A few weeks ago I ordered a PhD thesis from EThOS. A few days later they got back to me to say that the university in question wouldn’t supply the thesis for digitization because they didn’t have the author’s permission. In some ways that was a relief because it saved me the time that I would have used up reading it and the £40 digitization fee. Arguably the university and author have lost more because they’ve just missed out on a citation which would have marginally contributed to their reputation and given their research more ‘impact’. Maybe one consequence of digital history will be that material that isn’t easily available on the web might as well not exist. Which is exactly what Lyotard predicted in The Postmodern Condition in 1979 (p. 4):
The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation. It can fit into the new channels, and become operational, only if learning is translated into quantities of information. We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language. The “producers” and users of knowledge must now, and will have to, possess the means of translating into these languages whatever they want to invent or learn. Research on translating machines is already well advanced. Along with the hegemony of computers comes a certain logic, and therefore a certain set of prescriptions determining which statements are accepted as “knowledge” statements.
We may thus expect a thorough exteriorization of knowledge with respect to the “knower”, at whatever point he or she may occupy in the knowledge process. The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so.
This book should be one of the foundational texts of digital history, but apparently it isn’t.
Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Manchester, 1984).
I’m still dreaming of a time when everyone is sick to death of Labour and Tories, but that time isn’t now. There are still some crumbs of comfort:
We already have fixed term parliaments. This is a major reform which takes an unfair advantage away from parties in government.
The coalition agreement commits the government to making the House of Lords elected by Proportional Representation. The result of the referendum on AV for the Commons does not affect this. The Lords could potentially end up being more democratic and representative than the Commons!
No more than 28% of the electorate actively supports the current system. While only 13% voted for AV, in absolute terms that amounts to more than 6 million people. We are not going to shut up or go away just because a different 12 million people say so. The uncommitted 59% is still potentially open to persuasion by either side. There are also many people who are not currently allowed to vote but probably should be (16 and 17-year-olds, prisoners, immigrants without full citizenship).
Now that AV has been discredited, STV is the only alternative for the Commons. We can expect supporters of electoral reform to be more united and more enthusiastic in future.
While the current system is still broken there are at least opportunities to bleed through the cracks. All parties will still have a chance to win seats with less than a third of the vote. Many Labour and Tory supporters have gambled on this advantaging their own party more than the others, but even if this gamble pays off the Lib Dems will not be silenced.
Maybe liberals will now have to take the problem of ideological hegemony more seriously. The people who voted No are not necessarily stupid or evil (but those who actively campaigned for a No vote probably are), and they have not necessarily been tricked by propaganda. It’s just that to many people it’s common sense that we should keep what we’ve got because it’s ‘just normal’, and that the majority, or the biggest minority, should get everything while other groups are excluded and erased because ‘there has to be a clear winner’ and ‘someone has to lose’. These assumptions are so deeply embedded that they are seen as natural, self-evident and completely beyond question, rather than policies in a political manifesto which are up for debate. In this situation having better arguments is not enough. People need to be encouraged to question their own ideological assumptions, but they will probably find this difficult and disturbing. Tackling this problem will require liberals to challenge one of their own assumptions: that people make the best decisions when left to their own devices. Freeing people from state control is only half the battle. They also need to emancipate themselves from mental slavery.
In future I will do more to help the Lib Dems and electoral reform (although more than I’ve done in the past might still not be very much!). The referendum has just confirmed that British politics is currently dominated by fear, ignorance, resentment and bullying. The Liberal Democrats currently offer the best chance of a positive alternative. (The Green Party offers the second best chance, so I wouldn’t mind helping them at the same time.) I might not have started voting Lib Dem so soon, or at all, if it wasn’t for my friend Andrew Hickey. One man can make a difference (say this in Richard Basehart voice for maximum effect).
On the same day as the referendum we had a parish council election. There were nine candidates and eight vacancies, and the ballot papers said ‘vote for no more than eight candidates’. This is confusing, it breaks the principle of one person one vote, and does not give one clear winner. The people have clearly decided that they don’t want electoral systems like this. The No2AV campaign will now have to seek further reform to bring all other elections in line with First Past the Post. No2ParishCouncils!
I promised that I’d post more if we lost the referendum. Don’t expect quality – my good writing is all going into the book – but quantity might be slightly greater than it has been in the last few months.
