MONTHLY BLOG 39, STUDYING THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

A growing number of historians, myself included, want students to study long-term narratives as well in-depth courses.1 More on (say) the peopling of Britain since Celtic times alongside (say) life in Roman Britain or (say) medicine in Victorian times or (say) the ordinary soldier’s experiences in the trenches of World War I. We do in-depth courses very well. But long-term studies are also vital to provide frameworks.2

Put into more abstract terms, we need more diachronic (long-term) analysis, alongside synchronic (short-term) immersion. These approaches, furthermore, do not have to be diametrically opposed. Courses, like books, can do both.

That was my aim in an undergraduate programme, devised at Royal Holloway, London University.3  It studied the long and the short of one specific period. The choice fell upon early nineteenth-century British history, because it’s well documented and relatively near in time. In that way, the diachronic aftermath is not too lengthy for students to assess within a finite course of study.

Integral to the course requirements were two long essays, both on the same topic X. There were no restrictions, other than analytical feasiblity. X could be a real person; a fictional or semi-fictionalised person (like Dick Turpin);4  an event; a place; or anything that lends itself to both synchronic and diachronic analysis. Students chose their own, with advice as required. One essay of the pair then focused upon X’s reputation in his/her/its own day; the other upon X’s long-term impact/reputation in subsequent years.

There was also an examination attached to the course. One section of the paper contained traditional exam questions; the second just one compulsory question on the chosen topic X. Setting that proved a good challenge for the tutor, thinking of ways to compare and contrast short- and long-term reputations. And of course, the compulsory question could not allow a simple regurgitation of the coursework essays; and it had to be equally answerable by all candidates.

Most students decided to examine famous individuals, both worthies and unworthies: Beau Brummell; Mad Jack Mytton; Queen Caroline; Charles Dickens; Sir Robert Peel; Earl Grey; the Duke of Wellington; Harriette Wilson; Lord Byron; Mary Shelley; Ada Lovelace; Charles Darwin; Harriet Martineau; Robert Stephenson; Michael Faraday; Augustus Pugin; Elizabeth Gaskell; Thomas Arnold; Mary Seacole; to name only a few. Leading politicians and literary figures tended to be the first choices. A recent book shows what can be done in the case of the risen (and rising still further) star of Jane Austen.5 In addition, a minority preferred big events, such as the Battle of Waterloo; or the Great Exhibition. None in fact chose a place or building; but it could be done, provided the focus is kept sharp (the Palace of Westminster, not ‘London’.)

Studying contemporary reputations encouraged a focus upon newspaper reports, pamphlets, letters, public commemorations, and so forth. In general, students assumed that synchronic reputation would be comparatively easy to research. Yet they were often surprised to find that initial responses to X were confused. It takes time for reputations to become fixed. In particular, where the personage X had a long life, there might well be significant fluctuations during his or her lifetime. The radical John Thelwall, for example, was notorious in 1794, when on trial for high treason, yet largely forgotten at his death in 1834. 6

By contrast, students often began by feeling fussed and unhappy about studying X’s diachronic reputation. There were no immediate textbooks to offer guidance. Nonetheless, they often found that studying long-term changes was good fun, because more off-the-wall. The web is particularly helpful, as wikipedia often lists references to X in film(s), TV, literature, song(s) and popular culture. Of course, all wiki-leads need to be double-checked. There are plenty of errors and omissions out there.

Nonetheless, for someone wishing to study the long-term reputation of (say) Beau Brummell (1778-1840), wikipedia offers extensive leads, providing many references to Brummell in art, literature, song, film, and sundry stylistic products making use of his name, as well as a bibliography. 7

Beau Brummell (1778-1840) from L to R: as seen in his own day; as subject of enquiry for Virginia Woolf (1882-1941); and as portrayed by Stewart Granger in Curtis Bernhardt’s film (1954).Plus it is crucial to go beyond wikipedia. For example, a search for relevant publications would reveal an unlisted offering. In 1925, Virginia Woolf, no less, published a short tract on Beau Brummell.8 The student is thus challenged to explore what the Bloomsbury intellectual found of interest in the Regency Dandy. Of course, the tutor/ examiner also has to do some basic checks, to ensure that candidates don’t miss the obvious. On the other hand, surprise finds, unanticipated by all parties, proved part of the intellectual fun.

Lastly, the exercise encourages reflections upon posthumous reputations. People in the performing arts and sports, politicians, journalists, celebrities, military men, and notorious criminals are strong candidates for contemporary fame followed by subsequent oblivion, unless rescued by some special factor. In the case of the minor horse-thief Dick Turpin, he was catapulted from conflicted memory in the eighteenth century into dashing highwayman by the novel Rookwood (1834). That fictional boost gave his romantic myth another 100 years before starting to fade again.

