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Friday, 11 December 2015

The Refugee Crisis, the Paris attacks and the Death of History. Part 3

More on the deconstruction of narrative and the political irrelevance of specific histories...

Part 1 of this essay is here
Part 2 of this essay is here

Some further points might bring this [The argument advanced in Part 2] home.  The first is that, even if straightforward, binary hostility between Romans and barbarians, or between Christians and Muslims, does fundamentally account for a particular event in the narrative ‘chain’, that does not mean it explains any of the others. Equally, if one event can convincingly be explained according to a ‘longue durée’ account of the conflict for the control of long-distance trade within the ecological and economic context and constraints of interconnected Mediterranean communities – with ethnic or religious labels only used as rallying cries – that does not mean it necessarily works for any other event in the ‘chain’. In other words, any event can only be understood on its own.

The second – and quite obvious – point,  developing one I made earlier, is that no event in history has ever been caused by a preceding event.  The First World War did not in and of itself cause the Second World War. The assault on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 did not – in itself – cause, or bring about, the ‘War on Terror’.  At no point was anyone compelled by the First World War or ‘9/11’ to do anything in particular.  What they did, they chose to do.  I do not claim that anyone had a completely free choice or that there were no constraints on their actions or their political vocabulary but there was never a single way to respond to the attack on the Twin Towers, there was never a single way in which the trauma of the Great War had to be employed in German, or French or British politics in the 1920s or 1930s, and there was never a single way in which people had to respond to such uses of past events.  There has always been a choice.  The role of the historian is to account for and understand why certain responses, or certain vocabularies (or discourses), rather than others were chosen and ‘worked’ with their political audiences.

The third point that I want to make – and again it is a fairly obvious point and one that I have made many times before – is that the results of historical actions and events can be the diametric opposite of those intended by any of the agents involved. It is this accidental or ironic aspect of history (and indeed of being) that in my view continues to be under-explored, whether in history or in philosophy. An event intended as a straightforward crusade/jihad by one set of monotheists against another might in the end result in some sort of cohabitation and understanding; an event or action intended to bring faiths together might do the opposite (e.g. the Council of Florence alluded to earlier); an event or action not intended to have any religious significance at all might become the casus belli for a vicious inter-faith conflict.

If we choose to analyse any action or event in history, it is – obviously – us who define that event and its parameters.  Once defined, any event is – obviously (yet again) unique and unrepeatable.  It has, furthermore, no inherent relationship, qua event, with any other event, earlier or later. It may be linked by contemporaries to other events in various forms of political and social discourse, or by later historians constructing narratives as discussed above, but any such links are only ever made in the moment, in the ever moving present, and with effects (as with the events themselves) that can never be assured.

We must embrace the irreducible singularity of historical action and, therefore, history’s radical discontinuity.

Admittedly, this sounds like uncomfortable advice, not least because it undermines almost every justification for the study of history that is ever trotted out.  What I just referred to as embracing the radical discontinuity of history and the irreducible singularity of past events cuts the ground from beneath any attempt to claim that history has any relevance at all, at least as usually defined.[1] Indeed, when I last discussed these ideas, one commenter claimed that I was arguing for the removal of the ‘whole point’ of history.  Historical narratives, which are supposed to be so important to the teaching of history,[2] and to the maintenance of cultures and nations, do not explain anything.  Indeed they only inform you of the most banal descriptive sequence.  Imagine blindfolding yourself, being spun round three times and then trying to walk through your house, while a friend filmed you bumbling about, walking into doors and furniture and trying different directions.  Playing the film back and watching it would serve exactly the same purpose as learning any historical narrative.  Historical agents have no idea where they are going.  They might think they know but it rarely turns out that way.  You can’t see the decision-making process from the film, and that process itself was based upon half-remembered, misunderstood, often misleading past experiences. And that is with a single, unilinear sequence, unlike the infinite different strands that can be followed in history.  History does not tell us who we are and how we got here except in the most banal fashion possible. This happened. Then this happened, and then this happened. But none of the happenings chosen was caused by the previous event selected or caused the one that came next. So there is actually no explanation at all; just a selective and misleading description.

The ideas I have proposed are also antithetical to any of the claims made that history has any bearing on what might be termed ‘policy’. I have argued before that no knowledge of history was of any value in the debates on whether or not to attack Iraq.  The argument that Blair and Bush would not have invaded Iraq had they but known more about history is one that has only been made effective with hindsight.  As I have said before[3], the argument that the British experience in Mesopotamia should have deterred the invasion is extremely weak and relies upon the notion that the inhabitants of the region were somehow bound to behave in 2003 in exactly the same way as they had in 1920. Such an argument could easily enough be disposed of in the run-up to the invasion and, had the war somehow been a success, would hardly  be being presented as a justification of history now, after the event. No. The only forceful intelligence available to help judge the feasibility or otherwise of attacking Iraq at the time was that which related to Iraq and its internal politics in 2003 – and we all know how much of that was either ignored or falsified – and the necessity of having some sort of reasonable plan for what to do afterwards. History had nothing to do with it. When Tony Blair told the US Congress, before the Iraq War that ‘[t]here has never been a time when … a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day’ it was the first half of the statement that was wrong, not the second. A study of history (by which, in this case, I mean the simple study of past events seemingly similar to those happening in the present) has never been capable of  providing much, if any, instruction.

The deconstruction of narrative fatally undermines the arguments for the importance of the long term in providing history that is somehow useful to the formulation of policy that have been made recently (by two more history professors from Harvard – it’s a faculty that seems currently not to be excelling itself in the intellectual stakes). Long-term narratives, as noted, are artificial constructs. The proposal that they can show which ‘threats’[4] are major and which are merely passing trends will simply not withstand scrutiny.  In addition to the selective construction of narrative (as above), the argument is obviously teleological and – ironically – therefore entirely contingent, dependent upon the short term. Yet, the book in which these extremely weak arguments were put forward managed to become the subject of a special issue of the once-great journal Annales. Thus far have we fallen.

Paul Krugman, Nobel-laureate economist and sharp observer of and commentator upon current affairs, has recently read both Tom Holland’s and actual historian Robert Hoyland’s accounts of the ‘Rise of Islam’ (the phrase emplots the narrative in itself, of course).  He concluded that, while they were interesting, he doubted that either tell us very much about the current situation. He is absolutely correct.  The only thing that helps us to understand what is going on now is the analysis of what people are doing now and why they say they are doing it.  This, clearly, follows on from the point I made earlier about past events having no force in and of themselves.

Clearly, the argument I am making here is probably profoundly shocking to people who actually do think that a study of a particular past can somehow usefully inform government. And yet the arguments to the contrary are uniformly weak.  Why has the discipline History let itself get into the position where it can make no robust argument for its intellectual value other than cock-eyed notions of relevance on the one hand or an élitist argument that historians need not justify what they do at all,[5] on the other?




[4] I leave aside the profoundly conservative concerns of this work.

[5] This, I am informed – perhaps wrongly – was the argument presented at Kalamazoo by Prof Marcus Bull: that medieval history us inherently valuable and interesting and that’s that.