Saturday, July 08, 2006

History Matters

Eileen Joy, in the extensive comment thread to this post, suggested five possibilities for why history matters. N50 just added this link to the History Matters: Pass It On website. I paste the argument for history that this site makes below:
Cultural importance of History
"The History matters - pass it on" campaign believes a society out of touch with its past cannot have confidence in its future. History helps us to know where we come from and to explain the world as it is.

Each of our personal histories is part of Britain's story. A better understanding of our shared history helps us to solve the problems we face as a nation.

Nothing controversial here: the function of the past is to account for the problem-ridden present in ways that move us onwards to a better future. That's not the most generous way of describing what the past is or what history might do, but I realize that it is a blurb for a big public website. It'll be interesting to see what kinds of views and opinions the site attracts; that to me is its most intriguing function.


Anonymous said...

I agree that the views and opinions section is going to be extremely interesting - and indeed important.

It is one example of how the 'heritage industry' here is making strenuous efforts to be inclusive - partly, but only partly, as a result of government initiatives. For example, publicly funded 'heritage' organisations now have 'access quotas' to meet. You can see the results of this on many archive and museum websites.

I hope that this dynamic involvement of everybody (or attempt to involve everybody) in thinking through the relationship between the past and the future (and in a sense between the humanities and lived lives) may address some of Emile's concerns about the ethical and public value of what medievalists (and others) do.

Anonymous said...

I once thought that history was perverse, or perhaps the way to go at it was through perversity.

I. History’s Perverse Rhythms

Know what rhythm holds man.

“History,” insists Paul Ricoeur, “is history only insofar as it has not attained either absolute discourse or absolute singularity, insofar as its meaning remains confused, mixed.” Belonging to the “the realm of the inexact,” history is in Ricoeur’s view “essentially equivocal.” What leads Ricoeur to characterize history in this way is one of my guiding concerns, around which a series of speculations regarding the “doing” and “undoing” of history will be elaborated. Might Ricoeur be read as claiming something more profound than the now banal truth that historicism is at best an imprecise method, one that only reconstructs partially what it wants to revive fully? The confused meanings of history, I would argue, have less to do with the misconstructions of historicism than with the refractory nature of historical events themselves. The events in and rhythms of history constitute together an unavoidable confusion, an indeterminacy with which the historian must first enter into a relation, in order to approach, if only to fall short of, any positive or objective understanding. Historical understanding, I will suggest, amounts to becoming suspended in an infectious rhythm of appropriation and disappointment with respect to the real, a field of realities often encountered in the shape of the unreal, the false, and the fantastic. The medieval historian—and, through him, the modern one—has no choice but to submit to this suspension, between having and not having, produced by close encounters with phantom unreality. History demands, I will be claiming, immersion in the fort/da—or the perverse —rhythms of culture, wherein immunity to the buried structures of pathology is surrendered.
Knowing what rhythm holds the historian is not to conceive of history as rhythm, in the sense of an invariable series of repeatable mnemes. History is the provenance of the other as it appears in its difference, with the force of its irregularity. The past and the present belong, as Fran├žois Chatelet has it, to “the sphere of alterity”:
If it is true that the past event is gone forever and that this dimension constitutes its essence, it is also true that its “pastness” differentiates it from any other event that might resemble it. The idea that there are repetitions in history. . . that there is “nothing new under the sun,” and even that we can learn from the past, can be meaningful only for a mentality that is not historical.
The radical nature of locating history in the sphere of alterity should not be missed here: liberating oneself from the idea of history as repetition means that the past is not recuperable (by memory and appeal to origin or fact). Thus, twelfth-century English historian Walter Map defined the past as time existing outside of memory, while modernity constitutes the past (able to be) recalled by the living. The past, for many medieval historians, is not reiterable precisely because it is intractably other, residing outside the familiar protocols of the mundane. History was also conceived of as devoid of verifiable facts. The eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian, in a short treatise “On the Divine Omnipotence in Remaking What has been Destroyed and in Undoing What has been Done,” asserted that the past, totally receptive to God’s power, can be unmade, thereby eradicating all factuality from the universe so that “what is left is sheer indeterminacy.” Always already under a kind of erasure, the past becomes an evacuated space ready to be filled with wonders, ghosts, and other signs of the counterfactual and pathological, as Rodolfus Glaber’s Historiae (a text I turn to in the next section) attest.
Seeking an alternative to current medieval cultural historicisms, this essay urges an understanding of pathological alterity as not only the proper goal of cultural history, but symptomatic of the cultural historian herself. Unavoidably implicated in a fort/da movement of invitation and interdiction with respect to the historical object, the historian of medieval culture becomes a kind of perverse “other,” whose task it is to resurrect, over against the Lacanian tendency to privilege the symbolic (language) over the imaginary, the polysemous image itself and, along with it, the imaginary processes that make it meaningful. Only in this way can a theory that does not distance itself analytically from its object become thinkable, for it is a mistake to pretend that approach and attachment to the past is anything less than ambiguous and perverse. If resistance to the seductions of history can be abandoned, then we can begin to articulate, for example, what it would mean to read perversely.
Reading perversely is not merely reading against the grain, but reading “beyond memory,” that is, interpreting the ghostly and indeterminate remnants at the edge of what medieval culture deemed worth remembering. The perverse historian mimics, or parodies, the symbolic, the proper or even official order of reading, though in order to illuminate, as well as to construct, new referents of desire. To characterize historicism as perversion is not to point to the content of the historical fantasy of reconstruction, but to how the ambiguous situation of a coming to knowledge takes place only under the constant and, as Freud reminds us, traumatic pressure to forget: “when the fetish is instituted some process occurs which reminds one of the stopping of memory in traumatic amnesia.” Only in the singular moment of its traumatic appearance, when the past is provisionally forgotten and rendered perverse, when the self is put at some risk by a sudden encounter with what is alien to it, can the past be grasped as a uniquely resonant intensity, an object of resolutely personal and memorial value. Historical interpretation should be thus understood within the terms of a certain symptomatology, that is, a reading practice whose fetishistic relation to the past reflects both the traumatic nature of the historical image itself, “flash[ing] up at a moment of danger” as Walter Benjamin phrases it, and the rich possibilities for self-(re)creation each image holds out.
The fetish resides, then, at the limits of culture, between fixation and letting go. In psychoanalytic terms, it poses the dilemma of clinging or “going-in-search,” two urges defined by Imre Hermann as the very sign of perverse knowledge. The implications of the fetish’s border existence are profound, for it ensures that “history is always ambivalent: the locus that it carves for the past is equally a fashion of making a place for the future.” Thus the historical fetish is bound, even in its compulsive repetition, to the future as it might be imagined to be, to utopianism. In this way, the fetishization of the orient in the Middle Ages, as exemplified by a range of texts, from crusade histories to the literature of marvels and the utopian Letter of Prester John, is not the consequence of an intractable orientalism; rather, it is orientalism that is the consequence of variable technologies of the imaginary, among which the utopic impulse must be included. As a compromise-formation, utopia replicates the fetish in its logic, suspending its fantasizing reader between knowing and not knowing, between having and not having, and, in this way, staging the possible (e. g., pax christiana and victory over the infidels). The two texts to which I will turn, Glaber’s Historiae sui temporis and a Prester John narrative, are both utopic in the sense that they make use of the uncanny reanimation of the dead to objectify, rather than resolve, the gulf between self and other, past and future, and fantasy and the everyday.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I once thought that history was perverse, or perhaps the way to go at it was through perversity.

