Saturday, 26 January 2019

Historical simulacra: breathing life into the digital dead

 The blog post that follows is adapted from the text of a short presentation I gave to a symposium held at the University of Sussex on the 18th of January 2019 - Subjectivity, Self-Narratives and the History of Emotions. It was organised by my excellent colleague Dr Laura Kounine, and I was honoured to be asked. I very much enjoyed the day, and the other presentations reflected a wonderful variety of perspectives on the history of emotion, illustrating just why the 'emotional turn' has grown in signficance.  Having said this, as usual, I found myself 'outside the tent, pissing in' - not able to write a convincing 'history of emotions', and not entirely convinced by much of anything.

I am afraid the talk that follows is much more a case of me thinking aloud rather than taking the form of a clearly thought through position piece.  As often happens – at least to me – the synopsis and title of this talk was written long before the talk itself, and it has turned out rather differently than I initially envisaged.  I very much hope that this does not seem disrespectful.  I should also admit at the outset that while I very often try and write with emotions, I am not a historian of emotions; and hence am rather speaking from outside the tent.   

With these caveats in mind there are just a couple of things I want to discuss today – first, the remarkable rise of ‘emotions’ as a category of analysis – the creation of a what has occasionally been termed the ‘emotional turn’.  And second, the impact of new – digital – research methods on historical research.  And I want to do this primarily as a way of getting at something third – the changing nature of the ‘historical project’, and what we actually think we are doing when we write about the dead.  I believe that both these developments impact directly on the kinds of writing we do and they have had the effect of changing aspects of the underlying project of academic historical scholarship.

And the place to start is with the remarkable recent rise in the history of emotions.  This symposium is perhaps evidence enough of the centrality of emotions to some of the most innovative work of the moment.  You can, of course, trace a narrow historiographical path back to the work of people like William Reddy and Barbara Rosenwein – and via them to the histories of gender, post-structuralism, and all the rest.  But, I don’t think this actually captures the significance of the rise of ‘emotion’ studies.  Its ubiquity is remarkable.

I was recently asked to contribute to a festschrift for a well-respected senior historian – to be filled with the work of their students, inspired by fifty years of scholarship.  Now the historian in question started off in urban history, did some medical history, and wrote a lot of great stuff on the evolution of social policy.  But, the one thing they did not do is write about emotions.  And neither did their students. And yet when the book was produced – including some wonderful micro-histories and accounts of the impact of social welfare policy – it was touted by OUP as an ‘introduction to and critical reflection on the growing field of the history of emotions’.  My understanding is that this was a theme forced on the editors by OUP.  And yet, there was no more emotion between the covers of that volume than in your average box of shredded wheat.  The press was clearly jumping on what it perceived as a bandwagon, shoehorning some excellent social history into this ‘growing field’.

In a similar way the seminar I help run at the Institute of Historical Research on the Long Eighteenth Century recently ran an introductory session for new researchers just starting out on their PhDs.  We could fit in some twelve presentations, drawn from across the country – capturing a cross section of new PhD students working on 18th c. history.  And what was remarkable was the prominence of ‘emotions’ in how those PhD students formulated their subject.  Over a third explicitly used the language of ‘emotion’ as part of the framing of their doctorate.  And while all had smart things to say, when questioned about why they chose ‘emotions’ as a framing device (admittedly an unfair question) they all struggled to give a clear answer.  You could still see the impact of new sources, and older traditions, but the sore thumb that stood out among them was one crying and laughing along the way.  Economic and political history, digital history, urban history, even history from below, were all largely absent and in their place was ‘emotion’.

If we wanted to explain how we got here we could go back to Lefebvre and Peter Gay perhaps, and into second wave women’s history, queer theory, body history and the history of sexuality – or if you want another trajectory, via anthropology and psycho-history, to Robert Darnton and Barbara Taylor.   But none of these lineages really seem to me to account for this – sudden – popularity for the analysis of emotions. 

