Friday, July 20, 2012

A cultural history of politics, and the politics of cultural history

My experiences at IMC Leeds - the papers I heard and the many interesting discussions I had - along with my pre-conference meetings with a couple of Leading Scholars in my field, have got me thinking about the kind of history that I want to do, and more broadly, about how various 'types' or approaches to history get defined (and, at worst, pigeon-holed as hopelessly outdated or 'politically irrelevant'). While to those outside the field/academia, the question may seem somewhat rarefied, it is an important consideration because the way your research is perceived and ‘labeled’ can have a significant impact on opportunities for funding, publication, participation in collaborative projects etc. Broadly speaking, my thesis could be classed as political history in that it deals with the actions and motivations of those who hold the reins of power, both formally through institutions like kingship or parliament and, more informally, through bonds of personal loyalty and kinship. But, by asking questions about how perceptions of gender (and ethnicity – but I won’t go there in this post) shape the way power is distributed, applied, reproduced, and contested across these institutions and relationships, I'm also taking an approach that overtly applies 'cultural theory' (let's call it that for simplicity's sake, as I don't have the space or inclination here to go into the nuances of my feminist / postcolonial theoretical toolkit) to the analysis of late medieval politics.

So does that make me a political historian? A cultural historian? Both? Neither? Are such distinctions even useful? My thinking on this was in part prompted by a discussion on the political relevance of cultural history, started by Jon Jarrett over at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe and then expanded upon by Magistra et Mater. I agree that for medievalists, making one's research politically relevant within contemporary culture is more important than ever in these days of shrinking humanities funding and ever more stringent demands to prove one's 'impact factor'. (For those unfamiliar with the world of academia, this is basically the demand - expressed in different ways in different countries - to prove that taxes invested in higher education/ research are not being 'wasted' on 'frivolities'. Its nastier and more ignorant face can be seen in the public comments section of any major newspaper when some hapless social science or humanities researcher gets a grant for studying bogan subcultures or some other perfectly sound academic question that the Commentariat, in all its collective wisdom, considers outrageous.*)

But (getting back to the point) I am made distinctly uncomfortable by the idea that political relevance implies an overt association with identity politics, or that an absence of such overt identification and its agendas infers the 'depolitisation' of cultural history. I'm having trouble articulating this well, but I guess that as someone who is focused in part on the history of masculinities, I was brought up short by John Tosh’s claim (via Magistra) that the cultural turn in the field of gender and masculinity has detached it from the ‘men’s movement’ of the 1970s, and thus robbed it of its political edge, an argument that has also been advanced in somewhat different forms by a number of historians who identify as feminist.** I have to say, I never considered that my interest in the history of masculinities (in my case, knightly masculinity in particular) has anything to do with any kind of 'men’s movement' or with unearthing positive male role models from the past, and I’d be pretty disturbed if other people thought that was an agenda that is driving my research. I suppose I am thinking of gender in more abstract (but no less politically relevant) terms, in that I am hoping that by uncovering and unpicking the hidden gender dynamics that underpinned and supported (and also contested) particular relationships of political power in the past, I can not only shed new light on historic events and structures, but also make people look with new eyes on such dynamics at work in the modern world. There is a clearly a political agenda driving my work on medieval political history, as I believe that the first step to changing a system is to understand exactly how it works and how it preserves existing privilege. I often find that when I start explaining my research to IRL friends and acquaintances, they very quickly have an ‘a ha’ moment when they recognise parallels or resonances within a specific contemporary political context.*** (For those of you about to accuse me of shameful anachronism, I’m always at pains to emphasise that I am not positing any simplistic causal relationship between the medieval past and the present.) The way I see it, cultural history is an inherently political (and politically relevant) project, even if it is not overtly associated with any particular movement or strand of identity politics.

* Just to be clear on this, I absolutely support Dave Snell’s research and think his PhD topic was completely legitimate (and really cool!) Indeed, his investigation into the construction of identities bears a certain, if distant, relation to my own interests.

** Important disclaimer here: I have not yet read Tosh’s piece in the edited volume Magistra discusses (Sean Brady and John H. Arnold (eds.), What is masculinity? Historical dynamics from antiquity to the contemporary world (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)), so I may be completely misinterpreting this.

*** I will explore this in more detail in a future post, as I think it is best done through concrete examples rather than trying to explain it at an abstract level.

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