Saturday, December 5, 2009

History, politics and scholarly subjectivity

Magistra et Mater and I, along with assorted commentators, have recently been engaging in a wide-ranging discussion on historical fiction and the writing of history. (See here, here and here.) In Magistra’s latest contribution, Emotional engagement and historians’ values, she makes the point that while it may be valid for historians to use their academic work to support their social activism, they still have to adhere to the core values of honesty and accuracy. Otherwise, they’re engaging in writing fiction or propaganda, not history. In other words, historians can’t just jettison or manipulate the evidence if it doesn’t fit their particular view of the world.

Damned straight, I say. However, the deep, persistent and often problematic connections between the worlds of professional history and politics can make the noble values of ‘honesty’ and ‘accuracy’ much more difficult to pin down in practice than in theory. ‘Honest’ according to whom? (Let’s face it - we humans sometimes have trouble even being honest with ourselves.) ‘Accurate’ by what measures? These are questions I started to engage with at a theoretical level in undergrad classes in historiography, during which we discussed (sometimes heatedly) historical debates such as Australia’s so-called History Wars. The issue is becoming more immediate to me as a postgraduate student because I’m engaging in original research, actually putting something new out there with my name on it and in which I have to present my evidence and argue a position. It’s forcing me to become more self-reflexive and to grapple with questions of my own scholarly subjectivity. How does my subjectivity shape the questions I choose to ask and the ways that I present my evidence (right down to picking images to accompany the text)? Can I even be fully aware of my own subjectivity and if so, am I a fully autonomous subject?

That’s a high-falutin' philosophical tangent that I won’t pursue any further here, except to say that I don’t believe any historian can be truly objective in the purist scientific sense because our own subjectivity is always going to colour the kinds of questions we ask of the evidence - and even what we consider as evidence. For example, some historians might only see official documents - such as judicial or administrative records or state papers - as real evidence, whereas others will find literary sources or material culture (buildings, household utensils etc.) equally valid. Some scholars might read those official records purely to glean the facts (names, dates, places etc.), whereas others will apply readings more informed by literary theory to dig deeper into how and why a particular text came to take the form it did. They will look as much to what isn’t said - to the gaps, silences and absences - and to meanings that are conveyed unintentionally, in order to extend interpretation beyond the limits of the original author’s purpose (stated or implicit).

This is the point at which many historians trained in the strictly empirical traditions of ‘scientific’ history become very anxious about people manipulating the evidence to fit a theory or a particular political agenda. Certainly, this does happen, and when it does, it’s bad history. But the fetishisation of archive sources as objective evidence of the past can equally blind us to the reality that those dryly-official documents and records are still created, authored texts. As the French historian Roger Chartier said, ‘no text, even…the most “objective” (for example, a statistical table drawn up by a government agency), maintains a transparent relationship with the reality that it apprehends.’

Chartier’s argument has been resonating with me during the last couple of weeks as I’ve been reading some recent historical studies of Richard II’s reign. Historians of this period generally draw on the many surviving contemporary or near-contemporary chronicles as well as on official records and it’s quite revealing to see the different ways they treat the two types of sources. A citation from a chronicle is almost always accompanied by an attempt to corroborate the information from another source and is frequently also qualified by discussion of the chronicle writer’s known political and/or religious biases. That approach is perfectly sound, as later medieval chroniclers were generally writing in the service of patrons and they sometimes shaped and re-worked their texts quite extensively to meet the exigencies of changing political situations.

What interests me, though, is that the same qualifications are much less frequently applied to the ‘official’ sources. Instead, these are generally treated as accurate, reliable and unproblematic accounts of events as they actually happened. Nigel Saul offers one of the rare exceptions when he points out, “The parliament roll suffers from all the usual weaknesses of that source: it is highly edited; it is composed mainly of memoranda and petitions to which the king gave his reply; and it contains few reports of speeches or discussions.” [2]

Social activism and emotional engagement

I want to come back now to another aspect of Magistra’s latest post, namely the connection of history and social activism. She notes the two historians that I named as being particularly good at emotionally engaging their readers (Marcus Rediker and Judith Walkowitz) are modernists working on the 18th and 19th centuries. Thinking about this some more, I wondered if for that reason, readers could more easily make a connection between these writers’ historical subjects - broadly speaking, victims of the Atlantic slave trade and working-class women in Victorian England - and their own direct experiences of 20th century social justice movements such as civil rights and feminism.

For someone like me, with leftwing progressive political sympathies, it’s true that the history of marginal groups readily engages both my intellectual interest and my empathy as a human being. However, this is certainly not the case for many other people who study history. I’m reminded of an undergraduate paper I did on the Napoleonic Wars, when the students included both history majors and Bachelor of Defence Studies majors (all serving military). As you would expect, the course covered the military, political and economic aspects of war and empire, but it also explored broader social and cultural themes. The BDS guys were mostly either perplexed or annoyed at having to consider how war and the economic measures needed to support it affected civilian populations. For them, the life-altering impact of Napoleon’s wars on peasant communities or women or the clergy - the facet of the course that held the most appeal for me - was just not relevant, let along interesting or emotionally engaging.

