I had made plans to meet a colleague for lunch yesterday, and when he walked into the café I jettisoned all greetings and immediately blurted out “Did you see that Leadsom has dropped out of the Tory leadership race?!” Fifteen minutes of animated conversation about the implications of this latest development in the insanity that has been the British news cycle of the last month followed. “It’s a great time to be a modern British historian,” he concluded—though admittedly, I think, with a touch of irony.
Well, I don’t know about “great”—I think a lot of my colleagues and I have had the sense that we are howling about parliamentary sovereignty into a void and no one is listening to us—but it’s not a bad time to read for orals. My deep immersion in British political and constitutional history is exactly what I’ve needed to make sense of this crisis, and it’s also been a great source of motivation, making my orals feel like something that will improve my general knowledge and capacity to engage with the world as a thinking person in addition to a hurdle that has to be cleared in the long and idiosyncratic course of training that is meant to credential me in my chosen profession (fellow graduate students should take heart that would-be clergymen in the early eighteenth century, as I learned yesterday from Geoffrey Holmes’ Augustan England, often spent seven or eight years at university, and that this guaranteed them nothing better than “perpetual curacy,” the adjuncting of the day). Many of my teachers and colleagues have published insightful&ndbsp;pieces on the EU referendum and the ensuing domestic political crisis (for make no mistake, what we are experiencing now in Britain is a crisis within the parliamentary system, and one that has been simmering for some time, and not an extra-parliamentary revolution (though that may yet be to come, in part depending on how the parliamentary crisis is resolved) or much to do with how Britain’s relations with Europe may be affected by the outcome of the referendum). Introducing myself and my research interests at an event last week, I found myself for the first time grouping “political history” among my interests. It is something I am slowly coming to understand, and something that I see is at the center of my work on educational institutions and the plans their founders, reformers, and funders had for them—not unlike the plans that many others have had for states and their constitutions, and just as organic and messy and filled with unintended consequences in the result.
But it is time to make an important distinction. This is something that is far different, to me, to saying that my work will have any particular bearing on how we understand contemporary political (or social or cultural or intellectual) issues, that this is my research’s primary purpose, that I have an ideological stake in the kind of society I would like modern Britain to be that is reflected in my historical research. I have certain ethical commitments that structure my work: I believe in the importance of the individual and her or his emotions and personal lives, in looking for stories that haven’t yet had the opportunity to be told (though not particularly the stories of those who have historically been structurally disadvantaged—you could not say that the history of universities is history from below, and I wouldn’t want to claim it as such, or to say that it is therefore less important or worth doing). I believe I have a certain responsibility to my subjects to render their stories faithfully, to understand the perspectives from which they saw the world in their own time and translate them into terms that modern readers and interlocutors might understand. I look for complexity, ambiguity, ambivalence. I also see a close relation between my research and my teaching, and try to listen to students as I might listen to sources, meet them where they are as I would sources. I see my research not primarily as something that will change how we—and by “we” I particularly mean people outside my specific subfields—think about any particular topic (though I can certainly, if pressed, make claims to significance within the fields in which I am in conversation), but rather as something that gives me personal pleasure, which I strive for my own sake to do to as high a professional standard as possible, and which will credential me to teach history, hopefully British history, to young adults in Britain or North America. Only at the level of in general thinking that we should all be kind and love one another (even if “one another” = dead people of historical significance who left behind personal papers) does my practice as a historian have anything to do with how I vote, the kinds of policies I would like to see the governments of Britain, the US, or Canada (my three countries, not divided by common language but united by shared, messy and distasteful, imperial history) enact, or even really the kind of conversation my colleague and I had at lunch yesterday about what it will mean for Theresa May to be Prime Minister.
Which is, then, why I bristled when I read a blog post announcing the next Birmingham Modern British Studies conference next year, and then picked a fight on Twitter about it:
In remaining within the confines of our particular fields, we also evade the most difficult questions about what our discipline is — and should be — at this particular historical conjuncture. As we enter a moment of genuine crisis, are some kinds of history more important than others? As the political, social, cultural, and economic effects of Brexit become increasingly manifest, should historians pay more attention to questions of inequality, power, and the global economy — all comparatively neglected at #MBS2015? When the role of the ‘expert’ in public life has been so spectacularly undermined, do we have to think again about who we are and what we do?
