My Ideology

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:32 am, 3 September 2009]

[Edit May 2016: This is much better than my earlier equivocal ramblings about theory. Some of it fed into my book, and I’d stand by most of it now. The only thing that’s changed is that I don’t think proper Liberalism, as I now understand it, has problems. The real problem is that lots of things that are called Liberalism really aren’t, eg woolly centrism. The concept of ‘ideology’ I outlined below could probably be restated as the Liberal concept of ‘ignorance and conformity’ without losing too much. To any drive-by grammar Nazis, I was justifiably complaining about the problems with the passive form of one particular verb in the context of patriarchy and rape culture. I think it’s really stupid to oppose all use of the passive voice, and even more stupid to back that up with dodgy psychoanalysis.]

A couple of weeks ago George Simmers at Great War Fiction posted about some problems with applying the Marxist concept of ideological hegemony to the outbreak of the First World War. He criticized some vaguely Marxist influenced historians and literary critics who said that people were tricked by propaganda into supporting the war and then became disillusioned. I wanted to reply to his post, but every time I drafted a comment in my head it just ended up saying “I don’t really know”. I do know that George is right to say “These are words to be used with care.” Like many things, the concept of ideology can be useful if used well but can also be counterproductive if used badly. So in this post I’m going to try and explain what ideology means to me, and how it’s useful in my own work. Bear that in mind while reading, as when you see the words “ideology is”, that’s shorthand for “I think ideology is”, and not the definite assertion that it looks like. (more…)

Fables of the Reconstruction

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:08 pm, 22 September 2008]

[Edit May 2016: 3D printing is much more of a thing now. So much so that a few years ago there was even a moral panic about it! I still don’t have any ideas that would make it relevant to my own research. How much of a dudebro must I have been to think of making a joke about sex dolls? Cringe.]

Bill Turkel has been testing a really cool piece of equipment. The MDX-20 can turn 3D computer models into physical objects, and can automatically scan physical objects to make 3D computer models of them. And it doesn’t rely on magic, alchemy, or the Dark Side of the Force. There are so many interesting things that could be done with this (not all of them related to Weird Science and “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”…). As Bill says, “the possibilities seem nearly endless”. Strangely, the first thing that came into my mind when I read about it was palaeontology. Maybe if this technology gets good enough it might be possible to digitize collections of fossils, then researchers could easily run off life size replicas instead of flying to China to measure dinosaur bones (but there might be drawbacks that I haven’t thought of because I don’t know enough about dinosaur measuring). As the David Baird quotes in Bill’s post make clear, objects created by the MDX-20 are models, not recreations of the thing itself how it really is. Just like theroetical models and digital resources, what we get is some aspects of the thing (usually the ones we’re most interested in) but not all of them.

Nick at Mercurius Politicus points out that while digital collections like EEBO give us easier access to some aspects of early modern texts, there are other aspects that we don’t get to experience unless we go back to the originals. “Reading them on a screen today is inevitably a different experience to reading actual copies.” Like Nick, I’m not sure what impact this has or is going to have on how we read these texts. Even with the original physical books in our hands we’re still a very long way from being able to reconstruct the meanings that readers found in them in the 17th century. Holding a book, feeling the paper, seeing the colour of the ink, will necessarily suggest more or different meanings to me than when I see a PDF on screen, but those are still my perceived meanings, and not necessarily anyone else’s. On the other hand, being able to see a physical difference between two books which isn’t apparent on EEBO gives a new insight and has to affect the range of possible meanings, even if we’re not sure exactly how.

This isn’t something that only applies to early-modern print culture. Brett at Airminded mentioned in his excellent series of posts on the Sudeten crisis that British newspapers in the 1930s tended to have the most important stories in the middle, not on the front page. I had absolutely no idea that this was the case. It’s not something that’s obvious if you’re just dipping into the Times Digital Archive as you just get one page out of context.

And it doesn’t just apply to print. The same issues come up with old computer games. I can play my old favourite C64 games on my PC using an emulator, but the experience isn’t the same as playing them on a real C64 in the 80s. In many ways it’s better – you don’t have to wait for tapes to load, there aren’t as many crashes – but from a historian’s point of view it’s obviously not a perfect way of reconstructing the past.


