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MONTHLY BLOG 92, HISTORIANS AT WORK THROUGH TIME

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)
Historians, who study the past, don’t undertake this exercise from some vantage point outside Time. They, like everyone else, live within an unfolding temporality. That’s very fundamental. Thus it’s axiomatic that historians, like their subjects of study, are all equally Time-bound.1

Nor do historians undertake the study of the past in one single moment in time. Postmodernist critics of historical studies sometimes write as though historical sources are culled once only from an archive and then adopted uncritically. The implied research process is one of plucking choice flowers and then pressing them into a scrap-book to some pre-set design.

On such grounds, critics of the discipline highlight the potential flaws in all historical studies. Sources from the past are biased, fallible and scrappy. Historians in their retrospective analysis are also biased, fallible and sometimes scrappy. And historical writings are literary creations only just short of pure fiction.2

Historians should welcome scepticism this dose of scepticism – always a useful corrective. Yet they entirely reject the proposition that trying to understand bygone eras is either impossible or worthless. Rebuttals to postmodernist scepticism have been expressed theoretically;3 and also directly, via pertinent case studies which cut through the myths and ‘fake news’ which often surround controversial events in history.4

When at work, historians should never take their myriad of source materials literally and uncritically. Evidence is constantly sought, interrogated, checked, cross-checked, compared and contrasted, as required for each particular research theme. The net is thrown widely or narrowly, again depending upon the subject. Everything is a potential source, from archival documents to art, architecture, artefacts and though the gamut to witness statements and zoological exhibits. Visual materials can be incorporated either as primary sources in their own right, or as supporting documentation. Information may be mapped and/or tabulated and/or statistically interrogated. Digitised records allow the easy selection of specific cases and/or the not-so-easy processing of mass data.

As a result, researching and writing history is a slow through-Time process – sometimes tediously so. It takes at least four years, from a standing start, to produce a big specialist, ground-breaking study of 100,000 words on a previously un-studied (or under-studied) historical topic. The exercise demands a high-level synthesis of many diverse sources, running to hundreds or even thousands. Hence the methodology is characteristically much more than a ‘reading’ of one or two key texts – although, depending upon the theme, at times a close reading of a few core documents (as in the history of political ideas) is essential too.

Mulling over meanings is an important part of the process too. History as a discipline encourages a constant thinking and rethinking, with sustained creative and intellectual input. It requires knowledge of the state of the discipline – and a close familiarity with earlier work in the chosen field of study. Best practice therefore enjoins writing, planning and revising as the project unfolds. For historical studies, ‘writing through’ is integral, rather than waiting until all the hard research graft is done and then ‘writing up’.5

The whole process is arduous and exciting, in almost equal measure. It’s constantly subject to debate and criticism from peer groups at seminars and conferences. And, crucially too, historians are invited to specify not only their own methodologies but also their own biases/assumptions/framework thoughts. This latter exercise is known as ‘self-reflexivity’. It’s often completed at the end of a project, although it’s then inserted near the start of the resultant book or essay. And that’s because writing serves to crystallise and refine (or sometimes to reject) the broad preliminary ideas, which are continually tested by the evidence.

One classic example of seriously through-Time writing comes from the classic historian Edward Gibbon. The first volume of his Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in February 1776. The sixth and final one followed in 1788. According to his autobiographical account, the gestation of his study dated from 1764. He was then sitting in the Forum at Rome, listening to Catholic monks singing vespers on Capitol Hill. The conjunction of ancient ruins and later religious commitments prompted his core theme, which controversially deplored the role of Christianity in the ending of Rome’s great empire. Hence the ‘present’ moments in which Gibbon researched, cogitated and wrote stretched over more than 20 years. When he penned the last words of the last volume, he recorded a sensation of joy. But then he was melancholic that his massive project was done.6 (Its fame and the consequent controversies last on today; and form part of the history of history).

1 For this basic point, see PJC, ‘People Sometimes Say “We Don’t Learn from the Past” – and Why that Statement is Completely Absurd’, BLOG/91 (July 2018), to which this BLOG/92 is a companion-piece.