I worry about where people like me are left when historians try so hard to pin their work to present political circumstances. As I said in the ensuing Twitter conversation—which Will Pooley summarized and responded to on his blog yesterday—not only do we risk casting aside work that might turn out to be “relevant” later, when the political circumstances move on, we risk giving preference to work that endorses particular political perspectives (in the sense of partisan or parliamentary politics) at the cost of others. At the last Birmingham MBS conference last summer, I and a colleague who both considered ourselves very left-wing were shocked to find ourselves at the conservative end of the spectrum of conference attendees, and we were disturbed by the kinds of ideological purity being enforced, particularly in the conference’s plenary sessions. One plenary speaker asserted that someone who voted Conservative could not be a good modern British historian, an assertion that no one in the room of hundreds sought to challenge. Others made large-scale presumptions about the party-political preferences of the conference, and pegged their claims to significance on the ability to speak to or bolster such a political perspective. Colleagues who, like me, felt discomfort with these assumptions—even if we might have voted for the same party as the most strident speakers—whispered awkwardly to each other in the corridor. When I asked a question in the final plenary session, challenging the speaker’s assertion that political history whose role is to challenge “neoliberalism” from a leftist perspective is more important than the kind of intellectual and cultural history I do, the room felt cold, frightening, and hostile. I’m no stranger to sticking my neck out in public historical settings (I’d also note that in that final session, another historian made a great critique of the conference’s assumptions from the left, challenging its lack of racial diversity among participants and lack of attention to imperial topics), but I’m not sure that’s the kind of climate that a conference which purports to speak to all modern British historians (as well as those working on modern Britain in other disciplines) should foster. The MBS blog post, however, suggested to me that the conference organizers had a different view: that it was important to them that history should make political interventions. But if that’s the case, then you’re working with the kind of political categories, such as parties, that exist today, trying to achieve goals that are possible within those structures. Maybe that doesn’t create so much cognitive dissonance for historians who work on the recent past. But I work on the nineteenth century, I don’t do marxist social history (which I also believe is like, a morally defensible life choice), and so it’s not clear where that leaves me as a participant in a modern British history organized around different concerns.
One great thing Will Pooley brought up in his engagement with me on Twitter and later on his blog is that we are probably working with different definitions of “politics”: some would call the ethical commitments I outlined above a kind of politics, and would understand that word more expansively than the sense of present-day party or parliamentary or electoral politics in which I’ve been using it here. Pooley put it this way: “politics in the sense of: who (or what) gets to have a history, what factors do we consider when writing history, what do we owe to the people we write about, and similar questions.” I think this is a totally fair position, and I really respect historians who view the commitments that drive their work in this way. But I don’t think every historian has to see what they’re doing like this. It reminds me of an experience I had my first semester at Columbia. My department there has an explicitly political cast that my previous departments at Princeton and Oxford definitely didn’t. Many of my colleagues see—perhaps like some participants in MBS—a close relationship between their historical work and present-day political goals, invariably from a very left-wing perspective. I experienced and continue to experience a lot of culture shock, a lot of guilt and cognitive dissonance, when I interact with colleagues in that environment. I have tried very hard to engage with important parts of my colleagues’ lives as graduate students, such as many people’s commitment to union organizing, but however much I’ve wanted to I haven’t been able to change my views to agree with the particular kinds of leftist politics they have and that drives their work in and out of the archive. After one union town hall meeting I burst into tears from my guilt that I couldn’t see things from what was obviously the more morally blameless point of view, that my work didn’t have obvious leftist political investments like theirs and that I didn’t come to grad school to advance the cause of the oppressed. My colleagues tried to comfort me by reassuring me that all work has a politics; my work could advance leftist causes too even though it was less obvious. This, however, was not comforting. What I was really looking for was a world in which I could have the freedom to seek other frameworks for living a good and ethically committed life, and in which my historical scholarship could be practiced to different ends.