And what occurs to me is that the fundamental drivers of this ‘turn’ lie primarily in a newly felt need to reconstruct unknown lives and interrogate ‘experience’.  Looked at not as a lineage but as an intellectual technology in its own right, one aspect of the ‘work’ that the history of emotions performs is to allow us to imagine the interior life of a dead person for whom we have no personal record and to be able to footnote our imaginings along the way.

This in turn allows us to generate on the page that sense of a lost ‘experience’ told via the lives of people who did not otherwise record their innermost thoughts.  A historically specific model of an emotional landscape, or community, allows us as historians to paint the silent dead in the emotional colours of their class, gender and epoch.  

In other words, the history of emotions appears to me as a means to a literary end, and a fragment of a broader impetus to reconstruct the worlds of people not adequately reflected in the archives – of women; of the poor, of those excluded by race, sexuality and disability.  To have a model of how emotions worked within marriage in 1880s Leeds or Manchester, or to be able to discuss the fear felt by untold soldiers on the Russian Front in the First World War, forms a strategy for breathing life into the silent dead.  Arguably, it allows us to embed what Virginia Woolf described as the ‘rainbow’ in biographical writing – emotions, perspective, interiority used on the page, to evoke a reader’s response.

And this is where the history of emotions seems to me to intersect with digital history.  It is a remarkable thing, but the nature of historical research has changed fundamentally in the last twenty-five years.  The digitisation of the historical record has essentially liberated us from many of the structures of the archive – even as it creates new controlling structures along the way.  Connections that just thirty years ago would have been impossible to make, are suddenly open to us via keyword searching and nominal record linkage. 

And for a select band of historical figures – the 18th and 19th century anglo-phone working class - criminals, paupers and the ancestors of various Mormons – we are confronted – indeed seduced – by the possibility of re-constructing hitherto unfindable lives in evidence scattered across the ever more comprehensive records of the nation state. 
The Digital Panopticon

In a recent project I was part of called the Digital Panopticon – we tied together some forty or fifty datasets covering the trials, convictions and punishments of some 90,000 mainly working class Londoners – criminals and transportees to Australia.  For many of these men, women and children, there are tens of brief references – single lines of information – marking their journey through the systems of criminal justice.  To this can be added census material and life events.  All building into what feels like the bare bones of a remarkable series of biographies. 

This is a single person’s collection of historical data – Jane Tyler – for whom we have 53 separate items of evidence, leading up to her eventual transportation on the Second Fleet to Australia in 1789. 

We can know people’s weight and height, their distinguishing marks, and who they shared a prison cell with.  We can know how much money they had with them when they arrived in New South Wales; and we can read their very words recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings.
For some, we can even look in to their eyes, and search for meaning.

This is Sarah Durrant, convicted in 1871 of receiving two stolen bank notes and sentenced to two years’ hard labour in Wandsworth prison – in a mugshot that has all the characteristics of a formal portrait.

There are problems.  I have written about this elsewhere, so will not labour this point today; but the digitisation of the Western archive – in part driven by the commercial impetus to monetise popular western demand - has increasingly skewed the historical record by race and national identity.  The white working class – citizens of well-ordered states – are suddenly hyper-available for analysis and empathy; while 98% of the rest of the world are simply denied a ‘right to be remembered’.  There is a massive challenge to right this imbalance – and to at the very least - acknowledge the absences from the archive.

But there are also new and profound possibilities.  If, as I suggested earlier, the work performed by the history of emotions is to allow us an interior view of the lives of those otherwise excluded from the archive; digital history has created a framework of bald records upon which that emotional representation can be hung.

If the ‘work’ of the history of emotions is the recovery of interior lives; the ‘work’ of digital histories, is the evidencing of external lives.  It provides what Virginia Woolf set against her ‘Rainbow’; the ‘granite’ of event and fact – driving a narrowly evidenced narrative made humane and palatable with emotional insight.

