Sunday, March 04, 2007

Power and historical knowledge.

Arthur Schlesinger's death last week has produced a number of unreasonably glowing reviews, not least from the New York Times. Unsurprising as this is, the fact that he is lauded for his role as a 'public historian' raises some questions about what qualifies as history. To speak plainly, Schlesinger is only tangentially related to the things I wanted to post about, but the kind of status he enjoyed and the implicit inclusions and exclusions of the American academia that it signifies are not. Variously, he was a rabid anti-communist who urged the Truman administration impose a 'federal loyalty programme' not completely dissimilar to that actually promulgated by Executive Order 9835; a conscious and confessed liar on behalf of the Kennedy administration; and a court scribe and flatterer. He has accrued epithets like "high-minded" and "earnest" in the various obituaries, which is its own kind of warning sign that newspaper writers are as uninterested in what happens to be true as are PR spokespersons, advertisers and advocates of all kinds.

That is not itself without consequence: if you want to write history today, there remain academic institutions within which to work, but if you want to make any real money out of it, it helps to find a way of relating history that is televisual, or at least journalistic. You need to find a contrary register, a kind of diacritical mark that is instantly recognisable and provocative. You need to have a flair for narration, and a comportment that suggests authority and eccentricity. Have a read of this:

Both The Pity of War and the reception it has enjoyed illustrate aspects of British culture about which one can only feel ambivalent. Anyone who has been a victim, let alone a perpetrator, of the Oxbridge system will recognise Niall Ferguson's book for what it is: an extended and argumentative tutorial from a self-consciously clever, confrontational young don, determined to stand everything on its head and argue with vehemence against what he sees as the conventional wisdom - or worse still, the fashion - of the time. The idea is to teach the young to think and argue, and the real past masters at it ... were those who first argued undergraduates out of their received opinions, then turned around after a time and argued them out of their new-found radicalism, leaving them mystified as to what they believed and suspended in a free-floating state of cleverness.


That review, by R.W. Johnson in the London Review of Books, was cited in Alan Bennett's introduction to his fine play, The History Boys. Bennett has a character in his play, Irwin, exhibit the characteristics of Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts, David Starkey and Norman Stone. His procedure is roughly as follows: find a commonsensical opinion on history (usually something trendy and lefty, such as 'World War One was a tragedy', or 'the British empire was a ruthless, exploitative enterprise that did the colonised much harm'), reverse it, search for proofs and put everything else one has behind it. Wit, literary virtuosity, verbal dexterity, didactic adroitness, a databank of quotables, arresting facts, glib morsels of poetry, and so on. Oh, you can serve your time in 'the archives', which as far as Britain is concerned is the Public Records Office in Kew. Your authority as a historian depends on your apparatus of footnotes citing 'primary sources'. This is the primary way in which you can lodge a claim to originality, and cut your teeth while you're at it. This is the cultic scene of one's induction into the caste. But at all costs, you must confound it all. It is big, and it is clever.

It would be a bit much to blame the conservative media historian for the so-called 'postmodernist' assault on history's authority, and their attitude to the possibility of historical truth is utterly at odds. Yet, I feel these things are somehow related. It is not that these historians are petit-bourgeois conservatives, for that was merely serendipitous for the era in which they emerged, some of them from under the unenviable limb of GR Elton. Rather, it is that they are salespeople, social climbers, in substance no more elevated than the Estate Agent or the shower salesman. They are commodities, and for a commodity truth simply isn't a value. Presentation is. What better confirmation could Hayden White have for his claim that the writing of history is merely another form of literature, or poetics, a kind of figurative writing deploying the tropes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony, and relying on modes of emplotment - to wit, romance, satire, comedy or tragedy? That is, a kind of writing in which history as a mere repository of evidentiary material - far from imposing its own structure, far from ventriloquising the voice of the past - is forced into one or other narrative structure by the conscious choice of the historian? In this view, you could take the same sample of evidence, discount certain varieties as irrelevant, introduce imponderables, and engage in counterfactuals - and by those means produce any number of narratives, with equal plausibility. The narrative simply bears no relation to the past as it actually occurred, which is irrecoverable. As for your imperishable primary sources, what is so primary about those? In the actual archives are a bundle of papers with little of interest or relevance, carefully selected documents, inane fragments that were never intended for conservation and so on. They have already been mediated by human agency, some of them have been lost, some suppressed and so on. The documents record either the impressions or account of those who were close to the events being considered, but it is reasonable to conclude that they contain at least some outright fiction, and you aren't necessarily informed as to what has been ommitted, included, suppressed, lost, lied about etc. It is not some permanent memory of the past that can simply be accessed and recorded unproblematically. Expand the repertoire of primary sources beyond mundane archives as contemporary historians increasingly do, so that oral testimony, novels, music, film, photography, painting, remains, heirlooms and so on are included, and the problems multiply. All sources are secondary sources, and no historian has access to a neutral vantage point.