I want to clear one thing up: contrary to what some people on Twitter asserted, there is not a binary between politically-committed history and Rankean objectivity. It is possible to be something between a leftist and an arch-conservative, and it is also possible to take no position on such a spectrum while still being self-conscious about one’s methods and how one reads sources. I study the 19th century, but I do not live in it. Bodies of work such as gender and queer theory that have been fundamentally shaped by the leftist political concerns of a slightly earlier era have been essential to how I have conceived of what I do when I read documents. I do think that it is a historian’s responsibility to be honest, faithful, and committed to a truth, and that some histories are better than others in the sense that work can be more or less precise, more or less rigorous, more or less sophisticated. But there are many truths and many ways of representing truths, and rigor is not code for some nineteenth-century fantasy of objectivity. For some—such as, perhaps, for Pooley—understanding this responsibility may be inextricable from politics. And sometimes—not always, but sometimes—I find that the best way to make sense of a story about the past that I am telling is to give it a political edge, such as in the case of a draft paper I am working on, which is partly (though not exclusively) engaged in reviving an older strand of women’s history committed to feminism. This is probably the thing that I have written that would find most favor with the leftists. But it isn’t all of what I do, and it isn’t why I became a historian.
I became a historian because John Addington Symonds wrote letter after letter to Walt Whitman, trying to get the famous poet to admit that his “Calamus” poems really described a type of person, the male homosexual, whose existence Symonds, for personal-is-political reasons, desperately wanted his hero Whitman to acknowledge—and because Whitman refused to buy into Symonds’ worldview. I became a historian because the two men’s letters showed how their different levels of education, differing cultural contexts, and differing understandings of politics revealed them to be completely talking past each other. I became a historian because I was able to show that Symonds wasn’t, as so much literature has represented him, a gay liberationist avant la lettre: he was a rather conventional upper-middle-class Victorian who had this one part of his being that just didn’t fit with everything else—but he used rather conventional upper-middle-class Victorian tools to make sense of it. I became a historian because Symonds showed me how rich and rewarding, how alien and confusing, how different from our own nineteenth-century British ways of understanding the world were. I became a historian in order to capture that difference—and also because I felt a calling to give my life to the university, and this seemed like a way to do it.
Last week I had the immense pleasure to be an instructor on a three-day workshop for some of the students in my department who are writing undergraduate theses. Many of our students see important present-day implications to their work: they are driven to their topics because of how they allow them to engage with issues of massive present-day consequence: the global financial system, colonialism and colonial identities, Marxist thought, women and politics, the machine of diplomacy. They are driven by an enthusiasm and energy that I remember from when I was in their shoes, the thrill of their first trips into the archive. I love their eagerness to make sense of the world through the methods of historical research. But somehow in our workshop we didn’t talk about the crisis of capitalism. We did talk a bit about topics like how to read against the archive, to figure out why it was compiled and what voices are missing, which I suppose is generally understood to be a political question. But we also talked about how history-writing is a creative act, how making sense of those archival silences can involve many different approaches and affective relations with one’s sources, how there is also an extremely important technical aspect to history work, involving how one organizes one’s research and how one processes data on a large scale, particularly if one is working on a topic that involves quantitative analysis. There is so much to history, and to how it is not objective, that we can talk about without needing to agree ideologically.
Looking around me at Britain and at the whole world today, I can completely see why people would believe that conditions are so urgent that we all need to mobilize whatever skills we have to respond to crisis. This is also the response that many academics, completely reasonably, have had to crises such as racial injustice in the United States, to intolerance of political dissidence in India, to Donald Trump, to climate change (the invention of the analytic category “anthropocene”), and so on. What would I then say in particular about the Birmingham MBS conference? Of course, this post isn’t really about the Birmingham MBS conference, it’s about the culture shock that I have experienced over the last couple years as I have gone from being one of the most left-wing people I know to one of the most conservative without feeling as if I have changed any of my views or electoral habits, and growing sick and tired of always having to beat myself up for not being right-on enough. I guess maybe what I would say to Birmingham MBS is that if the conference has an explicitly political orientation it should say as much, that it should be clear that some views about politics, and not only some kinds of history, might be more welcome than others. This strikes me as a perfectly defensible viewpoint given all the rhetoric of “crisis,” even if it’s one which would mean I might be less likely to attend the conference myself. Though perhaps this happened already in 2015, and I just didn’t know how to read the signalling closely enough or was otherwise a bit clueless. Will Pooley asks “why some voices so clearly feel policed by the left-wing.” I guess what I would say in response is that I thought I was part of the left wing (I mean, you would, if you grew up in Republican country and the other children would come up to you in primary school and tell you that you were going to hell, and parents would tell you to stay away from their children, and you were sent to the principal’s office because you wouldn’t intone the Pledge of Allegiance with everyone else), until I found myself losing friends and colleagues because I didn’t participate in particular ritual acts of ideological positioning within academia. I am of course very elite, and have much to apologize for, but I sometimes think that other people who are as privileged as I do escape the need to apologize by committing themselves to certain kinds of leftist rhetoric or by positioning themselves as part of a proletariat that is oppressed by greater forces such as capitalism. I am not sure I find this stance convincing, and I find it frustrating, tiring, and depressing to live among it, as much as I understand that the crisis of our times demands some kind of response from everyone, but particularly those who have a lot of privilege. I am sure that many who will read this post will see it as entitled and self-absorbed, and perhaps that’s entirely appropriate. I welcome that feedback if it’s how you read it, and I’d urge you to get in touch and tell me so.