2 See e.g. K. Jenkins, ReThinking History (1991); idem (ed.), The Postmodern History Reader (1997); C.G. Brown, Postmodernism for Historians (Harlow, 2005); A. Munslow, The Future of History (Basingstoke, 2010).

3 J. Appleby, L. Hunt and M. Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York, 1994); R. Evans, In Defence of History (1997); J. Tosh (ed.), Historians on History (Harlow, 2000); A. Brundage, Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing (Hoboken, NJ., 2017).

4 H. Shudo, The Nanking Massacre: Fact versus Fiction – A Historian’s Quest for the Truth, transl. S. Shuppan (Tokyo, 2005); Vera Schwarcz, Bridge across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory (New Haven, 1998).

5 PJC, ‘Writing Through a Big Research Project, not Writing Up’, BLOG/60 (Dec.2015); PJC, ‘How I Write as a Historian’, BLOG/88 (April 2018).

6 R. Porter, Gibbon: Making History (1989); D.P. Womersley, Gibbon and the ‘Watchmen of the Holy City’: The Historian and his Reputation, 1776-1815 (Oxford, 2002).

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MONTHLY BLOG 91, PEOPLE SOMETIMES SAY: ‘WE DON’T LEARN FROM THE PAST’ AND WHY THAT STATEMENT IS COMPLETELY ABSURD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

People sometimes say, dogmatically but absurdly: ’We don’t learn from the Past’. Oh really? So what do humans learn from, then? We don’t learn from the Future, which has yet to unfold. We do learn in and from the Present. Yet every moment of ‘Now’ constitutes an infinitesimal micro-instant an unfolding process. The Present is an unstable time-period, which is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the Past. Humans don’t have time, in that split-second of ‘Now’, to comprehend and assimilate everything. As a result, we have, unavoidably, to learn from what has gone before: our own and others’ experiences, which are summed as everything before ‘Now’: the Past.

It’s worth reprising the status of those temporal categories. The Future, which has not yet unfolded, is not known or knowable in its entirety. That’s a definitional quality which springs from the unidirectional nature of Time. It does not mean that the Future is either entirely unknown or entirely unknowable. As an impending temporal state, it may beckon, suggest, portend. Humans are enabled to have considerable information and expectations about many significant aspects of the Future. For example, it’s clear from past experience that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die in their current corporeal form. We additionally know that tomorrow will come after today, because that is how we habitually define diurnal progression within unilinear Time. We also confidently expect that in the future two plus two will continue to equal four; and that all the corroborated laws of physics will still apply.

And we undertake calculations, based upon past data, which provide the basis for Future predictions or estimates. For example, actuarial tables, showing age-related life expectancy, indicate group probabilities, though not absolute certainties. Or, to take a different example, we know, from expert observation and calculation, that Halley’s Comet is forecast to return into sight from Earth in mid-2061. Many, though not all, people alive today will be able to tell whether that astronomical prediction turns out to be correct or not. And there’s every likelihood  that it will be.

Commemorating a successful prediction,
in the light of past experience:
a special token struck in South America in 2010 to celebrate
the predicted return to view from Planet Earth
of Halley’s Comet,
whose periodicity was first calculated by Edward Halley (1656-1742)

Yet all this (and much more) useful information about the Future is, entirely unsurprisingly, drawn from past experience, observations and calculations. As a result, humans can use the Past to illuminate and to plan for the Future, without being able to foretell it with anything like total precision.

So how about learning from the Present? It’s live, immediate, encircling, inescapably ‘real’. We all learn in our own present times – and sometimes illumination may come in a flash of understanding. One example, as Biblically recounted, is the conversion of St Paul, who in his unregenerate days was named Saul: ‘And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus; and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”’1 His eyes were temporarily blinded; but spiritually he was enlightened. Before then, Saul was one of the Christians’ chief persecutors, ‘breathing out threatening and slaughter’.2 Perhaps a psychologist might suggest that his intense hostility concealed some unexpressed fascination with Christianity. Nonetheless, there was no apparent preparation, so the ‘Damascene conversion’ which turned Saul into St Paul remains the classic expression of an instant change of heart. But then he had to rethink and grow into his new role, working with those he had been attempting to expunge.

