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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Refugee Crisis, the Paris attacks and the Death of History. Part 2

[In this part I begin to look at the ways in which the narratives used by 'historians' to comment on current affairs are constructed and the problems inherent in this.]

Part 1 of this piece is here.

So let us look back at the actual ‘argument’ set out by Holland (in the Daily Mail, discussed yesterday).  Needless to say, it’s not one that he has devised himself, and this, fundamentally, is the problem with which I am concerned; it is one that has been espoused by some genuine historians.  What it illustrates is what I have called (and this is hardly novel on my part) the tyranny of narrative.  Ever since the 1960s, some historians, at least, have been aware that history does not – indeed cannot – exist outside the stories we tell about it.  [Note for the hard of thinking: that does not mean that individual events did not happen, or that people did not experience them in the ways that they describe in the sources, or that any historical account is as good as any other, or that it is not possible to redescribe historical events in adequate fashion.]  All history has to have some sort of shape imposed upon it, in order to be able to be grasped - or given a semiotic existence - in the first place.  History (the practice) can never step outside that: there is no neutral, non-narrative, non-textual vantage point from which different accounts or reconstructions can be judged. As Derrida said, there is no outer-text.  We might say there is no outer-history.  Again, far too many historians (indeed, the majority) have refused even to attempt to grasp this point[1] and its implications, which to me – is disgraceful.

Holland has taken a selection of events from the past 1400 years (in no sub-period of which, let’s remember, can he claim to be an expert) and linked them together causally or at least juxtaposed them in such a way as to create that impression.  This then becomes the standard narrative of millennial east-west conflict.  As ever, he is hardly the first to do this: Anthony Pagden, to take but one, has written this sort of grand narrative. [I sometimes wonder whether there is something in the water in some US history departments that makes male history professors, once they reach a certain age, feel the urge to write a grandiose millennial history about the Supremacy of the West or some such but let’s leave that to one side.]

What is at issue is not so much whether or not things happened, or whether or not they had certain results; it is not always even the causation of individual events that is at stake.  It is the way such events are couched, linguistically, and how they are positioned, linked or structured, narratologically.  It is the coherence and reality of the narrative itself.  Put yet another way, the problem lies in the very production of history.

It would be possible to construct the whole of the Christian-Islam narrative differently (leaving aside the fact that Holland manages to ignore the relations Islam might have had with other regions and religions, across the rest of the world).  But it’s not simply that Holland leaves out a whole string of facts that would have allowed him, even in a short newspaper article, to tell a different and more complex narrative of the interaction between Christianity and Islam.[2]  I am not suggesting that he claim that it had been a history of harmony, peace and light, which would be a yet greater distortion; not even that he give equal attention to religiously-motivated aggression on the Christian side; simply that one can tell this story in a way that shows that conflict has not been the whole story, and that Christianity and Islam have not always been the prime motivators in such conflicts as did occur.  

The more serious problem here is that there have been book-length studies by actual professional, qualified, eminent historians that have done much the same (see above).  The fact that in the early 21st century this kind of unsophisticated, unreflective master-narrative can still be churned out by trained, successful, intelligent historians seems to me to be absolutely shocking.  If anything it suggests that the practice of history is not merely stagnant; it has somehow managed to go into intellectual reverse. I will return to suggest reasons for this.  Most importantly of all, though, the problems with Holland’s (or Pagden’s) accounts would not be evaded simply by producing a different master-narrative, emplotted in a different fashion.  Or even in the provision of a set of alternative narratives.  The problem lies, as I noted earlier, in the very conception of history that is embedded in all narratives, the idea of history as coherent story.  Academic history, as practised at universities across the globe, is doing nothing (or almost nothing) at all to challenge this because, well, why should it? It sees no need for that as it slides ever further into being a simple, cosy, intellectually unthreatening subject, a divertissement, if you will, to round off a fine young gentleman’s, or lady’s, education before their career in the law or the civil service.  Well, fuck that.

If we were to look at the master-narrative of Christian-Muslim relations, we could pick apart each and every point selected as a dot to be joined up in the story (comedic, tragic, epic, romantic, whatever-ic).  (And we must never forget that all narratives originate in an act of selection, from a sea of other historical happenings, of particular events, relating to a pre-determined tale.) It might for example be that some events in the story were conceived of and enacted at the time as episodes of straightforward, binary Christian-Muslim hostility, but such events were rare, if dramatic.  In most, other factors come into play, frequently – perhaps usually – reducing the religious element to rallying cries, if that.  When Süleyman the Magnificent first fell out with the future Emperor Charles V the cause was that Charles had taken the title of caesar, which Süleyman regarded as his own.  This was a quarrel about who was the legitimate ‘Roman Emperor’, which is an interesting and illuminating point in itself, suggestive of a quite different narrative, but it was ultimately a round in the developing conflict for Mediterranean hegemony between imperial Spain and the Ottomans.  Those kinds of politics can be brought into play in explaining the alliance between the Turks and Francis I of France, or the fact that when the fort of Sant’Elmo on Malta was finally captured by the Ottomans in 1565 the Venetian Republic rang its bells in celebration.  Neither of those historical facts or events find their way easily into the simple narrative of a centuries-long hatred between Muslims and Christians.

