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nordmann
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PostSubject: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 08:57

An interesting concept I heard at a lecture yesterday evening given by a prominent Norwegian historian whose speciality subject is actually not that modern at all - early christian history.

But her point was that regardless of what period of history we examine and discuss we do so unavoidably using terms of reference from our own time. We can unwittingly be a slave to such terms, or we might even be astute enough to recognise the limitations on our understanding such terms might exert and actively attempt to bypass their influence, but either way we simply acknowledge that we are people of our own time and place when we attempt to extrapolate inference from historical data. Her "proof", amongst other examples, was Gibbon's "Decline and Fall ..." which when read today reveals as much if not more about the sensibilities of Edward G and his contemporary society than it does about Rome in the classical age.

Her warning was by way of a preface to her rather radical (and mercilessly brutal) analysis of the early christian church's attitude to death - and where it reserved the right to inflict death as a punishment, normally through acquiescence to imperial legislation which suited it, and which in some cases was actually formulated and enacted at its behest. It is almost impossible to examine this data today and not immediately detect a strong measure of hypocrisy in the apparent departure from the root philosophy the same people claimed to endorse. But then an historical assessment of the concept of hypocrisy itself reveals it to be quite a modern development in terms of it being regarded as a negative trait. It has been far more prevalently regarded historically by our ancestors as almost an inevitability, an unavoidable part of being human. Attitudes towards hypocrisy at the time of the church's ascension to secular and religious power would have been largely shaped by this belief, and in fact in that respect one could almost imagine the church utilising hypocrisy as a tool in its efforts to establish identity and credibility - quite the opposite in fact to what we might believe now.

But hypocrisy is just one of many examples of sensibilities that have changed over time and she issued a challenge to her audience to pick up a history book - on any theme, by any author - and see if one can go further than a single page and not identify at least one instance of where one's own modern sensibilities inject themselves into one's comprehension of the text, or indeed where the author has done likewise. An interesting exercise, and I have to say that upon trying it later she has a very valid point indeed!


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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 10:23

Surely that's just the concept of reflexivity that's been a staple, at least in archaeology, for 40 years now, from Clarke's 'critical self awareness' and running through the work of Hodder, Thomas, Shanks, Bender, etc, etc? The acknowledgement that, to use the expression that Temp hates so much, all interpretations of the past are contingent and situated.
Or was there more to her assertions than that?
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 10:39

No, that about covers it - though her point was being levelled at the "lay reader" and she was not pretending to have come up with anything revolutionary historiographically.

Interestingly she listed off writers whose disregard for an awareness of reflexivity when interpreting and relaying historical inferences from the data she has found to be most evident. These were all well-known Norwegian historians currently active. This drew muffled gasps of disagreement from several in the audience (which included at least one of those named). When asked could historical fiction writers - by definition - be excluded from such a discipline when evaluating data she concurred, though added that all popular historical fiction should maybe carry a sort of government health warning on the cover warning the reader that over-reliance on the product for factual analysis could impair their mental health. This got a laugh. Then she added that certain authors, such as Philippa Gregory and her ilk, should maybe in fact just be banned outright. This got a round of applause.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 13:54

@ferval wrote:
Surely that's just the concept of reflexivity that's been a staple, at least in archaeology, for 40 years now, from Clarke's 'critical self awareness' and running through the work of Hodder, Thomas, Shanks, Bender, etc, etc? The acknowledgement that, to use the expression that Temp hates so much, all interpretations of the past are contingent and situated.

It's not the *idea* I hate, ferval - that's just common sense - it's the jargon the intellectuals use that bugs me, usually because I'm not always sure I know what they are on about. But with reference to "all interpretations of the past are contingent and situated" I've said here before that long before Derrida and deconstruction, the Talmud told us: "We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are." Or, for the historian I suppose that should be, "We do not see things as they were. We see them as we are."

I don't know what the concept of reflexivity is. That's one of those terms I hate because it can mean different things according to whether you are talking philosophy, economics, social theory or literary theory. Do you two mean here that if you are told enough times something is true it *becomes* true? I'm sorry if that's a silly question, but I really am confused.

But that idea of hypocrisy being acceptable, even *desirable* (?), is really interesting. I'm trying to think of other examples.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 14:13

Quote :
But that idea of hypocrisy being acceptable, even *desirable* (?), is really interesting. I'm trying to think of other examples.

It is not a concept that organised religion has let go of lightly, I would have said. Though I agree that if one subscribes to a particular religious code it is much easier to identify it in another code than in one's own. I find glaring examples of its acceptability in muslim religion all the time, for example. But to me that differs from other codes only in terms of flagrantness, not prevalence.

Hypocrisy seems also to have been expected of Roman rulers in general, as we also learnt about last night, and in that sense the early christian church was merely conforming to standards set at the highest level in society. A more recent example however of identical behaviour and public expectation of it could also probably be identified in the political style and actions of Henry VIII, though again one has to be careful not to confuse the flagrancy of that style with prevalence over his contemporaries in that respect.
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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 14:55

And I suppose we actually should see nothing ironic in the title "Most Christian Majesty" being applied to the French king (and his mother) who approved the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. Henry VIII of course had always envied Charles' grandfather that particular title.

And Gregory XIII's ordering that a Te Deum be sung and a medal struck to celebrate the event: presumably we must accept that His Holiness was being absolutely sincere in his hypocrisy?
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 16:34

Did your lady last night mention Michel Foucault, nordmann? I wonder if his work is in any way relevant to your thread? Probably not, but I'll post this anyway.

I believe this French philosopher/historian researched such areas as prisons, mental institutions and sexual practices; and he succeeded above all in clarifying the relativity of many of the concepts we continue to use in relation to these. Criminality, sanity, sexual "normality" are all revealed as contingent, or variables through time. These comments on madness (only Wiki, I'm afraid) - especially how madness was viewed during the Renaissance - I found very interesting.

In West Germany Foucault completed his doctoral thesis, Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (Madness and Insanity: History of Madness in the Classical Age), a philosophical work based upon his studies into the history of medicine. The book discussed how West European society had dealt with madness, arguing that it was a social construct distinct from mental illness. Foucault traces the evolution of the concept of madness through three phases: the Renaissance, the "Classical Age" (the later 17th and 18th centuries) and the modern experience. He argues that in the Renaissance the mad were portrayed in art as possessing a kind of wisdom, and portrayed in literature as revealing the distinction between what men are and what they pretend to be. With the rise of the age of reason, madness began to be conceived as unreason and the mad were now separated from society and confined, along with prostitutes, vagrants, blasphemers, and orphans in newly created institutions all over Europe. The subsequent modern experience, Foucault argued, began at the end of the 18th century with the creation of places devoted solely to the care of the mad under the supervision of medical doctors.

So, if I am understanding things correctly, during the Renaissance to be a mad and/or a hypocrite were not - in the eyes of the society at the time at least - necessarily bad things? This is hard to get one's head round, but how interesting it is - and with serious implications for an historical novelist who wants to get things "right"!

PS I'm mulling over how Shakespeare dealt with this - Lear and Poor Tom and Hamlet. But Lear and Hamlet - in the wisdom of their "madness" - actually railed against hypocrisy.

EDIT: And it seems that Elizabethans were also prepared to find madness hugely entertaining rather than indicative of wisdom: the omission from the Folio of the Trial scene in Lear has been taken to indicate that this scene - where a king's daughters are judged by a Fool who isn't a fool and a mad beggar who isn't mad and a servant who isn't a servant, in front of a crazy king who is learning to be wise - was unsuccessful in Shakespeare's lifetime. The audience found it funny - or perhaps mystifying - rather than profound.


