Lucky Jim and La Longue Durée

There has been an explosion in the writing of history in the last half-century. Those who believe in the importance of the humanities in a civilised society cannot but welcome the vast flow of books on ancient, medieval and modern history in the English-speaking world, books that now encompass the history of just about every country on the planet. The tale that is being told is again and again the tale of the human condition: how we have become what we are from what we were, or, to put it even more succinctly, who we are. In a short and ambitious book The History Manifesto, Jo Guldi and David Armitage (a justly celebrated historian of ideas from Harvard) have now extended the idea of who we are so that it becomes who we will become. They challenge the idea that history is all about the past by insisting that the insights of historians will enable us to cope more confidently with problems in the future, particularly the course of climate change. 

This is not simply a variant on the idea that we can learn from the past, something we are not very good at doing (just consider the recrudescence of anti-Semitism in contemporary Europe). Their programme of “looking at the past in the service of the future” has an ethical dimension. Does capitalism even out inequalities or increase them? Who should take the blame for the damage being done to the earth’s climate?  With questions such as these, historians should surely join national and international debates alongside economists and sociologists; indeed, these authors maintain, historians are better placed to contribute to these debates because they are able to handle evidence drawn from very long periods of time. If you go back to the election of Thatcher or Blair, you might find an answer to the question of whether the poor have become poorer during the last few decades; but that quite obviously is not the whole picture, which has to be placed in a much longer setting, and taken out of the hands of party politicians.

Guldi and Armitage are well aware of a problem. The historians whose company they keep, in the universities, are not generally interested in the very big picture. This has often been tackled by talented historians outside the universities, such as Tom Holland (for the ancient world) or Antony Beevor (for the 20th century). Meanwhile, academic historians have for several decades been talking of themselves as a “profession”. This idea of history as a profession has created barriers between those writing history and their readers, who do not just consist of fellow-historians and students, but of all those with a curiosity about the past.  Maybe, indeed, it is intended to do that.  Among too many university-based historians, the writing of history has become something of an esoteric art that demands the use of opaque and pretentious language to mask banalities (remember the Emperor’s New Clothes). Right across the humanities, in every university, scholars produce a succession of monographs that are read by a few dozen specialists and that then gather dust on the shelves of university libraries. What one has to show is that one’s arguments are more sophisticated, more deeply researched, more important, than one’s rivals, whom one can of course damn in the review pages of equally little-read journals. The dividend is appreciable: promotion step by step up the slippery ladder that takes a humble Junior Research Fellow towards a full Professorship. 

This has a distorting effect on what is being written. In history, as also in literature or philosophy, research has become narrower and narrower. The authors point to Lucky Jim, in which Jim Dixon’s research topic on “The Economic Influence of Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485”, condemned by Kingsley Amis for its “niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems”. They wryly observe that nowadays this research might be regarded as hopelessly ambitious in scope. Yet the results of this narrowing have in some respects been good. Many micro-areas of social and cultural history were completely neglected before hordes of young researchers were sent into the archives of Europe; there is the advantage of much greater depth, but at the expense of breadth. It is almost a new antiquarianism, though historians of micro-topics would recoil at the suggestion.

The Cambridge historian J.H. Plumb was a distinguished expert on 18th-century England who understood that historians should not just write for one another but that they have a duty to communicate the results of their work accessibly and entertainingly to a much wider public. The most successful of his protégés, Simon Schama, has spoken of writing history that will “keep people awake at night”. One would like to think that this does not just mean it will disturb their sleep, as many an account of 20th-century atrocities in Germany, Russia or China might do, but that there are historians who will so grip their readers that people sit up in bed till three in the morning, unable to put down what they are reading.   

Jo Guldi and David Armitage are right to clamour for more of this type of history.  They are refreshingly aware that the jargon of current history writing has become tiresome. In describing the new trends in historical research, academics write of the “cultural turn”, the “quantitative turn”, and every other sort of turn, so one’s head spins; and in all these turns there remains a trace of that private language employed by scholars to shut out the wider public. The latest term of art, “transnational”, is thrown around with abandon, and is often meaningless, especially when applied to periods of time before the emergence of the nation-state. They might have added the exceptionally popular phrase “memory and identity”, which appears in the title of countless books and articles that have little to do with either.  For historians hunt in packs. They want to howl to the same tune. The lone wolf may sometimes become lost or forgotten, but finds more exciting paths through the thickets. 