Emile, what happened? Is this a tack that you no longer is believe useful, no longer compelling, or no longer inetresting?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

From today's Observer, Stephen Fry on why history matters:

The future's in the past

At the launch of a new campaign last week to promote the study of history, Stephen Fry made a passionate appeal that we use the gripping narratives of the past to make sense of the world today. Here we publish the remarkable speech that dazzled an audience of writers and historians

Sunday July 9, 2006
The Observer

Why does history matter? A better man might be able to answer with far more questions than answers. Whenever the importance of history is discussed, epigrams and homilies come tripping easily off our tongues: How can we understand our present or glimpse our future if we cannot understand our past? How can we know who we are if we don't know who we were? While history may be condemned to repeat itself, historians are condemned to repeat themselves. History is bunk or possibly bunkum. History is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. History is written by the victor. Historians are prophets looking backwards. Or we could paraphrase EM Forster on the novel. 'Does history tell a story? Oh, dear me yes, history tells a story.'
Historians, more than any other class, spend a great deal of time justifying their trade, defining it and aphorising it, seeming to lavish more attention on historiography than history. After all, is there such a thing as history or are there only histories? For all the oddities of some arcane scientific research, we all know that science eventually leads to making light bulbs work, car engines run and failed hearts pump again. Can we test the value of history in the same way? Can we prove that a politician, a financier or a spot-welder is better, happier or more fulfilled for possessing a feel for history?

But ... isn't history now just point of view, tribal assertion, cultural propaganda? After all, the days of Burke, Macaulay, Gibbon, Trevelyan and Froude are over. Historians are no longer grandees at the centre of a fixed civilisation; they are simply journalists writing about celebrities who haven't got the grace to be alive any more. Certainly, some people sense in our world, even if they can't prove it, a new and bewildering contempt for the past. In the high street of life, as it were, no one seems to look above the shop-line. Today's plastic signage at street level is the focus; yesterday's pilasters, corbels and pediments above are neither noticed nor considered, save by what some would call cranks and conservationists.