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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 17:14

You only have to look at the frequency of people from a variety of social backgrounds who, during the Middle Ages, commanded huge followings of religious adherents and were regarded as politically important by contemporaries (if not always dealt with very charitably in the end) but who, by today's standards, would have long ago been diagnosed as deserving of psychiatric treatment, to see just how "madness" was regarded at the time. We assume, often incorrectly, that those who followed them were blind to their affliction because the theme was religious, but that is to do their contemporaries a huge disservice with respect to their own ability to assess mental health. It is probably closer to the truth that the subjects' obvious madness was regarded as less material than their potential effect, an effect which was welcomed even if it had potentially dangerous overtones and indeed often did. What makes our Middle Ages ancestors different from us was their hunger for social interaction and what they would tolerate in order to make it manifest. We tend these days not to see social interaction as an end in itself, and especially not interaction on a large scale engendered by deluded fools. When it does happen - be it in Waco Texas or the killing fields of Cambodia - we are shocked that it could have happened at all.

"My Lady" didn't mention Foucault, but then the hypocrisy bit was not the point of her lecture (which was our poor ability to properly assess morality in bygone cultures). She did however mention Robert Graves in glowing terms as the consummate amoral historian who valued fact above conjecture and, according to her, was therefore better equipped than most to write a conjectural biography of Claudius. I found this an intriguing take on Graves, whose books I love be they factual or fictional accounts, and could only agree that she had a point.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 17:30

Quote :
But that idea of hypocrisy being acceptable, even *desirable* (?), is really interesting. I'm trying to think of other examples.

By almost any hierarchy, I would think, from those in religions to politics to business. Anywhere that to which it is seen to be appropriate for the masses to conform is understood not to be necessarily so for the elite. I can't help but think of 'Back to Basics' and 'The Big Society' and 'We're all in this together'.
So was that lecturer suggesting that it's only a modern phenomenon to find this disparity, this hypocrisy, anything other than that which is to be expected and almost a necessary condition of maintaining the various forms of authority? So it has always been recognised but because today we (usually) condemn it, we assume that it would have been so in the past?

I've just seen your latest post Nordmann and I'm a bit stumped by 'social interaction' - could you expand? When you talk of effectiveness, do you mean the kind of effectiveness of a, possibly 'deranged', dictator who managed by their ruthlessness to maintain some kind of stability for the majority of the population? I know that was a pretty widespread view of the Assads in Syria before the present mess.



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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 17:33

Surely an historical novelist knows that one cannot get it 'right' because even if one could grasp the mind set and somehow convey it, that any reader would be able to relate to it is unlikely. Since we - or at least I - find it almost impossible to understand - say - religious fundamentalists of our own times, trying to figure out the intense religious beliefs of even the likes of Henry V111 is difficult.

Thus it is with the expression of all media relating to historical subjects including art. Renaissance artists used the dress of their times - and very often the countryside of it too for biblical settings; yet I recall unease at the modern 'Cookham' religious settings of oh gosh I've forgotten the artist though not his work!

In truth we cannot perceive anything much beyond our own experience that does not relate to it. Therefore characters in novels are blends of that - and sadly too much of period work and character definition is based on film and TV producers concepts. Notions are becoming crystallised within those parameters. Hypocrisy is a fascinating topic; facing the layers within ones own makeup being the first hurdle in evaluating it
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 17:47

By social interaction I meant just that. And the desire to instigate it was almost rapacious - a higher regard for the quantity of such interaction than its quality, and which sometimes quickly became quite simply perverse as it grew and took enormous effort and hardship to arrest.

We tend to think of largely sedentary and isolated populations in Europe at the time, yet the speed with which a "craze" could sweep across borders and excite social activity was often phenomenal. In the days before saturation-stimuli, and when vocal transmission was the only way of imparting anything for the huge majority, people must have had a completely different relationship with diversion than they do now, I reckon.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 17:59

@Priscilla wrote:
Surely an historical novelist knows that one cannot get it 'right' because even if one could grasp the mind set and somehow convey it, that any reader would be able to relate to it is unlikely. Since we - or at least I - find it almost impossible to understand - say - religious fundamentalists of our own times, trying to figure out the intense religious beliefs of even the likes of Henry V111 is difficult.

Thus it is with the expression of all media relating to historical subjects including art. Renaissance artists used the dress of their times - and very often the countryside of it too for biblical settings; yet I recall unease at the modern 'Cookham' religious settings of oh gosh I've forgotten the artist though not his work!

In truth we cannot perceive anything much beyond our own experience that does not relate to it. Therefore characters in novels are blends of that - and sadly too much of period work and character definition is based on film and TV producers concepts. Notions are becoming crystallised within those parameters. Hypocrisy is a fascinating topic; facing the layers within ones own makeup being the first hurdle in evaluating it

That's an interesting post, Priscilla, especially what you say in your first and last paragraphs. Got to go out now, but will mull.

Quote :
Hypocrisy is a fascinating topic; facing the layers within ones own makeup being the first hurdle in evaluating it

I'll say.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 18:19

Robert Graves: Such an interesting person. I also enjoy his historical fiction but his 'White Goddess' has a chilling effect because it reveals an intense interest that is difficult to balance with his other work. Likewise his new 'translation' of the Rybiyat of Omer Quyam based on a dodgy copy of a manuscript the original from which he was kept by Idries Shah makes for a further wobble of confidence in the solidarity of his judgment. May be that is unfair on my part; there is an unusual hypnotic quality about Idries Shah and his work. Graves was strongly drawn to his Sufic perceptions and is lauded for it. Amoral it certainly is not
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 23:23

@Priscilla wrote:
Surely an historical novelist knows that one cannot get it 'right' because even if one could grasp the mind set and somehow convey it, that any reader would be able to relate to it is unlikely. Since we - or at least I - find it almost impossible to understand - say - religious fundamentalists of our own times, trying to figure out the intense religious beliefs of even the likes of Henry V111 is difficult.

Thus it is with the expression of all media relating to historical subjects including art. Renaissance artists used the dress of their times - and very often the countryside of it too for biblical settings; yet I recall unease at the modern 'Cookham' religious settings of oh gosh I've forgotten the artist though not his work!

In truth we cannot perceive anything much beyond our own experience that does not relate to it. Therefore characters in novels are blends of that - and sadly too much of period work and character definition is based on film and TV producers concepts. Notions are becoming crystallised within those parameters. Hypocrisy is a fascinating topic; facing the layers within ones own makeup being the first hurdle in evaluating it
Priscilla and other contributors,
when I started on the BBC messageboard in 2002 on a discussion "About history" I came already on the difficulty that to write "good" Very Happy history one has to try to avoid all "moral" nowadays attitudes and to transpose himself into the mindset the "thinking world" of the individuals, the societies of that particular period. I made the example of the Spanish conquistador in South-America...what went through his mind...religious zeal?...greed?...Übermensch-attitudes? or "greed" masked hypocritically as "religuous zeal"?
I know it is not that easy to have access to such information although from random events one can learn a lot...I remember for instance a study from "Ma.. Bloch?" about the French king Louis XV curing people by laying on of hands...for our modern eyes...or it has to be that the patients by "auto suggestion" cured themselves...but one has to accept that society in that time accepted the practice and believed in it...(I don't say it is that much better nowadays with the "faith healers"...Very Happy)
But in my honest opinion one, who writes history, has to distance one self from present day morality and thinking and has to write from the opinions and thinking of any particular period...and I know it is very difficult and one can only try to give in the footnotes the argumentation for his statements...and it is as important for the honest historian as for the honest historical fiction writer (the author of the Da Vinci Code...Very Happy...couldn't resist:D)
That are my preliminary thoughts on this interesting discussion.
Kind regards and with esteem to all the contributors,
Paul.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 21 Mar 2013, 23:35

Strange things happen on this messageboard.
When I put my previous text in "preview" some words were wrong written as "religuous" while I had written rightly "religious"...
But the most strange thing was that I had written "nordmann Bloch" and in the "preview" it became "nordmann Bloch"....
And it happens again...no I mean Ma.. BLOCH the French historian...I don't say Nordmann isn't a Ma.. BLOCH....but I suppose as Nordmann is also a M... the computer of the messageboard is mixing it all up....
Cheers, Paul.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Fri 22 Mar 2013, 08:10

Security through obscurity is my watchword, Paul.

