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Friday, 7 June 2013

History and Finitude (in which I embrace my historiographical pointlessness)

While I was in Princeton I got to thinking about paradigms, paradigm-shifts and the problem I have
Look at that.  No boots, reflector vest or hard hat.
Health and safety would never let you get
 away with that nowadays.  At least he's bending his knees.
mentioned before about what History does after the Linguistic Turn, after the realisation that we can't just tell it like it was (even if there are regions, such as the Thames valley between the Strand and the Cherwell, where the Linguistic Turn hasn't happened yet).  

The prompt for this was Pat Geary saying that he hoped that his current - very important - project on historical DNA would lead to a way out of the 'impasse', as he called it between those who still see the fifth-century west in terms of invasions by undeveloped barbarians and those who regard such a narrative as a romantic construct and who see the period more in terms of 'civil war' (i.e. like me).  I pondered to myself, gloomily, that I didn't think there actually was an impasse.  My arguments and those of people who think like me have made little or no headway against the dominant migrationist paradigm.  This, I continued to muse, was not because of the undecidability of the scarce data; it certainly wasn't because of the greater subtlety and explanatory force of the arguments put forward in defence of the dominant paradigm.  It was for reasons far better explained by Pierre Bourdieu than by Thomas Kuhn: straight issues of cultural capital and hegemony.  All this seemed more than amply illustrated by the two papers submitted by members of 'The Old Boys' School', both of which blithely disregarded or waved away the whole generation of scholarship that disagreed with the migrationist model.  One indeed did little more than uncritically ventriloquise the oft-repeated thesis of 'The Old Boys' School's' golden boy of migration studies, with no acknowledgement of the myriad problems in that model (problems that deserve acknowledgement even if you think that that model  is superior to its alternatives).  You can't change paradigms when exponents of the other view don't even consider you worthy of having a debate with.

[Fill in a couple of angry paragraphs about the viciously reactionary early medieval history establishment in the UK and its leaderene; about why there'll be no Kuhnian paradigm-shift; about why I write what I like on my blog because as far as my UK career is concerned I have nothing to lose; etc.]

And that's all absolutely fine.

That was my revelation.

Like many, I suspect, who (in my case at least) dabble in the dark ways of existentialist atheism, the principal problem facing us in modern life is that of finitude.  That is to say, how do you cope with the finitude of human existence after the death of God, after disillusionment with the horrors of messianic or millenarian politics (on which, though problematic, this is an OK guide), after - in other words - the grounds for the old certainties have been cut away, without descending into nihilism.  I recently read Simon Critchley's Very Little ... Almost Nothing, which was what introduced me to Jean-Luc Nancy's La Communauté Désoeuvrée, which in turn I used in a very round-about way in my piece on The Crisis of the State.  That is about deconstructing 'work', finding value in life, without transcendence.  All that made me think, as Pat was speaking, about the futility about worrying about a historical career in terms of paradigm shifts, of changing people's minds, of convincing people.  (I have tended to get depressed about not making a difference, being ignored etc.)  The problem discussed by Critchley is analogous to the problem facing History after the linguistic turn.  In the face of the knowledge that one cannot tell it wie es eigentlich gewesen, does one simply become a nihilist and deny all possibility of history as a redescription of the past?  What basis remains for a role for history in society, if not simple factual rectitude?  What role for the academic if story-telling is as well or better done by amateurs?  Or does one simply ignore these points, or fudge them and go on with some sort of adherence to the old transcendent goals of finding out what really happened and why?

And yet it seems to me that one does have to have a reason to do history, to take a salary for doing it.  Simply being a scholar for scholarship's sake does not cut it - not for me or I suspect any one from my sort of background, where having - let alone inheriting - an academic job/career was not exactly something I thought was on the career radar until I actually got one.

The solution that occurred to me was this.  To embrace the actual act of 'doing history', without having to have any transcendent goal or product in mind.  If one opens up to the fact that the act of thinking through the historical enterprise has the benefits I have discussed before - if it allows me to engage with and make some minimal - infinitessimal - political or ethical intervention in it, then that is what is important, regardless of  its effects.  It is an ongoing activity, or conversation, with no necessary output in the usual transcendent terms: an inheritance; a corpus, an oeuvre; a paradigm change; a thesis.  Maybe there is some potential access to more satisfaction in what I do there.  Maybe it's what people (people without ego problems like mine) do in any case, in which case I salute you.  I only just got there.


1 comment:

  1. It may be worthwhile to think about scale. There are 7 billion people on the face of the earth. Each of us is only one of them. What does that say about individual impact?

    Then this story: someone I know exclaimed when something distressing happened to a small child, "he's only small, and doesn't understand." My unvoiced reply: "How big is any of us? And how much do we understand?"

    A little less cosmic. If I have accomplished anything at all significant for ordinary people in my scholarship, it is probably my cowritten article "Democracy's Place in World History." (Journal of World History). This article, as our host probably knows, did not come in any direct way from my official studies in late antiquity or the Middle Ages. But my training gave me courage to say something that had to be said. Conclusion: you never know how things are going to work out.

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