A secular case of sudden illumination appears in the fiction of Jane Austen. In Emma (1815), the protagonist, a socially confident would-be match-maker, has remained in ignorance of her own heart. She encourages her young and humble protégé, Harriet Smith, to fancy herself in love. They enjoy the prospect of romance. Then Emma suddenly learns precisely who is the object of Harriet’s affections. The result is wonderfully described.3 Emma sits in silence for several moments, in a fixed attitude, contemplating the unpleasant news:

Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!

I remember first reading this novel, as a teenager, when I was as surprised as Emma at this development. Since then, I’ve reread the story many times; and I can now see the prior clues which Austen scatters through the story to alert more worldly-wise readers that George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse are a socially and personally compatible couple, acting in concert long before they both (separately) realise their true feelings. It’s a well drawn example of people learning from the past whilst ‘wising up’ in a single moment. Emma then undertakes some mortifying retrospection as she gauges her own past errors and blindness. But she is capable of learning from experience. She does; and so, rather more artlessly, does Harriet. It’s a comedy of trial-and-error as the path to wisdom.

As those examples suggest, the relationship of learning with Time is in fact a very interesting and complex one. Humans learn in their own present moments. Yet the process of learning and education as a whole has to be a through-Time endeavour. A flash of illumination needs to be mentally consolidated and ‘owned’. Otherwise it is just one of those bright ideas which can come and as quickly go.   Effective learning thus entails making oneself familiar with a subject by repetition, cogitation, debating, and lots of practice. Such through-Time application applies whether people are learning physical or intellectual skills or both. The role of perspiration, as well as inspiration, is the stuff of many mottoes: ‘practice makes perfect’; ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’; ‘stick at it’; ‘never stop learning’; ‘trudge another mile’; ‘learn from experience’.

Indeed, the entire corpus of knowledge and experience that humans have assembled over many generations is far too huge to be assimilated in an instant. (It’s actually too huge for any one individual to master. So we have to specialise and share).

So that brings the discussion back to the Past. It stretches back through Time and onwards until ‘Now’. Of course, we learn from it. Needless to say, it doesn’t follow that people always agree on messages from former times, or act wisely in the light of such information. Hence when people say: ‘We don’t learn from the Past’, they probably mean that it does not deliver one guiding message, on which everyone agrees. And that’s right. It doesn’t and there isn’t.

One further pertinent point: there are rumbling arguments around the question – is the Past alive or dead? (With a hostile implication in the sub-text that nothing can really be learned from a dead and vanished Past.) But that’s not a helpful binary. In other words, it’s a silly question. Some elements of the past have conclusively gone, while many others persist through time.4 To take just a few examples, the human genome was not invented this morning; human languages have evolved over countless generations; and the laws of physics apply throughout.

Above all, therefore, the integral meshing between Past and Present means that we, individual humans, have also come from the Past. It’s in us as well as, metaphorically speaking, behind us. Thinking of Time as running along a pathway or flowing like a river is a common human conception of temporality. Other alternatives might envisage the Past as ‘above’, ‘below’, ‘in front’, ‘behind’, or ‘nowhere specific’. The metaphor doesn’t really matter as long as we realise that it pervades everything, including ourselves.

1 Holy Bible, Acts 9: 3-4.

2 Ibid, 9:1.

3 J. Austen, Emma: A Novel (1815), ed. R. Blythe (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 398.

4 P.J. Corfield, ‘Is the Past Dead or Alive? And the Snares of Such Binary Questions’, BLOG/62 (Feb.2016).

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MONTHLY BLOG 62, IS THE PAST DEAD OR ALIVE? AND THE SNARES OF SUCH BINARY QUESTIONS.

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Is the past dead or alive? Posing such a binary question insists upon choice; but the options constitute a false dichotomy. Nonetheless, the death of the past is often proclaimed. This BLOG examines the arguments for and against; and highlights the snares of binary thinking.