Priscilla - Graves was indeed a fascinating person. The bulk of his adult life was conducted under what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress and his demons were so brilliantly contained that they found expression only in his fictional characters' voices, never his own. His week at the Villa Ariadne as guest of Arthur Evans's daughter and her husband would make a fine film (starring a young Anthony Hopkins?). The scene where he uses a telephone for the first time in over a decade (he had a morbid phobia of phones after one tried to kill him during WWI) and which ends with him writing the opening sentence to "Goodbye To All That" would be Oscar-worthy in the right hands.

But that aside, Graves was most definitely a person for whom history was always modern history. His use of the present tense in almost all his works regardless of context or period was a significant clue to how he viewed the past.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Fri 22 Mar 2013, 08:27

EDIT: Post appeared while I was typing - sorry this doesn't "flow".

I read earlier this morning a quotation that I thought I could share here: it is from Ihab Hassan, quoted in From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Hassan asks - with good reason? - whether history is not "often the secret biography of historians."

That made me laugh, especially given the recent discussion on the Princes in the Tower thread.

But is it true to say that the data on which historians work is actually given its meaning by those same historians? Is history, in Froude's words, "a child's box of letters with which we can spell any word we please"? Or, as Carl Becker put it, "The facts of history do not exist for any historian until he creates them"?

And this is why I mentioned the baffling Michel Foucault yesterday. Every so often I come across a snippet from his work which makes some kind of sense to me (doesn't happen often, but it does happen occasionally). Of the "linguistic transitions" (I think he means different times, different meanings ) of concepts such as hypocrisy, sanity, criminality or morality, Foucault says, making the point that, in relation to such transitions each description derives from an ideological position, there being no essential referent, but only a "culturally determined usage within an ideologically positioned discourse":

"History serves to show how that-which-is has not always been; i.e. that the things which seem most evident to us are always formed in the confluence of encounters and chances, during the course of a precarious and fragile history...; and that since these things have been made, they can be unmade, as long as we know how it was that they were made."

PS But re religious hypocrisy, whether in the early days of the Church, or during the 15th/16th centuries; haven't there always been dissident voices in the "hypocrisy is acceptable" wilderness? I'm thinking Luther here. Some would say he was a monumental hypocrite of course...

EDIT: Goodbye To All That is pure Blackadder - brilliant stuff, black comedy at its best.


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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Fri 22 Mar 2013, 08:31

Apologies for message X 2 - did a MM and quoted myself instead of editing.


Never post when you are in a mad rush - you write a load of disjointed rubbish and then send it twice.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Fri 22 Mar 2013, 09:17

@Temperance wrote:
haven't there always been dissident voices in the "hypocrisy is acceptable" wilderness? I'm thinking Luther here. Some would say he was a monumental hypocrite of course...

Yes there have, of course, though Luther might not be the wisest choice as an example. I would have gone for Marcus Aurelius since he actually tried to highlight and analyse the inherent immorality of hypocrisy (a radical new departure philosophically in its day) while admitting his own. Indeed he used his own as the basis of his thesis and then by implication damned all religion on the grounds that it was invented by humans like himself. Luther, like a lot of other people, was great at identifying hypocrisy in others - which is always a bad starting point - and actually thought he could "improve" religion having started with such a false premise. All he achieved of course was further opportunity for the same hypocrisy, from which he himself as you point out was not immune either. He basically proved Marcus's point.

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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Fri 22 Mar 2013, 13:47

@nordmann wrote:


But that aside, Graves was most definitely a person for whom history was always modern history. His use of the present tense in almost all his works regardless of context or period was a significant clue to how he viewed the past.


And Hilary Mantel of course uses the same technique in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Fri 22 Mar 2013, 14:35

Mind you, so does PG in her latest contribution to gratuitous rain-forest destruction - so I suppose it's consistency that's the key here.

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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Fri 22 Mar 2013, 23:03

I am not sure if a complete distaste for nepotism (which always seems to me a perfectly sensible and valid attitude) and corruption is just modern, or more place-oriented, ie associated with times and places where democracy is not as highly valued as now. In fact does democracy itself fit the criteria of the opening post? These are things we have now rather than lack though. (Even nowadays I think there is something of as disconnect between what people expect from their politicians and what they do themselves. Our little historical society has no problems with cosy little arrangements that would be frowned on in a bigger organisation. "We'd better let the licensing trust put up their sign, since they supported us financially so much. It doesn't mean we'll have to let other people use our land for signage.")

I haven't read Robert Graves and the big book sale I went to yesterday didn't seem to have any of his books. But I think Sassoon's 'David Cromlech' is Graves, and he writes about him a bit, liking him a lot, though others said he talked too much. Sassoon doesn't accept all Graves' opinions: "He made short work of most book which I had hitherto venerated, for David was a person who consumed his enthusiasms quickly, and he once fairly took my breath away by pooh-poohing Paradise Lost as 'that moribund academic concoction'. I hadn't realised it was possible to speak disrepectfully about Milton. Anyhow, john Milton was consigned to perdition, and John Skelton was put forward as ';one of the few really good poets'. But somehow I could never quite accept his supremacy over Milton as an established fact." and "No music was really any good except the Northern Folk-Ballad tunes which he was fond of singing at odd times...But much though I admired these plaintive ditties I could not believe that they abolished Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which we'd heard at the Concert. I realize now that what I ought to have said was 'Oh rats, David!'
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sat 23 Mar 2013, 09:10

I believe Sassoon was very much offended by some of the things Graves included in "Goodbye" - especially references to his mother, Theresa. What infuriated Sassoon was a description of Theresa (who was not actually named) trying to reach Sassoon's dead brother Hamo through spiritualism. Sassoon wrote of this particular passage (which to my shame I find very funny) that it was "one of the most hurtful things I've seen in print". He complained about it to Jonathan Cape, who promised that the offending passages (there was also a poem that Sassoon had sent to Graves, one that Sassoon had never meant for publication) would be cut.

Sassoon warned his mother not to read "Goodbye" which he described as "very bad" and the author "slightly crazy".
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sat 23 Mar 2013, 11:25

I've just been watching this - Graves talking to a bemused Malcolm Muggeridge (1965).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/writers/12243.shtml
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 24 Mar 2013, 13:09

Cross threading somewhat but http://www.historytoday.com/tim-stanley/forgiving-crimes-past

Sean Lang's blog, linked within the article, might have been dictated by one of our esteemed contributors.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 24 Mar 2013, 21:00

A couple of bits at least tangentially related to this topic. I was reading a NZ magazine called Book Notes which was talking to and about an author of historical fiction, and writing of frontiers and borderlands. "We meet men and women adrift in experience, who have become unfixed from the familiar or who they thought they were." One author, when asked if she thought that certan kinds of strangeness crept into a narrative when the past is being evoked replied, "The past is strange. It ought to be strange. If it doesn't feel strange, you're probably describing the present."