Nor does the history of the Byzantine Empire, if examined in the round, or the rise of the Ottoman.  Far from being the sentinel of Christendom, a bulwark holding back the ‘Muslim onslaught’, the Byzantine Empire spent much of its time fighting other Christians, whether ‘Latin’ westerners or Balkan ‘orthodox’ Christians like the Bulgars.  Its emperors were in no way above making alliances with Muslim powers, sometimes to fight other Christians.  The last emperors’ acceptance of western theology and papal supremacy, made in order to gain western support against the Ottomans, was regarded with disgust by their subjects, who were presumably well aware that the Osmanli had little or no interest in compelling eastern Christians to adopt a different Christian theology.  800 years previously, some evidence suggests that some imperial subjects in places like Egypt, members of the Miaphysite Church (which historians used to call Monophysite), welcomed the Arab invaders as
 more tolerant of their belief than the Chalkedonian emperors, who had recently begun a persecution of their church.  Holland omits to mention that the first ‘barbarian’ sack of Constantinople was at the hands not of Muslims but of western Christians in 1204; he omits the complex whirligig of thirteenth-century political alliances of Latin Christians, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and others that resulted in the re-establishment of the Greek-speaking ‘Byzantine’ ‘Roman Empire’ and the elimination of the Frankish (Latin) ‘Roman Empire’ in 1261.

Although first appearing on the western edge of Asia Minor, the Osmanli developed their regime simultaneously on both sides of the Aegean, fighting Christian and Muslim rivals in the complicated aftermath of the demise of the Latin Empire.  It was after the Empires of Constantinople and Trebizond fell (already Turkish vassals in any case) that the Ottomans began their major expansion eastwards and southwards across Asia Minor, against the Islamic Black- and White-Sheep Turks, Persians and Mamluks, and then westwards along the Islamic north coast of Africa.  The famous campaigns in the Balkans, Hungary and eventually up to the gates of Vienna and Malta were only one front of Ottoman political and military history, one which featured alliances with particular groups of Christians.  Only a singularly distorting view of Ottoman history can reduce it to the simple, if well-known, narrative of an Islamic assault on Christendom, whose various ‘prongs’ were halted at Vienna, Malta and Lepanto. One could go on: one could detail the lengthy western attempts in the nineteenth century to shore up the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against the expansion of Tsarist Russia, and so on. But I hope you get my point.

A whole series of similar points can be made about the master-narrative of the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth century allegedly at the hands of barbarian immigrants or invaders. Battles between armies simply composed of invading barbarians on one side and defending Romans on the other were rare in the extreme in the period between 376 and 476 and those that there were mostly had little or no effect on the political developments of that period. Almost all of the crucial military campaigns or encounters of the period of the ‘Fall’ of the Western Roman Empire were waged (usually on both sides) by armies composed of Romano-barbarian confederacies, or of ‘barbarian’ soldiers fighting for a Roman faction. Most of the most important ‘barbarians’ of the fifth century grew up inside the Roman Empire. Even Alaric, the sacker of Rome, had been in alliance with the Roman Senate itself the year before, during his rebellion against Emperor Honorius.  A narrative that selects a handful of events that seem to involve invading barbarians, reads them – partially – with that interpretation in mind and then joins them up to create the narrative of ‘Barbarian Invasion’ is making up a story to fit a preconceived idea.  It is not a narrative that, to judge from the evidence they created – written or otherwise – all fifth-century people would have recognised.  Of course it is highly unlikely that they would recognise any modern narrative of the times in which they live.  All historical narratives are constructed after the event.

The point is not just that multiple narratives can now be told, nor even that modern ‘barbarian invasions’ narratives differ profoundly from most of the narratives composed in the fifth century itself. The point is that all narratives constructed to present a story that explains a particular end-point or outcome according to a certain cause or set of causes and as the result of a specific combination of prior events are fundamentally artificial. No argument can be ‘won’ here by the simple listing of other, additional or alternative historical facts (as above).  No one narrative, provided it follows the usual rules of evidence and logic (and admittedly not all do), can be declared to be any more or less ‘accurate’ or ‘truthful’ than any other. Strategies like the one I have adopted in the preceding paragraphs only work in showing that there is not one, single, ‘truthful’ story to be told about history.  The real strategy to be adopted in ending all of this sort of nonsense (as with the ‘Historians for Britain’ squabbling) lies in the deconstruction (in Derridian terms) of historical narrative and its production.

To that I will turn in Part 3 (tomorrow).
Part 3 of this essay can be found here.

[1] This is a point that the – bizarrely – self-styled ‘post-modernist’ critics of historical practice – Jenkins, Munslow and the rest – have singularly failed to comprehend, because their view of what history, ideally, is is fundamentally exactly the same as that of the sort of extreme positivist empiricists that they portray the rest of the historical profession as being. History should be ideologically neutral and empirically, factually accurate or truthful and, if that is not possible, history itself is impossible. What they fail to appreciate is that history’s very condition of possibility in the first place is precisely this impossibility. The fact that supposedly theoretical work that is as philosophically weak as that of Jenkins, Munslow and the rest should have acquired its eminence,
 influence and/or notoriety is yet another indictment of history’s sorry intellectual state.

[2] It is indicative of the attitude of Holland and his ilk that,according to his entry in Wikipedia he claims to ‘pull his punches’ about Islam for fear of being drummed out of the ‘liberal club’.  Not, n.b., because he has no claim to being any sort of expert or authority on Islam or the Arabic world (he churned out a book on the topic after a couple of years at most of reading other historians’ work; does he read Arabic, Persian or any other relevant language?) but because he might allegedly be turned out of the liberal club. This kind of grandiose self-delusion is absolutely characteristic of his ilk.