Monday, 6 July 2015

Sources, Empathy and Politics in 'history from below'.

This post was commissioned for inclusion in an online symposium on 'history from below' over at the Many Headed Monster, and is best read in conjunction with the other pieces posted there.  I am reposting it here just by way of keeping track of stuff.  

The purpose and form of history writing has been much debated in recent months; with micro-history, and by extension history from below, being roundly condemned by historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage as the self-serving product of a self-obsessed profession.  For Guldi and Armitage the route to power lies in the writing of grand narrative, designed to inform the debates of modern-day policy makers – big history from above.   Their call to arms – The History Manifestohas met with a mixed reception.  Their use of evidence has been demonstrated to fall short of the highest academic standards, and their attempts to revise that evidence sotto voce has been castigated for its lack of transparency.  

Regardless of the errors made along the way, of more concern to practitioners of ‘history from below’ is Guldi and Armitage’s assumption that in order to influence contemporary debate and policy formation we should abandon beautifully crafted small stories in favour of large narratives that draw the reader through centuries of clashing forces to some ineluctable conclusion about the present.  I have no real argument with the kind of history they advocate – and the success of recent works such as Thomas Piketty’s Capital, suggest that it can both do justice to the evidence, and contribute modern policy debate.  And I am sure with a couple of decades’ hard work (there were 19 years between the publication of the Communist Manifesto, and Das Kapital), Guldi and Armitage will produce a book that lives up to the hype.

But, they fundamentally miss-represent the politics of history writing, and of micro-historical analysis in particular.  And what they seem to miss is a simple appreciation of the shock of the old.  The lessons of history are very seldom about ‘how we got here’ with all its teleological assumptions, but more frequently about how we can think clearly about the present, when we cannot escape from it.  

Understanding classical Greek attitudes to sexuality; Tokugawa Japan’s system of governance, or the use of concentration camps in the Boer War is not about grand narrative, but the interrogation of difference.  What the past has given us is an ‘infinite archive’, reflecting a real – if not fully knowable – world.  By interrogating that archive, we are freed to test our assumptions about the present.  In a scientific mode, we might literally test a theory against the evidence; but just as valid, in a humanist mode we can interrogate a word, a phrase and emotion for its meaning.  In either case, history rapidly becomes a tool to think with – testing and probing the past because it allows us to think about the present more carefully.  

For this purpose, for the purpose of thinking with history, the precise topic of historical analysis is secondary, and ‘grand narrative’ is counterproductive.  In part, grand narrative doesn’t work for this purpose because it is inherently teleological, and brings with it ill-digested assumptions about how human society functions.  One need look no further than the facile accounts of empire found in the work of historians like Niall Fergusson to see the pitfalls; or the risible nationalist diatribes of ‘Historians for Britain’ collective.  If you start with a ‘dog in the fight’ – a defence of American ‘empire’; or an anti-EU agenda - your ability to see clearly is at least compromised.

‘History from below’, by contrast appeals to a very different kind of politics; and it is in essence, a politics of empathy and voice explored through a conversation with the dead.  In the British Marxist tradition, it was founded in the creation of a humanist account of the ‘radical tradition’ that gave to every stockinger and handloom weaver an identity and personality.  The politics of this tradition was found in the demand that the reader empathise with individual men and women caught in a whirl of larger historical changes, and it was, and is, a politics of emotion.  The methodologies of ‘history from below’ use detail and empathy to demand of readers a personal engagement with a specific time and place; just as micro-histories uses the contrast between the everyday and the remarkable, to force the readers’ engagement.

And as a political project, both ‘history from below’ and micro-histories have been remarkably successful.  The public politics of the west in the last fifty years have been dominated by forms of the ‘identity’ politics.   These new politics have helped to push aside the twentieth century’s disastrous obsession with nationalisms (the focus of both older grand narratives, and the crutch leant on by historians such as Fergusson and ‘Historians for Britain’).  

We now have detailed and beautiful histories of the experience of the enslaved, of people excluded by race, gender and sexuality; by dis/ability and poverty.  Each of these ‘histories from below’ have evolved in dialogue with contemporary politics, both feeding the activism of modern campaigns, and perhaps more importantly, ensuring that no-one can be dismissed as less feeling, less human, less important, than anyone else.  By changing the focus of historical writing and research, ‘history from below’ has effectively eroded the inherently racist notion of the ‘volk’ in favour of ‘leuten’; has eroded nationalisms in favour of individual experience.

In other words, history from below has been a remarkably successful form of cultural politics (and Politics), that owes its basic success to the creation of an imaginative and empathetic connection between the individuals, past and present.  But to achieve this end, history from below has made a further contribution to both historical scholarship and methodology that places it at the centre of a wider set of developments.

