Thursday, 16 May 2019

The long and the short of the eighteenth century

What follows is the text for a short presentation I gave at a one-day conference in late May 2019: Eighteenth Century Now: The Current State of British History. The event was organised by ECR scholars working with the Long Eighteenth Century Seminar (Miranda Reading, Dr Joseph Cozens, Dr Sally Holloway and  Esther Brot).  The panel I contributed to was charged to look at 'short and long term approaches to eighteenth-century history', and I took this as an opportunity to reflect on the changing nature of the field over the last forty years. An excellent review of the day as a whole can be found here.  In the nature of a text for public presentation, it retains all the quirks and foibles of 'speech'.

It seems to me that history works in just a few ways.  It can be an explanation of the present – how we got here.  Or it can be a ‘distant mirror’ – a way of contrasting the past and the present.  In either case, its importance, the justification for all the effort, is that it informs how we understand the present; understand the politics of the present and understand the challenges of the present.
But in the case of eighteenth-century British history these two approaches also determine the long and the short it.  And the relative dominance of either approach has either given the period and place real significance, or at least threatened to focus attention elsewhere.   
When I first engaged seriously with British history in the mid-1970s, eighteenth-century Britain was a proving ground for modernisation theory. The idea was that understanding ‘the first industrial revolution’ would allow us to understand how non-Western societies might replicate that ‘take off’.  Economic historians poured endless hours into understanding capital flows, innovation and the take up of new technology – and the centre of the world was Birmingham and Ironbridge. As part of the same project, the demographers put eighteenth-century Britain at the centre of a story of profound demographic change – the great transition in growth rates and life expectancy around 1800.  And the urban historians added their voice – describing the development of a new urban world – a Renaissance – brought in to explain the growing pace of innovation, and the growing freedoms of mind and body. The main narrative (essentially a Marxist recounting of the stages of economic development) gave point and purpose to a dozen sub-disciplines from women’s history to agricultural history, to the history of science.
These were all ‘long’ eighteenth-century stories, with roots stretching back into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and influence reaching forward to the present. And you could add to these the political narratives that became more prominent in the 1980s – reflecting a new concern for the history of the state and the evolution of the ‘public sphere’. These evolved in dialogue with the Thatcherite and neo-conservative attacks on the state; with the decline of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the EU; with the workings of politics in a new age of mass communications.  But they nevertheless remained long stories.
But, it seems to me that a constellation of fundamental changes took place in the 1990s that has tended to push academic history and the history of eighteenth-century Britain in particular towards something very much shorter.
First, these long stories were themselves increasingly undermined. Faith in the social sciences and the developmental models that underpinned them largely collapsed. In part this collapse reflected the critique associated with post modernism; but more importantly the neo-conservative political project of dismantling the state made grand explanation seem less convincing and less desirable. The social sciences were and are all about influencing the policies of the state as an agent of change – and are inimical to the small state ideologies that gained prominence in the 1980s.  Neo-liberalisms – whether Thatcherite or Blairite – do not invite explanation, as they are predicated on supposedly ‘natural’ aspects of human behaviour. 
For the political narrative, the collapse of the Soviet Union drew the breath from political history.  Habermas, for instance, was all about understanding the origins of fascism, and the politics of democratic societies; and the failure of the Soviet Union – leading to Fukiyama’s claim for ‘the end of history’ – made the relevance of these kinds of long-term political narratives much less obvious. The West had won, and no more needed to said.
The same decade also witnessed a subtler transition – the digital revolution.  I know my undergraduates look on the slide rule I used for basic maths in the 1970s, as if it came from an entirely different world.  This sense of a profound disjuncture - a gulf of generational miss-understanding - makes sustaining a long story of explanation ever more difficult.   
In other words, almost all the long stories – with the eighteenth century at their pivot - that dominated post-war academic history writing lost purchase in the 1990s.
All of which simply left a charred landscape of failed narratives – into which flowed history as a form of distant mirror.  In part, this was about the rise of identity politics.  In most instances, to ‘explain’ an identity is to challenge its very basis. LGBTQ+ history, for example, almost always takes the form of a distant mirror precisely because an explanation of the origins of a gay identity would imply nurture over nature. In gender history an explanation of change undermines the assumed coherence and universality of patriarchy – making less obvious appeals to shared experience based on gender. In the 1990s separate spheres (a long story of gender) was replaced by the gentleman’s daughter (a short, distant mirror, reading).
What grew in this charred landscape were beautiful micro-histories that spoke powerfully to the present – and were and are powerfully political and frequently progressive. But the problem with a distant mirror approach is that it doesn’t really matter which period or place you choose to study. The quality of difference, and the ability to make a modern reader empathise with someone across that gulf of difference is the only measure of success. There is no real reason to choose to write the history of the eighteenth-century Britain rather than 16th century Spain, or twelfth century Japan.  Or indeed 1960s London. They are all different, and they all allow us to view ourselves through that distant mirror.
Of course, the irony is that you would have expected this transition to result in a decline of eighteenth-century British history as a discipline and subject. Why look to the eighteenth century, when any other period or place would do the same cultural work. And yet, despite the decline of explanation, the period remains absolutely fizzing. There were 10,000 more publications produced on 18th century Britain between 2008 and 2018 than were published between 1978 and 1988 (based on a structured search of the Brepolis Bibliography of British and Irish History).
I think the explanation lies in part with the twentieth century's creation of a profoundly sophisticated archival infrastructure, which was then turned into a profoundly sophisticated digital infrastructure. One reason eighteenth-century Britain remains a central and popular field is because it is the most digitised where and when in the world. Between JISC Historic Books, and digitised newspapers; between crime records and parish records; between a remarkably comprehensive system of archives – housed in a remarkable stone-built infrastructure and made findable through integrated national systems; between the wealth of ego-documents and the new languages of the self; all written in a language understood by 20% of the world’s population, eighteenth-century Britain is more richly evidenced, and more readily accessible to more people, than anywhere else.  Eighteenth-century Britain remains popular in part because it is easy.
And that may be enough.  Much of the work being done at the moment – in ecological history, women’s history, in animal-human relations, disability studies – in a dozen separate fields – is both fantastic and powerfully political. It is justified by its intelligence and its careful navigation between the past and the present. But, I am increasingly of the opinion that our abandonment of explanation brings with it real dangers; and the necessity to think harder about what we are doing with all that ‘short’ history.  
For one thing, simply ploughing this well-tilled soil re-enforces the dominance of the same old voices – rich white people do not need a lot more of our attention.  And there is an urgent need to expand the ‘right to be remembered’ to the 98% of the world’s population that do not currently get much action between hard covers.  
And it may be that the wealth of our archive can be turned to account in serving that right to be remembered, but there needs a real and self-conscious effort to make it happen. There has been much work on British and anglo-phone working lives, for instance, but there remains a massive task of reconstructing the lives of non-western peoples, of the enslaved and the colonised. It may be that the very wealth of our archive makes this more possible, but it is only with self-conscious effort that we can escape the assumptions that underpin the archives themselves (the clerks’ hectoring, racist voice) to turn that archive to account.  
In other words, I guess where I have ended up is in with two or three largely contradictory conclusions. The first is that in the absence of a traditional Marxist ‘explanation’, the purpose and point of eighteenth-century British history is limited. It was important because of where it sat in that bigger analysis. In many respects the eighteenth century is either long, or it is meaningless.
But second, and on a more optimistic note, the wealth of inherited documentation means that even in the absence of a long story, there are powerful short stories to craft.  But if we are to abandon the older long stories, we need to be very clear about the purpose of our short ones.
I want to end, however, by sharing a bit of anxiety.  Anxiety is always better when shared!  In the end, I am concerned that however good those short stories are, they will not be enough.  One of the few long eighteenth century stories that survived the 1990s and is growing is prominence in this new dystopian political world of the 2010s, is a ‘white nationalist’ narrative that puts Britain and Northern Europe at the heart of an explicitly racist story.  We are witnessing the re-emergence of eugenics and race theory – justified by accounts of colonial expansion.
We need new long stories to ensure that the work of generations – and the wealth of the archive – are not turned to a racist account.  
 All of which is just to suggest that the most powerful uses of the eighteenth century are the long ones; and that unless we self-consciously find new big stories to tell, I am uncertain that the short ones will sustain us.