Conversely, a tiny minority can go from obscurity in their lifetime to later global renown. But it depends crucially upon their achievements being transmissable to successive generations. The artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827) is a rare and cherished example. Students working on the long-and-the-short of the early nineteenth century were challenged to find another contemporary with such a dramatic posthumous trajectory. They couldn’t.

But they and I enjoyed the quest and discovery of unlikely reactions, like Virginia Woolf dallying with Beau Brummell. It provided a new way of thinking about the long-term – not just in terms of grand trends (‘progress’; ‘economic stages’) but by way of cultural borrowings and transmutations between generations. When and why? There are trends but no infallible rules.

1 ‘Teaching History’s Big Pictures: Including Continuity as well as Change’, Teaching History: Journal of the Historical Association, 136 (Sept. 2009), pp. 53-9; and PJC website Pdf/3.

2 My own answers in P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007).

3 RH History Course HS2246: From Rakes to Respectability? Conflict and Consensus in Britain 1815-51 (content now modified).

4 Well shown by J. Sharpe, Dick Turpin: The Myth of the Highwayman (London, 2004).

5 C. Harman, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (Edinburgh, 2009).

6 Two PJC essays on John Thelwall (1764-1834) are available in PJC website, Pdf/14 and Pdf/22.

7 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beau_Brummell.

8 See V. Woolf, Beau Brummell (1925; reissued by Folcroft Library, 1972); and http://www.dandyism.net/woolfs-beau-brummell/.

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MONTHLY BLOG 21, HISTORICAL PERIODISATION – PART 1

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

It was fascinating to meet with twenty-three others on a humid June afternoon to debate what might appear to be abstruse questions of Law & Historical Periodisation. We were attending a special conference at Birkbeck College, London University – an institution (founded in 1823 as the London Mechanics Institute) committed as always to extending the boundaries of knowledge. The participants came from the disciplines of law, history, philosophy, and literary studies. And many were students, including, laudably, some interested undergraduates who were attending in the vacation.

At stake was not the question of whether we can generalise about different and separate periods of the past. Obviously we can and must to some extent. Even the most determined advocate of history as ‘one and indivisible’ has to accept some sub-divisions for operative purposes, whether in terms of days, years, centuries or millennia.

But the questions really coalesce about temporal ‘stages’, such as the ‘mediaeval’ era. Are such concepts relevant and helpful? Is history rightly divided into successive stages? and do they follow in regular sequence in different countries, even if at different times? Or is there a danger of reifying these epochs – turning them into something more substantive and distinctive than was actually the case?

Studies like H.O. Taylor’s The Medieval Mind (1919 and many later edns), Benedicta Ward’s Miracles and the Medieval Mind (1982), William Manchester’s The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance (Boston, 1992), and Stephen Currie’s Miracles, Saints and Superstition: The Medieval Mind (2006), all imply that there were common properties to the mind-sets of millions of Europeans who lived between (roughly) the fifth-century fall of Rome and the fifteenth-century discovery of the New World – and that these mindsets differed sharply from the ‘modern mind’. Yet are these historians justified in choosing this formula within their titles? Or partly justified? or absolutely misleading? Are there common features within human consciousness and experiences that refute these periodic cut-off points? Do we want to go to the other end of the spectrum, to endorse the view of those Evolutionary Psychologists who aver that human mentalities have not changed since the Stone Age? Forever he, whether Tarzan, Baldric or Kevin? forever she, whether Jane, Elwisia or Tracey?

Two papers by Kathleen Davis (University of Rhode Island) and Peter Fitzpatrick (Birkbeck College) formed the core of the conference, both focusing upon the culture of jurisprudence and its standard definition of the medieval. Both give stimulating critiques of conventional legal assumptions, based upon stark dichotomies. In bare summary, the ‘medieval’ is supposed to be Christianised, feudal, and customary, while the ‘modern’ is supposedly secular, rights-based, and centred around the sovereign state. For good measure, the former is by implication backward and oppressive, while the latter is progressive and enlightened. Yet the long history of legal pluralism goes against any such dichotomy in practice. Historians like Helen Cam, who in 1941 wrote What of Medieval England is Alive in England Today? would have rejoiced at these papers, and at the sharp questions from the conference participants.

For my part, I was asked to give a final summary, based upon my position as a critic of all simple stage theories of history.1 My first point was to stress again how difficult it is to rethink periodisation, because so many cardinal assumptions are built not only into academic language but also into academic structures. Many specialists name themselves after their periods – as ‘medievalists’, ‘modernists’ or whatever. Those who call themselves just ‘historians’ are seen as too vague – or suffering from folie de grandeur. There are mutterings about the fate of Arnold Toynbee, once hailed as the twentieth-century’s greatest historian-philosopher – now virtually forgotten. Academic posts within departments of History and Literary Studies are generally defined by timespans. So are examination papers; many academic journals; many conferences; and so forth. Publishers in particular, who pay great attention to book titles, often endorse traditional nomenclature and stage divisions.