[posted by Gavin Robinson, 1:40 pm, 18 September 2008]

[Edit May 2016: another planned article that didn’t happen but ended up as part of my book. I later did a series of posts including everything I could find about Henry Marten’s regiment.]

Thanks to Amazon I’ve just picked up very cheap second hand copies of:

  1. Sarah Barber, A revolutionary rogue Henry Marten and the English republic (Sutton,: Stroud :, 2000).
  2. Ivor Waters, Henry Marten and the Long Parliament (Chepstow Society: Chepstow, 1976).

I’m planning to write an article about Henry Marten’s attempt to raise a cavalry regiment in 1643, so I want to read everything that’s been written about him. That seems to be surprisingly little considering how interesting he is. The RHS Bibliography only returns 8 results for titles containing the words “Henry Marten”. He was arguably the most radical member of the Long Parliament, but perhaps he’s difficult to deal with because he doesn’t fit the puritan stereotype. That’s always a problem for arguments that the English Civil War was a war of religion, and it’s not really enough to say that he was just the exception that proves the rule.

This project was going to be my third article, but now it’s been promoted as the Difficult Second Article is officially dead. It was just too difficult to give it a strong enough argument to stand up as an article, but I haven’t given up on my analysis of horse donations. I think it would work better as a sample chapter for a book proposal. Then it would fit in with bigger arguments about negotiation of property rights and authority, and the construction of identities. And it won’t have to take in the causes of the civil war, which is a relief. As I mentioned before I’ve realised that I’m really not very interested in that question, and there’s no point trying to write about things you’re not interested in. That’s probably one of the reasons why it was so difficult. Also I have a theoretical problem with causation in general: in order to explain why things happened we need to know why people did things. But other minds are unknowable. Therefore we can’t really explain any historical events if the causal chains pass through people’s minds.

Further on “On Revisionism”

[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.

  1. John Adamson, The Noble Revolt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007).
  2. Glenn Burgess, ‘On revisionism: an analysis of early Stuart historiography in the 1970s and 1980s’, Historical Journal, 33 (1990), pp. 609-27.
  3. John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1999).

Glenn Burgess On Revisionism

[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, 6:50 pm, 19 March 2008]

[Edit May 2016: a pretty good bit of theorizing, probably because it was based on things I’d actually read and understood. I doubt that any posts from here on will be occupying a woolly moderate false centre. Since then I’ve kept changing my mind about whether causal explanations of historical events are possible. The biggest problem with my book was that it was implicitly against the idea that the causes of the English Civil War could be explained and yet was hopeful that the causes of Parliament’s victory could be explained. That’s the main reason why it should really have been two separate books.]

Causation has always been a problem for me. I remember as an undergraduate struggling to write a 2,000 word essay explaining the French Revolution, and ending up thinking “what’s the point?”. My PhD thesis was mostly about describing rather than explaining, and where the conclusion touched on the reasons for the outcome of the English Civil War it was particularly weak. My first article mostly revolves around the question “continuity or change?” rather than “why?”, and I only ended up making strong claims about the causes of price changes in order to win an argument with the reviewer. But now I’m working on the Difficult Second Article, where I decided I could make the empirical data sexier by linking it to the debate on the causes of the English Civil War. That was probably a bad idea as it’s taking much longer than I expected, but I’ve put too much time and effort into it to abandon it now, and I need another publication on my CV as soon as possible to help with funding applications. So as well as digging into the mountain of historiography on the civil wars/revolution/whatever I’ve been looking into theories of causation.

There now follow some esoteric theoretical thoughts on an article by S. H. Rigby (from 1996, so not necessarily the latest thing, but it’s a useful starting point even if the author might have moved on since then) on causal hierarchies, taking in Keith Jenkins along the way. Don’t be surprised if I’ve misunderstood some of it – this blog was always meant to be about thinking in public. (more…)

Book Review: Malcolm Wanklyn – Decisive Battles of the English Civil War

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 5:18 pm, 6 December 2007]

[Edit May 2016: See, it’s not just me. Even Malcolm Wanklyn had a postmodern phase. His review of my book in Renaissance Quarterly suggests that he’s well and truly over it.]

