Friday 2 April 2010

A New History From Below

A few years ago I argued in a review essay in History Workshop Journal for the need to rethink the history from below tradition, to take into account both the changing nature of how we find information on the internet - what the creation of new resources makes possible - and also how Western European progressive politics have changed over the last twenty years. Coming on the heels of the posting of the Old Bailey Online I suspect this argument struck some as a bit hubristic. Several historians certainly expressed the view that there was nothing wrong with the original version, and that I was, in any case, not in a position to change it. A couple of years later, in a remarkably sneering (and ill-informed) review of two books based on the Old Bailey, books that were preliminary experiments in trying to create a new history from below, Nicholas Rogers lambasted and mocked that work and intellectual direction. This response made me feel rather wary of publishing much of anything, for fear of offending a generation of historians whose work I respect, but who don't seem to warm to much of anything new. Instead, I just got on with the task of posting large bodies of historical manuscripts on the web, on the assumption that democratic access to primary sources was an unproblematic good thing, and that perhaps I should leave intellectual innovation to people like Nicholas Rogers.

But, I was recently invited to Brussels by Hugo Soly, to give a lecture on my work to his MA class, and as a part of this, had to revisit a 'new history from below' and attempt to explain what I had meant, in terms that would make sense to an audience more interested historiography than technology. Where I ended up was re-convincing myself that we do need a new history from below, and that there is an opportunity to create a form of history that engages with the present, makes proper use of online resources, and which moves with both the technology and the politics of now.

What I said to Hugo Soly's students was that a new history from below is new, and needs to be new, for precisely three reasons.

First, because the relationship between the individual and the state has changed. It seems to me that the Western European mixed welfare state is as good as it is going to get for the moment, and so we need a history from below that is not focussed solely on raising political consciousness in strictly idealogical terms; but instead takes as its object how the individual forces the state to deliver the goods of a good life. As a result, this ‘New’ history from below, should be precisely focussed on how paupers and prisoners, the poor and the benighted, navigate the emerging institutions of the modern state – and how their behaviour (and agency) shape those institutions. Everyone knows that a school, or a prison, or a hospital, or a university, is a subtle compact – a conspiracy – between guard and prisoner, doctor and patient, teacher and student. This new history from below should be about how to write about the prisoner, the patient and the student when they speak to power.

Second, it is new because the one lesson that the interminable ‘linguist turn’ should have taught us was that language is a technology. If we now know the subtle stratagems of textuality, then we ought to be able to use those strategies in a more self-conscious way, to self-consciously manipulative the reader. In other words, what is new, is the recognition that it is not enough to write truth, or to do good research; and that what is needed is writing that makes the best use of the technology of emotions and representation – how you use words and pictures and a story to impact, not just on what people think, but on what they see in their mind’s eye. I always come back to the notion of a simulcra – the idea that literary representation is made up of a few fragments of information that are used to represent the whole. In history writing, in which the details about a single poor person might add up to nothing but a few lines in an account book, that notion, that idea that you can use a single detail to represent the whole, becomes even more important than in fiction. When you add, for instance, the colour of a jacket, or the weather on a given afternoon, to a bald list drawn from the boring records of administration – it brings someone to life. In some ways this is just about good writing of a sort historians used to value, but given the mountains of poor writing that are published every year, by academics who think their sheer brilliance makes up for their deadly prose, this remains new.

And finally, the most obvious newness, is the internet. In the last ten years the nature of what can be found has changed out of all recognition. In the London Lives project, and The Old Bailey Online, in the Burney Collection and Parliamentary Papers Online, we have a remarkable haystack, and a powerful magnet with which to search out its needles. And if you add to that Google Books, The Times Digital Archive and all the rest, suddenly for eighteenth century London at least, 80% of every word published, and 10% or 20% of every pen stroke, every manuscript, can be searched electronically. This means the archive, the search, can be thoroughly re-configured around groups of individuals, rather than archives themselves. London is uniquely well-served in this regard, but the infinite archive of electronic texts is building. And it is being used by people in their millions. The internet, in other words, both creates a new audience, and is a way of re-configuring research from the archive and the institution to the individual – to the pauper, the prisoner and patient.
Revisiting this material has made me more optimistic about history writing, and what is possible, and it seemed a good moment to set out a stall, and see if anyone is interested.


Jason M Kelly said...


I enjoyed this. I think I'm going to use this discussion to frame a module in my graduate historiography seminar. Thanks for the good ideas.


Janice Turner said...

This makes perfect sense. Thank goodness for all those fragments of words and thoughts that have been hidden for so long in the archive and are now forcing their way to the surface with the help of the Old Bailey On-Line, and other digital sources.
It may well be trite but this new information goes some way to redress the balance in the study of social history and can only compel us to re-evaluate our perception of London's poor and unacknowledged.

Dianne Payne said...

A ‘new history from below’, which aims to use the variety of sources now available online to produce engaging and accessible writing (a rare commodity in academia), is an exciting and challenging project.

Any 21st-century initiative involving poor Londoners needs to free itself from the stranglehold of Dorothy George’s London Life and the work of historians who, over recent decades, have continued to re-cycle her vision of eighteenth-century London. George, who never actually defined poverty, described a squalid and vice-ridden city, ‘orgies of drunkenness’ during the thirty years of the gin craze and a century of death and disease, misery and degradation among London’s poor. Her work, imbued with the attitudes of her own day, was based largely on the rhetoric and propaganda of eighteenth-century social reformers, who all had their own agenda. We need to move on and seek a more realistic and balanced view.

History is a continuing story, or rather a multiplicity of stories, which deserve to be told and not only in terms of analysis and statistics, where the reality of lived experiences can be masked. Internet sources allow historians the freedom to explore something of that reality and the wider world of London’s poor, to rescue some of the neglected and misrepresented and to write about them in a lively, imaginative and well-illustrated way. Despite remonstrations from the arrogant, the cynical and the ill-informed, online sources, carefully handled, offer endless exciting possibilities.

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