True, there are now increasing calls for change. My second point therefore highlights the new diversity. Conferences and seminars are held not only across disciplinary boundaries but also across epochal divisions. An increasing number of books are published with unusual start and end dates; and the variety of dates attached to the traditional periods continues to multiply, often confusingly. In addition, some scholars now study ‘big’ (long-term) history from the start of the world, or at least from the start of human history. Their approaches do not always manage to avoid traditional schema but the aim is to encourage a new diachronic sweep. And other pressures for change are coming from scholars in new fields of history, such as women’s history or (not the same thing) the history of sexuality.

Shedding the old period terminology is mentally liberating. So the Italian historian Massimo Montanari, previously a ‘medievalist’, wrote in 1994 of the happiness that followed his discarding of all the labels of ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’ and ‘modern: ‘In the end, I felt freed as from a restrictive and artificial scaffolding …’2

Lastly, then, what of the future? The aim is not to replace one set of period terms and dates with another. Any rival set will run into the same difficulties of detecting precise cut-off points and the risk of stereotyping the different cultures and societies on either side of a period boundary. It is another example of dichotomous thinking, which glosses over the complexities of the past. Above all, all stage theories fail to incorporate the elements of deep continuity within history (see my November 2010 discussion-point).

We need a new way of thinking about the intertwining of persistence and change within history. It is chiefly a matter of understanding. But it will also entail a change of language. I don’t personally endorse the Foucauldian view that language actually determines consciousness. For me, primacy in the relationship is the other way round. A changing consciousness can ultimately change language. Yet I do recognise the confining effects of existing concepts and terminology upon patterns of thought. Such an impact is another example of the power of continuity. With several bounds, however, historians can become free. With a new language, we can talk about epochs and continuities, intertwined and interacting in often changing ways. It’s fun to try and also fun to try to convince others. Medievalists, arise. You have nothing to lose but an old name, which survives through inertia. There are more than three steps between ancient – middle – modern, even in European history – let alone around the world. Try a different name to shake the stereotypes. And tell the lawyers too.

1 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007) and P.J. Corfield, POST-Medievalism/ Modernity/ Postmodernity? Rethinking History, Vol. 14/3 (Sept. 2010), pp. 379-404; also available on publishers’ website Taylor & Francis www.tandfonline.com; and personal website www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk.

2 M. Montanari, The Culture of Food (transl. C. Ipsen (Oxford, 1994), p. xii.

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MONTHLY BLOG 18, IN PRAISE OF MEMORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

Try living without it. In healthy humans, memory works non-stop from birth to death. That means that it can work, unprompted, for over a century. Memory automatically tells us who we are (short of mental illness or accident). It simultaneously supplies us with our personal back-story and locates us within a broad framework picture of the world in which we have lived to date. Our capacity to think through time, and to remember things that happened long ago, constitutes a major characteristic of what it means to be human.

As such, the power of memory is an ancient, not to say primaeval, capacity. It’s entwined with consciousness. But it also operates at instinctual levels, as in muscle memory. With its multiple resources, memory is notably multi-layered. It can be cultivated consciously. A host of mnemonic systems, some very ancient, offer systems to help the mind in storing and retrieving a huge ragbag of ideas and information.1  Giulio Camillo’s beautiful Theatre of Memory (shown in Fig. 1) is but one example.2  It’s a nice imaginary prospect of the inside of the human cranium.march005
march006Alongside conscious efforts of memory cultivation, many framework recollections – such as knowledge of one’s native language – are usually accumulated unwittingly and almost effortlessly. Deep memory systems constitute a form of long-term storage. With their aid, people who are suffering from progressive memory loss often continue to speak grammatically for a long way into their illness. Or, strikingly, songs learned in childhood, aided by the wordless mnemonic power of rhythm and music, may remain in the repertoire of the seriously memory-impaired even after regular speech has long gone.

Given its primaeval origins, the human capacity to remember notably predates the invention of calendars. Such time-measuring and time-referencing devices are the products, not the first framers, of memory. As a result, we don’t habitually remember by reference to precise dates and times, with the exception of special events or consciously learned information. Nor do we retain everything. Forgetting selectively is as much a human capacity as remembering. Too much and we’d suffer from information overload.

The combination of remembering and forgetting, both individually and collectively, has some significant implications. Not only does memory fade but, unkindly, it also plays tricks. Details that we think we remember with great confidence can turn out to be false. My own deceitful memory has just given me a shock, which I’ve taken to heart since I pride myself on my powers of recollection. One of my clear recollections of the student protests in 1969 (which I wrote about in my January discussion-piece) has turned out to be erroneous, at least in one significant detail. At a lunch-time protest meeting at Bedford College in 1969 or early 1970, an ardent young postgraduate urged those present to capture the Principal’s office today, in order to overthrow capitalism tomorrow. I am certain that the event took place and that the speech was greeted with cheers (and some silent scepticism – mine included).