By combining the points of sharp light provided by digital research methods with a model of communities of emotion, we are apparently allowed to create more fully rounded historical actors – whose interior life is suddenly available in a new way – whose motivations and behaviour can be understood and used as part of a broader analysis.  And given that the essence of ‘modernity’ is generally thought of as the rise of ‘interiority’ among the middle classes of the early nineteenth – this is a big deal.  It apparently, allows us to ‘use’ working class lives and sensibilities as part of the project of writing the dead in a new and inclusive way.  For a start it helps expose the ridiculous and infinite condescension, that suggests that historically ‘modern’ western middle class people were somehow possessed of a richer interior emotional landscape than pre-modern, working class and non-western people.

And as a long-term practitioner of ‘history from below’ in the British Marxist tradition, you would imagine that I would simply be elated by this (or whatever emotionally positive term is appropriate to my gender, class and community).  This combination of new sources about the working class available because of digital search with a new technology of knowing about emotions and community, would appear to do much of the work only tilted at by micro-histories and history from below.  

So I wonder why I am not actually convinced? Why does this not feel like a new high point in the history of historical scholarship?

And I think it is primarily because when you combine this strategy with the return to narrative evident in the vast majority of academic history writing, several slightly weird things happen.  
We have increasingly moved from the social sciences to the humanities, and from explanations of the evolution of the social order; to profound engagements with the past as a ‘distant mirror’.  To my bemusement, even recent history, including that of the 1960s and 70s – a period I remember with a clarity that suggests I was not taking enough drugs at the time (something I absolutely deny, by the way)  – is now frequently received as journeys into difference.  In part, my suspicion is that historians have come to accept the truism that the digital revolution, when combined with the political and social revolutions associated with feminism and the collapse of communism, formed a historical disjuncture that makes traditional forms of causality seem ever less relevant.  Historians have drunk the kool-aid served up by the likes of Zuckerberg and Fukiyama.

And when these journeys into the past as a foreign country – an unrelated past world of difference -  are also presented in the guise of narrative accounts of individual lives – via biography, collective biography and micro-histories – we change the historical project.  By adopting forms of writing that use techniques drawn from fiction but made plausible by digitisation and the history of emotion, we effectively undermine the difference between fact and fiction; contributing to the political process that says if it ‘feels’ right, then it is right.   

And this is where I become anxious.  What a combination of digitsation with a history of emotion used in pursuit of new forms of historical writing, geared towards ‘experience’, does, is allow us to create a specific kind of historical simulacra, in Baudrillard’s sense of the word.  We can now collect small fragments of light, to illuminate this moment, or that exchange – five or ten or twenty moments, when a historically real person stood in front of a clerk, and had some aspect of their lives turned into the fiction of accounting.  

We tell ourselves we are pursuing Baudrillard’s first stage of simulacra building – ‘the sacramental order’ – in which our partial collection of signs reflects ‘a profound reality’.  But it seems to me the addition of any claim to insight into emotions and experience sends our representations of the past directly to his fourth stage – the ‘pure simulcra’ in which our representations are in fact simple fictions that have no relationship to any reality whatsoever. We increasingly use the tools of genre writing to create empathy, but our bricks are without straw.

If as practising historians, we simply adopt a methodology that allows us to write from a more fully imagined human perspective; to appeal to the idea of ‘experience’ as a topic of historical writing without also doing the work of the social sciences along the way, we effectively abandon the older historical project of explanation; and in the process abandon the cultural authority that comes with interpreting how we got here.  When Jo Guldi and David Armitage published The History Manifesto a few years ago its many flaws were paraded before a spiteful audience (myself included); but it did get one thing right.  As they suggested, unless we claim the high-ground of historical explanation; claim a science of social evolution (whether Marxist or otherwise), we will become mere stylists, using the past as a dress-up box for the intellectual equivalent of seasonal panto.

We can make our readers cry, but I worry that we increasingly fail to make them think.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Twenty five years of the REF and me.