The other thing I was thinking of re the opening post, but on a much smaller scale, was changing language. My brother-in-law, no longer in academia, has offered me whatever of his library I fancy, and while there is a limit to how many editions of Beowulf you would want or interpretations of Piers Plowman, I did take something called A Dictionary of Changes in Meaning, which has something like a couple of thousands examples and descriptions of words which have changed their meaning throughout the centuries. These changes do often mean that primary sources have a different meaning from the one which hits the modern reader. His examples include conjuror, gloat, planet, equator, atone, fun, prime, tunnel. A single word probably isn't going to subvert total meaning, but it can be disconcerting. And for some people, at least, the thought that a word has changed doesn't occur to them at all; to people like me, it occurs but I don't necessarily know which ones have changed and which haven't.

Temperance, I don't understand why the comment about Malcolm Muggeridge is no longer on your post, but it doesn't say you have edited it.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Wed 27 Mar 2013, 09:20

@Caro wrote:


Temperance, I don't understand why the comment about Malcolm Muggeridge is no longer on your post, but it doesn't say you have edited it.

I edited it, Caro. Graves is very interesting, but comments about Muggeridge are off-topic.

But is the past really so strange? The "past" maybe, but the people? There are writers - Marcus Aurelius and Shakespeare are good examples, but there are many, many more - whose thinking strikes one as being of our time as well as of or for their own. We recognise things. But that's perhaps us reading ourselves into their work, "recognising" (a dangerous word?) that which isn't there; we think we are "identifying", when in fact we are "inventing" or "creating" ideas (or characters) to make us feel better or more comfortable or more secure about ourselves? Literature like history in fact? But I haven't a clue really: I go round in circles with all this stuff. And what a lot of inverted commas I have used - always a bad sign with me.

PS I wonder if Minette knows that one of Robert Graves' ancestors landed at Milford Haven with Henry Tudor in 1485? Bad blood will out. Is Graves damned forever?
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 28 Mar 2013, 12:23

This thread has probably fizzled out, but I've just come across an interesting paragraph in Beverley Southgate's History: What and Why? Ancient, Modern and Postmodern Perspectives. I'm not sure I've understood it fully, but perhaps it is relevant:

Southgate says this:

"The essential point reduces to the question of whether or not historians are to accept the existence of a past "reality" that is at least hypothetically accessible to their own investigations. Does such a past exist independently of us and of the evidence by which it is represented, or do those representations actually constitute the past, to which we have no alternative access? If there is assumed to be no reality external to the language by which it is described*, then the whole of history becomes nothing more than a linguistic study, and there is no external (extra-linguistic) referent by which the validity of alternative versions of our histories may be assessed; and history then becomes an imaginative language-game, a form of poetry, 'a little theatre in which the representations of the past are assigned their part'**. But if some belief is maintained in an external reality - a social, political, economic, cultural reality, which may owe much to its linguistic portrayals but is ultimately independent of them - then some goal remains for historical investigation; and it remains possible in principle to aspire to some understanding of that actual independently existing past."

* Foucault?

** Southgate is quoting Mark Cousins in Post-Structuralism and the Question of History.

Actually I prefer one of the quotations he gives at the beginning of his chapter - it's the famous lines from T.S. Eliot's Burnt Norton (Four Quartets).

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Southgate also heads his chapter on "The Postmodern Predicament" with these quotations:

History is reporting on what they (the historians) believe happened in the past interpreted in the light of their own prejudices and opinions.

No one is quite sure of the ground on which they stand, which direction they are facing, or where they are going.

Now that final quotation I *do* understand.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 28 Mar 2013, 13:35

Quote :
History is reporting on what they (the historians) believe happened in the past interpreted in the light of their own prejudices and opinions.

This must be true - it cannot not be. However the same circumstances pertain to any form of reportage, even that of contemporary events, as we know through just reading different newspapers' treatments of the same news story.

To me therefore the dilemma is not so much in adducing which version is correct, or even which version most accords with our own particular prejudices and opinions (however well or badly informed these may be). Instead it is when one finds that only one interpretation of a past event or person appears to apply - good, bad or indifferent. This to me is much more likely to indicate under-analysis, lazy analysis or - even worse - an analysis controlled for an all too contemporary purpose. The study of history and its research too should both have as a primary aim the unearthing of sufficient data to lead to pluralistic interpretation. In my experience the most convincing historical theory results from when disparate analyses have had the opportunity to intelligently vie with each other in the public domain. Such theories also stand the greater chance of being logically incorporated into wider theory concerning their cultural and temporal contexts. Without this they are, in my view, relatively worthless as historical data - mainly in that they do not provide an avenue of understanding into the milieu in which they occurred (and presumably made total sense at the time).
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Thu 28 Mar 2013, 14:05

Yes, as Southgate also points out, one requirement for the postmodern future appears to be an ability to resist dogmatic pressures to accept "any one single truth, or answer, or 'reality' (of past *or* present). Aspiration might rather point towards a tolerance of many truths and answers and descriptions, without a corresponding need to deny (or vilify?) the validity of those that fail to fit our own requirements".

When writing of the requisites for poets, John Keats advocated the characteristic of what he called "negative capability", by which he meant "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason": according to BS it is just this that seems to be the quality required by those - not just poets - living in a postmodern era.

It's the only thing that will save us from destruction - well, I think so.
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PostSubject: al   Thu 28 Mar 2013, 19:50

@nordmann wrote:
Quote :
History is reporting on what they (the historians) believe happened in the past interpreted in the light of their own prejudices and opinions.

This must be true - it cannot not be. However the same circumstances pertain to any form of reportage, even that of contemporary events, as we know through just reading different newspapers' treatments of the same news story.

To me therefore the dilemma is not so much in adducing which version is correct, or even which version most accords with our own particular prejudices and opinions (however well or badly informed these may be). Instead it is when one finds that only one interpretation of a past event or person appears to apply - good, bad or indifferent. This to me is much more likely to indicate under-analysis, lazy analysis or - even worse - an analysis controlled for an all too contemporary purpose. The study of history and its research too should both have as a primary aim the unearthing of sufficient data to lead to pluralistic interpretation. In my experience the most convincing historical theory results from when disparate analyses have had the opportunity to intelligently vie with each other in the public domain. Such theories also stand the greater chance of being logically incorporated into wider theory concerning their cultural and temporal contexts. Without this they are, in my view, relatively worthless as historical data - mainly in that they do not provide an avenue of understanding into the milieu in which they occurred (and presumably made total sense at the time).

"The study of history and its research too should both have as a primary aim the unearthing of sufficient data to lead to pluralistic interpretation. In my experience the most convincing historical theory results from when disparate analyses have had the opportunity to intelligently vie with each other in the public domain. Such theories also stand the greater chance of being logically incorporated into wider theory concerning their cultural and temporal contexts."

Completely agree with you, Nordmann.

Yes, as you said, the duty or task from any "earnest" historian would have to be: "the unearthing of sufficient data (and that in any field of human behaviour of the studied time/event without any moral or political restriction) and that in "intelligently" confrontation "in the public domain" with other earnest historians which in that case can lead to a "pluralistic interpretation" embedded in the reality of that particular time/event.