However, my memory has over time fabricated an erroneous identity for the speaker. I met the person in question last week – now a Labour peer in the House of Lords – and reminded her of the episode, expecting some shared laughter at the ambitious scope of youthful ideals. But she did not attend Bedford College nor had she ever visited it. Moreover, she had always shared my critique of the student utopianism of the later 1960s. I was wrong on a central point, which I’d convinced myself was correct. Could I even be sure that the protest meeting took place at all? Collapse of stout party – myself.
march007And I am not alone. Discovering faults in memory is a common experience. It’s a salutary warning not to be too cocky. Had I been relying upon my unchecked memory when speaking in the witness box, this central error would have discredited my entire evidence. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, as the Roman legal tag has it: wrong in one thing, wrong in all. In fact, the dictum is exaggerated. Errors in some areas may be counter-balanced by truths elsewhere. Nonetheless, I have drawn one personal conclusion from my mortifying discovery. If I’m ever again invited to give testimony on oath or in an on-the-record interview, I will do my homework thoroughly beforehand.

A second lesson is that human gossip and chatter is an essential part of the process of checking and cross-checking memories. Such retrospective discussions (‘She said … ; and then I said … ; and then she replied …’) often seem rambling and inconsequential. They are, however, consolidating the stuff of memory. It works for communities as well as for individuals. Indeed, talking, taking stock, and remembering together is helpful, particularly after experiences of disasters which should not be forgotten in silence. Vera Schwarcz’s powerful study Bridge across Broken Time makes that point in its title.3 Memory, with all its faults, allows for the possibility of understanding the past and overcoming traumas. Conversely, the negative effects of buried memories for starkly dislocated communities reverberate through successive generations.

So my final point: here come the historians. The fallibility of unvarnished memory encouraged the first production of memory aids, such as written and numerical records, and calendrical calculations. And over time humans have generated an immeasurable cornucopia of data and documentation, which is far beyond the capacity of any individual mind to store. It is now a collective resource. Historians don’t replicate human memory. Indeed, they share its fallibilities. But, collectively, they join the task of storing, cross-checking, correcting, ordering, and evaluating a past that goes beyond individual memory.

1  For a stirring analysis, ranging from classical Greece to the European Renaissance, consult the classic by Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (1966). A recent contribution to the memory bug is also provided by Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011).

2  For the philosopher Giulio Camillo (c.1480-1544), see K. Robinson, A Search for the Source of the Whirlpool of Artifice: The Cosmology of Giulio Camillo (Edinburgh, 2006).

3  Vera Schwarcz, Bridge across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory (New Haven, 1998).

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MONTHLY BLOG 13, CROSS-CLASS MARRIAGE IN HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

People often imagine that class barriers were more rigid in the past, notwithstanding historical fluctuations in social attitudes. As a result, it is always assumed that cross-class marriages were especially rare. Yet matters were never so simple. Among the many individuals in the past, who had sexual relationships across class boundaries (a comparatively frequent occurrence), there were always some who were bold enough to marry across them.

One case, among several aristocratic examples from the eighteenth century, was the marriage of the 5th Earl of Berkeley to Mary Cole, the daughter of a Gloucester butcher. She made a dignified wife, living down the social sneers. The Berkeleys began to live together in 1785 and did not marry publicly until 1796, although the Earl claimed that there had been an earlier ceremony.
october001This confusion led to a succession dispute. Eventually, the sons born before the public wedding were disbarred from inheriting the title, which went to their legitimate younger brother. Here the difficulty was not the mother’s comparatively ‘lowly’ status but the status of the parental marriage. It affected the succession to a noble title, which entitled its holder to attend the House of Lords. But the disbarred older siblings did not become social outcasts. Two of the technically illegitimate sons, born before the public marriage, went on to become MPs in the House of Commons, while the legitimate 6th Earl modestly declined to take his seat as a legislator.

Another example, this time from the nineteenth century, was that of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. He was the wealthy owner of Uppark House (Sussex), who in 1825 married for the first time, aged 70. His bride was the 21-year-old Mary Ann Bullock, his dairymaid’s assistant. She inherited his estate, surviving him for many years. Everything at Uppark was kept as it was in Sir Harry’s day. The estate then went to her unmarried sister who, as ‘her leddyship’ in her very old age, appeared to epitomise the old landed society – so much did outcomes triumph over origins. The young H.G. Wells, whose mother was housekeeper at Uppark, mused accordingly:1

In that English countryside of my boyhood every human being had a ‘place’. It belonged to you from your birth like the colour of your eyes, it was inextricably your destiny. Above you were your betters, below you were your inferiors…

The social conventions, within such a hierarchy, did allow for some mobility. High-ranking men raised their wives to a matching status, giving aristocratic men some room for manoeuvre. Against that, noble families generally did their best to ensure that heirs to grand titles did not run away with someone entirely ‘unsuitable’.