There are those who wonder if the whole of history is now valuable only as a politically correct lesson in the stupidity and cruelty of monarchs, aristocrats, industrialists and generals. Stern, loveless voices tell us that history as we know it is an irrelevance, with its obsession with dead white men, or with Judaeo-Christianity, or classical antiquity, or the West, or enlightenment, or wars, dynasties and treaties. Marxists, Althusserians, formalists, revisionists, historians of Empire or against Empire - forget them all. You don't even have to dignify it with ideological abstractions any more; history is really the story of a series of subjugations, oppressions, exploitations and abuses.

Or history is heritage studies: cotton mills, marshalling yards and collieries smartened up as 'resources' for school trips; take the kids into the kitchens and servants' quarters of the stately home and ignore the saloons and great rooms above stairs for fear of giving offence. British culture, besieged on all sides by guilt: guilt at empire, guilt at English domination of the United Kingdom, guilt at slavery, at industrial wage-slavery, at Boer Wars, Afghan Wars, mutinies, massacres and maladministrations.

History, then, as one long, grovelling apology or act of self-abasement and self-laceration. A history in which historians have to stand on one side of an argument or another, for, in between, they are nothing but dry-as-dust statisticians. Or we see historians as creepy hindsight critics who can, in the safety of their studies, point out to Alexander the Great and Napoleon where they went wrong and how they would have done it better.

And yet, against this, we measure the exponential growth in the public appetite for history. Has it ever been a better time to be a historian? In publishing and in broadcasting, history is a phenomenon that continues to exceed expectations. Enthusiasts bounding about from battlefield to palace and castle and back again, filling more air time then ever before. From Melvyn Bragg's matchless colloquies on Radio 4 to documentary series bearing the proud epithets 'landmark', 'flagship', 'prestige' 'must-see', 'event TV' and 'water-cooler moments'. Just recently, we've had themed evenings on BBC 4 on the 18th century as well as documentaries and big news items on the Somme. Certainly, history is popular in grand traditional forms, but new subgenres of history have, for the last 20 years, exploded in popularity, too. The history of science, philosophy and thought: sidelights are more popular than floodlights - small histories of the cod, tulips, salt, sugar or the pepper gardens of India, little books with names like 'Darwin's Walking Stick', Newton's Trousers' or 'Brahi's Nose'; whole genres on voyages of discovery, at least 10 books on Joseph Banks of the Endeavour and Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle, books on the transit of Venus and longitude and Sumerian counting systems all seem to be flying off the shelves.

Family history has exploded in popularity, too. I was involved in the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? programme and received more mail and feedback from that one programme than from anything else I've ever done. 'I never knew what the Holocaust meant until I saw your programme,' one viewer wrote to me. We might find this a little odd, but it tells us that many people cannot see links between facts and historical narratives, unless those facts are brought absolutely to life, mediated by personality. Is that cheap celebrity culture at work or is it the perfectly human truth that while the slaughter of a nameless six million is hard to fathom, the murder of a named and delineated family can move us inexpressibly?

After all, isn't that what poetry and novels show, that humanity is best comprehended by understanding humans rather than ideas? But for some, this leads to the worry that history can now only mean witness. And some of us fear that even the most respectable documentary programme now cannot get through two minutes of screen time without some preposterous reconstruction involving wigs, candles, actors, ponderous music, scratching quills and even more wigs, so afraid is television of telling without showing.

Might this lead us to suspect that the history phenomenon is akin to that of television cuisine? More and more of us watch cooking, yet fewer and fewer ever wield a skillet in anger. Such a suspicion doesn't really make sense. You can cook, but you can't history, can you? You can carry what you learn of history inside you, at least. You can connect. And that's the point. We can never measure how much history has penetrated the consciousness of the nation.

We all know the cliches; the middle-class man reads biography and history, especially military history; the wife carries on reading novels, because men 'get' abstraction, numbers and grand strategy and women 'get' relationships. Men do seem to like history; history becomes their bedtime reading, their sitting-down version of golf, dare one say?

For men, history can seem to be a kind of Higher Sport (no coincidence perhaps that we still talk of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton and still describe the little 19th-century dance between Russia and imperial Britain over India as the Great Game. Napoleon should have played with two up front; we didn't win the war, but we saved the follow-on). At the dinner table, the wives break up the boy-girl, boy-girl placement and gather down at one end to talk about friendships and books, while the men stay up the other end to discourse on von Paulus's surrender or Clive at the Battle of Plassey. Very NW3, very dinner party, but, in the meantime, what about the young? Is history like Radio 4, something you only turn to when you are middle-aged and middle-class? Are the young too busy living to look back?