I give an example: on a French messsageboard of WWII I gave an interpretation of an event at 23 Mai 1940 at Deinze during the battle of the Lys. My mother was involved in the incident: the using by the German army of citizens as living shield against the Belgian army blocking a blowed bridge of the derivation canal of the Lys.
What historians don't understand, but what was understood by a would-be local historian from Deinze, who spoke with all the surviving witnesses of the time, was that the inhabitants of Deinze weren't pleased with the harsh resistance of the Chasseurs Ardennois at the other side of the bridge and nearly blamed more the Chasseurs Ardennois than the Germans who used them as living shield...Why couldn't they resist in the open field and let the citizens of the city out of their war confrontation. There was already a lot of friction between the citizens and the Belgian army when they prepared the town for the confrontation with the Germans before the battle of the Lys....

Another example: Such question as: How was it possible that that huge percentage of Germans was seduced by Nazism? Not only from opportunistic reasons but a lot, perhaps the majority, out of real conviction...? Or am I taking now already a "position" with my question? Embarassed...

Kind regards and with esteem,

Paul.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Mon 08 Apr 2013, 22:48

Addendum to previous message.
Seeing that there are again some replies on Historum to the thread "History and Historians"
http://historum.com/general-history/15445-history-historians-11.html
My message 108.
http://www.geschiedenis.nl/index.php?go=home.showBericht&bericht_id=189
http://www.knhg.nl/bmgn2/V/Vries__P._H._H._-_Unzeitgemasse_Betrachtung._Een_pleidooi_v.pdf
Especially for Ferval and our previous exchanges I will try to entangle the two Dutch descriptions of both Ankersmit and Lorenz.
Kind regards, Paul.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Fri 12 Apr 2013, 23:18

Addendum to the prevous message.
First the Dutch link from Julie Masmuller: Triumph of the Historism.

I make an incomplete résumé of the article. Although it is better understandable than the texts of Ankersmit the article from Julie Masmuller is still difficult to understand for a non-initiated as me. Compared with a text of our great Nordmann, which you can understand after two times reading, (a lol beeble of the closed BBC board springs also to mind) for me this "philosopical" reasoning is a lot more complicated...

Ankersmit: The historical narration replaces the reality of the history: a proposal to look at the past on a certain manner the manner of the specific historian. And each proposal is by that unique. Historical research is non-narrative, scientific, but history writing is narrative, an interpretation and construction of the findings of the historical research.

Ankersmit sees a structural gap between the reality of the past and the narrative about that past, among many others for instance "fascisme". Each narrative about fascisme tells another story, is another narrative substance.

The degree of objectivity of narratives (points of view) can only be defined by comparing narratios, which concern a related subject. The narratio, which realizes a maximalisation of surplus-meaning above the descriptive meaning, is according to Ankersmit the most objective narratio.

Critique from Chris Lorenz (The construction of the past. 1987) on the work of Ankersmit: Lorenz turns the positivistic models (historism? note from me?) less away. Lorenz: a third way between positivism and hermeneutics (among which narrativism). Explaining what is not "normal" is in history a comparing model (concurrential explanations become by reffering at confrontational examples confirmed or enfeebled). Lorenz says that historical concepts have nevertheless really a status outside the texts in which they are described. For instance "fascism" really points to a phenomena of the historical reality. The narrative has to follow social-scientific projection rules and the historical narration is the projection of something real.

However at the end of Chapter 1 the author of the article Julie Masmuller says that by her arguments the historism according to Ankersmit is saved from the critique of Lorenz. The argumentation is difficult to translate and I even don't understand it fully in Dutch.

Chapter 2 The post-modern phase of Ankersmit: Too difficult for me. I can't follow anymore...

I can only translate the paragraph which I understand:

Although the points of view of Ankersmit are never convincingly refuted, there excists among historici an aversion to bind them with the narrative philosophy of Ankersmit. Modernistic theoreticians, as Chris Lorenz, are not prepared to let the distance between historical reality and history writing to be as big as Ankersmit let it be.

Furthermore they hold on to a history writing as a scientific philosophical issue and refuse to see the historical narration as a work of art and the history writing as an esthetical issue.

Tomorrow my comments and the second URL from another Dutch historian Devries which comments also Chris Lorenz and Ankersmit.

Kind regards, Paul.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 14 Apr 2013, 23:54

Addendum to the previous message.
First of all the article that I want to comment is not from a Dutch historian De vries but from a Dutch historian P. H. H. Vries or Peer Vries.
http://www.ae-info.org/ae/User/Vries_Peer/CV

I prefer the wording of Peer Vries above those of a Chris Lorenz and a lot more than the wording of an Ankersmit, which is nearly not understandable for a non-initiated one as I am. And it is not better when reading the texts in Dutch or in English...

In his article about the book of Chris Lorenz Peer Vries uses a formulation about history that I find very relevant:
history writing: it is to reproduce in an interpretative synthesis the facts and the explanations (statements?) (in Dutch: verklaringen), which the historical research has produced.
For me is that interesting for the debate: "is history writing a science?", as that definition splits the history writing in two fields: first the certainly (and I think nobody will deny that) scientific historical research and then secondly the interpretative synthesis...and it is in that second field that all the difficulties and controversies of the historical debate lie? I suppose...

I prepared a résumé of the article of Peer Vries and my comments, but to put it in this message it is too late in the night. It will be for tomorrow if I will have time.

Kind regards, Paul.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Mon 15 Apr 2013, 09:04

Quote :
For me is that interesting for the debate: "is history writing a science?", as that definition splits the history writing in two fields: first the certainly (and I think nobody will deny that) scientific historical research and then secondly the interpretative synthesis...and it is in that second field that all the difficulties and controversies of the historical debate lie? I suppose...

Hi Paul - this is indeed the nub of it. However the "interpretative synthesis" is itself divided into two broad approaches, one theoretical and one conjectural, and the failure to distinguish between these two very different processes is what leads to the vast bulk of the ensuing debate.

In a scientific sense theory plays a fundamental role. Although it deals very much with hypothesis in its formation it is primarily concerned with established fact when it is presented for acceptance as valid. In the study of history, as opposed to other sciences, opposing theories can quite happily coexist (though this is by no means confined to historical research) and this is mainly due to history's dependency on other theory to deduce fact. For example, political theory when applied to historical research can elicit factual data of a nature that sociological theory might never arrive at, and vice versa. Because we are talking about more than the relation just of events alone (I'll get back to this) then this multiple approach to defining motivations, causes and consequences is actually a completely acceptable and required facet of examining society, comprised as society is of human beings whose own motivations are complex and which often defy simple analysis anyway. This is as true for analysis of contemporary society as it is of past societies.

Conjectural historical analysis is where all the trouble lies. In the past it was largely accepted that conjecture played a role in that it was the launchpad for the development of theory and that was pretty much it. However in recent times such analysis has been elevated in some quarters to a validity rivalling that of theoretical analysis, a development that can be seen at once if one compares the contents of the history shelf in your local bookshop with what it would have contained some decades ago. The truth - for better or for worse - is that conjectural history sells, and on the basis of its accrued popularity has acquired a validity in its own right. No one can present an historical theory now without being gainsaid in what should have been its peer review stage by conjecturalists. These bring opposing views to the table - and often very loudly indeed - but rarely to the benefit of establishing fact. A culture of "debate for its own sake" has thus developed to the detriment of historical understanding, at least in my view.