[posted by Gavin Robinson, 11:41 am, 7 April 2008]
More thoughts relating to my last post on Glenn Burgess on revisionism. I was making what might look like esoteric theoretical points there, and it might not always be immediately obvious how that applies to the existing historiography in practice. Anti-theory polemic often constructs a false dichotomy between all points of view being equally valid on the one hand and only one objective truth being valid on the other. I think things are more complicated than that. Although I reject objectivity I do think that there are many interpretations of history which are invalid for various reasons, including being internally inconsistent, not being very well supported by their own evidence, or even contradicting the laws of physics. But once we’ve dismissed all these interpretations as being impossible, we could potentially be left with many interpretations which are possible. This is where we get the theoretical issues that I wrote about before. It might not be possible, or even necessary, to choose between all these possible interpretations and choose a single correct one.
Applying this to English/British Civil War/Revolution historiography can illustrate the point, but it’s not necessarily obvious because other, more obvious, factors get in the way. For a start, many histories of this period (particularly, but not only, from Whigs and Marxists) have fallen at the first fence because they are internally inconsistent and/or not well supported by their own evidence (these are arguably the same thing, because poor evidence is an inconsistency for any empirical work but possibly irrelevant to non-empirical work). More have fallen at the second fence because other historians have produced evidence which contradicts them. Most, if not all, of the histories written from Gardiner onwards have shared certain basic empirical assumptions, so it’s perhaps surprising that these works have often not lived up to empirical standards of proof. Pointing that out should be alarming, but it might also be misleadingly comforting. Surely if everyone genuinely adhered to proper empirical standards we’d be able to find the one true story, wouldn’t we? I don’t think so. The fact that in practice so many historians have tried to argue for interpretations which are impossible doesn’t do anything to diminish the theoretical possibilities for an abundance of interpretations which can’t be dismissed as wrong but which can’t be chosen between. In practice we’re only just starting to see this.
Following Glenn Burgess’s example, I’ll take two different works and compare them: John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt and John Walter’s Understanding Popular Violence. Both books are meticulously researched to the highest standards (or at least higher than most other books I’ve seen). Their descriptions of what happened would be difficult to challenge on empirical grounds. Both relate to the causes and outbreak of the First Civil War but each has a very narrow focus rather than offering an overarching model which claims to explain everything. It is perhaps this focus that allows the authors to be so meticulous, and therefore avoid falling at the early empirical fences. This is not to say that they are less ambitious than Lawrence Stone or David Underdown (examples of historians who did attempt overarching explanatory models), just that their ambitions might be pointing in a different direction. Neither Adamson nor Walter explicitly claims to be telling the whole story. They have omitted many things and made arbitrary decisions about what to include, as any historian must when writing any history, but they have not attempted to close down other possibilities outside their chosen scope. This is not to say that they think anything goes. Within their chosen scope, both have demolished previous interpretations which now look impossible or at least highly improbable. The most important thing is that these books do not contradict each other much, if at all. It would be quite easy to see them as dealing with different parts of the same thing. Therefore we have two interpretations which differ because their focus and end points differ, but which are not mutually exclusive. However, I suspect that it would be difficult to synthesize both works into a single overarching thesis in the style of Lawrence Stone. They’re just different. Taken together they suggest that the civil war might be too big and complicated to ever be distilled into a single work. I think that this will become increasingly obvious in the future as we see more books like these.
John Adamson, The Noble Revolt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007).
Glenn Burgess, ‘On revisionism: an analysis of early Stuart historiography in the 1970s and 1980s’, Historical Journal, 33 (1990), pp. 609-27.
John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1999).
[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:59 am, 4 April 2008]
‘On Revisionism’ is an important article from 1990 (you can download it free from Historical Journal) in which Glenn Burgess sets out a fair appraisal of what revisionism is (or was) and defends it from some unfair criticisms, then makes some more sophisticated criticisms. It’s possibly unfair to beat Burgess with a stick that hadn’t been published at the time he was writing and which was (and perhaps still is) considered extremely radical, but I’d like to compare this article with the work of Keith Jenkins, and some of the theorists who inform his work, because there are some surprising similarities. Ultimately Burgess and Jenkins draw different conclusions, but they are tackling some of the same problems and at times use similar arguments. For the purposes of this post I’m not going to question empirical epistemological foundations at all, but if we accept that the past really happened, and that we can know facts about what really happened, there are still many practical and theoretical problems concerning what to do with those facts.
[posted by Gavin Robinson, 5:18 pm, 6 December 2007]
Malcolm Wanklyn, Decisive Battles of the English Civil War, (Barnsley, Pen and Sword, 2006); ISBN: 1844154548.
I’m just going to get straight to the point: this is the best book ever written about English Civil War battles. I’m not being sarcastic or damning it with faint praise. It really is that good. Wanklyn argues that previous methodology of battle reconstruction is inadequate, that familiar sources need to be reassessed, and that we really know far less than we thought we did about what really happened.