The biggest challenge facing the great teachers and communicators of history is not to teach history itself, nor even the lessons of history, but why history matters. How to ignite the first spark of the will o'the wisp, the Jack o'lantern, the ignis fatuus [foolish fire] beloved of poets, which lights up one source of history and then another, zigzagging across the marsh, connecting and linking and writing bright words across the dark face of the present. There's no phrase I can come up that will encapsulate in a winning sound-bite why history matters. We know that history matters, we know that it is thrilling, absorbing, fascinating, delightful and infuriating, that it is life. Yet I can't help wondering if it's a bit like being a Wagnerite; you just have to get used to the fact that some people are never going to listen.

No, it isn't exactly political correctness that dogs history; it's more a pernicious refusal to enter imaginatively the lives of our ancestors. Great and good men and women stirred sugar into their coffee knowing that it had been picked by slaves. Kind, good ancestors of all of us never questioned hangings, burnings, tortures, inequality, suffering and injustice that today revolt us. If we dare to presume to damn them with our fleeting ideas of morality, then we risk damnation from our descendants for whatever it is that we are doing that future history will judge as intolerable and wicked: eating meat, driving cars, appearing on TV, visiting zoos, who knows?

We haven't arrived at our own moral and ethical imperatives by each of us working them out from first principles; we have inherited them and they were born out of blood and suffering, as all human things and human beings are. This does not stop us from admiring and praising the progressive heroes who got there early and risked their lives to advance causes that we now take for granted.

In the end, I suppose history is all about imagination rather than facts. If you cannot imagine yourself wanting to riot against Catholic emancipation, say, or becoming an early Tory and signing up to fight with the Old Pretender, or cheering on Prynne as the theatres are closed and Puritanism holds sway ... knowing is not enough. If you cannot feel what our ancestors felt when they cried: 'Wilkes and Liberty!' or, indeed, cried: 'Death to Wilkes!', if you cannot feel with them, then all you can do is judge them and condemn them, or praise them and over-adulate them.

History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even - if we dare, and we should dare - a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.

The bizarre but wonderful William Gerhardi wrote a polemical introduction to his book, The Romanovs, a foreword he called a 'Historian's Credo', a series of furious and marvellously eccentric aphorisms. One paragraph reads: 'History must at last convince of the uselessness of insensate mass movements riding roughshod, now as ever, over anonymous suffering and claiming priority in the name of some newly clothed abstraction. If it does not teach that, it does not teach anything.'

It was appropriate to write that as he did in 1939, and it is appropriate for us all to remember it today.

© History Matters - pass it on

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Gerhardi is great stuff. I have pages of quotes from him.

On the perversity tack: it is still kinda sorta interesting, but mainly as a metaphor, and nothing more. I once presented some of the ideas from this essay in a graduate seminar taught by a colleague in the history department. I made an effort then to underscore the extent to which there was value in generating metaphors to talk about what historians "do" when they do history. The students in the semainar dug it, but my strong suspicion is that what I was attempting to model will have no impact on what they do.

So: interesting, yes; compelling, perhaps not so much; useful, that's a stretch.

I think maybe the tack to take is to see that history is seductive (I skirt that issue), and then go at it with a less cumbersome metaphorical apparatus.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Emile has just demonstrated why I am an historian, and why I left Lit behind. History should be accessible. History, taught well, is accessible. When people talk about history in language that is not accessible, it undermines what we do.

Anonymous said...

If I understand correctly - that was a bit of EB's personal history pasted here?

I agree with ADM. Part of the power of Stephen Fry's words are the accessibility of the language in which they are written. I do think theory is important, however. The people I most admire, however, are those who combine an understanding of theory with simple, clear and elegant language. Part of the ethical value of what we do surely has to be measured partly through our success in communicating it to others?

My other question is whether the UK is different - let's say from the US since that is where you all are. I teach a lot of Americans with a great fascination for the middle ages and great scholarly abilities. My slight impression is that there is a greater tendency for them to be drawn into the subject through an interest in the fantastical. Lots of them are also into fantasy writing, dressing up and so on. This is also true of some Brits and Europeans - but much, much less so. My speculative, and provocative, suggestion is that Old Worlders are more likely to feel a continuity between their own world and the medieval past.

What do you New Worlders think about the past - does the fact of your translation to the New make you think about the past differently?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Don't know about anyone else, but History in general was always where I felt most at home. I've always read sf/fantasy, and probably read more fantasy now than I did when I turned my focus to the MA. For me, it was combination of deeper connection to the ideas and values of the Classical and Medieval worlds and a deeper sense of community among the grad students and faculty at Beachy U, who took me under their collective wing.

That said, Big Name UG Advisor #1 was reputed to have belonged to the SCA, and he wrote history filks, which he sang in class. I think a lot of students here do come to medieval history in the way you've noticed, but most of mine don't stay unless they are willing to separate the myth from the reality.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

For some more on the topic, see an excerpt from Fry's piece and developing commentary at Blogenspiel