To proceed down this same prohibited pomo avenue, there are no straightforward historical narratives impressed upon one by the evidence: all history is signification. It is an attempt to persuade, citing the authority of the past, and the authority of the historian as an interpreter of that past, as a guide to present action and understanding. Further, it uses illicit and disavowed rhetorical techniques to facilitate that persuasion. The structuring of the narrative involves not only implicit decisions about how causation is to be construed, but also about how the story is to be marketed: at present, the most popular histories are those which combine micro- with macro-history, the biographical with the grand sweep, as per Orland Figes' A People's Tragedy or Simon Schama's Citizens. The narrative form is appealing, partly because humans like stories, and partly because the chronological format imparts a sense of relating 'how it really was', but the same techniques are used with 'structural' histories. If these techniques are effective, one might either affirm the Master-Narrative (which could be something like 'The Rise of Prussia', 'The Triumph of the West' or 'The End of History), or displace it with a new one ('The Decline and Fall of the American Empire'). And then it becomes an operation of power in itself, binding subjects to a given state of affairs on account of the forged mandate of history. GR Elton established the New Cambridge Modern History, and it became the standard history for years, with a great deal of clout and money behind it. Who can doubt all this? Meta-narratives are branding exercises, histories extended advertisements for one's self and one's priorities - and, given who has the purse-strings, all too often apologias for the status quo.

Well, alright, it might be taking it a bit too far to reduce radical epistemological scepticism to an effect of the commodification of knowledge. And anyway, such scepticism isn't totally without merit, at least inasmuch as it sensitises one to the bases for claims of authority. But let's withdraw from the rigours of the market to the indolent blah of the institution. There, surely, a scholar might be able to get on with some serious work and, provided she isn't driven exclusively by careerism, publish something with critical rigour, an awareness of the limitations of sources, openness about bias and a willingness to discount for it, and a certain autonomy from the operations of power. Ha! Saps, every one of you, if you bought that line. Actually, I daresay few who have experience within the academia do in fact believe it completely.

Take the Abraham Affair. David Abraham was an untenured young history professor, who had recently produced a well-received book on the decline of the Weimar Republic, written from a Marxist perspective. Henry Turner, a competing historian of conservative persuasion, noticed that if this work was correct, then he would have to tear up a substantial portion of his own writing. He investigated - how else? - by checking the footnotes. He found glaring errors, mistranscriptions, falsehoods that he concluded must have been deliberate, a conscious effort by a marxist historian to shove his calumnious view about capitalists supporting and bankrolling the Nazis down the American throat. He himself had recently published work which insisted on the contrary case: that before 1933, capitalist support for Hitler was very limited. And while Abraham took responsibility for the errors, he indicated that this is all they were, and that no bad faith had been involved. In that, he was defended by a number of historians, including Lawrence Stone, who noted that when you are in an archive, you are bored, alone, far from home, in a hurry, scribbling like crazy, and bound to make mistakes. He added, "I don't believe any historian in the world has impeccable footnotes". Nevertheless, Turner launched a campaign to not only alert people to Abraham's alleged conspiracy to pervert the course of history, but also to prevent him from getting work again as an historian. He and an accomplice fired off angry letters with photocopies of the relevant material attached to would-be employers, and were ultimately successful. David Abraham is now a professor of law. This isn't merely historians conducting themselves in an appalling way: it is the application of institutional power and authority. Further, it takes place in a nexus of institutions which are deeply imbricated with the state and capital, especially the military-industrial and pharmaceutical complexes, in which only a narrow margin of dissent is tolerated, and that in the humanities, against whose didactic excesses a constant battle is waged.

