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Monday, 11 February 2013

The Siege Part 2 (Against Compulsory Populism)

[Here is the next instalment of the section of Why History Doesn't Matter.  Editing and revision of the chapter means that there are some paragraphs repeated here which appeared in the first part.  My apologies for that but I think they work better here.

There has been some reaction to the original piece, which has given me pause and things to think about.  I am a little surprised, though (I ought not to be, but I am anyway) at how people have misread what I am saying.  The ubiquitous 'Anonymous', commenting on another blog which kindly plugged Worlds of Arthur, expressed surprise at the publicity given to someone who, according to the first part of this post 'clearly' [clearly] believed that blogs by interested lay enthusiasts 'shouldn't exist'.  Now, I am unsure exactly where in that post I come even remotely close to expressing such an idea, even implicitly, let alone clearly.  But I suspect that 'Anonymous' is one of those people whose hobby is reading early medieval sources for proof of what they don't say, such that King Arthur owned a pub in Yeovil, or that Jesus went to school in Taunton, and so is well versed in finding what he wants to read in a text, rather than what is on the page.

More disconcerting to find a similar misreading by a professional historian, although I concede that I might not have progressed far enough with the argument for it to become clear.  Anyway, before making some comments which are worth thinking about, the author of this blog-post, describes the piece as a call to 'stay off my patch' and one that advocates 'policing the boundaries'.  I had rather hoped that it was pretty clear that I was not arguing for either of those things.  Nor, contrary to the author's assertion, do I think that amateur writing is itself a threat to history.  And I don't say that there are no disciplines where similar problems arise.  There is a crucial 'm' that distinguishes the phrase 'not many' from 'not any'; just one letter, but analytically it does quite a lot of work.  I won't cite the relevant passages but just invite you to read the first part again, but carefully.  If there is boundary-policing implicit it concerns what history is and who can legitimately claim the status of historian, it is not about who can or can't write about the past and it makes no claims that writing about the past by historians is always better than writing about the past by non-historians.  Let me underline that.

Where Dr Kelman makes substantive points, they are interesting, however.  I think, though, that I disagree fundamentally - or at least that what I want to talk about is something else.  His best point is of course that the historical profession is still a comparatively young one, and that many of the key shifts and texts in the development of history were made or written by people who would not today be considered academic historians.  That is absolutely right, although something similar would be the case for every academic discipline.  Turning to areas of disagreement, I do not see satisfying the readership of writing about the past, outside the academy, as (academic) history's primary task - this will become clearer in the post below.  Good popular writing about the past does what there is to do in that area.  This is not to say that historians should not write accessibly or try and get their work 'out there'.  But (and here I suggest there might be a political gulf between me and Dr Kelman) I am not happy to let the market  decide who gets published.  I am not happy to let anything be governed by the market.  The market, as I described last time, is not neutral.  The market could only decide if all history writing were given equal marketing and publicity and equal distribution, at least initially.  There are people between historians and the market that prevent that, and they are not neutral in their opinions.  More to the point, if the market decided, and if the market wanted what we're told it wants (which I doubt) then hardly anything would be published except on the twentieth century and/or on political/military history.  The exceptions would be the historically light-weight equivalents to Downham Abbey or various bodice-rippers.  In some of these crowded, best-selling fields (most notably the Third Reich) a close inspection reveals that, historically, there really is nothing new or interesting being said.  Which is sort of ironic given specialists in that period's view of things like the Middle Ages, but I digress.  

I think my second reservation is that I would like to know what sort of things Dr Kelman means when he dismisses certain books on topics no one is interested in.  This may be unfair, but my own experience has been that very often, when modern historians dismiss books or topics as of marginal interest or importance, they mean anything not on modern history.  That may just be my own suspicion, as stated; I might have been rendered unduly wary by past experience.  Be that as it may, though, even if books have no readership, that is no argument that they should not be published.  It is the self-same argument as the Impact argument used by the UK government.  What if a book goes unnoticed for a decade before being taken up as actually quite paradigm-shifting (in the jargon)?  The journal article is not appropriate for all sorts of research; how does history as a discipline progress if no book-publishing is allowed if it will not sell (or, more to the point, if publishers think it will not sell) to the lay audience (at that moment in time?