Such individuality is increasingly discouraged. Universities urge their employees in the humanities to go out and obtain lucrative grants from research councils or wealthy foundations, from which the university will then take a generous “top slice”.  This is how science research is funded; but what works for the exact sciences cannot work for the world of approximation, uncertainty and evaluation that is the humanities.  Big team projects are fostered in which individual historians do not have the chance to break free and carve out their own exciting area of interest. Indeed, the outcome is often pre-determined: “the aim of this project is to show that . . .”. This is exactly how not to conduct historical research, though it might be appropriate to use this language if the aim were to develop a new drug or to synthesise a new material. 

It seems easier to raise £3 million for a grand research project on, shall we say, “Memory and Identity in Transnational Communities in the 18th-century Atlantic”, than it is to find £3,000 to fund a lone scholar’s trip to an archive or library. Once upon a time a single historian would have dedicated himself or herself to such a topic over several years or even decades; now the same project must harness together “principal investigators”, post-docs and doctoral students, all of whom rightly demand an income. A few months ago, at a discussion about the value of the humanities held at the British Academy, I asked David Willetts whether this made sense; he simply replied that what he called “gigantism” had the advantage of low overheads; allegedly, it does not cost much more to administer a £3 million grant than a £3,000 one.

Armitage and Guldi find solace in what the great French historian Fernand Braudel called the longue durée. Braudel meant long periods of time in which the underlying conditions remained much the same, for, he insisted, “all change is slow” (a surprising comment from a historian). Braudel was a brilliant pioneer; but his approach to the past revealed an over-arching determinism, a lack of interest in human agency, a contempt for political history and no interest in religion. Nor did most of his students, whose works were published in the best French style in uncut volumes printed on what barely qualified as lavatory paper, match his own impressive breadth of vision: they were exactly what Guldi and Armitage decry, narrow accounts of maritime insurance in Venice between 1592 and 1609, to cite a real example not far removed from Lucky Jim.

Braudel did love statistics. He and his followers filled their books with tables and graphs. The past, it seemed, could be reduced to numbers — after all, he was not much interested in individual people. Numbers also mean a great deal to Armitage and Guldi, who seize upon the new opportunities offered by the digital age to argue that the time has come to mobilise numbers anew. In the rather incoherent and badly written fourth chapter of their book, they blazon forth an advertisement for their digital project, entitled Paper Machines; this crunches together vast masses of data and enables all sorts of trends and connections to be identified at the press of a button. It has been sold to the Danish equivalent of MI5, though whether this will make the next series of Borgen more or less interesting is not indicated. The project also bears bright political colours. A throwaway remark damns the Thatcher government as racist; and when the authors appeal to “ethics” they seem to mean the ideology of the neo-Marxist Left. We are told that the ruling classes must bear the blame for climate change since they encouraged the development of steam power in the 18th century.  Such a view is patently absurd.

That said, Armitage and Guldi are rightly exercised about climate change and how it might be possible to mobilise vast masses of data to trace its history across the entire globe. Their fundamental error is, however, to assume that the naturally-generated climate change visible in, say, the cold 17th century belongs in the same category as modern climate change, for there is powerful reason to believe that this has been induced by humans polluting the earth, seas and skies and continuing to do so even as the evidence that the planet is being poisoned mounts. Neolithic or medieval destruction of forests, which often regenerated, bears little comparison with the modern crisis. They reveal an obsession with counting, a desire for a new “quantitative turn” (that word again!) and the assumption that historians are best placed to interpret data over long periods of time. Yet the approach to all these numbers is naive. Although they have squeezed in references to Thomas Piketty’s challenging view about capitalism, they have not confronted the difficulty that critics of Piketty, such as Mervyn King, have identified: not just interpreting but collecting data is a subjective process, and it becomes tempting to adjust figures so as to fill gaps.

My own experience suggests that policy-makers are genuinely interested in understanding how modern dilemmas are the product of a long evolution. I have spoken about the history of the Mediterranean from the remote past to the present day at a seminar chaired by Mikhail Gorbachev and at other events alongside Gerhard Schröder and other prominent political figures. As these names (alas) suggest, most of these leaders have been people now out of power.  Rather than those in power, figures who have now entered the history books are most likely to heed the importance of taking the very long historical view, of which they have themselves become part. Anyone looking at the Middle East now is bound to agree that historians would be well advised to teach politicians as well as their students.  You can convince historians of that, but can you convince politicians?

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"