I guess this comes back to a very personal question: why do history? Why does spending our lives in libraries and archives, puzzling over artefacts left by those long dead, have such appeal? (It certainly ain’t for the money.) I would argue that without some aspiration beyond simply uncovering and assembling an accurate collection of facts, we’re nothing more than modern antiquarians. For my own part, I’m driven not simply by curiosity or the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake, but by a desire to understand patterns and connections in the past that also speak to the present. On this, I’m with Michel Foucault, who believed the point of history is “to show how that-which-is has not always been,” and so to show “why and how that-which-is might no longer be that-which-is.” [3]

That’s idealistic, I know. Maybe it’s even a little bit utopian. But that’s the way I roll.

1. Roger Chartier, Cultural History: Between Practices and Representations, p. 43.
2. Nigel Saul, Richard II, p. 222
3. Quoted in Joan W. Scott’s article 'Back to the Future' in History & Theory 47, no. 2 (2008), p. 284.


Anonymous said...

The beauty of the Foucauldian position, even if you don't want or think it possible to change the world through history, is that it returns some individuality to the historical subject, and allows space for it to have shaped itself somewhat.

Thankyou for the Chartrier reference, meanwhile; the authored nature of charters is something I and several collaborators have been working together on for a while now and we are conscious, often, that other fields than early medieval studies are ahead of us in this. Places where people are saying 'our' stuff are always very useful, therefore.

magistra said...

Thanks for this, and your previous comments, which have got me thinking once again about my own justifications for how I write what I write. I've talked before about the real reasons why I became a medievalist, so won't repeat that now, but over at my blog I've just added a bit more about emotions and historical writing. I'll also try and post something about historical accuracy in a bit, but not sure when that will be.

Bavardess said...

Tenth - I like the sound of your work on charters. Is this a relatively new approach to that type of documentary evidence in your area/period? On a similar note, I've read a couple of other good articles recently on the highly constructed nature of 14th century legal cases, where the legal process gets manipulated to quite a large degree by both sides to tell a particular 'story'.

Magistra - It's easy to get absorbed in the detail of our particular research project of the moment, but I think it's valuable to also take a step back from time to time and question what we're doing (or what we think we're doing) in the bigger sense, and why and how we're doing it. I really identified with the post you linked to on why you became a medievalist. For me, too, it does fundamentally come down to following my bliss.

To my mind, when we feel compelled to come up with some more 'rational' or practical explanation, we're at risk of buying into the kind of utilitarianism that considers the only knowledge worth pursuing as that which produces immediate 'public good' and/or money. I fear it's this kind of thinking that is starting to drive a lot of research funding. It also produces the inevitable uninformed press stories slating courses like The History of Witchcraft (to cite a recent local example) as a ridiculous waste of time and taxpayers' money. ("How is *that* going to help us be more competitive in a globalised economy?!" howl the critics.)

magistra said...

I think historians should personally choose to follow their bliss, but that’s rather separate from how funding should be decided. How many people are interested in a historical topic is no better guide to its importance than how ‘useful’ it is. After all, you will get more people to come to a series of lectures on Roman sexual scandals than late antique social stratification, as Peter Brown once discovered, and you can always get a better TV audience for Vikings or Nazis than for Franks or Red China. Was one of the reasons that ‘The History of Witchcraft’ got put on as a course is that it got more students enrolling than ‘The History of Early Modern Religion’ did? The kind of social activist history you favour (like the gender history I write) has also always been driven partly by a sense of contemporary relevance. I think explaining why studying topic X is worthwhile is a basic skills of a historian, and early on I developed a fairly standard ‘elevator pitch’ for explaining in a few sentences to non-historians what I studied. For those of us who get funded by the public purse, it’s not unreasonable to have to say a little more than ‘I’m fascinated by the Visigoths, give me some money’.

Bavardess said...

Magistra - you're right, the research funding issue always brings everyone back to earth with a bit of a thump. I can explain the pragmatic reasons for studying history, such as developing critical thinking skills and the ability to clearly communicate complex, evidence-based arguments, but that is more general than arguing why one should get a lump of money to study a particular historical problem.

On the witchcraft course - it was actually a pretty broad cross-cultural survey, so included both European antiquity/medieval/early modern beliefs, and some non-European examples (including indigenous Maori practices). It's a first year paper, though, so definitely partly aimed at attracting students who might otherwise think history is all wars and kings. In the second year, one can go on to do more specific papers in e.g. late medieval England, which includes a good chunk on issues like heresy, reform and 'popular religion', or the classic Reformation/Counter-Reformation course.