Antoinette Burton: Critical Histories of the Present – A Response to Working Paper No. 1

In this week’s blog, Antoinette Burton responds to Working Paper No. 1 in the first of a series of responses. We welcome your comments below.

Antoinette Burton University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign USA

Antoinette Burton
University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign USA

I’m delighted to be asked to engage with the calls for new kinds of thinking about British history in the Birmingham Working Paper (heretofore BWP).  Significantly, I was approached to do so while attending the recent “History after Hobsbawm” conference held at Senate House in spring 2014. Like the BWP, the Hobsbawm event sought to refresh longstanding conversations – in that case, by pivoting questions about historical practice and narrative on the life and work of one very influential historian in the wake of his death.

This is arguably a moment of stock-taking more generally in the profession, which has been buffeted on both sides of the Atlantic by the variety of crises – political, social, economic, intellectual and cultural – generated by the global fiscal catastrophe of 2008.

Six years on, we are still reeling from the shock to a variety of systems set in motion by the threat of total collapse of banks, the slump in housing markets and the downturn in stock markets from New York to Tokyo. Governments have failed, the working class and working poor have been devastated, and steady unemployment has stagnated an already struggling middle class. These events were dominos set in motion, of course, by the history of postwar financial capital and the cultures of risk and depredation they entailed.

Higher education in the US and the UK has been seriously impacted, from the ground up: the rising cost of undergraduate education and consequent student debt together with the ongoing challenge to the value of a traditional degree raise serious questions about the viability of the current academic model, and of history itself as a vocation and a field of study in a STEM marketplace.

The present has always exerted pressure on those who think, teach and write about the past. But those pressures are now more globally apparent, and never more so in the context of the practices of “national” history. These are the contexts in which the BWP asks us to rethink the objects and methods of history and to reconsider the kinds of historical narratives we need to make sense of the modern British past.

The BWP identifies a number of salient problems:

1) The persistence, even now, of a presumptively whig political narrative – which privileges narratives of elite conciliation and containment on the road toward democracy as against struggle, contest, and fitful pathways in and out of democratic practice;

2) The limits of the project of provincializing Britain – which began with challenges to the home-away vector and are now taken up by work that invokes the global;

3) The failure of race, class and gender histories, whether singularly or through intersectional analyses, to produce anything other than fragmented accounts that supplement rather than challenge grand narratives;

4) The need for “persuasive,” readable, accessible narrative histories that can offer alternatives to traditional models and reach a broader public than just academics;

5) The urgency of making democratic cultures a flexible, capacious center of intellectual debates and struggles over what British history is and could/should be in the first quarter of the 21st century.

Each of these claims has merit, and each one would produce very interesting discussions among the broad field of modern British history practitioners were there to be an open debate beyond those of us responding to the BWP.

Some would agree with the diagnoses; others would be critical of some of these premises; and still others would challenge the very slice of “British history” selected for examination (how do inherited periodizations undergird our narratives? When does “the modern” begin?).

In my view, the problem is less the problems per se than that that we simply don’t argue over anything, really, anymore. As I wrote in my paper for the Hobsbawm conference, in the context of a broader discussion of the impact on the so-called new imperial history on contemporary forms of practice: beyond some whinge-ing in quiet corners of the senior common room and in a few isolated book reviews, there has been no significant, purposeful stage for arguing about what some see as the incommensurabilities of old and new imperial histories.

Susan Pederson recently regretted in the pages of the London Review of Books that we don’t have the good old clanging matches we used to have over class and the new social history, and that that’s a bad thing. I share her regret about the absence of real debate on the big questions that animate – mainly by skulking on — the seabeds of the field. And this is not because I am necessarily spoiling for a fight, but because there are questions – many of them raised by the BWP – that are surely worth fighting over.

If there is fault to be had here, part of it lies with those of us who have eschewed grand narrative and/or – content to work in our own particular patch — have ceded the floor to those willing to take it up, often in the kind of blockbuster form that “the public” tends to read. But there is also responsibility on the part of those writing the big books to keep up with what’s happening in the field as a whole.

In empire history, for example, it’s quite clear that Niall Ferguson hasn’t read a page of what’s been written by cultural or postcolonial historians in the field in the last twenty years; nor has John Darwin for that matter. They are certainly within their rights to disagree vehemently with it. But by now it surely has enough of an accumulated density to warrant genuine engagement, if not the status of legitimacy as well.

As a result of these occlusions, grand narratives of British imperial power remain not just incomplete but distorted; they suffer from false claims not just of totality but of explanation and causality and scale; they cannot actually track cause and effect or historical consequence without the full range of subject matter and methodological approach that a combination of old and new approaches make available.

And this limit has its impact on gender and cultural history as well, for without real engagement with that work we will never right-size, say, the role of women and gender in the imperial experience; we will scarcely be able to appreciate why sexuality acted as a break on imperial power, when it did, or to accurately assess the nature and character of white male and middle class domination in the psychic life of empires.

We might say the same of British history as a whole (regardless of how we feel about the proportional role of empire in it). If British history is a kind of social practice, it’s also an ethnography of certain forms of social practice, and of their cultures and politics as well. As we head toward a vision of the field that the BWP calls for, I hope we can seriously, respectfully argue over the very premises upon which it is based.

I could imagine, for example, a ground-clearing workshop organized around each of the problems it has identified, with lively and yes, fractious debates not just about the veracity the claims, but over why and how such problems have emerged out of the history of the last several decades – since, say, The Making of the English Working Class or Davidoff and Hall’s Family Fortunes or Peter Fryer’s Staying Power or James Vernon’s Re-reading the Constitution, or Cain and Hopkins’ “gentlemanly capitalism” work or any number of key books or articles that laid down stakes in the ground at the time.  And in keeping with the BWP’s awareness of the power of “dead ends,” we could also explore and even revive roads not taken.

In any case, it seems to me that we don’t understand enough about the intellectual, political, cultural and economic history – and historiography — of the extended historical moment we are seeking, understandably, to break with, and that grappling with that history might be a good way to start.

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