Margot Finn: Response to Working Paper No. 1

For our third response, Margot Finn from UCL shares her thoughts on MBS Working Paper No.1

Margot Finn, UCL

Margot Finn, UCL

The first Working Paper of Birmingham’s Modern British Studies initiative sets out a clear and laudable agenda for thinking systematically and imaginatively about ‘modern’ British history from c. 1850.  As the authors note, trends in both academic scholarship and popular (often highly politicised) understandings of the British past make this new agenda especially timely in 2014.

What follows is not an attack on the proposed approach—which displays deep thought and many important insights into the state of modern British history today—but rather a sympathetic series of suggestions for  further thought as this new development at Birmingham gathers pace.  These suggestions fall under four rubrics, relating to 1) the categorisation of the initiative as a ‘Studies’ movement, 2) its focus on ‘democracy’, 3) its (arguably truncated) chronology and 4) its proposed interlocutors.

‘Studies’:   Conventionally, ‘Studies’ movements within the Humanities and Social Sciences are marked by their interdisciplinary formation and remit.  Thus Area Studies, Cultural Studies, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Romantic Studies and Victorian Studies are all nominally (if often, in practice, unequally) conceived as operating across, between or among one or more disciplinary specialisms.

To what extent is this true for Modern British Studies at Birmingham?  Where ‘Studies’ gestures toward the interdisciplinary, the text of Working Paper No. 1 repeatedly proclaims the initiative’s historicity.  Thus the agenda focuses on ‘Historical mindedness’ ‘for us as historians’ who ‘will integrate history within the university with those flourishing historical communities without’ (p. 2).  What is the analytical (or rhetorical) value of ‘Studies’ as opposed to ‘History’ in this context?  Because this question is not posed explicitly in the Working Paper, its answer (p. 7) is unclear.

My point here is not about semantic distinctions, but rather about substantive methodological, analytical and historiographical choices.  Choosing to focus on History as a bounded discipline opens up selected lines of interpretation, and closes down others.  So too of course, a decision to approach Modern British Studies from an interdisciplinary perspective would privilege some analytical pathways to the detriment of others.

What is needed here is not necessarily a commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry, but rather clarity as to which disciplinary, interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary decisions have been made, and why.  To give but one example, literature and visual culture both loom large in other historically-minded ‘Studies’ movements (notably Romantic and Victorian Studies), but receive short shrift in Working Paper No. 1.  Where does George Elliot, surely among the most ‘historically minded’ Victorian, or her Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), surely one of the richest Victorian literary expositions of the emergence of democratic cultures, fit within the Birmingham agenda?  Which analytical toolkits will be deployed, and which rejected, to what benefit and what cost?[1]

‘Democracy’: Democracy and democratic cultures are to form the matrix for Modern British Studies at Birmingham.  Yet the Working Paper is coy in places about what falls within (and, perhaps more significantly, without) this category of analysis.  The absence of specific references to liberalism in the document is, at one level, refreshing: insistent emphasis on the liberal subject has arguably begun to obscure more than it reveals in modern British historiography: now used to describe the market, the polity, the individual and the empire, ‘liberal’ has begun to lose its historiographical edge.

By the same token, however, by declining to address liberalism’s relation to democracy head-on, Working Paper No. 1. runs the risk of missing opportunities to grapple with key works within the secondary literature.  Where does the initiative position itself with regard to Uday Singh Mehta’s Liberalism and Empire (1999), Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (2000) and Chris Bayly’s Recovering Liberties (2012), for example?

‘Democracy’ too requires more definition.  Does the term encompass increases in literacy, in consumer choice, in mobility, or refer only or chiefly to the franchise?  If the former, are these forces equally ‘democratic’, or democratic in the same or different ways?  If the latter, how ‘democratic’ really was (and is) modern Britain?

Choosing democracy propels us down specific analytical pathways, pathways that modern voters—by choosing not to vote or to vote selectively or differentially in contexts that range from Strictly and X-Factor to Scottish referendums, trade union ballots, Parliamentary elections and Facebook—have  increasingly distanced from the teleological narratives of democracy crafted and comprehended by the Victorians.

Chronology: A focus on democracy also draws attention to the abridged chronology selected for the Birmingham initiative.  Why choose 1850 as a starting point, especially given the decision to focus on modern democratic cultures?  What has happened to the long 18th century and its contribution to experiences and narratives of modernity?  Forged in and exemplified by responses to political revolution in the Atlantic World, pan-imperial abolitionist movements and Enlightenment salons, 18th-century democratic cultures were surely an integral part of the birth of the modern in Britain, as Birmingham city’s complex reticulation of canals, its historic Jewellery Quarter and its Lunar men amply attest.

At the other end of modernity, postmodernity perhaps also merits consideration.  Latour (1991) suggested that we have never been modern; if instead Britain has been modern ever since 1850, perhaps by 2014, its modernity has stopped? These questions of chronology are important in themselves, but they also raise important questions of comparison.  If we begin at 1850, Britain’s modernity can be compared to that of Europe and North America, for example, but it forms a sharp contrast to India’s un-modernity.  A starting point of 1750 (as Prasannan Parthasarathi’s research would suggest) instead yields points of both contrast and meaningful comparison.

Interlocutors: My final set of queries flows from this comparative point.  The Working Paper’s outline of its interlocutors ‘Beyond Birmingham’ adduces academic collaborators who will participate in ‘reciprocal intellectual exchange’ from universities based in ‘comparable centres’ in Canada and the US.  ‘Comparable’, one might ask, to whom and to what?  To Anglo-American academics?

‘Comparable’ to modern Britain today is surely a term that also encompasses the African, Asian and Pacific Worlds as well as a global army of ‘amateur’ local and family historians researching their ancestry in myriad ‘democratic’ ways. These constituencies deserve to be fully integrated into the Birmingham initiative, as active agents in its programmes rather than as objects of its scrutiny alone.  Widening the community of modern Britain was a key aspiration of some of modern Britain’s democratic cultures.

Without wishing to be a curmudgeon, and whilst wishing this timely, important and refreshing initiative a bon voyage, I suggest here that Birmingham’s Modern British Studies will be most successful if it widens even further its ambitious intellectual remit.

[1] The extent to which History and Literature elide in ‘popular’ understandings of modern British history forms a sharp contrast with the Working Paper’s relative silence on this topic.  Significantly, self-declared passionate lovers and practitioners of modern British history Michael Gove and Jeremy Paxman both read English at Oxford and Cambridge.

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