Okay, last example. Richard Evans talks about the Abraham affair in his In Defense of History, but it is in Telling Lies About Hitler that he sees a serious test of the historian's claim to veracity. This is about the libel case against Deborah Lipstadt and her publishers pressed by David Irving, who was a 'Holocaust-denier' denier. Famously, the court denied his denial of denial, and he ended up shelling out a fortune. Before I go any further, I want to mention that I don't see how issues of epistemological scepticism of the pomo or any other variety enter into this. First of all, because that is not Irving's approach: he doesn't deny that there is historical truth, nor would he be interested in metahistory. He treats historical facts as instrumental and malleable, and thereby devalues them, but he insists on truth-claims, and he insists on having a narrative, even if the narrative is one of chaotic einsatzgruppen killings, starvation and incidental cruelty in the context of a brutal war. Secondly, because people like Lyotard and Hayden White may have an inadequate approach to this, but they do not claim that the 'revisionists' are somehow superior in their handling of empirical data, or that they are right. In Lyotard's case, he insists that to even get into the game of elaborating the story of the Holocaust as a grand narrative is to repeat the totalising gesture that led to Auschwitz: a stupid claim, but not really implicated here. In White's case, he simply opposes the attempt to, as he sees it, beautify history, especially that history, by turning it into an historical literature. Again, I don't agree with this, but his thesis isn't at stake. What is at stake is the attempt to establish falsehoods, the repeated misuse of evidence, particularly of a consistency and substance that would make it 'fair comment' to describe Irving as a Holocaust denier. This was not about rhetorical cunning or competing narratives. As Evans recounts, perhaps somewhat angrily, many historians were sceptical that a court of law was the appropriate place for determining historical truth: there was too much drama, too much individual competition and rivalry, insufficient space for proper historical debate and consideration. It is hard to see the academy as an etheral place free of such things.

The first thing that can be said about Evans' book is that there is no doubt that he tells a story, with well-drawn characters and much emplotment. It is a well-paced, witty, rhetorically efficient satire - actually quite devastating for Irving. It might easily be called a work of literature in Hayden White's sense, but so what? As it happens he cannot reasonably be accused of misciting what went on in court, and the transcripts are publicly available for anyone to check (unfortunately, reproduced on a lot of Nazi sites, so you have to be careful when Googling for them). Moreover, a competent historian could easily go and check his hundreds of footnotes. She might insist on construing the facts differently, but that is beside the point. For it so happens that Irving's narrative depends upon falsification: he falsifies accounts of phone logs, diary entries, memos, even what happened seconds ago in court, and furthermore, he appears to be do this out of two conflicting motives: on the one hand the desire to resuscitate the political programme of fascism, and the reputation of Adolf Hitler, and on the other hand, the desire to be taken seriously as a historian. That they conflict - that they have to conflict - has to be taken as an endorsement, however partial, of historical research and established practises for handling material and determining veracity. It means that the facts are not merely raw material for the narrative, and it means that the historian is no mere salesperson or power-broker. (Of course, more fundamentally, to the extent that one must lie about Hitler to praise him, it is a sign that they have not been able to revive fascism, and that owes itself partially to efforts outside of the field of history). One other small niggling matter that accompanies this is that when one mentions power and knowledge in the context of Nazi revisionists these days, one is apt to encounter one or two well-meaning libertarians who insist that the revisionists are being badly treated and unfairly denied access to the relevant academic resources to pursue their research. This is an encroachment of power, they might say, in which the state arrogates to itself the right to determine historical truth. They might even, if they are long past the ironic mode, lay something about the master-narrative on you. It is too easy to reply that 'this is the problem with relativism, in which narratives are not fundamentally dissimilar, all share the same distance from the truth' etc. Actually, that isn't the relevant response. The correct response is political: of course the state doesn't have the 'right' to determine historical truth, but since when were we against using our collective power to suppress our mortal enemies? Since when were we under the impression that the revisionists are unfairly marginalised, or that they are somehow the oppressed, as if they aren't involved in trying to resuscitate and promote a vicious, death-dealing form of oppressive class power? When the victims of the Nazis can narrate, we shall permit the defamers of those victims to narrate as well.