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.


That would be an ecumenical matter

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 1:48 pm, 12 June 2007]

[Edit May 2016: I really wish my former self would shut up about this sort of thing. It’s boring and pointless and I wasn’t qualified to have an opinion about it. ‘There’s a serious danger of creating the appearance of being theoretically aware by lazily dropping the right buzzwords but not really understanding the ideas behind them.’ Yes, there is, isn’t there? (Withering stare at former self.) ‘And so I’ve written nearly 1,500 words without really saying anything.’ Too right. So why did I decide to post it?]

Last week I posted some thoughts in response to the discussions at A Historian’s Craft and Civil War Memory about history and philosophy. In that post I took some of the philosophical problems that affect history and tried to restate them in scientific terms. As Brett pointed out, this really amounted to stating the obvious in fairly uncontroversial terms, but I think that was worth doing in order to bypass the unproductive hostility between both extremes in the postmodernism wars (although the extent to which those extremes even exist is debatable). Whether the major problems we face as historians are philosophical, scientific, or a bit of both, the question remains: how much time should we spend thinking about these problems? In this post I’ll be discussing that question, but I have to warn you in advance that I can’t answer it. So there might not be much point reading any further…


Science Friction

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:38 am, 8 June 2007]

[Edit May 2016: Cringe. This post is a terrible cliche and doesn’t really have anything to say. Note that I was still occupying the false centre, which means I still hadn’t read any Keith Jenkins despite pontificating on postmodernism and history. I did cite a study on colour perception in the introduction of my book, so perhaps not a complete waste of time. Now I think that Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ really just shows that there was an awful lot of unchallenged racism in philosophy.]

Rachel at A Historian’s Craft and Kevin at Civil War Memory have both been thinking about how much historians should think about philosophy. Although they take different positions on the issue, they both approach it in a refreshingly un-polemical fashion (contrast with the “that’s you that is” pettiness of this embarrassing exchange between Alun Munslow and Arthur Marwick). It’s almost inevitable that the p-word comes up, but it’s interesting that the word “postmodernism” seems to be used more often by people who are against it than people who are for it, whatever it is. Too often it seems to be a label attached to a conflation of lots of different (and not always compatible) theories, but let’s stick with the stereotypical view of postmodernism for now. Here are two recognisable stereotypes:

The traditional empiricist, who believes that what historians do is to scientifically examine archival evidence to find out what really happened in the past, something which is achievable if you eliminate bias.

The postmodernist who believes that everything is culturally constructed, that an objective scientific study of the past is impossible, and that even science itself is an ideologically suspect paradigm.

Whether these stereotypes are true or not (and you should always be suspicious of stereotyping – isn’t it funny how stereotypes are always someone else?) they crudely illustrate what I’m trying to get at in this post: that both extremes in the postmodernism wars seem to have a stereotypical and inaccurate view of science.


Cultural History

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 5:40 pm, 2 March 2007]

[Edit May 2016: Cultural history. Dawkins. Memetics. Whatever. This seems very much of its time and I don’t really care about this stuff now. A later post at Babel’s Dawn showed that elephants react to fake alarm calls in the same way as real ones, which probably means that animals just run away from the alarm call itself without paying attention to the predator.]

Yesterday I went to the Institute of Historical Research to hear Peter Burke talking about “Strengths and Weaknesses of Cultural History 1980-2006”. Judging by how full the Pollard room was this was a major event. I thought I might be out of my depth there, but as it turned out I didn’t hear anything that surprised me or that I couldn’t understand. The paper was a very general overview of cultural history which did pretty much what the title suggests. I can’t remember all the points because I wasn’t taking notes, but most of the suggested strengths and weaknesses were fairly obvious. I didn’t take part in the discussion at the time because it was already going on long enough and I wanted to get away (and also didn’t want to embarrass myself by asking stupid questions of course!), but other people asked some interesting questions. This post was going to be an attempt to summarise the paper, but it went off on various tangents.