Anyway, here, is the remainder of this section of my argument, which I hope clarifies things a little more, as I trust will the sub-title added to this instalment.]

Let me pause here to clarify my position.  This is not an argument for the restriction of the right to write books about the past, for any sort of ‘policing’ around the borders of the discipline.  I have not, as I hope has been clear, argued that amateur history is automatically ‘bad’.  To reiterate, the problem posed for academic history is its quality.  Note, further, that the argument is that this is a problem for, not a threat to, history.  What has been a threat has been the acceptance of unqualified writers about the past as the principal commentators on the subject and their marginalisation and exclusion of professional historians.  This threat has been exacerbated by governmental policies adopting ‘impact’ outside the academy as a measure of research quality, impact, it needs to be said, measured over a very short time span.

What I have set out thus far is a description of how, in some important respects, serious academic history doesn’t – or has ceased to – matter.  If one considers why historians think their discipline is important, the picture becomes no less gloomy.  At one level this is because, according to these readings, the professional historian has nothing to offer that the popular writer has not, or which, often, the popular writer does not in fact do better.  If one thinks that history matters simply for the creation of a narrative against which to set oneself, to show how we got where we are or to reveal who we are, or for the compilation of ‘instructive’ (glib) parallels from past societies, then bookshop and television history do the job at least as well as – usually better than – most academics.  The argument of this book, though, is that these reasons for studying history are deeply flawed.  They are not why history matters.  More than that, they provide succour to beliefs and movements which scholarly historians should be using their discipline to unsettle and oppose.

Why then do we ‘do’ history?  At the basic level, the inescapable point is that one studies history simply because one finds it more interesting than other subjects, and one studies a particular, period place or type of history because it attracts you more than the others.  I have never met a historian who took up his vocation from utilitarian motivation.  No historian has ever said to herself ‘well, I am really interested in accountancy but what the country needs is more historians.’  This is a shame in many ways, as I suspect that the country does need more historians rather than more accountants, but let us leave that aside.  Some historians, for sure, do argue that their period or topic of interest is ‘more useful’ or ‘more relevant’ than others but I shall return to demonstrate the weakness of such reasoning, which mostly serves the purposes of departmental politics.  I call this moment of attraction the aesthetic moment.  Something about the past draws you.  It may not be an aspect that stays with you as what it is that fascinates you about history or becomes what you study if you continue to work on the subject.  Many, especially male, historians – I suspect more than would readily admit it – were initially drawn to history by illustrations of battles, knights, colourful Napoleonic uniforms, perhaps even military ‘hardware’ – Spitfires, Tiger tanks and the rest.  I know; I am one such.  Unlike most others, I have retained a hobby interest in those areas and even a professional interest in the broader, social history of warfare.  For others it might be pyramids, temples, great structures, strange rituals and beliefs, dazzling artefacts, paintings of past events hung in galleries, costumes, stories one heard or any number of other things.  It is a non- or pre-rational moment, something that cannot be analysed.  It is impossible to convince someone by logical argument to share that fascination; it either speaks to them (admittedly perhaps at a different stage in their life) or it doesn’t.  It is that thing that made you wonder, both in the sense of creating a sense of awe and in the sense of making you wonder about it.  In a very real sense it captivates us.  That ‘aesthetic moment’ is the only way the past can hold us which is not entirely dependent upon our decisions.  I will return to try and open up this moment and its implications later in this volume.

My argument, though, is that this initial curiosity can be satisfied at least as well by good non-academic writing about the past as by anything written by a professional.  It is in this regard, therefore, emphatically not – it is quite the opposite of – the professional’s ‘stay off my patch’ argument.  Historians who can write good popular narrative or descriptive history should do so, but it is not a skill that all professional historians have and they should not be compelled to acquire it. 

