Sunday, May 31, 2015

Guy Halsall: think with history, act in the present.

Guy Halsall sings, "You better free your mind instead!"

The point is this: HfB [Historians for Britain] and its opponents share exactly the same, entirely conventional approach to the ‘relevance’ of history to current political debate; in other words, to ‘why history matters’. That relevance, as is clear from any close reading of almost all of the contributions to the exchange, consists entirely in the deployment of historical ‘fact’. I find this, to be blunt, more than a tad wearisome. [The involvement of historians in the referendum on Scottish separatism took exactly the same tedious form.] What seems largely to be at stake is who can assemble the biggest pile of facts. This is not going to make much of a difference, let alone decisively carry the day, either way. By way of demonstration, and if you can bear it, just read ‘below the line’ on the on-line version of the ‘Fog in the Channel…’ piece. To quote the (in my estimation) criminally underrated Andrew Roachford, ‘I don’t want to argue over who is wrong and who is right’.

Let me row back from the extreme position that might be inherent in that statement. First, it is very important to deploy historical fact to counter misleading public presentations of what ‘history shows us’. This was another reason I signed up to the ‘Fog in the Channel…’ letter. There were some seriously dubious elements in Abulafia’s piece ... However, as I have said too many times to count, history (as opposed to chronicling or antiquarianism) is the process of thinking, interpretation, explanation and critique, carried out on the basis of those facts, it does not stop at the latter's simple accumulation (most historical 'facts' are, to me, not especially interesting in and of themselves: this happened; that did not happen – factual accuracy is a duty not a virtue).

More seriously, both sides essentially see the course of history (as established by these facts) as providing a set of tramlines governing the proper path we should take in future. This removes any kind of emancipatory potential from the study of history. Put another way, and to restate the counter-factual posited earlier, suppose you agreed with Abulafia (and after all he’s not wrong about everything) that Britain’s history was, fundamentally, profoundly different from that of mainland Europe and had run a quite separate course (there is a case that could be put to support that contention that would have to be taken seriously, even if it is not the one put forward by HfB). But suppose that, unlike him, you thought that this had been a terrible thing and thought that Britain needed to incorporate itself more fully in Europe. Or suppose that you thought that the authors of ‘Fog in the Channel…’ were fundamentally right that Britain’s history was entirely entwined with that of the mainland but that you thought that this was wholly regrettable. In still other words, suppose that – like me – you thought that the course of the past had no force and provided no secure or reliable guide at all to what ought to be done in future.

So, what would one be able to contribute to a debate on these (or other) issues if one held a (superficially) seemingly nihilistic view, like mine, of history as random, chaotic, ironic, and unpredictable, and of the past as having no ability in and of itself to compel anyone to do anything? What, so to speak, would be the point of history? Why would it matter?

In his excellent blog-post – in my view, the best intervention in this discussion by some way (impressive not least for its concision) – Martial Staub draws attention to the discontinuities of history that subvert any attempt at a unified narrative or quest for origins. This seems to me to point us at a much more valuable and sophisticated means by which the study of history (rather than ‘History’ itself, that somehow mystic object, or objective force) can make a political contribution. Every dot that is later joined up to make a historical narrative represents a point of decision, of potential or, if you prefer, of freedom, where something quite different could have happened. To understand any of these decisions, as again I have said many times before, it is necessary to look at what people were trying to do, at what the options open to them were, or those they thought were open to them, what they knew – in short at all the things that didn’t happen, which frequently include the intended outcomes. You cannot simply explain them as steps on a pre-ordained path towards a later result, or as the natural outcomes of the preceding events. Any present moment of political decision represents the same thing: a point of choice, of decision, which requires serious thought. It should not be closed down by the idea that some 'burden of history' or other compels us to go one way rather than another. Those decision points that I just called the dots joined up to make a story were, at their time, points of freedom when any number of things were possible. The unpicking of narrative constructions makes this very clear and that – in my view – is the point that emerges from historical study.

This lesson, for want of a better word (I mistrust ‘lessons from history’), points at a string of possible subversions. Staub points out the subversion of the ‘national’ story but at the same time it subverts any similar ‘European’ master narrative. Britain can be said to have had a history different from that of other European countries – true enough - but to no greater extent than any other region of Europe has a history different from the others. It may be true that at some points British history seemed to run on a course that bucked European trends, but exactly the same can be said of, for example, Italian or Spanish history at various points. What is Europe anyway? Is it any more natural a unit of analysis than any other? In the Roman period, the idea of thinking of the north of Africa as somehow a different area from the northern shore of the Mediterranean would be very odd. Indeed the Mediterranean basin can be seen as a unified area of historical analysis (who, after all, knows that better than David Abulafia?), rather than as different continents divided by a sea – perhaps one with different histories from northern Europe or the North Sea cultural zone (which obviously includes Britain). All of these points also contribute to a historical critique and dismantling of the idea of the nation (any nation) itself, not simply the national story (see also here). All historical narratives are constructs so (unless one is based upon the misuse or fabrication of evidence, or not staying true to the basic 'facts' of what did or did not happen) one cannot be claimed to be more accurate than another. No one can win an argument on that basis. The best that can happen (and it is important) is the demonstration that there is more than one story to be told.

Above all, what I find to be one of the most important contributions that historical study can make, in terms of social/political engagement, is the subversion of all reifications, of all attempts to render contingent categorisations as natural. And of course it similarly subverts claims to represent contingent oppositions as eternal or natural.

All these subversions arise from what I have repeatedly argued on this blog are historical study’s most important benefits: the critique of what one is presented with, as evidence, and the simultaneous requirement to see similarity – shared human experience – in difference and diversity, or to listen to and understand that evidence).

So I would contend that the view of history sketched above is very much not a disabling, nihilistic one but quite the opposite. The careful, sympathetic yet critical investigation of the traces of the past, the deconstruction of narrative, nation and so on, can and should free us from the burdens that people want to impose on us in the name of history. The appreciation of the once possible but now impossible potentials at the decision-points of the past can and should allow us to think twice about what people tell us are now impossibilities and open our minds to the potentials and possibilities of the present.

If you want a catchphrase, try this: think with history, act in the present.

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