I personally do not subscribe to the dichotomy you propose in that the opposite to "real" is "narrative" and that the latter represents a philosophical challenge. To me this is a completely integrated and mutual process concerned with the experience of events, contemporary or historical, and is not therefore one that presents more of a problem in historical analysis than it does, for example, in analysis of daily news. The sequence is the same in both cases, only the initial data concerning the event varies in that it tends towards the minimal historically, especially the further back in history one goes. Modern contemporary real-time events can be queried and investigated at source (though rarely are), whereas historical events can never be.

However, having said that, the sequence is still the same - an event occurs and is reported. In contemporary news analysis an important question at this point is why it is being reported at all. Why is the event itself important and why does it merit being reported to others? In historical analysis this question is probably the very first one that should be asked. Addressing the question using the techniques to hand might appear sometimes to incorporate "philosophical" thinking but in fact if one is honest there is no more or less philosophy applied than there is to the interpretation of events happening in our own time. The analysis is the same - a dual attempt to ascertain factual data and to deduce through knowledge of the humans concerned motivation and cause. This done, a fuller analysis of effect is then possible. The only difference between history and news analysis is that the historian often has the advantage of "knowing what happened next" in analysing the effect. However this is not as great an advantage as it might at first appear. Untangling effect - especially in the long term - from historical data can be as tortuous a process as establishing the fact that caused it.

Both factual determination and causal determination however, I would submit, are scientific disciplines.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Mon 15 Apr 2013, 10:04

PS: To be fair to Ankersmit he has done much to help define the crucial difference between theoretical and conjectural analysis of history, something that has become more and more important to be declared as the bookshelves fill with ill-educated rubbish. However whether this merits the name "historical philosophy" or not is a moot point, and I agree his books can be difficult to read. My own definition of what constitutes philosophy is rather old-fashioned, I confess, and I tend to react negatively to the insistence that I include everyone's musings under that category on their own insistence, however intellectual they might be.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Tue 16 Apr 2013, 21:56

Nordmann,

thank you very much for this interesting and erudite reply. I will read it carefully and try to digest it in all its finesses before answering. But for the moment some hectic time, the wife in the clinic from a fall and all the context...

Kind regards and with high esteem,

Paul.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Wed 17 Apr 2013, 12:22

Best wishes to your wife, Paul. Hope she wasn't too badly hurt!
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sat 20 Apr 2013, 10:55

For anyone interested in this topic, may I recommend Richard J. Evans's book, In Defence of History. Evans is Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, but his writing style is lovely: he manages to make the most abstruse philosophical arguments interesting and - what's really important - reasonably intelligible, even to the average person. This is what the blurb on the book cover says:

"Under the onslaught of postmodernist theory, the profession of history is in a crisis, its assumptions derided and its methods rejected as outmoded. Richard J. Evans mounts a brilliant and compellingly effective defence of the historian's capacity to reach genuine insights about past events."

Now I'm not an historian (I just enjoy reading about history), and sadly I'm usually utterly baffled by philosophy, but I do find it very interesting (and not a little distressing) that increasing numbers of writers deny that there is any such thing as historical truth or objectivity. The question seems to be these days not so much Carr's famous What is History as - Is It Possible to Do History at All? Evans (whose comments are indeed at times delightfully tongue-in-cheek) notes that "historians at the end of the twentieth century are haunted by a sense of gloom".

Is such "gloom" justified? Surely there is a middle way and that Ankersmit chap's triumphant (and rather poetic) declaration that "Autumn has come to Western historiography" is indeed not the whole story? Evans himself says he has tried to "steer a middle course between the extremes of postmodernist hyper-relativism on the one hand and traditional historicist empiricism on the other".

I hope we can all stick to the middle course.

Sir Geoffrey Elton didn't seem to think we could. It would appear that for Elton an all-out turf war had begun, and the intellectual barbarians were at the disciplinary (school) gates, loitering there with dangerous wares on offer. Elton roundly denounced (just before his death) postmodernist ideas on history as "menacing", "absurd", and "meaningless", "the ultimate heresy", "a virus". "In battling against people who would subject historical studies to the dictates of literary critics," he pronounced, "we historians are, in a way, fighting for our lives. Certainly, we are fighting for the lives of innocent young people beset by devilish tempters who claim to offer higher forms of thought and deeper truths and insights - the intellectual equivalent of crack."

Crikey.

But then again does Patrick Joyce have a point when he complains that there is no real debate about all this here in the UK, just "rank indifference"? Members of the British historical profession at large, Joyce declares, have tended to "fail to register the intellectual history of their own time, above all the now decades-long challenge to received ways of historical thinking represented by what may loosely be termed post-modernism." He repeatsthis condemnation in the journal Past and Present: "The elders of social history remain in station still, supported by a younger generation of scholars largely immune to the intellectual history of our own times."

Evans rather unkindly comments on this that by "the intellectual history of our own times", what Joyce really means is his own ideas.

If I'm honest I'm terribly confused by all this. I suspect I'm at my woolliest worse with all this stuff. But it *is* interesting and at least I'm trying to contribute. study

I think sometimes people are afraid to comment on threads like this for fear of saying something utterly daft - I know I am. That means discussion can easily dry up, which is a great shame. Anyway, I shall dry up now and go to Sainsbury's. Actually, I may treat myself today and go to Waitrose.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sat 20 Apr 2013, 12:23

I read an essay - and I am nearly sure it was by Evans - which attempted to pin-point in historiographical terms just how and when post-modernism became, if not quite the dominant approach, at least influential enough to start undermining faith in historical fact.

In fact "undermining" is too mild a term for what has happened - the author actually pulled his punches in my view. What is termed post-modernism is in fact often a loose collection of disparate approaches to historical analysis which, when taken together, serve to validate an often unjustified suspicion regarding all historically adduced fact. In some cases there is even detectable a mission on the part of some so-called historians to destroy all faith in historical fact completely.

The essay - as much due to its requirement to be brief as to any particular nationalistic motivation by the author - used the example of how American academia and its British counterpart have diverged over the past century with respect to how both approach history itself. He could easily have taken America versus almost any other western culture to make the same point since his analysis (which I agree with) shows how particular cultural challenges unique to the USA were always going to steer how Americans viewed history into a series of developments which, in turn, were to redefine the term "history" itself. No country "owns" the concept and culturally the prevalence of any historiographical theory is both fluid and diverse with much cross-cultural influence and transfer of ideas, however what the author could trace was the steadily growing influence of what might be termed an "American approach" over others, leaving us more or less where we are now.

The principal challenge in the USA lies in its own political and cultural origin, in historical terms a sequence of events like any other but which sequence invites - in fact sometimes almost screams for - justification and explanation of a moralistic nature. A simple and glaring example is represented by a cursory examination of the "founding fathers" (itself a term which invites moralistic scrutiny) and how their actions included an apparently enlightened reaction to attempts to inhibit their ability to self-determinedly control a society they wished to establish based on common rights, and also included the freedom to own slaves and to inflict genocide on indigenous people for nothing more than monetary gain. Other examples can be arbitrarily cited, but their importance lies not in their dubious morality but in how the society thus established addressed that dubiousness. For a century or more it seems not to have addressed it at all, which of course simply meant that dubious assertions - historically speaking - tended to accumulate, leading to a backlog of issues which through time became more and more the remit of historians to tackle. In the 20th century this process began in earnest. By the second half of the century the process had already imploded. Without going into all the details a simplistic summary of that implosion might be that the country's history had produced a sheer quantity of issues upon which causal analysis could not be conducted without employing analytical approaches which - thanks to this deferral of prior analysis - now included political and sociological theory still culturally repugnant. One would be as hard put to find a Marxist analysis of American history, for example, emanating from the USA in the late 20th century as one would have been to find Marxist theory originating in the USA in the second half of the 19th.