The reason why professional historians do not often satisfy or engage that initial aesthetic desire to know more is that they do not simply narrate and describe.  Although, certainly, at the introductory level, this is what is required, history is about more than that.  Professional historians do not necessarily think it is even possible simply to narrate and describe the past.  They are concerned with the problems of evidence, they are interested in analysis and explanation.  Simple or accessible stories or definitive answers – ‘the truth’ – are rarely part of good history’s remit and the practice of history should not regress to make it part of its goal.  Yet basic, interesting narratives, clear, hard-and-fast answers, ‘truths revealed’ and ‘secrets unlocked’ have become the standard fare of bookshop history.  What the consumer of popular history has come to expect from such work is, generally, a story that tells it as it really was.  More complex and sophisticated histories, however accessibly related, are often kept off the shelves and screens by the gatekeepers of those outlets: the ‘trade’ publishers and marketers, the editors and producers – often, of course, close associates of the authors and presenters of popular history. Whether this is really what the interested public does or does not demand, it is what the gatekeepers tell us they want.   

In one of my own specialist areas, the so-called ‘barbarian migrations’, there has never been a TV documentary on the subject that has not retold the same old story of how the barbarians conquered the Roman Empire, in spite of attempts (including my own) to try and pitch an alternative, more accurate version.  I once acted as a consultant to an historical atlas produced by a major publisher of lavishly illustrated books.  I attempted to have the spread on the barbarian migrations designed so as not to perpetuate old myths through the repetition of the usual swirling arrows starting in central Europe and ending in Africa or Italy.  But my advice was entirely ignored.  What was published was yet another map with spaghetti-like arrows tipped all over it, transmitting the same misleading idea to another generation of potentially interested readers.  I asked the editor why and was told that that was what people wanted from a historical atlas.  Such publishers and TV editors, with no educational experience, apparently know what people can and cannot grasp.  It is an astonishingly patronising attitude.

Sometimes, though, the compilation of ‘fact’ (pretty much the antithesis of sophisticated history) is what the amateur wants.  My ‘hobby’ interest in the military history that initially drew me to the past continues largely through the sphere of tabletop wargaming (playing with toy soldiers, if you prefer; there’s more to it than that, the wargamer will respond, and indeed there is – but not much).  My earliest vaguely historical writings were in wargaming magazines.  Wargaming produces a lot of popular writing about the past and a large audience of people with a genuine interest in at least some sorts of historical writing, who want to be informed about the latest research and how to think about history.  Sadly it also yields a significant crop of self-proclaimed military history experts.  The latter defend their status through the relative knowledge of facts.  Their knowledge, and ability to cite chapter and verse of, ancient and medieval sources are often impressive: better than professionals’.  The interest in the approach, though, stems entirely from its objectively-measurable quality; who knows the most facts?  For obvious reasons, then, such pundits are not merely uninterested in the difficulties and uncertainties of the evidence and the problems of drawing neat conclusions; they are (and I speak from personal experience here) actively hostile to them.  To some extent the position is reasonable; it is difficult to compose a set of wargaming rules from a series of ‘we don’t knows’.  Nonetheless this produces a sometimes visceral hostility towards academic historians which is perhaps not common elsewhere in popular history.  Perhaps this is because, to use the old quote, the stakes are so low. Even so, the possibility remains that sometimes, some of the lay audience is less interested in being communicated with by professional historians than the latter are in communicating with them.

Just as the public interested in science goes from basic, introductory, simplifying presentation to more difficult, complex studies that point out problems, undecidabilities, exceptions to what at lower levels are stated as ‘rules’ then – similarly – what the academic historian is there to provide is more advanced fare.  And, as with science, sometimes people actively do not want the more complex and challenging picture.  This point should not, however, be taken as an injunction to professional historians to compete in the popular market.  In terms of sales, what the public seems to want from visual art is hyper-reality, the near-photographic – not half-cows in formaldehyde.  No one doubts the technical ability of the painters of old steam-trains or of couples ball-room dancing on a beach.  No one, however, expects, on the basis of that point, that all artists emulate Jack Vettriano.  As with conceptual artists, it is what professional historians do that differentiates their work from populist productions.  This book argues that the exploration of what is involved in the writing of history opens up the real reasons why it matters.