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.