Compared to Britain - which on face value faced (and still faces) the same issues of accommodating past behaviour in its post-imperialist existence - one can readily see the principal difference between the two. Put simply, as it was making history Britain was also defining history, and the ongoing process included quite a few revolutionary departures. Historiographically, Britain has been an innovator of analytical approach. The USA on the other hand has tended to the reactionary.

Before this sounds like an intention to make one sound better than the other (the essay's author avoids such an impression much more adroitly than I) this divergence of approach is not in itself indicative of any political agenda or otherwise being enacted upon by either source. However the divergence has to be examined in light of the rise of cultural influence of the USA over the same period, culminating in the situation in which we are now where the USA plays a dominant role in establishing cultural values. A reactionary conservative culture which has largely failed to divorce historical self-analysis from contemporary political self-analysis has also succeeded in setting the tone for how such historical analysis is conducted within other cultures, and especially those cultures more closely attuned to and historically tied to its own. This, the author (and I am nearly sure it was indeed Evans) cites as a root cause for what he identifies as a departure from faith in fact when studying history per se.

My own view is that there is much correct in this analysis of what might be called "western historiography" and its development in recent decades. I apologise for the over-simplistic summary which, I admit, fails to set up the premise for my own following assertion, though hopefully it gives the gist of what the author maintains and with which I agree. To me (and I admit my view is based primarily on what I, as someone who enjoys reading about history, encounter more and more when browsing bookshop history shelves) the entire genre of historical analysis is damaged, and depressingly damaged it seems beyond repair, by the prevalence of the resulting conclusion that "fact" is a suspect concept and that therefore any assertion factually stated shares the same value as any fact scientifically adduced.

In fact one could even go much further than just the genre of historical analysis and cite the same trend as evident in others too - from political analysis to theology as represented through US standards applied to both. The essay however confined itself to historiography, and I found little to contradict in it.

Aplogies also for the length of this post.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sat 20 Apr 2013, 17:26

Thank you for your detailed - and serious - response to my rather tentative post. You and Paul may be interested in this:

http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Whatishistory/evans1.html

In his introduction to In Defence of History Evans quotes several historians - British *and* American - who have, like Sir Geoffrey Elton, issued dire warnings about a postmodernist (whatever that word means - the term does indeed cover a multitude of sins) approach to history. But he adds this:

"Yet drawing up the disciplinary drawbridge has never been a good idea for historians... Lawrence Stone* himself has in the past been one of the main advocates - and practitioners - of the opening-up of history to influences from the social sciences. Why not influences from literary criticism and linguistic analysis as well? Historians should approach the invading hordes of semioticians, post-structuralists, Foucauldians, Lacanians and the rest with more discrimination. Some of them might prove more friendly, or more useful, than they seem at first sight." Is Evans being ironic? Possibly.

But then your comment "founding fathers (itself a term which invites moralistic scrutiny)" makes me wonder if he has a point. And I can appreciate this:

"Moreover, the questions they raise - about the possibility or impossibility of obtaining objective knowledge, the elusive and relative nature of truth, the difficulties involved in distinguishing between fact and fiction - do not merely challenge historians to re-examine the theory and practice of their own discipline; they also have wider implications that go far beyond the boundaries of academic and university life. In this sense, the problem of how historians approach the acquisition of knowledge about the past, and whether they can ever wholly succeed in this enterprise, symbolizes the much bigger problem of how far society can ever attain the kind of objective certainty about the great issues of our time that can serve as a reliable basis for taking vital decisions for our future in the twenty-first century."


But I'm getting seriously out of my depth here, and Yeats's The Second Coming - about the best lacking all conviction - keeps going round and round in my head. Postmodernism can drive you nuts - it is a truth universally acknowledged that there is no universal truth and all that. I'm all for tolerance, moderation and the acceptance of different versions of reality, but the insistence that there can never be any certainty about *anything* may prove in the end to be a very dangerous philosophy - even if it is a very seductive one, especially to the young. Chaos is come again, or things things fall apart? Shakespeare and Yeats weren't talking about postmodernism, but they could have been. And perhaps stuffy old Sir Geoffrey Elton had it right with his crack analogy - even if *he* was only talking about history.

But apologies from me too - not for length of post, but for waffling. As I've said, I'm well out of my depth here. Back to Ashdown-Hill and what I thought I definitely knew about Richard III, but didn't.


* Lawrence Stone, the left-liberal historian, warned that if postmodernists gained any more influence "history might be on the way to becoming an endangered species."
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 21 Apr 2013, 07:43

I have edited the above post about ten times now and it's still a load of pretentious waffle. Postmodernism *does* send you nuts, especially at three o'clock in the morning.

Gardening and a return to sanity today. The sun's out; the frost wasn't too bad last night; and I've got a thrush family nesting out there.

To hell with all French philosophers.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 21 Apr 2013, 09:15

In historiographical terms it is even less certain what it can mean. My own take on it all is that it is simply used to justify badly researched history being presented by so-called historians for public consumption and acceptance (and increasingly for profit). Modernism, if it existed at all in the genre, must have been the inclination to revisionism. Post-modernism therefore is simply picking and choosing at a whim any piece of data that helps sell the book, be it traditional, revisionist, factual or egregious. If it sells, claim it!
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 21 Apr 2013, 10:03

Quote :
Post-modernism therefore is simply picking and choosing at a whim any piece of data that helps sell the book, be it traditional, revisionist, factual or egregious. If it sells, claim it!

A little sweeping, I would say. Wasn't the lady whose lecture prompted all this taking a post-moderninst and entirely sensible approach in her analysis? Her advice in your last paragraph is surely an essentially post modern stance. In fact, I would think that 'popular' histories are the least affected by these ideas since they usually present a single interpretation deployed as the 'truth' without qualification or alternative version.

Anyway, in history, has there been a similar retreat from the wilder extremities of post-modern theorising as there has been in archaeology? At least some of the over arching ideas like the rejection of grand narratives and the understanding that whatever we may say about the past is just a version of that that past created in the present, stimulated the kind of introspection and debate evident in this thread? Surely that's not a bad thing?
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 21 Apr 2013, 10:25

@ferval wrote:
At least some of the over arching ideas like the rejection of grand narratives and the understanding that whatever we may say about the past is just a version of that that past created in the present

Richard III, anyone?
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 21 Apr 2013, 10:37

Quote :
Surely that's not a bad thing?


Not a bad thing at all - if that was all post-modernism meant in the context of history then I would agree with you completely.

Even when it is being used with some certainty the phrase can equally mean a rejection of limitations imposed by modernism or a transcendence of that philosophy into a "new" way of thinking. History is served well by postmodernism according to the first interpretation, but extremely badly by the second. It is the vagueness of the "new" that opens the door to previously rejected method, theory and reasoning (often justifiably rejected) entering a field in the guise of postmodernism.