A brief post-endum

In the questions that followed Jonathan Clark suggested that he had essentially invented the 'long eighteenth century' in response to the structure of the Cambridge Tripos - which split modern history at 1750. The claim is slightly problematic as a quick search turns up the phrase as early as 1963 when Jonathan Clark was just 12 years old. But his claim does expose a real gulf in expectation and experience, and I entirely understand why he might have experienced the field as if he had invented it. Afterall, I was reading British history from the perspective of Berkeley California, and from that perspective it slotted neatly into a global understanding of historical change that was both wide and long. By contrast Prof. Clark was researching the field in dialogue with the Cambridge undergraduate curriculum. To this day that curriculum is built on a narrow understanding of British political history. I remain committed to the long eighteenth century because of its ability to reflect on a global story, but understand the desire to write the period as little England. But Clark's question/comment also took me back to an aspect of this story that I did not discuss on the day. Clark is absolutely right to suggest that the community of scholars who grew to maturity in Cambridge during the 1970s (including himself - at least tangentially), really did shape the 'long eighteenth century' in powerful ways. Perhaps most self-evidently, the group of scholars who accumulated around J.H. Plumb - including John Brewer, Simon Schama, David Cannadine, Linda Colley and Roy Porter essentially re-worked the field as a very different kind of story. John Brewer and John Styles' An Ungovernable People (1980) was a direct repost to Douglas Hay, et al, Albion's Fatal Tree (1976). And perhaps most importantly, Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J.H. Plumb's Birth of a Consumer Society (1982) turned on its head generations of 'supply side' and Marxist economic history; chiming with the new Thatcherite abandonment of industrial policy, in favour of a reliance on consumer behaviour and 'demand side' economics.  Most of this work was essentially liberal, rather than Marxist in approach, but J.H. Plumb's urgent adoption of Thatcherism in the 1980s reflects the lintellectual direction of travel.  In other words Prof Clark was right. At least a couple of 'long eighteenth centuries' were created at Cambridge in his youth; but none of them are quite the period or place I inhabit.