Firstly, the past, dead or alive? The ‘death of the past’ is a common, possibly reassuring notion. If you have forgotten the History dates learned at school, then don’t worry, you are in good company. Most people have. In the USA there is a sad debate entitled: ‘Is History history?’ There is at least one book entitled The Death of the Past.1 In fact, that particular study laments that people forget far too much. Nonetheless, emphatic phrases circulate in popular culture. ‘Never look back. The past is dead and buried’. ‘The bad (or good) Old Days have gone’. Something or other is irrevocably past – rendering it ‘as dead as the proverbial dodo’, which was last reliably sighted in Mauritius in 1662.2016-02 No1 Frohawk_Dodo-1905

Illus. 1: The Dodo by F.W. Frohawk,
from L.W. Rothschild’s Extinct Birds (1907).

At the same time, however, there’s a rival strand of thought, which asserts that the past is very much alive. The most famous and often quoted claim to that effect comes from William Faulkner, writing in the American Deep South in 1951, where memories and resentments from Civil War times have far from disappeared. ‘The past is never dead’, he wrote. ‘It’s not even past’. 2

Another strong statement to that effect came from Karl Marx in 1851/2. He thundered at the unpastness of the past. Revolutionary activism was constantly hampered by old thinking and old ideas: ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brain of the living’.3

Opposition to old thinking was accordingly expressed by many later Communist leaders. The ‘new’ was good and revolutionary. Antiquity was the dangerous foe. Chairman Mao’s campaign against the ‘Four Olds’ – Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas – was a striking example, at the time of his intended Cultural Revolution in 1966.4 Yet the fact that various traditional aspects of Chinese life still persist today indicates the difficulty of uprooting very deeply embedded social attitudes, even when using the resources of a totalitarian state.

For historians, meanwhile, it’s best to reject over-simplified choices. Many things in the past (both material and intangible) have died or come to an end. Yet far from everything has shared the same fate. Ideas, languages, cultures, religions persist through Time, incorporating changes alongside continuities; biological traits evolve over immensely long periods; the structure of the cosmos unfolds over many billennia (an emergent neologism) within a measurable framework.

Hence there’s nothing like a rigid divide between past and present. They are separated by no more than a nano-second between NOW and the immediate nano-second before NOW, so that legacies/contributions from the past infuse every moment as it is lived.

Secondly, thinking in terms of binary alternatives: Having to choose between bad/old/dead versus good/new/alive is a classic example of binary thought. It is an approach commonly cultivated by activists, for example in revolutionary or apocalyptic religious movements. Are you with the great cause or against it? Such attitudes can be psychologically powerful in binding groups together.

Binaries can also be useful when assessing the strength and weakness of an argument or a proposed course of action. As bimanual creatures, we can consider the pros and cons, using the formula ‘on the one hand’ … ‘on the other hand’. Indeed, when making a case, it’s always helpful to understand the arguments against your own. That way, when facing a fundamental critic, you are prepared. (Binary options also provide a good way to bully a witness on oath: Come on, answer, Yes or No! When the truthful reply might be ‘Somewhat’ or ‘Maybe’.)

It’s even been argued that some human societies are intrinsically binary in their deepest thought patterns. Russian culture is one that has been historically so identified.5 Hence binary switching may have helped to familiarise the population with the country’s dramatic twentieth-century lurches from Tsarism to Communism and, later, back to a different form of oligarchic Democracy. (Do today’s Russians agree; or perhaps, agree somewhat?)

Either way, there is no doubt that binary thought, like binary notation, has its uses. But studying History requires the capacity to grapple with complexity alongside simplicity. Is the past dead or alive? The answer is both and neither. It falls within the embrace of ever-stable ever-fluid Time, which lives and dies simultaneously.

J.H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (1969; reissued Harmondsworth, 1973; Basingstoke, 2003).

W. Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951), Act 1, sc. 3.

K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1851/2), in D. McClellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford, 1977), p. 300.

P. Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History (Cambridge, 2008); M. Gao, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (2008).

Y.M. Lotman and B.A. Uspensky, ‘Binary Models in the Dynamics of Russian Culture’, in A.D. and A.S. Nakhimovsky (eds), The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History (Ithaca, NY., 1985), pp. 30-66.

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