The supermarket of history

I have just read S.H. Steinberg’s History of the Thirty Years War. I came to it fresh from reading Peter H. Wilson’s 2010 book on the same subject, in which Wilson sets out to ‘overturn received opinion’ about many aspects of the conflict, lining up ‘traditional’ interpretations of the conflict in order to question and reinterpret them.

So I chuckled when I read in the opening sentences of the preface to Steinberg’s book that he also sets out to ‘reorientate and reinterpret’ the familiar story of the Thirty Years War.

Sometimes it seems like this is all historians ever do – overturn everything the previous generation thought. Is there any professional historian anywhere who isn’t a ‘revisionist’, I wonder?

Historians are like a succession of Oedipuses rebelling against their fathers, each successive generation producing dazzling new reorientations and reinterpretations of increasingly distant and remote events. If you buy a newish history on almost any subject, you can pretty much guarantee it will be a ‘revisionist’ account that sets out to ‘overturn established narratives’, ‘tell the untold story’, letting us hear previously ‘unheard voices’, and so on.

Since historians are society’s professional gatekeepers to the past, we readers kind of have to go along with the narratives they give us – but the more history you read, the more you realise that, in a sense, ‘history’ just consists of commentaries on the past which can be as varied and contradictory as newspaper and magazine commentaries on the present.

If you want a right-wing analysis of Covid or Brexit, read the Telegraph and the Spectator. If you want a woke interpretation, read the Guardian. If you want a tabloid version featuring loads of celebrities in bikinis, read the Mail, and so on.

Similarly, if you want a feminist slant on a historic event or figure, read Mary Beard or Lucy Worsley, a Marxist slant, read a Marxist historian like Eric Hobsbawm or E.P. Thompson, a black or an lgbt+ interpretation, read David Olusoga or gay historians. If you want a solidly right-wing view, read Niall Ferguson, if you want social history, then read the likes of David Kynaston, if you want history seen from particular regions read John Morrill on Cheshire or David Underdown on Somerset, and so on.

After a while, you realise that ‘history’ is a supermarket of opinions. Stuff definitely happened in the past, vast amounts of stuff – but which bits you choose to emphasise, how you choose to interpret it, and what you make it mean, are entirely down to the school of history and the historian you choose.

If you like the 18th century, you can choose to dwell on the rarefied heights of Enlightenment philosophy or on the bloody brutality of slavery, on society portrait painting or colonial wars, according to your taste and interests. Do you prefer Persil or Ariel?

As modern marketers like to say, it entirely depends on which values you identify with and therefore which brand reflects those values.

To equate the practice of history with some kind of search for ‘The Truth’ seems to me a ludicrous misunderstanding of history as an academic specialism and, in wider society, as a cultural practice (I mean the result of the efforts of a wide range of people from local historical societies and amateur historians and historical tours and TV and radio history programmes and so on).

Just like a good lawyer can take any set of ‘facts’ and twist them into a narrative which supports his client, so a good historian can argue any side when it comes to clashes of interpretations. Or, if they’re not quite so flexible as lawyers, you can certainly find the historian who will back up your view (feminist, Marxist, BAME, neo-liberal, neo-traditional).

And, quite obviously, the bigger the event or the longer the period, the larger the scope for multiple interpretations to be put forward for the same events. In other words, we the readers and viewers are free to enjoy a multiplicity of viewpoints. In one mood I can think about the First World War as a seismic event in international affairs, in another mode can focus on the transformation in women’s place in society as they were recruited into factories and change which led to the vote, in another mode read about the not-very-well-known role of the hundreds of thousands of Indian and African labourers who fought on the Allies’ side, and so on. You pays your money, you chooses your perspective.

And we mustn’t forget the role played in the production of ever-changing interpretations by the blunt fact that historians have to earn a living. A lawyer needs new cases, an advertising agency needs new clients, and historians need to produce new interpretations to justify their tenure at universities. They need to publish new papers and books and do new research to pass reviews, fulfil departmental targets, achieve organisational KPIs and so on.

Thus, there are simple bread-and-butter considerations which explain the need of historians to come up with new perspectives, or adapt emerging perspectives (BAME, feminism, LGBT+) to subjects and eras they haven’t previously been applied to.

I saw this up close as a would-be academic considering whether to do an English PhD in the 1980s. My girlfriend of the time did, and a couple of close friends. The advent of identity politics in the 1980s was a godsend to humanities professionals because it gave them a suite of new perspectives which could then be applied to the entire subject.

Thus, from a feminist point of view, all of world history needs to be re-researched, rethought and rewritten to ‘restore women’s voices’ and give ‘women’s points of view’ and so on – which is more than enough work to keep thousands of feminist scholars employed for the rest of their lives. My girlfriend of the day began a PhD giving a feminist interpretation of woman as muse figure in the poetry of Robert Graves and other contemporary poets.

Ditto black and post-colonial interpretations – for academics of this persuasion, mining this particular seam, all of world history needs to be reinterpreted from the point of view of black people, of the slave trade, of peoples oppressed by European colonialism, native Americans, aborigines, you name them, it will be a vast and potentially endless undertaking. And jobs. And careers.

Ditto LGBT+ interpretations.

Each new ‘school’, each new focus or emphasis means the same old ground can be raked over, but from an entirely new perspective, and that means academic papers, conferences, books and careers.

So thinking of History as some kind of pure and noble Search for Truth strikes me as a very naive view. History, whatever else its proponents may say it is, is a type of discourse which is 1. embedded in its cultural moment i.e. heavily affected by the cultural and political fashions and indeed demands of the day, and 2. driven by financial incentives i.e. the need of professional historians to justify their pay by coming up with a steady stream of ‘revisionist’ interpretations.

Like everything else in a consumer capitalist society, it is driven by the need for novelty.

Asking whether this or that version of history is ‘true’ is like asking whether a Range Rover or a Fiat Uno is ‘true’. They’re different ways of doing the same general thing (getting from A to B in the case of cars, informing yourself about the past, in the case of history), but which one you prefer is down to individual choice.

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2 Comments

  1. Toby

     /  August 22, 2020

    One of the great things about many modern supermarkets is the amazing variety of ingredients, often new to these shores, that they sell. Consequently, cooking in Britain has become tastier, healthier and more nourishing. Likewise, history has benefited from the smorgasbord of approaches it now encourages and so does the broader culture. Not to say there aren’t a lot of poor researchers and lazy theorists jackbooting their ideas over the past, just as there a lot of third rate cooks out there, some on whom pollute our TVs with their badly acted ‘passion’.

    Reply
  2. Dennis

     /  September 25, 2020

    At first i was like everybody: “history is written by winners”, but later I realised that History is actually written by Historians. (General public opinion on the Spanish Civil War is another reminder that History is not always written by winners… ) I also understand our ancestors: modern historians always accuse 19th century or even Herodotus for bias, but they were just writing their opinions as everybody did, they wrote their histories for nation building, legacy and glamour and remembrance, they had ideologies and loyalties and that was just normal for them. Well it is still like this, “woke” historians are writing their histories for their ideology. But they love to brag about what they do: “You didn’t learn this in school”, “We’re subverting something”, “I’m a dissenter” (Primyavada Gopal). Actually, they aren’t different from past writers.

    Reply

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