Over on Twitter there has been a recent series of posts on the #REF, and a lot of contention about its use and its worth; and its impact on the humanities in particular. For an excellent summary see Ian Pace's blog The RAE and REF: Resources and Critiques. The raw emotion felt in response to the ill-treatment of many at the hands of RAE/REF managers is fully on display - and makes for harrowing reading.  The pressures on ECRs are very real and the REF leads many academic department heads and research administrators to make stupid, and inhumane decisions.  My own experience of the RAE and REF, however, is different, and as 240 characters won’t allow me the space to reflect how it has shaped my career - I have posted here instead.

I received my doctorate in 1985, via a system that seemed predicated on a belief that supervision was just one option, human contact a luxury, and emotions superfluous.  The five years spent as a doctoral student remain a low-point in my life.  Entirely unsuccessful in my attempts to find a job or secure a post-doctoral fellowship, I spent the next four years supporting myself doing a mixture of working building sites, casual teaching (mainly for US 'study abroad' programmes) and research for publishers.  As an institution uniquely open to the un-employed, the IHR tea-room became my only academic point of contact.  By 1989, I had essenitally given up any academic ambitions, when I was appointed as a lecturer in 'eighteenth-century social and economic history and humanities computing' at the Polytechnic of North London.   It felt miraculous at the time.  As far as I can remember this was the first permanent post to come up in the UK in my field of 18th century social history in four years, and I suspect I was appointed not for my historical expertise, but because I could cover both halves of the job description.

A few years later PNL became the University of North London, and I was charged with running the department of history.  The first RAE the 'new' universities could participate in came soon after, in 1992. No one else in the department thought it was worthwhile putting in a submission and there was no mechanism for organising such a thing, so I pretty much wrote it myself. The department at the time was a stunning place to teach (my best work experience in a 30-year career), but there was no research funding.  The annual research budget ran to some £2,500 between some 45 humanities staff.  One year there was an actual physical fight outside the committee where that £2,500 was allocated.  My colleagues were nevertheless a remarkable group of historians including people such as Kathy Castle,  John Tosh and Denis Judd. 

In the end, we were awarded a score of '3' - putting us about a third of the way up the list of 'old' university history departments. And with that score came approximately £90k a year in QR (Quality Related) funding for a staff of around 12, for the next four years. This radically transformed the character of the department. This was not all to the good. Arguably the focus on teaching changed and several colleagues whose world view was less grounded in the powerful values of the old poly sector let the funding rather go to their heads.  But the result of that RAE, and the redistribution of funding that followed, very much demonstrated that there was excellent research being produced throughout the sector.  I have always believed that the RAE was introduced under Thatcher as a way of disciplining the 'old' universities, and that the 1992 inclusion of the 'new' universities, was a part of the same strategy.  It worked.  Everyone substantially raised their game in the 1990s - or at least became more focussed on research and publication.  This was also a period during which student numbers were rapidly expanding, drawing in both money and new staff (following 10 years of decline and retrenchment).  My generation of historians for the most part doesn't exist.  Some made a career in the US, but most of my fellow doctoral students were forced to take jobs outside of the academy, and when expansion came in the early 90s, there was a new, younger generation keen to apply.  But following the 1992 RAE, my strongest emotion was a sense of self-righteous smugness - a belief that the purpose and drive that I found in my small department had been recognised, and the remarkable talents of its staff rewarded.

That success was largely repeated in 1996 -  and following that RAE I moved from the University of North London (later London Metropolitan University), to a 'Readership' at the University of Hertfordshire.  I was recruited as part of an RAE driven strategy following the poor showing of  Hertfordshire's very strong history department in the previous year's exercise.  Hertfordshire had failed to showcase the work of its recent appointments in its 1996 submission.   It was a bitter-sweet move for me - and I remain ambivalent about it.  But while North London did not seem to want to plan for the next RAE, Hertfordshire was actively strategising.  Over the next two rounds I was again tasked with writing a department's submission, and Hertfordshire's history department's score rose from a '2' to a '5*'.  In 2008 I also oversaw some seven submissions in my then role as director of the SSAHRI (Social Science, Arts and Humanities Research Institute) at Hertfordshire. In both these rounds, the 'new' universities seemed to make real progress; and the ridiculous hierarchies of the sector seemed to be gradually dissolving.  There was a recognition that even if the 'excellence' in the 'new' universities formed only 'pockets' they were nevertheless worth acknowledging and funding.  When, in 2001, the history department at Oxford Brookes received a 5* while Oxford University's history department was rated 5, it seemed as if anything was possible.  

