldn’t know.  I’m still girding my loins to try one more big push to finish Crime and Punishment.  To quote Father Ted, I think Dostoyevsky lost his way in that novel, somewhere between the crime and the punishment.  Anyway, it’ll be over by Christmas…
[2] It’s a pretty damning indictment of the profession that I still haven’t yet found anyone to take over from me as the Enfant Terrible of the early medieval historical discipline.  I’m 46, for heaven’s sake.  I should be in carpet slippers and charter witness-lists by now; that or endlessly repeating the researches of my youth.  Oh, hang on, though…
[3] This is a bit of an unfortunate piece.  Roger does make some very good points, as you’d expect, and savages at least one very deserving victim but (to mix my metaphors) this sort of blanket bombing of the profession inevitably catches some innocent people in the blast.  I emerge quite well from the carnage, but I think I have developed a sort of ‘survivor’s guilt’ as a result.
[4] Not long ago I was pretty shocked to see a book that described as a ‘genocide’ the massacre of Goliad, where 400 Texian rebels (who had, let’s not forget, risen in rebellion to defend their right to own slaves against a Mexican edict of liberation) were executed by Santa Anna’s troops.  As a massacre, clearly I have to condemn it, but to call this genocide really is pretty absurd and insulting to the victims of genuine, systematic killing.  It might have been this book.  If not I apologise, although further down the page the author inaugurates a discussion on how American settlers into Mexico – illegal immigrants – were different from Mexican illegal immigrants in the modern USA, producing the all-too-predictable responses.  Goliad is also described as genocide in an evidently pretty poor book reviewed here.  I was going to say that maybe one ought not to expect historical perspective in Texas, a state where - I am told - about half of a school-child’s historical education is taken up with the history of that state alone, but there I go.  Historical perspective: what does that mean?  That 400 Texian lives didn’t count because there were far worse massacres in history?  Does their legal status as rebels according to contemporary the laws of war justify describing their killing without comment?  Does the morally objectionable basis of their cause justify their execution?  The risk is to give that impression.  There is not, admittedly, a numerical threshold at which systematic massacre becomes genocide (I have an image of two soldiers amidst the ruins of a slaughtered village, and one saying to the other ‘Damn! We only needed one more to make it genocide’).  But the massacre at Goliad, brutal though it was, wasn’t genocide.
[5] How did Wittgenstein die?  He became the Late Wittgenstein.  Sorry but that’s the only Wittgenstein-based gag that I know.
[6] In conversation, apparently, Wittgenstein used to express the same point, more crudely, as ‘you can’t shit higher than your own arse’.