Christine Grandy is Senior Lecturer in History in the School of Humanities at the University of Lincoln. Her worl examines the history of mass culture and media in 20th century Britain.
MBS 2015 was a fantastic conference. One that left myself truly inspired about the work being doing, the directions some of us are going, and the conversations still to be had.
That said, there’s always that panel at a conference where things get hot, in more ways than one. So it was at MBS when Matt Houlbrook, Helen Rogers, and Alison Twells presented their panel ‘Creative History: A dangerous undertaking.’ Individually all those papers were great, something that perhaps didn’t come out in my own throw down at the end of the panel. Matt, Helen, and Alison presented important work on reaching beyond academic audiences through the work of the historian and also pointed to new forms of dissemination via the web, and through older forms of media, such as popular fiction, all somewhat neglected by historians. This is exciting stuff.
There was, however, a lot of pressure on such a panel to speak to collective anxieties currently in the profession about public engagement and our own practices in the face of this, which became quickly apparent in the question period. Alison, Matt, and Helen put together the sole panel that seemed to explicitly address such issues and as a result were left in the uncomfortable position of both bearing the weight of discussion and consequently sitting as a model for not only creative history, but also public engagement.
My reason for attending the panel was my past work on mass culture and the pretty uniform stories that people have chosen to consume, specifically in the interwar period. I have consumed a lot of crappy novels and sentimental films to get at the stories ordinary people have historically been interested in (spoiler: it’s mostly terrible stuff). Anything that says it’s doing something ‘creative’ or ‘dangerous’ in the public sphere sounds pretty fantastic to me nowadays. There was clearly some experimentation with historic narrative on display. Yet the panel also caused discomfort for some in the room. My own discomfort stemmed not from what each of these projects individually was doing, but what together, these pointed to as a ‘new’ avenue to popularity. These are stories that people are viewing on blogs, tweeting about, and generally responding to.
My big question was: how different are these history/stories to the stories British audiences have historically been interested in? There are, after all, similarities between what is popular with audiences in the 21st century and what has historically been popular with audiences of mass culture since the early 20th century. It’s hard to avoid the fact that the type of stories, that ordinary people have consumed in the past, be it film, fiction, or stories on the internet, are stories that favour particular bodies and narratives. These stories tend to be both aspirational and white stories that model middle-class lifestyles and behaviours as ideals. In broad terms, this is what the British public has wanted since the dawn of mass culture in the early 20th century and this is what they have received. This has been only marginally disrupted by wartime, post-war affluence, and immigration, and regardless of the service model that the BBC and to a lesser extent ITV are beholden to (and an issue which Gavin Schaffer has so nicely written about recently).
So as an historian of mass culture, when I approach the term ‘cultures of democracy,’ (to me the most exciting field of inquiry laid out in the MBS Working Paper #1 and one which was talked about again and again in this conference) these are the things I keep in mind:
- Mass culture is rarely democratic. Instead it is shaped by producers and consumers who are, in turn, shaped by the economy, the state, empire, gender ideals, place, etc. This can also take the form of censorship, both official and unofficial.
- Producers of seemingly ‘democratic’ mass culture are interested in capturing as many viewers/readers/consumers as possible.
- Consumers of mass culture/media are often sexist, racist, and elitist in their outlook. They historically tend to favour stories about white heroes and middle-class ideals and behaviours.
- Producers of mass culture can sometimes also often be sexist, racist, and elitist in their outlook.
- Because of 1-4, certain groups, including black and minority ethnic populations, queer, trans-gendered, disabled, or other groups marginalized by race, gender, sex acts, class, age, and place, struggle to be both producers of ‘democratic cultures’ or be accurately represented by them.
History, as a narrative and as a story increasingly under pressure to engage with wider audiences, can follow similar patterns to the above. In other words, take the above points and replace ‘producers’ of mass culture with ‘historians.’ And think of the consumers of mass culture as the consumers of history, who we are courting with both public engagement and the impact agenda.
My discomfort rose in that panel when I hear of stories that may appeal to some of the base formulas that underpin popular mass culture (stories about certain types of people in danger of having their upwardly mobile trajectory threatened) getting quite a bit of purchase with audiences. In my mind, until we grapple with the largely conservative cultures that have accompanied democratic models in the 20th century, we are in danger of being left primarily with stories/histories that favour the aspirational white middle class that British audiences have been interested in. How dangerous and creative can history really be in a contemporary marketplace of media culture that has historically favoured anything but?
To me, the methodologies that emerged in the 1960s and beyond are the necessary, if by no means perfect, correctives to the, lest we forget, popular history of Macaulay and others; it’s the voice in my ear that says, whose voices are absent in this? How can I uncover those hidden histories? What’s my responsibility to discover voices that aren’t always evident or complete? And crucially, what’s my responsibility to attempt to let those voices speak for themselves as much as possible?
Hence, when I hear historians with a strong online presence offer an invocation to historians to be more comfortable with hidden histories and the unknowable in the past, alarm bells go off about the broader market for these stories we tell or don’t tell. I think to myself, ‘man, people have been comfortable with hidden histories, of particular groups/subjects for a long time already.’
And when historians fill in the gaps of absent voices with very smart, considered, but nevertheless fictionalized writing, I think to myself that some of us can do that (very well) with some voices, but not others, lest we have the highly problematic possibility of white historians fictionalising the voices of black and minority ethnic subjects in the past, or other endeavours that should give us pause. Playing with the past and shaping historical subjects is a very privileged position for historians to take on and I would hate that privilege to overtake the process of locating voices of actual people, particularly those historically under-represented in mass ‘cultures of democracy,’ if not in academic histories.
I also wonder if the real danger for creative history is the immense undertaking of the public history/impact agenda, because it’s asking us to engage with the institutions but also audiences that support largely conservative 20th and 21st century ‘cultures of democracy.’ We, as academics, are the Davids to the Goliath that is popular history-telling in the UK. Working with, let alone against, TV broadcasters, TV historians, the newspaper press, popular fiction, magazines, the internet, and, as even school histories as Jessica Douthwaite wrote about recently in her blog, is an undertaking that we haven’t even fully thought through. It’s about unpicking the very institutions at the heart of cultures of democracy and which overwhelmingly favour stories of white, middle-class heroes. And crucially it’s also about unpacking audience preferences for such stories. It’s most certainly about picking our battles.
This is such important work for us to do but it’s hard as hell (as Lucy Robinson so recently and eloquently wrote about) and easier for some subject than others, because of contemporary audience preferences within ‘cultures of democracy.’ MBS 2015, with all of its fantastic messiness, put the pressure on us to move towards truly democratic and engaged academic cultures. The least we can do is seriously think through what sorts of histories are popular, on what platforms, with what audiences, and why.
*Just a note, aside from being inspiring to the max, this conference was fantastically organised. I also thought there was plenty of water. Many thanks to Chris, Daisy, Matt, and the Birmingham collective for all their hard work. Herding cats Organising conferences are tough and this was beautifully done.
 And a topic of a future blog, ‘What’s family dinner like when historians in the family disagree?’