For successful departments in my part of the sector, the RAE also gave new authority to academic staff.  Keeping staff, recruiting new staff, and providing a context in which academics could fulfil the requirements of the RAE became ever more important.  The number of staff promoted to 'Professor' expanded dramatically, and while salary scales did not move much, the distribution of posts between 'Professor', 'Reader', 'Senior Lecturer' and 'Lecturer' changed out of all recognition.  Where departments had traditionally had just one 'Professor', and while 'Senior Lecturer' was the height of most academic's ambition; promotions now came thick and fast.  In the process the amount of money spent on staff salaries increased significantly.   Along the way there were very difficult decisions to be made.  I personally only ever excluded one eligible person from the RAE, but the interview involved remains a raw memory.  By 2008, with the department I helped to lead riding high in the RAE (well in to the top third of departments), I was convinced that the new dispensation made sense.  A regular RAE, in combination with the greatly expanded funding available through the AHRC from 2004 onwards, created what felt like a largely balanced system of support that appeared to reward hard work and quality research wherever it was found.  Humanities scholars seldom acknowledge that the funding for their reserach via the AHRC increased from £20m to £100m in a single year (2004) at a time when universities themselves where increasingly obliged to give QR funding to the units of assessment that had 'earned' it via the RAE.  This substantially increased funding for the humanities as well.  As a beneficiary of the system, I was - of course - convinced by its fairness.

The advent of the REF and the arrival and changing level of student fees; the lifting of the cap on student numbers, and a powerful fight-back by the elite institutions (the Russell Group substantially upped its game in 2004), changed much of this. 

With the advent of first £3000, and then £9,000 fees, it became clear that government policy was shifting direction.  From supporting 'pockets of excellence' there would in future be a pattern of expansion and support largely driven by the prejudices of parents and employers.  The 'new' universities were being told to get back in their boxes.  At the same time, the inclusion of 'impact case studies' in the 2013 REF sent a strong message that near market and STEM research was likely to be prioritised in future.   

By 2013, and although Hertfordshire put in a stunning REF performance in history (ranked well in the top ten departments nationally and level-pegging with Cambridge), it seemed clear to me that this model of open competition would not be allowed to continue; or that hurdles were being built in to the system that would rapidly undermine the progress of the previous twenty years.  It was largely in despair at the direction of policy, that I took a post at the University of Sussex - as the least worst compromise I could come up with.  Again, this was a move made in response to a REF strategy.  In this instance it rapidly became clear that the relevant strategy existed primarily in the minds of the VC and head of school, and had not been agreed by my new colleagues - but there was a strategy.

After 25 years in the now not so 'new' universities, during which the RAE and REF seemed to form the basis for real opportunity and positive change - and the basis for grounded, long-term planning, I have since found myself in an 'old' university, where the REF feels more a threat than a promise.  Most of my colleagues would prefer the REF did not exist, and that research funding was simply allocated to them by dint of having secured a job at a 'good' University.  Having won the race to the finishing line they would prefer not to be obliged to compete further.   In my new 'old' university REF strategies are also closely monitored from the centre - and there are few opportunities to use the process in pursuit of coherent academic planning at departmental level.

For myself, I look back on this journey with mixed emotions.  The bureaucracy, the games playing and the constantly changing requirements of each new RAE/REF, served a series of British governments as a means of manipulating the university system.  First, it disciplined the 'old' universities, forcing them to take more seriously both research and public engagement - holding them to account for the public money they received.  And then, it hung the 'new' universities out to dry, by shifting the goal posts and ensuring that the system would be increasingly rigged in support of the 'old' ones.  In many ways, government - from Thatcher to Cameron and May -  played a community against itself - ensuring that all those academics who pretended to be part of a supportive community of scholarship would spend their time fighting madly to beggar their neighbour.  