A tabulation of the first-marriage choices of 826 English peers, made between 1600 and 1800, showed that, in sober reality, most (73 percent) chose a bride from an equally or nearly equally titled background.2 The homogeneity of the elite was generally preserved.

Interestingly, however, just over one quarter (27 percent) of these English peers – a far from negligible proportion – were more socially venturesome. Their wives from ‘lower’ social backgrounds tended to be daughters of professional men or of merchants. In particular, a splendid commercial fortune was an ideal contribution in terms of bridal dowry; and, in such circumstances, aristocratic families found themselves willing to accept theoretically humbler connections with businessmen ‘in trade’.

Marriages like that of Sir Harry were ‘outliers’ in terms of the social distance between bride and groom. But his matrimonial decision to leap over conventions of social distance was not unique.

For women of high rank, meanwhile, things were more complicated. By marrying ‘down’, they lost social status; and their off-spring, however well connected on the mother’s side, took their ‘lower’ social rank from the father.

Nonetheless, it was far from unknown for high-born women to flout convention. In particular, wealthy widows might follow their own choice in a second marriage, having followed convention in the first. One notable example was Hester Lynch Salusbury, from a Welsh landowning family. She married, firstly, Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer, with whom she had 12 children, and then in 1784 – three years after Thrale’s death – Gabriele Piozzi, an Italian music teacher and a Catholic to boot.3

Scandal ensued. Her children were affronted. And Dr Johnson, a frequent house-guest at the Thrale’s Streatham mansion, was decidedly not amused. Undaunted, Hester Lynch Piozzi and her husband retired to her estates in north Wales, where they lived in a specially built Palladian villa, Brynbella.
october002So little was damage done to the family’s long-term status that her (estranged) oldest daughter married a Viscount. Furthermore, the Piozzis’ adopted son, an Italian nephew of Gabriele Piozzi, inherited the Salusbury estates, taking the compound name Sir John Salusbury Piozzi Salusbury.

If, after the initial fuss, the partners in a cross-class union lived respectably enough, the wider society tended sooner or later to condone the ‘mésalliance’. Feelings were soothed by respect for marriage as an institution. And the wider social stability was ultimately served by absorbing such dynastic shocks rather than by highlighting them.

Little wonder that many a novel dilated on the excitements and tensions of matrimonial choice. Not only was there the challenge of finding a satisfactory partner among social peer-groups but there was always some lurking potential for an unconventional match instead of a conventional union.

Such possibilities – complete with hazards – applied at all levels of society. In the early twentieth century, the family of D.H. Lawrence epitomised a different set of cross-class tensions. His father was a scarcely literate miner from Eastwood, near Nottingham, while his mother was a former assistant teacher with strong literary interests, who disdained the local dialect, and prided herself on her ‘good old burgher family’. From the start, they were ill-assorted.
october003In his youth, D.H. Lawrence was his mother’s partisan and despised his father as feckless and ‘common’. Later, however, he switched his theoretical allegiance. Lawrence felt that his mother’s puritan gentility had warped him. Instead, he yearned for his father’s male sensuousness and frank hedonism, though the father and son never became close.4

Out of such tensions came Lawrence’s preoccupation with man/woman conflict and with unorthodox sex and love. His parent’s strife was also more than mirrored in his own turbulent relationship with Frieda von Richtofen, the daughter of a Silesian aristocrat, who was, when they met, married to a respected Nottingham University professor.

Initial social distance between a married couple could lend enchantment – or the reverse. Cross-class relationships have been frequent enough for there to have been many cases, both successful and the reverse. Later generations always underestimate their number. But we should not ignore the potential for cultural punch (positive or negative) when couples from different backgrounds marry, even in times when class barriers are less than rigid. Nor should we underestimate society’s long-term ability to absorb such shocks, which would have to happen in great numbers before a classless society might be achieved.

1 H.G. Wells, Tono-Bungay (1909; in 1994 edn), pp. 10-11. For more about the Fe(a)therstonhaugh marriage and the context of Sussex landowning society, see A. Warner, ‘Finding the Aristocracy, 1780-1880: A Case Study of Rural Sussex’ (unpub. typescript, 2011; copyright A. Warner, who can be contacted via PJC).

2 Figures calculated from data in J. Cannon, Aristocratic Century: The Peerage of Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1984), p. 85: Table 20. Note that the social status of each bride is derived from the rank of her father, so possibly obscuring a more variegated background in terms of her maternal inheritance.

3 Details of their courtship and Hester Thrale’s meditations on their disparities in rank are available on the website: www.thrale.com.