A good example of post-modernism working to a subject's benefit: In 1968 Erich Kuby wrote a controversial account of the fall of Berlin in 1945, based on actual correspondence, memoirs and interviews but painting a very different picture than the conventional version of events. In Kuby's version the Soviet troops strolled in unresisted and spent all their energies in raping, looting and wanton destruction. This was a modernistic, revisionist version - par for the course at the time. In 1998 Anthony Beevor wrote a best-seller on the same theme. In his book the battles are back, as is the organised resistance, the press-ganging and all the other tactics employed to harass and delay the Soviet advance. However he himself states his indebtedness to Kuby's prior research. Thanks to Erich Kuby it is now possible to populate a narrative with real eye-witness impressions of the events and construct a version which is essentially a merging of the pre-modernist and the modernist in its research and structure, with the resultant hybrid therefore an essentially post-modernist product. Good history though, and even if it represents essentially a contemporary view of what constitutes good history it appears to be one that will survive as such, at least in Beevor's case.

A good example of post-modernism working against a subject - indeed history in general as a subject - is just about any book on the shelf in your local bookshop which promises revelation (a hook which grew in popularity and effect as a sales pitch in "modernist" times) and then offers a rehash of old theory cobbled together in a new sequence or with a new gloss provided by the author. In other words, nothing new at all that anyone who has even half an interest in the theme hasn't read before (how many times have you said that after ploughing through a book of guff!). Despite it being a blend of others' research and opinion, often from completely indiscriminate and conflicting historical theories, but marketed as "new", it is also branded as post-modernist in its approach. This postmodernism is the poison version, and it's growing in quantity.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 21 Apr 2013, 11:31

Quote :
Because it is a blend of others' research and opinion, often from completely indiscriminate and conflicting historical theories, it is also branded as post-modernist in its approach.

If by that you mean the concept of multi vocality taken to point of extreme relativism and any and all hare brained interpretations accepted as equally valid, then you do have a point and sadly they do appear to sell. On the other hand, Joe Flatman, taking about public archaeology, has said "Engagement is always positive, if only because some – any – kind of engagement is better than no engagement at all"
Annoying as it may be to us that the public lap up some of these books and programmes, and not ignoring the terrible consequences of the exploitation and distortion of the past, isn't it by the wider appreciation of the 'good bits' of a post modernist approach, the fostering of the critical analysis of these writings as just one version by one person for their own purposes and from one standpoint set inextricably in one time and place (here and now) that a more discriminating attitude might emerge? After all, if someone reads three books about, say, Arthur or RIII, and they all present a different interpretation, might that not prompt them to think 'They can't all be right?' and look further?

Is it possible now to extricate 'history' as it impinges on the general public from the entertainment industry anyway?
Is Dieter Kapff right when he assets
Quote :
‘Archaeology (History) appeals to a large number of people. But members ofthe contemporary fun-society are not actually interested in increasing their knowledge, in education, information or intellectual stimuli. The educated classes [Bildungsbürgertum] of the 19th and early 20thcenturies no longer exist. Today, people want entertainment.’
and Gavin Lucas when he says
Quote :
that insofar as archaeology enhances people’s lives and society in general, its major impact might be said to lie inpopular culture rather than in any noble vision of improving selfawareness through historical ‘perspectives’?

Oops, wandering off again. Sorry.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 21 Apr 2013, 11:48

Quote :
After all, if someone reads three books about, say, Arthur or RIII, and they all present a different interpretation, might that not prompt them to think 'They can't all be right?' and look further?

Yes of course. However if you take a currently popular theme such as those mentioned above, then it is equally possible that someone reads three books which essentially present the same interpretation (coffee table version, Gregoresque version and the book of the TV series version, for example) and could well conclude that the apparent agreement indicates factual-based theory, when we know quite well that in both instances it is the absence of factual data that gave rise to the possibility for conflicting theory in the first place. However of all the resultant theories there is a version that sells best (as Shakespeare well knew), and it is this which will on that basis acquire a popularity based not on its erudition but on its entertainment value.

Academic research and publication has always competed with entertainment when the theme is historical, at least for what might be loosely termed public belief in what is fact and what is fancy. This is not a modern phenomenon. But what has become evident in recent times is the creeping acceptance of the entertainment version as valid historical theory even within academia, based on nothing more relevant than its popularity. The battleground has shifted into the home territory of where properly researched and formulated theory could once be conducted without undue interference from populism. This is increasingly to the detriment of that process.
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 21 Apr 2013, 15:30

Then there's the problem of the so-called "docudrama". The very word encapsulates the problem, referring as it does to some sort of hybrid, a production that is part documentary (and therefore "factual"), but also part drama ("fiction" allowed, even expected). But who is to say where the one starts and the other finishes? Docudramas surely have the potential to be far more dangerous than any Showtime or Gregory nonsense. Here's what Beverley Southgate (a pomophile, but an honest one?), writing in 2002, had to say about one such very controversial "docudrama". Sorry for yet another long quotation, but I hope it's relevant:

"Writing...of the BBC television programme Rebel Heart - supposedly an account of Irish history between 1916 and 1922, and shown in 2001 - one critic observed: 'The main problem here is that nowhere is it stated where fact ends and fiction begins.' Admittedly, then, the action is supposedly based on 'real historical events ', but those events themselves have to be viewed from some perspective: their historical description is not just 'given'; and here they are presented from the standpoint of the Irish 'rebels'. Opposing British soldiers, therefore, are depicted as 'anonymous, heartless, robotic villains' in actions whose dates have been shifted to suit dramatic purposes.

Dramatic purposes, though, are not all. According to David Trimble, current First Minister of Northern Ireland, the drama has its own clear (and highly questionable) social and political agenda. Over-simplification and one-sided presentation of issues, polarisation of attitudes, and glamourisation of violence, all combine as a force that can cause positive harm, by damaging the present peace negotiations. With its 'artistic licence taken with the factual history,' Trimble concludes, Rebel Heart 'functioned not as television drama but as a political tract.' "

But Southgate then goes on to say that this is what historians "do anyway"! They take "some story" from the past and make sense of it "for their own ideological or aesthetic or moral purposes"; and as such they will inevitably please some viewers or readers, while offending others.

Is it naïve of me to say that this is what *bad* historians - and propaganda merchants - do?

* History: What and Why? (Postscript p.150/151
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PostSubject: Re: All History is Modern History ...   Sun 21 Apr 2013, 17:08

I saw "Rebel Heart" and reckoned that its claim to be a docudrama was non-existent. It documented nothing historically from the period (set down on record a version of events as based on witness and participant testimony or observation of their actions). It failed even worse as drama - all the characters were robots, not just the British, and made one wonder how Ireland escaped as an entity after such a cyborg conflict in its past.

Bad drama, even bad drama not necessarily based on historical events, is analogous with bad historians' product in that both purport to deliver one thing and then deliver something much inferior. However Southgate is mistaken in thinking the role of an historian is primarily to narrate a historical theme as a sequence of events. The comment just demonstrates the type of stuff Southgate reads when she thinks she's reading "history", and how much she investigates an historical theme she might be interested in, or thinks she is.

It reminds me of some years ago when a series on ITV was made of the Brontës' alleged life story. Suddenly everyone was an expert on the subject, at least amongst the chattering classes. But then came the inevitable release of a thousand books (some knocked together quickly, some rehashed versions of older tomes) which flooded the market in anticipation of the Southgate type, who thinks that out there is a "definitive biography", and who wants to steal a march on the rest of the dinner party bores. Reviews were pitched to that class, and under a process of elimination based on marketing ploys rather than comparison of content the list was whittled down at last to a final two or three "definitive" ones. It was only a matter of time before the Southgates then realised they'd been had, and the criticism was now levelled at the two or three biographers who had "won" the great Brontë Bash, precisely with the type of criticism you have quoted from Beverley above.

The historians in this case were no cleverer or stupider than each other, or than historians have ever been. The readership was where the real stupidity lay.
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