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 durĂ©e, 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.