Despite the (over) reliance of historians such as Edward Thompson on government spy reports, and many social historians’ addiction to parliamentary ‘blue books’; history from below demands that we seek alternative pathways to knowing about individuals – that we seek out readings that work self-consciously against the grain and documents that, however fleetingly, record the experience from below.  And herein lies the problem and the opportunity.  Our sources create a fundamental tension between the bureaucratic character of most inherited documentation reflecting experience from below (endless lists and accounts), and the political work of history from below as a project – to create empathy across time and space.  The conundrum becomes, how do we turn a name, perhaps a number, if you are lucky, a single line – in to a human being.

In part, the answer to this quandary has been found in family and community reconstruction; in the creation of relational databases that pull together fragments of information from as wide a body of sources as can be managed.  When, for instance, small fragments of narrative sieved from pauper letters and examinations, are combined with details of pensions lists and the raw biology available through the International Genealogical Index, we come close to being able to create compelling simulacra of the dead.   A shared experience of childbirth, or hunger; of disability or simple poverty, can be enough to bring to the readers’ minds’ eye a fully formed human being – all the details filled in via the readers’ imagination.   

But even these limited details are unavailable for many.  So we also use strategies of detailed contextualisation.  In part, these strategies mimic the forms of fiction – where small details are used to compress a scene to it tightest compass.  In history from below, we might use location and the built environment as ways of giving authority to an event that would otherwise be dull and off-putting – one of a million settlement examinations; one of five hundred shared beds in a workhouse.  All of which simply gets us to the point where the form and genre of writing history from below comes in to direct conflict with the sources we normally use, creating a tension which in turn explains why ‘history from below’ has been both remarkably productive in the creation of new methodologies; and why, more importantly, it creates a need to rethink and remake the genre of history writing more broadly.

In other words, in the face of challenges from advocates of ‘big history from above’ it seems to me that we are confronted with a series of opportunities, created by the very practise of writing history from below; that in turn provide the basis for a fuller political agenda.  We have an answer to the siren calls of ‘big history’.  And the answer demands just a few things.

First, we need to be much more sophisticated in how we theorise the process of writing and presentation.  There is currently no-one seriously unpacking the literary practise of historical writing from below in a way that would allow us to examine it as an object of study in its own right.  And yet, by being more self-conscious in how we construct emotion and engagement through textual practise, we can raise our game substantially – allowing us to recognise (and teach) the different techniques we use; and to categorise varieties of history writing in new ways.  And while no one would want to see too much self-obsessed naval gazing, there is a real opportunity for substantial criticism that would in turn allow us to present ‘history from below’ as a more fully described set of generic conventions.  Not perhaps a ‘science’, but a clear methodological choice.

Second, we need to embrace innovation more fully, and to identify the digital tools that allow us to construct lives and experience from the distributed leavings of the dead.  The world of early modern and nineteenth century Britain, in particular, are newly available to new forms of connection.  Nominal record linkage, building on a generation of work undertaken by family historians, should allow us to tie up and re-conceptualise the stuff of the dead, as lives available to write about.  Or we can revolutionise close reading of text through a radical contextualisation of words.  By allowing every single word or phrase to be mapped against everything written in the year or decade – we could create a form of close reading that makes for powerful history writing.  Or, we could think about contextualisation more imaginatively, by adding a few more dimensions to the context in which we place our objects of study.  Where is the 3D courtroom and church pulpit; where the soundscape and sound model; where the comprehensive weather data that would allow us to write a life, an event, a moment in new and different detail?

 And finally, my belief is that we need to be more explicit about the political work that we think ‘history from below’ is doing.  If we think the work contributes to a modern political conversation, I think we need to say so – not to simply advocate for our own beliefs, but to use the past to think more carefully about the present.  From my perspective, it does not matter over much if the thinking is about gender, poverty, race or disability; but about ensuring that a conversation with the dead forms a part of our conversation about the present.  

When the likes of Jo Guldi and David Armitage, and the ‘Historians for Britain’ group advocate for big history and the longue durée, they are making specific claims about how they can intervene in a modern politics; and effectively denigrating other people’s politics along the way.  It is only by countering these claims, and replacing them with our own more subtle analysis that we can do full justice to the aspirations and labours of our colleagues.  There is a coherent intellectual project in ‘history from below’, that perhaps needs more critical inspection, that perhaps needs more technical innovation, but which nevertheless provides the best opportunity we have to create an inclusive, progressive, empathetic history – a way of thinking clearly with the past.     