I keep trying to go to union meetings at Columbia and understand what I’m getting wrong, and so I look forward to attending MBS2017 (if it will have me) and trying to engage with this way of doing modern British history that seems very different to what I’m doing. I think I’d also say that our students always benefit from getting a variety of viewpoints, and that each student clicks better with some teachers than with others. I think of a particular person who taught me during my master’s with whom I never established a connection because they had a particular leftist political cast to their work and I suspect interpreted me as conservative and thus hostile, but who was an incredible resource to many students who shared that political cast and who felt isolated within the conservative atmosphere of the Oxford History Faculty. I’m so glad that person is there for students who desperately need to talk to and be supported by someone like them, even if I regret that politics seemed to create a barrier between this person and me, against my will. I also think attending MBS2015 helped me to clarify what I actually was seeing and experiencing after the culture shock of my first year at Columbia, and it’s been helpful to try to learn more about the real reasons that historians bring an explicitly leftist cast to their work, to understand where they’re coming from. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that I am wrong to persist in the belief that it is morally conscionable for me to do what I see as a kind of history that doesn’t fit easily within present-day political frameworks or speak to the present-day condition of Britain and other nations whose histories were shaped in relation to Britain’s, or a kind of history that doesn’t engage deeply and primarily with questions of identity and difference or with marxist economics. But I guess I’ll just say that my mind hasn’t been changed yet, and thus I think that leftist historians and I may need to do a bit more meeting in the middle (I promise, leftist historians, that you wouldn’t really have all that far to go—for despite everyone who has sought to label me to the contrary in the last few years, I am not a conservative or a Conservative and I hope I never will be).
Pooley and others who engaged with me on Twitter yesterday were really warm and generous, and I derive a lot of optimism from how respectful everyone was in that conversation. It suggests that even if my views are in the minority or not part of how the conference is explicitly oriented at MBS2017, I and the kind of history I do might still be given a fair hearing. Pooley invited me to respond to the blog post that he wrote yesterday. Will, I’m not sure if any of this very long reflection helps to clarify where we disagree, but it does seem clear that we are working with different categories, and it looks to me as if these categories are shaped by certain political (in the more expansive sense) assumptions we had going into thinking about history and what made us historians, as well perhaps as who we are as people, what our childhoods and our higher education and graduate training were like. I think as participants in a discipline we all might need to develop clearer statements, and revisit older debates, about what we think the purpose of history is, how it relates to politics (particularly of a specific left-wing, electorally- or social-movement-oriented kind), and be really explicit about these commitments if we have them. And if we create or enter echo chambers, we should do so self-consciously, and be wary about how our ways of thinking may be out of step of those in the countries we live in at large, as both the 2015 general election and this latest referendum demonstrated to many British academics. This isn’t at all a criticism of your position, Will: I really appreciated how you expressed it in your blog post and how you clarified where you were coming from.
I can’t believe I wrote so much about this. I’m going to step away now and return to orals: today, I think, I am going to read some work in which historians grappled with how to define friendships and romantic relationships between women in the past, invoking particular kinds of feminist and queer commitments as they did so. Queer theory is a great way to think about the relationship between history and politics—it is astonishing how many queer theorists who were not trained in history still make use of historicist arguments—so hopefully this will be the basis for further reflection.