4 R. Aldington, Portrait of a Genius but …: The Life of D.H. Lawrence (1950), pp. 3-5, 8-9, 13, 15, 334.

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MONTHLY BLOG 6, RECONSIDERING REVOLUTIONS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

Revolution – metamorphosis – transformation – disjunction – diagenesis – dialectical leap forward – paradigm shift. Marvellous long words and phrases, such as these (and many more), collectively express the sense of drastic upheaval that is contained within the concept of macro-change.

And yes, great turbulent upheavals occur not only in the natural world (earthquakes, volcanoes, tempests, floods, fires) but in human societies too. Not surprising, really. We are part of the whole and so subject to the same intricate mix of continuities/gradual changes/ and macro-changes that interact seamlessly throughout the cosmos.

But, talking of great transformations, three distinctions can be made.

Firstly, language. The term ‘revolution’ is far too often over-used. It has become tired, lacking the punch and clarity that such a concept should retain. So we need a smarter vocabulary to differentiate between the different categories of radical upheaval.

My own advice is to reserve ‘revolution’ for violent and/or transformational upheavals of systems of government. (Here the reference is to something more drastic than a coup, which changes the leadership without changing the regime). Political revolutions are distinctive. They are characterised by mass action, which aims at rejecting, with violence if need be, an established system of rule with its associated power structures, and at installing something qualitatively different. Political revolutions accordingly differ from other forms of macro-change.

After all, is it analytically helpful to name the process of industrialisation as the Industrial Revolution, when it unfolded over decades, even centuries? The shift from a human- and animal-powered economy to one dependent upon mechanical power was truly epic. But its advent incorporated both dramatic innovations and slower evolutionary adaptations. So why not call it a Technological Transformation? Such a name acknowledges the magnitude of change but does not confine change to one revolutionary moment or movement.

For example, the first steam-powered cotton-looms were truly remarkable. They dramatically increased productivity as well as changed patterns of working, as the male handloom weavers in their homes were ousted by machine-minders in large factories [shown below in an early nineteenth-century illustration]. Yet the clerical inventor Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823), who patented his steam-powered loom in 1785, failed financially. It took decades for his pioneering invention to be adopted, adapted and further upgraded; and centuries for mechanical power to become so essential in so many human activities world-wide, as it is today. Technological transformations need therefore to be analysed with a different set of terms and concepts.
march004Secondly: political revolutions also need to be located within a spectrum of different sorts and degrees of change. It is very rarely, if ever, that everything is transformed all at once. The rhetoric of dramatic metamorphosis is both fearful and hopeful: ‘All changed, changed utterly;/ A terrible beauty is born’, as Yeats saluted the Irish Easter Rising in 1916. Yet, when the dust dies down, continuity turns out to have dragged at the heels of revolution after all. What is known as admirable heritage to its fans is deplorable inertia to its critics. Thus Karl Marx once denounced with righteous passion: ‘the tradition of all the dead generations [that] weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’.

There are other forces within history as well as the desire for radical change. Accordingly, theories of history which assume revolution to be the sole mechanism of change are one-sided and need correction. That criticism applies both to Hegel’s dialectical combustion of conflicting ideals, which each time led to the emergence of a new historical stage; and to the Marxist version of revolutionary conflict in the form of dialectical materialism. For Karl Marx and his loyal co-thinker Friedrich Engels the growing tensions from class conflict would eventually ignite great political revolutions, each one propelling a new social class into power.
march002Yet no. Not only does fundamental change frequently develop via evolutionary rather than revolutionary means; but revolutions do not always introduce macro-change. They can fail, abort, halt, recede, fudge, muddle, diverge, transmute and/or provoke counter-revolutions. The complex failures and mutations of the communist revolutions, which were directly inspired in the twentieth century by the historical philosophy of Marx and Engels, make that point historically, as well as theoretically.

Thirdly, therefore: revolutions are not all the same and are not all automatically successful. Drastic upheaval through direct action is sometimes the only way to effect change.
1revollusion

A youthful enthusiast at the Berlin Wall before its fall –
trying some revolutionary spelling for good measure.
Copyright© NasanTur 2008

The concept can exert a radical charm all its own, especially in prospect – before any bloodshed. ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom’. ‘O brave new world’. Yet rosy dreams may turn to horror. Brightness can turn to night. ‘Musing on roses and revolutions,/ I saw night close down on the earth like a great dark wing …/ And I heard the lamentations of a million hearts’, as the African American poet Dudley Randall wrote sombrely in 1968, aware that radical hopes would not easily transform the long after-history of African slavery.

