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Sunday, 22 September 2013

Radio Silence: An Apology

Dear Reader/s.  Sorry for the absence of anything much of intellectual substance for a while.  Truth to tell, I have about half a dozen unfinished blog-posts but haven't been able to get the time to round them off.  Or find the energy.  A bit of general malaise about the state of politics (only one thing more depressing than this government and that is the gutless uselessness of the Labour Party combined with the tired old clichés of the Old Left).  Also a bit of malaise about history.  OK - you all know my malaise with the politics of British academic history, but this goes deeper.  It's been a while since I read any history that really made me sit up and think.  I posted a link a couple of months back, to a perfectly decent account of perfectly decent sessions at a Leeds IMC, in which I said they made me wonder why I did what I did.  I said this because I couldn't see the big questions in any of them.  I still can't - or why any of this matters.  The whole discipline seems to me to be sleep-walking.  It knows that we cannot write Rankean history, 'wie es eigentlich gewesen', but I maintain that that knowledge makes absolutely no difference to the way in which it is written or assessed - which still seems to me to be on the basis of a best-fit to an impossible ideal (i.e. accurate redescription of the past).  We have no measuring tool to allow us to judge the closeness or otherwise of that fit, or to evaluate the different explanations given for the past, other than non-contradiction of data.  Thus it would seem that all that the so-called linguistic turn has done for us (other than yielding a series of intellectually piss-poor attempts to proclaim a sort of historical nihilism) is to shift the emphasis from an obsession with being right to an obsession with not being wrong.  This seems like poor progress to me.  The challenge lies in drawing the meaning out the act of doing history.  But that's for another time.  Anyway, for now, suffice it to say that I have a couple of conferences on the horizon, so I will post the texts of my contributions to those when they're done.  Bear with me.


  1. You think your bad at updates, if my history dissertation progress was assessed on my updates and thankfully it is not then I would be in a fair bit of trouble (I am anyway but not through lack of work) so don't feel bad about not updating regularly.

    I would just say that considering the teaching of history at University seems to be centered around making an actual analytical argument then its no wonder that people (including myself) worry about getting it wrong. Otherwise what exactly is the point in getting us to analyse these sources to create and defend an argument about a topic that we love and are passionate about understanding if nothing we produce is ever going to be 'right'.
    Don't think by that I mean I am in favour of the I am right and you are wrong approach because I am not and history would be boring if there was only ever one answer, but I do ponder the futility sometimes of me writing an argument if nothing I write has any meaning and all somebody else is going to do is ruthlessly take it to shreds.

    I look forward to seeing what you've been working on over the summer.

    1. I shouldn't worry - just because you've been taught by someone thoroughly disenchanted with the state of history in the UK! In any case, just as Derrida once said that a critique of reason could only be done from within reason, that it was impossible to step outside that framework, so a critique of empiricist history can only be done ultimately from an empirical/empiricist basis. Getting your argument to conform to the data is a duty, not a virtue, and as an undergraduate you have to get that right: it would be a poor degree that paid no attention to that. The issue is what the point of all that might be. No one really addresses that in history degrees except by some wishy-washy appeal to the very bad/incoherent work of Keith Jenkins or Alun Munslow - it's all supposed to be self-evident,so that the equally not-very-good book by Richard Evans is often wheeled on as some sort of knight in shining armour to save the day. Gah. What I'm saying is that you needn't worry too much about all this at u/g level. Or indeed at any level. Not just because it all gets me, personally, down.

    2. Is it worth considering that the reason why few people really address the point of studying history is because the answer will be different for every individual. It would therefore be hard to say that this is purpose of history across the board and therefore what the point is. Is this your historical crisis point? Just remember that while you might be disenchanted with the state of history in the UK you yourself have had a great impact on the way that I view history itself and you have inspired other students and myself to see history in another way.

      And thank you for the reassurance!

  2. Well, in a way I totally agree with you; and never more so as when I have listened to far too many papers presented at all to many session in Leeds in July. It is a bit like the famous gathering of the board of directors of "The Society of putting one Thing on Top of Another" –

    ON THE OTHER HAND: History makes sense, because we as human beings cannot stop doing it. We are always in the business of both remembering and forecasting, because we belong to the species, which knows we are ultimately going to die.
    Now, for this reason, we also know that it makes sense to get it right! It is a bit like psycho-analysis. It does not help, if you keep lying about the abuse of your parents. The real world hurts as does economic exploitation, hunger and all the rest; which we as humans have to square up to. What we also have an obligation to square up to is the more general abuse of the histories, we tell each other. Like for instance the stories, which the Nazis told about their Germanic Roots, when they localised them at the Externsteine near Paderborn and afterwards used them as a stepping stone for fuelling their hatred of the French and the Jews.
    I recently wrote a review of the CREDO-exposition in Paderborn, where there is a link to a recent article by Peter Lambert, which unpacks the story behind the Nazi construct of this particular site. (Peter Lambert: Duke Widukind and Charlemagne in Twentieth-Century Germany. In: Rethinking the Space for Religion. Nordic Academic Press 2013 – full citation in http://www.medievalhistories.com/wp-content/uploads/2013-Medieval-Histories-september-final.pdf)
    My point is that without proper archaeological investigations of this site and many others like it, it might not be possible to de-mythologize such reuse and abuse of history, which the Nazis were absolutely champions of; and which had such devastating consequences.
    So stop whining…

    1. History is more than mere factually accurate story-telling, and beyond factually-accurate (or rather non-data-contradictory) story-telling (chronicling) we cannot tell what is right. It's time for a more mature view of history and the absence of one gives me every reason to 'whine' as you put it.
      Allow me to point you at my manifesto (developed version):


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