Friday, 29 May 2015

The UK Web Archive, Born Digital Sources and Rethinking the Future of Research

The following post is derived from a short talk I gave at a doctoral training event at the British Library in May 2015, focused on using the UK Web Archive.  It was written with PhD students in mind, but really forms a meditation on the opportunities created when we are working with web sites rather than print.  While lightly edited, the text retains the ticks and repetitions of public presentation.

My office c.1984
I normally work on properly dead people of the sort that do not really appear in the UK Web Archive – most of them eighteenth-century beggars and criminals.  And in many respects the object of study for people like me – interlocutors of the long dead -  has not changed that much in the last twenty years.  For most of us, the ‘object of study’ remains text.  Of course the ‘digital’ and the online has changed the nature of that text.  How we find things – the conundrums of search – shape the questions we ask.  And a series of new conundrums have been added to all the old ones – does, for instance, ‘big data’ and new forms of visualisation, imply a new ‘open eyed’ interrogation of data?  Are we being subtly encouraged to abandon older social science ‘models’, for something new?   And if we are, should these new approaches take the form of ‘scientific’ interrogation, looking for ‘natural’ patterns – following the lead of the Culturomics movement; or perhaps take the form of a re-engagement with the longue durée– in answer to the pleas of the History Manifesto.   Or perhaps we should be seeking a return to ‘close reading’ combined with a radical contextualisation - looking at the individual word, person, and thing – in its wider context, preserving focus across the spectrum.

And of course, the online and the digital also raises issues about history writing as a genre and form of publication.   Open access, linked data, open data, the 'crisis' of the monograph, and the opportunities of multi-modal forms of publication, all challenge us to think again about the kind of writing we do, as a  literary form.  Why not do your PhD as a graphic novel? Why not insist on publishing the research data with your literary over-lay?  Why not do something different?  Why not self-publish?

These are conundrums all – but conundrums largely of the ‘textual humanities’.  

Ironically, all these conundrums have not had much effect on the academy and the kind of scholarship the academy values.  The world of academic writing is largely, and boringly, the same as it was thirty years ago.  How we do it has changed, but what it looks like feels very familiar.

But the born digital is different.  Arguably, the sorts of things I do, history writing focused on the  properly dead, looks ‘conservative’ because it necessarily engages with the categories of knowing that dominated the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – these were centuries of text, organised into libraries of books, and commentated on by cadres of increasingly professional historians.  The born digital – and most importantly the UK web archive – is just different.  It sings to a different tune, and demands different questions – and if anywhere is going to change practise, it should be here. 

Somewhat to my frustration, I don’t work on the web as an ‘object of study’ –  and therefore feel uncertain about what it can answer and how its form is shaping the conversation; but I did want to suggest that the web itself and more particularly the UK Web Archive provides an opportunity to re-think what is possible, and to rethink what it is we are asking; how we might ask it, and to what purpose.

And I suppose the way I want to frame this is to suggest that the web itself brings on to a single screen, a series of forms of data that can be subject to lots of different forms of analysis.  A few years ago, when APIs were first being advocated as a component of web design, the comment that really struck me, was that the web itself is a form of API, and that by extension the Web Archive is subject to the same kind of ‘re-imagination’ and re-purposing that an API allows for a single site or source.  

As a result, you can – if you want – treat a web page as simple text – and apply all the tools of distant reading of text - that wonderful sense that millions of words can be consumed in a single gulp.   You can apply ‘topic modelling’, and Latent Semantic Analysis; or Word Frequency/Inverse Document Frequency measures.  Or, even more simply; you can count words, and look for outliers – stare hard at the word on the web!

But you can also go well beyond this.  In performance art, in geography and archaeology, in music and linguistics, new forms of reading are emerging with each passing year that seem to me to significantly challenge our sense of the ‘object of study’ – both traditional text and web page.  In part, this is simply a reflection of the fact that all our senses and measures are suddenly open to new forms of analysis and representation.  When everything is digital – when all forms of stuff come to us down a single pipeline -  everything can be read in a new way.  

 Consider for a moment the ‘LIVE’ project from the Royal Veterinary College in London, and their ‘haptic simulator’.  In this instance they have developed a full scale ‘haptic’ representation of a cow in labour, facing a difficult birth, which allows students to physically engage and experience the process of manipulating a calf in situ.  I haven’t had a chance to try this, but I am told that it is a mind altering experience.  It suggests that reading can be different; and should include the haptic - the feel and heft of a thing in your hand.  This is being coded for millions of objects through 3d scanning; but we do not yet have an effective way of incorporating that 3d text into how we read the past. 

 The same could be said of the aural - that weird world of sound on which we continually impose the order of language, music and meaning; but which is in fact a stream of sensations filtered through place and culture.  