So within the revolution, remember that it is easier to unite against what is not wanted than to agree on what is wanted instead. When the old regime has gone, it is important to keep talking rather than to switch to fighting one’s own side. Don’t let the revolution consume its own children. Don’t let the new regime mimic the faults of its predecessor. Use the great heroic power of revolutionary transformation to break from violence into new dialogue and new construction, taking time to engage with evolution and to tame old continuities.Celebrations-TahrirSquare

Celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 12 February 2011 after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak as Egypt’s President. Copyright ©nebedaay’s photostream 2011

Lastly, is there a periodicity to political revolutions? Do they come in any predictable pattern? In fact, again no. History would be tidier and easier to understand if it were so. Nonetheless, there is often a chance (not an inevitability) of a political uprising, even under the most repressive regimes, with each bold new generation of young people – every twenty years or so. We are currently witnessing the opportunity for real political transformations in the Arab world. Let it be beauty and not terror that forthcomes.

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MONTHLY BLOG 4, ON THE SUBTLE POWER OF GRADUALISM

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

Currently, fashionable chatter on the new political Right refers approvingly to the case for ‘chaos’. That view is voiced by Nick Boles, Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford, author of Which Way’s Up? The Future for Coalition Britain (2010). Out of institutional turmoil, financial cuts, and the end of central planning there will – supposedly – emerge a benign new localised order, freed from the shackles of the contemporary state. The premise is that things should not be as they are. So the uncertainty of chaos is needed to encourage change. But history provides no guarantees that the outcome will be the one desired.

Rather more traditionally, the hard political Left also hopes for ‘revolution’. It’s not the same as ‘chaos’, though it contains the same hope. Out of upheaval will emerge the desired socio-political transformation. In fact, it has proved difficult to achieve such sweeping changes. It takes a total crisis to offer a revolutionary opportunity (as in Russia in 1917). But, even after that, it remains hard to keep a revolutionary regime in power against internal and external enemies, without compromising the original ideals that animated the revolution in the first place. Soviet Russia offers a sad example.

So why the apparent enthusiasm for chaos or revolution? Such attitudes mark an impatience with the strong forces of tradition and vested interests (see my October Discussion-point). And, in certain circumstances, there may be no alternative to drastic action.

But what about the case for the subtle power of gradual change? Perhaps slow transformation seems simply too tardy for today’s politicians. After all, they are constantly beset by demands for instant headlines and instant results. Belief in gradual change has also been tainted by its past association an infallible and unstoppable ‘Progress’. The horrendous experiences of the twentieth century – in terms of world wars, genocides, mass famines, and killer epidemics – have discouraged any easy belief that things are slowly getting better across the board.

On the other hand, there are still some things to be said in favour of gradualism. It marks gentle ‘progression’ rather than inevitable ‘Progress’.

As a political method, it works by trying to convince people. They are to be wooed, not bludgeoned. ‘Slow but sure’ runs the adage. Festina lente – ‘make haste slowly’. ‘More haste, less speed’. Follow the example of the Roman consul Fabius Maximus. Avoid battle or direct confrontation, especially when likely to lose. Play for the long term. But don’t give up either. Fabianism is no excuse for inertia but an invitation to join the ‘long march’.

Historically, there are many examples of how patient advocacy over time can change social attitudes. Once majority opinion in many cultures held that human slavery was permissible and acceptable – even necessary and justifiable – in certain circumstances. The first few campaigners against the practice were condemned for their utter unrealism. Now, however, world-wide opinion holds that slavery is a social evil, even though various forms of personal unfreedom still – shamingly – exist in practice. Official beliefs have changed, collectively and gradually. Even those who covertly disagree find that they have to endorse the new line publicly. And there are reasons to hope that, eventually, the practices of covert slavery will also be stopped, in line with the reversal of world opinion from pro- to anti-slavery.

In fact, cultural attitudes, languages, and ideas are characteristically aspects of human life where transformations occur slowly and gradually. Individuals may often find that they have changed their views imperceptibly over some particular issue – without remembering particularly when and how the change happened. One common, though not invariable, pattern is a shift from youthful radicalism to an older hostility to innovation. Or it could be a move from earlier pacifism to later bellicosity. Of course, sudden and explicit conversions are also known. But gradual adaptations are very characteristic.

Slow evolution, after all, is a regular part of the physical world, of which humans form part. In biology, micro-change is the characteristic form of species adaptation through natural selection over time. That pattern was convincingly demonstrated in the mid-nineteenth century by Alfred Russel Wallace and, most famously, by Charles Darwin. His field observations substantiated the classic dictum: Natura non facit saltumNature does not proceed by sudden leaps and bounds.

The precise mechanisms of change remain debated; and the possibility of natural catastrophes are also canvassed. Nonetheless, the biological centrality of gradual change remains undoubted. And individuals, who find themselves imperceptibly ageing, know the process at first hand. It happened to Charles Darwin (1809-82), as shown in these likenesses of him aged 31 in 1840 (Left); aged 45 in 1854 (Right); and aged 60 in 1869 (Bottom Left).
charlesdickensLastly, for historians, it is also not surprising to find that gradual change is a powerful force in human history. There are many long-term trends that are slow and relatively imperceptible at the time. One example is the world-wide spread of literacy since circa 1700. Certainly there have been oscillations in the trend; but it is unlikely to be reversed, short of global catastrophe.