But at the same time, I look to the promise of greater diversity offered by those early RAE's and cannot but think they must be at least a part of the solution.  The desire to get rid of the RAE is largely a cry to 'leave us alone'; and it is heard most loudly in the most privileged corridors of the academy.  And yet, when you look at the staff involved, if you measure their ethnic, class and cultural diversity, what rapidly emerges is a defence of the most selective process imaginable.  Most staff in the humanities in the 'old' universities (and the new) are white and middle class (myself included).  A substantial proportion come from 'academic' homes; and were given privileged access to an elite education by dint of their parent's social and academic capital.  If simply getting a 'job' frees you from ever demonstrating the significance of your work; and if all those people who did not get a job in the right corner of the academy are excluded from demonstrating the worth of their own labours, we simply re-enforce hierarchies of privilege to the detriment of the system.  Clear benchmarks, and transparent processes seem to me a better antidote to privilege than a strategy based on 'leaving us alone'.

ECRs have been dealt a rough hand.  The process of selection has been changed without anyone ever spelling out why or how.  The only explicit discussion of this I ever heard was at the AHRC, where the identification of the 'leaders of tomorrow' became an increasing pre-occupation from around 2010 as part of an emerging policy of concentrating research funding on an ever dwindling set of departments and research 'leaders'.  The path to secure academic employment is now predicated on a first class degree from the 'right'  university (read Oxbridge), followed by a funded doctorate at the 'right' university (read Oxbridge), followed by a post-doc (maybe London for varieties' sake), a book of the thesis, two articles, and success in the AHRC's 'New Generation Thinkers' competition.  And woe-betide anyone who fails to collect any one of these shiny tokens of achievement.  The effect is to raise the bar for secure employment while not being honest with the scholars who are in fact being judged and discarded at each stage.  The language of precarity actually hides an ongoing process of brutal selection.  This is a form of selection that re-enforces privilege and excludes scholars who have not travelled on this most banal, lock-step journey. To be caught in this system is very hard, but the REF is not the real issue. 

As I approach retirement I have become increasingly uncomfortable with higher education.  I look back and think with Malcom Chase that I would choose a different path if I was able to start over.  Higher education feels ever more akin to a factory for the reproduction of class and ethnic privilege - the pathways from exclusion to success ever more narrowly policed. Ironically it is not the 'neo-liberal' university that is the problem; but the 'neo-liberal' university dedicated to reproducing an inherited hierarchy of privileged access that uses managerialism and rigged competition to reproduce inequality.  To my mind, the REF was a game changing opportunity, and could be again.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Some thoughts on a monograph - James Baker's, The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England

I was recenlty charged to say a few words at a launch event for James Baker's new monograph, The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England.  I am afraid that in the nature of academic hardback monographs the volume is too expensive to actually buy, but the link to the publishers' page is here; and James has blogged extensively about writing the volume, and the 'soft' and 'hard' digital methodologies that went in to it.  I am posting a version of what I said, because in working up a few enthusaistic words with which to toast the publication, it also became clear to me that this book - or perhaps just books in general - are changing in dialogue with the changing nature of historical research and publication.  While I have been profoundly frustrated by what has appeared to me to be the slow evolution of the monograph (and historians' attitudes to it as a form), this book suggested that I had missed a subtle change along the way.   So, for what's it worth, this is pretty much what I said.

I was asked a few weeks ago to say a few words to help launch The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England, and I thought - why not?  Before I had read the book, I thought I sort of knew both James and Georgian England, and the kind of book it would be.  And at the same time, given that James Baker is seriously into the Digital Humanities, I thought I knew a little bit about that too.  And when I got my grubby hands on the book itself – I thought – OK – that looks like a book – and I know a little bit about those too.  I don't really like them very much, but I own a few and have written a few.   So, all in all, I thought this would be a walk in the park that was unlikely to challenge any of my hard won prejudices or lazy assumptions.  

