Monday, 24 June 2013

Ignorance Reinforces Itself With Respect To History

Being A-historical

In some people close to me (and in me - though I am trying very hard to come through it) there is a strange combination of interest in history and complete historical ignorance.

This comes through in the casual exchanges we are having over the teaching of history and the very funny children’s TV programme “Horrible Histories”.

The “Horrible Histories” sketches are funny. Most of them, maybe even all of them, place our contemporary selves in historical settings. I think of the “Monty Python-esque” gag (I believe they were not the first to do this sort of thing) of having Joan of Arc singing R&B. 

It’s common for us to engage with history by imagining past peoples as like ourselves, only wearing different clothes. This is wrong, but it's a starting point. We know that there haven't always been museums. But we can’t quite work out why there should have ever been a first museum. On the other hand we can readily think of why there might have been a first library (which seems to have come along a very long time before the first museum).

A route into history is making connections to the lives of past people by showing how aspects of the culture of our own day might be present in past cultures, and then seeing that the reverse is true. Wasn’t this the technique employed by Dr David Starkey, when he entered “Jamie’s Dream School” in 2011 and tried to engage with a group of young men and women. Wealth and power and status is very much on display in contemporary urban gang culture. Starkey pointed: “Look! So it was in Rome!”

Yet at some points we start to diverge. After all, the Romans were slave-owning. There were things that separated the people of Rome into very definite and distinct strata. What is our perspective on slavery? Let’s talk about it….

Well, there I am talking to someone close to me, whose habit it is to look upon history as something one has already done. His relationship to history is as something one has already acquired, and condescends to consult once in a while for amusement and edification. For this man feels himself to have climbed to a height so he looks down on the past. This objectifying stance comes across in more or less subtle ways, but really only ever comes out when he speaks about history. It’s there, for example, in his regarding a museum as a “Great place for kids”. But no…. that’s not it. Who would disagree that a museum can be a great place for kids?

The point comes a bit closer when we note that he makes this remark having just returned from a visit to a museum with his nephew, a young man aged sixteen years! Moreover, the visit was to a museum attended by unaccompanied (by kids) adults! Are they kids too? What is going on here?!

Even this doesn’t get close to the style of thinking I really want to convey. Actually this man has only two modes of being when confronting historical information: either paternalistic (it’s good for kids) or as a child himself, unable to critically assess what has been put before him. “A great place for kids and adults?” I reply. Because the tone with which this blank statement is made (“It’s a great place for kids”) suggests – no, it directly communicates to us, that for him the experience was nothing new.

What has mattered most to this man in his life is that he has had power over other men in the world. He is a Bounderby and a Gradgrind in one person.

For him power came through technical-scientific knowledge. The sense of power and complacent ease with which he dismisses the significance of history for him is borne of his having actually experienced and wielded power. (The first of his family to have entered a university, in the late fifties, and free of charge. Emerging from a skilled working class background, he attains professional status. He was upwardly socially mobile. Born in 1938, at the moment of birth of the welfare state, he is of the first generation that came through into adulthood feeling itself to be the very manifestation of rational social life. The harsh conditions of existence that he and his family had known before and during the war were tangibly alleviated with technology and recovering wealth and post-war boom, and the range of possibilities for self-expression expanded, in his life.)

To a young person (I dare say, even the young man of sixteen years who has been taken to the museum), the message taken up in this tone of address is very clear: that there is a way of being in the world such that one can look down on all this history and see it panoramically, laid out below, and that way of being is being in power, and he has it. One can hope and expect and anticipate that sense of omniscience if one can attain power too.

I hope one of my readers will interrupt me here and say “That is the oldest trick in book of the powerful – a “Whig” presentation of history, which makes of history only that chain of events that leads to and justifies us in our power!

But I want to stay with this on an intimate level.
I volunteer the notion that there seem to be two approaches to the presentation of history. One kind is the kind that regards history as so many episodes of good and less-good behaviour, or good and less-good models of civilisation, from our perspective. The other kind is seeking to understand the objects and artefacts and practices that have come down to us, or are present to us, by  imaginative re-creation of the life of the peoples with whom they originated. I think the latter kind takes as its starting point the contingency of our present mode of life, the awareness that it might have been, and might still be, otherwise, because (Look!) peoples have lived differently in the past. I try to appeal to this way of looking at things: “The Romans were fundamentally different to us, and we might know that by recognising the ways that their deepest needs and hopes and fears were expressed in their customs, laws, dress, writing, buildings, and so on”. With this I also try to appeal to the notion that our deepest needs and fears and hopes might similarly be seen in the way we live now, because we are men and women biologically the same as Roman men and women, confronted by the world and death and disasters, and that is the platform from which we might attain insights into the lives of Romans, and of others, and ultimately of ourselves.

This prompts the following comment, again in that schoolmasterly tone of one speaking as if to a child who has just volunteered an extremely naïve view of about some facet of the world.

“Yes, but the Romans are not like us because they didn’t have our knowledge. They didn’t have science, and they didn’t have to cope with all the knowledge that we have to cope with today.”

What we are to understand is that unlike the Romans, we do cope. There is an implicit sense of having mastered what the Romans could not master, and with this, a notion of the Roman as more primitive in the way of being dim, or dull, or lazy. This comment is offered as a complete answer to my suggestion that there are two ways of receiving or approching history. We have nothing to learn from the Romans (or any other culture) because we know more than them. They are primitive. We are advanced. The comment and its tone manifests the very mode of apprehension of history of the former kind, that regards past peoples and civilisations as good and less good attempts to be as we are now.

I believe this kind of flattening of thinking is common in life. It closes off curiosity, it closes off enquiry (except of the kind that adds to the store fo knowledge), it vaunts what we already know and conceals our ignorance of what we don’t know. Its effects are massively limiting on a personal level. The first scientists were rich gentlemen from England, Scotland, France, Italy, Germany. They took themselves off to observe, but were in religion. As Isaiah Berlin writes in his essay “The Divorce Between the Sciences and The Humanities”, it was not long (well, from the time of Descartes to the time of the french Encyclopaedists) before the invention of a science of history that placed the historian as an observer of history in the same position as an observer of nature. Both regarded themselves as completely neutral. The observer effect was inconceivable to them. They were not historically self-aware, they were a-historical. 

One way of that jolts the kind of complacency on display here is understanding science as a cultural practice.
Living in a multi-cultural society and coming alongside people of other cultures, I think, what is it of me that is my culture?
Science is one such thing I can point to. It had cultural beginnings, and in the past, culture is religious culture and the religious character of science is no less present now.

Slavoj Zizek speaks wonderfully richly about this in a lecture from 2007 at the European Graduate School entitled "Materialism and Theology".

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