Another long-term development post-1700 is the process of global urbanisation, with a continuing growth in the proportion of the world’s population living and working in towns. In addition, the numbers living in great cities of 1,000,000+ has also expanded dramatically. Again, this trend has not been linear. But it is highly unlikely to be reversed – again short of catastrophe.

And finally, what about the contemporary state? It has not arrived out of the blue, as an imposition upon its citizens. Instead, it has emerged slowly, along complex routes – from its origins in monarchical society to its officially democratised version today. Sure, there is much more to do by way of making popular participation in politics more systematic and more effective. Sure, too, there are continuing areas for debate as to how much the state can do and should do. But, again, the emergence of orderly government and a collective sustaining of the rule of law is a trend that has long emerged – is still emerging in some lawless parts of the world – and ought to be encouraged.

With collective urbanisation has come the need for effective governance. With the spread of literacy has come the pressures to democratise – with further steps yet required. And with global population growth has come the collective need to manage the planet for the survival of humans and our fellow species.

‘Chaos’ in the full sense means destruction, not salvation. It means running against the grain of historical trends. So let politicians have a sense of modesty about their own roles and aims. Gradual change is more natural, more sustainable, and socially more pleasant. Progress may have been an ideal too far. But steady progression marks how things actually work – and ought to work.

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MONTHLY BLOG 2, WHY IS THE FORMIDABLE POWER OF CONTINUITY SO OFTEN OVERLOOKED?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2010)

My discussion-points aim to alternate between big themes relating to Education and big themes relating to Interpreting History. So, since the October debate highlighted the current mania for wrongly prizing Skills over Knowledge (instead the two go integrally together), this November discussion-point takes a different tack, in order to ask Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity so often Overlooked?

One central point of definition needs to be made immediately. ‘Continuity’ is not the same as ‘Conservatism’ as a political philosophy. It is true that the latter ideology does gain much support by appealing to many people’s desire for the former. But it is equally clear that Conservatives in power may also have their own highly interventionist programmes.

To take a current example, the UK’s Conservative-Liberal Coalition has launched radical cuts in welfare spending as well as drastic institutional reorganisations, in order to ‘roll back the state’. But government is not an ‘intruder’ from an alien world. Its mechanisms have been developed (or, to its critics, overdeveloped) over many years by many governments. So the state and society are closely meshed – not only via institutions, laws and tax systems but also via people’s daily expectations, customary routines and a range of differing vested interests.

As a result – interestingly – one of many factors ranged against the current government’s plans will be the force of Continuity, also known as tradition or, unkindly, ‘inertia’. Its power may appear in many guises, from outright resistance to more-or-less concealed foot-dragging.

Furthermore, Continuity also works unexpectedly by twisting apparent innovations back into ‘more of the same’. An awareness of such slipperiness prompted a famous snappy dictum from a French journalist, named Alphonse Karr (see below). He viewed the string of abortive revolutions across Europe in 1848 and concluded pensively that ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’. [Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose].
Alphonse_KarrOf course, Karr was not completely right. Changes undoubtedly do happen, both gradually and dramatically. But they are always tempered by the power of Continuity. In fact, innovations may fail or prove to be counterproductive – either because opponents consciously strive to circumvent change – or because the innovations are imperfectly planned and/or implemented – or because the innovations have anyway little intrinsic chance of success.

An example was the policy of Prohibition in the USA in 1920, when the 18th Amendment to prevent the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol eventually failed. (Prohibition was repealed in 1933). On the other hand, controls or even bans on disputed drugs can work when public opinion is broadly supportive. The gradual demise of cigarette smoking in many Western countries is a counter-example to the case of alcohol.

Where do the forces of Continuity come from? Some are embedded within from time-invariant features of the universe, like the laws of physics, which are constants. These features hold the world together stably from moment to moment. Even within the turbulence of quantum physics, there is one tiny invariant facture, known as Plank’s Constant, which operates as a marker, against which other changes can be measured. But other elements of Continuity come from human societies, in the form of traditions, customs, and habitual expectations. These also can and do change. But much persists, as it would be too exhausting and confusing if everyone altered everything in their lives from moment to moment.

So, lastly, why are the forces of Continuity so strangely overlooked? The answer is that Continuity acts as the universe’s ‘default system’, which is simply taken for granted. It is so constant and so ubiquitous that it becomes invisible. Next time that you do something automatically, without thinking about it, you are enacting Continuity. It’s not the only force in the world – and it’s by no means all-powerful. But it’s more important than is often realised – and it operates not only throughout the wider world but also within you.

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