I was wrong.  This book confounded pretty much everything I thought I knew about James, and books, and Georgian England and the digital humanities. 

My first shock came in the acknowledgements (and yes, that is the first place I looked) – where James very kindly acknowledged both me and a bunch of other people for their support.  But uniquely in my experience, he did so by listing our Twitter user names.  I thank god I chose the relatively innocuous @TimHItchcock – but what this brought home immediately was that this was a book that was created in a self-conscious engagement with the digital humanities, and the modern practise of academic history writing. It may seem a simple thing, but it confounded and messed with the way we still represent books and book writing.  Despite the revolution in how we research and write books, we still pretend they are the product of old-school debate, musty research libraries, foolscap and ink - that they are written in some book-lined study, in the gaps between feasting at high table.  The acknowledgements said that this book was the product of a different technology, a different conversation, held in a different world.  As a result, though a very small thing, it felt remarkably radical – and that radicalism extended through the rest of the book. 

Next came the introduction – in which James outlined the intellectual forces that brought him to the topic, and which informed his approach.  The list went from Fernand Braudel and Robert Darnton to EP Thompson – temporarily lulling me into a sense of the familiar – before moving on to Bruno Latour and Franco Moretti.

Anyone who knows the field of eighteenth-century British history will realise in a minute that this is not normal.  You can do Darnton and Thompson, or if you are under 35 and working on a literary topic you can do Latour or Moretti – but bringing them together in the same analysis forms a profound journey across intellectual boundaries more secure than any physical wall.  Here was a mixture of Thomspon’s Marxist literary approach, with Braudel’s social science, and Darnton’s cultural history; with Latour’s anthropology of scientific practice; and Moretti’s tools based explporations.  What looked initially like a book defined by its topic – the late Georgian satirical print – rapidly emerged as a book defined by its intellectual ambition.

In the end, it fulfils that ambition.  It brings together a genre of description that Thompson perfected; with Braudel’s clear understanding of the materialities of life; with Darnton’s sharp ear for cultural difference – and then throws into the mix, Latour’s beautiful engagement with the cultural practises of production, and Moretti’s joy in deploying the tools of distant reading. 

The chapter that seemed to me to epitomise the book – not because it used any of the tools of the digital humanities, but because it contained a breadth of approach and understanding that transcends normal history writing – is chapter three on the mechanics of making prints.  It dealt with that magic combination of copper and paper and ink; of engraving, and etching and mezzotint deployed in pursuit of cultural impact.  It seemed to me that in that chapter, James captures perfectly the ambiguities of making – the extent to which every cultural act and every material act is a balance between purpose, materiality and constraint.  It felt to me he could have been writing about the evolution of the home computer, the internet of things, or the materialities of code. What he has nigh on perfected is a balance between cultures of materiality, and the limits to our ability to escape that materiality.

In the end, what I think I learned most fully from this book is that it is possible to practise digital history – to make new narratives, informed by new technologies, in direct engagement with old ones.  And that the outcome will look different to the kinds of books that historians have now been writing for over 200 years.  This still looks like a book, but actually it is something more than that - it is an encoding of a journey through data and tools; through history certainly, but also through the mechanics of the academy.

One of the complaints heard about the digital humanities – or indeed the digital revolution – is that it has not transformed how we do history, or sociology, literature or anthropology – that somehow it has failed to fulfil the early hyperbole.  But this book suggests that a different kind of history is gradually emerging; and that while it will no doubt retain the form of the codex, it is nevertheless different.  By self-consciously using the conditions of the present, to rework our inherited forms of history writing, this book represents a positive step forward. 

In other words, it is a radical, self-conscious, and technically informed experiment in genre.  It is a practical intervention in the creation of digital history.  Buy it if you really want to subsidse the commercial academic presses, or figure out how to access it in other ways, but read it.