Projects like the Virtual St Paul's Cross, which allows you to ‘hear’ John Donne’s sermons from the 1620s, from different vantage points around the yard, changes how we imagine them, and moves from ‘text’ to something much more complex and powerful.  And begins to navigate that normally unbridgeable space between text and the material world.  And if you think about this in relation to music and speech online – you end up with something different on a massive scale.

One of my current projects is to create a sound scape of the courtroom at the Old Bailey - to re-create the aural experience of the defendant - what it felt like to speak to power, and what it felt like to have power spoken at you from the bench. And in turn, to use that knowledge to assess who was more effective in their dealings with the court, and whether, having a bit of shirt to you, for instance, effected your experience of transportation or imprisonment.  And the point of the project is to simply add a few more variables to the ones we can securely derive from text.

It is an attempt to add just a couple of more columns to a spreadsheet of almost infinite categories of knowing.  And you could keep going – weather, sunlight, temperature, the presence of the smells and reeks of other bodies.  Ever more layers to the sense of place.  In part, this is what the gaming industries have been doing from the beginning, but it also becomes possible to turn that creativity on its head, and make it serve a different purpose.

In the work of people such as Ian Gregory, we can see the beginnings of new ways of reading both the landscape, and the textual leavings of dead.  Bob Shoemaker, Matthew Davies and I (with a lot of other people) tried to do something similar with Old Bailey material, and the geography of London in the Locating London’s Past project.

This map is simply colours blue, red and yellow mapped against brown and green.  I have absolutely no idea what this mapping actually means, but it did force me to think differently about the feel and experience of the city.  And I want to be able to do the same for all the text captured in the UK domain name. 

All of which is to state the obvious.  There are lots of new readings that change how we connect with historical evidence – whether that is text, or something more interesting.    In creating new digital forms of inherited culture - the stuff of the dead - we naturally innovate, and naturally enough, discover ever changing readings.  But the Web Archive, challenges us to do a lot more; and to begin to unpick what you might start pulling together from this near infinite archive. 

In other words, the tools of text are there, and arguably moving in the right direction, but there are several more dimensions we can exploit when the object of study is itself an encoding.

Each web page, for instance, embodies a dozen different forms.  Text is obvious, but it is important to remember that each component of the text – each word and letter, on a web page - is itself a complex composite.  What happens when you divide text by font or font size; weight, colour, kerning, formatting etc.  By location - in the header, or the body, or wherever the CSS sends it; or more subtly by where it appears to a users’ eye - in the middle of a line – or at the end.

Suddenly, to all the forms of analysis we have associated with ‘distant reading’ there are five or six further columns in the spread sheet – five or six new variables to investigate in that ‘big data’ eye-opened sort of way.

And that is just the text.  The page itself is both a single image, and a collection of them – each with their own properties.  And one of the great things that is coming out of image research is that we can begin to automate the process of analysing those screens as ‘images’.  Colour, layout, face recognition etc.  Each page, is suddenly ten images in one – all available as a new variable; a new column in the spreadsheet of analysis.  And, of course, the same could be said of embedded audio and video.

And all of that is before we even look under the bonnet.  The code, the links, the meta data for each page – in part we can think of these as just another iteration of the text; but more imaginatively, we can think about it as more variables in the mix.

But, of course, that in itself miss-understands the web and the Web Archive.  The commonplace metaphor I have been using up till now is of a ‘page’ – and is the intellectual equivalent of skeumorphism - relying on material world metaphors to understand the online.

But these aren’t pages at all, they are collections of code and data that generate in to an experience in real time.  They do not exist until they are used - if a website in the forest is never accessed, it does not exists.  The web archive therefore is not an archive of ‘objects’ in the traditional sense, but a snapshot from a moving film of possibilities.  At its most abstract, what the UK Web Archive has done, is spirit in to being the very object it seeks to capture – and of course, we all know that in doing so, the capturing itself changes the object.  Schrödinger's cat may be alive or dead, but its box is definitely open, and we have visited our observations upon its content.

So to add to all the layers of stuff that can fill your spreadsheet, there also needs to be columns for time and use; re-use and republication.  And all this is before we seek to change the metaphor and talk about networks of connections, instead of pages on a website.

Where I end up is seriously jealous of the possibilities; and seriously wondering what the ‘object of study’ might be.  In the nature of an archives, the UK Web Archive imagines itself as an ‘object of study’; created in the service of an imaginary scholar.  The question it raises is how do we turn something we really can’t understand, cannot really capture as an object of study, to serious purpose?  How do we think at one and the same time of the web as alive and dead, as code, text, and image – all in dynamic conversation one with the other.  And even if we can hold all that at once, what is it are we asking?