A couple of weeks ago, at a drinks party, a friend casually asked whether it was the end of term yet – and was clearly surprised that I then spent five minutes explaining how, rather than the traditional binary term/not-term distinction, British universities now operate on the principle of a spectrum of termliness, in which the level of demands on academic time imposed by the university gradually diminishes from the time when we finish marking exams – but never entirely disappears. On the online calendar system, Monday June 16th is when “Students summer vacation starts” – no suggestion that such a thing applies to academics any more. Indeed, the effect of the online calendar system is to imply that we are available throughout the summer, to be scheduled into meetings at any point unless we expressly block out time for research, writing or – heaven forbid – actual holiday. It’s not that we ever had months of vacation, but there used to be an expectation that we would be able to shift our focus from teaching and admin to research for at least a month or so, and it’s not as if they’re stopped expecting us to produce the same level of outputs as when we had some time to write them… At this point my friend offered to find some more drinks, and for some reason never returned.

The main reason for writing this post is just to say that there probably won’t be many, or perhaps any, for a couple of months; I’m going to be off for an actual holiday for ten days, and have to write a couple of lectures for the end of the month. Maybe August, though I’m supposed to be writing a grant application, if I’ve managed to recharge the batteries by then. In the meantime, a bit of music from the utterly wonderful Viv Albertine. Having just finished her magnificent autobiography Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys I feel inspired to make some changes – as soon as I have a bit more energy. This may be no more than getting some singing lessons…

Addendum: If you haven’t yet read Clothes Clothes Clothes… – and you really should, if you have any interest in music, feminism, creativity, British social history or human beings – then that last comment might seem a little cryptic. Quick summary: having been at the heart of the whole punk movement, including playing in the Slits (not only the first female punk band, but one of the best bands of that entire era), Viv Albertine then went off to be a housewife and (after terrible problems) mother in Hastings, survived cancer, and then suddenly decided to take up the guitar again and have singing lessons, leading to whole new life, new album, autobiography etc. Now, my plan emphatically does not involve separating from spouse along the way, but either I’m going to start writing songs again, or something a bit more dramatic; whatever happens, getting to the end of the year feeling quite this exhausted is not so good.

“We always base our preparations against an opponent on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe that there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school.” (1.84)

One of the most interesting aspects of Thucydides’ account in respect to football is the way that he depicts different styles of play and management, in both their strengths and weaknesses. The Spartans, for example, represent the application of a system, in which individual players – however talented – are subordinated to the discipline and needs of the whole. The system is not necessarily rigid, but it is flexible only in its own terms, rather than being adapted to respond to a particular opponent. In such a system there is little inclination to worry endlessly about the threat posed by individual opposition players (will Suarez play? is Ronaldo still carrying an injury?), but simply the confidence that training, discipline and preparation will win out over erratic genius on most days. Such a philosophy does not necessarily imply a defensive approach; the Spartans build slowly from the back and absorb pressure before launching devastating counter-attacks. It’s Germany, isn’t it?


First in an intermittent series (since discussing football is almost as good for my viewing statistics as insulting well-loved writers of popular history and fans of Richard III…).

It’s clear that Thucydides’ analysis offers not only a sound basis for forecasting the results of football tournaments on the basis of the qualities and psychological tendencies of different teams, but also a rich source of advice on the nature and dynamics of the game – including some maxims that foreshadow, with remarkable accuracy, the pronouncements of some of the great figures of the modern game.

1.78: “Consider how unpredictable are the fortunes of the struggle.” A persistent theme in Thucydides – seen not only in the pronouncements of figures like these Athenian ambassadors, but also in the way that confident claims about the future made by other speakers are then undermined by the subsequent course of events. Thucydides’ attitude could not be further from that expressed by Gary Lineker (“22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and then the Germans always win”), with its fatalistic acceptance of a deterministic universe. It is far closer to the gnomic maxim of the great German post-war coach Sepp Herberger: “Der Ball ist rund”. The ball is round; it can roll in any direction; the flow of the game and the fortunes of the two sides can switch in a moment.

“Thus ended the summer. In the following winter…” (passim). Not, on the face of it, a terribly inspiring statement; Thucydides’ organisation of his history around a relentless chronological pattern has often been criticised, on the grounds that it undermines the flow of the narrative of a particular incident to switch half-way through to what’s going on elsewhere. But how better to emphasise that individual games are never to be understood in isolation; through most of the tournament, the ultimate outcome will be determined not by the result of a single game but by a series of different sequences of events which will only later intersect – and in any case, as Herberger sagely noted, “Nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel”; after the game is before the (next) game, and that holds true even for the World Cup final. The importance of Thucydides’ apparently simple, repeated phrase was recognised by one of the greatest modern football novelists, Peter Handke (see Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter), who adopted it as the structuring principle for his novel Kindergeschichte.

Thucydides, as has been well established on this blog over the last few years as well as in the publications of many other social scientists, has something useful and important to say about everything, and football is no exception. Sport is, after all, merely an ersatz form of international conflict, and so governed by the same universal principles that are identified and expounded in Thucydides’ account. This is not a simple matter of deciding who ‘won’ the Peloponnesian War and then trying to develop a crude analogy with contemporary football teams – the Persians were the real winners, so obviously Iran will do well, and not just because I drew them in the school sweepstake – because Thucydides’ analysis emphasises the role of chance and contingency in the outcome of a specific series of battles and other events (sc. tournament). Rather, we need to establish relative probabilities, on the basis of the various algorithms and general principles set out in his analysis.

(1) Strength and Tactics. ‘The strong do what they will, and the weak endure what they must’: on the face of it, this famous statement summons up the image of an utterly dominant Spain or Brazil with perfect ball control and 80%+ possession, simply toying with a team like England, whose only tactic is to resort to hope, danger’s comforter, namely the optimistic boot upfield. If football was indeed governed by such regularities, prediction would be easy, and would simply be a matter of deciding between the various strong teams who would inevitably (in this model) advance to the semi-finals. This does indeed appear to be the underlying assumption of many of the predictions made in national newspapers – but it is sustainable only if we focus on the Melian Dialogue in isolation (as, of course, so many international relations theorists and sports reporters do). In fact, Thucydides’ wider narrative makes it clear that events are always far more complicated than this: apparent dominance can conceal significant weaknesses – Athenian control of the sea came to nothing, with its inability to strike any killer blow against the Spartans – and lead to reckless over-reach (the Sicilian gambit), at which point the ‘stronger’ team is vulnerable to swift counter-attack. We need to consider not only the relative strengths of the different teams in objective terms, but also the ways in which they deploy their forces, whether absorbing constant ravaging of their territory in the expectation of being able to strike unexpectedly on the counter (the Periclean approach in the early years of the war), or seeking to dominate midfield, or the Spartan catenaccio approach, terrified of their vulnerability at the back to Helot revolt. And we should keep in mind, as Thucydides makes clear at the beginning of his work (see the excellent analysis by Edith Foster) that teams may drastically over- or under-estimate their own strengths and power, and those of their opponents, with deleterious effects on their choice of tactics.

(2) Motivation and Emotion. This is a crucial theme in Thucydides’ analysis: decision-making is shown to be swayed by any number of non-rational factors, both at individual and collective level. If we take the team as a whole (including its management) to be equivalent to the polity, then it is driven by honour, interest and fear, to different degrees and with different consequences. The goal may be the same for all three motives, but is a team prepared to seek victory at the expense of honour (Holland in 2010), or to risk failure so as not to betray their principles (Brazil on various occasions), or will it simply be consumed by fear, unexpectedly (Germany against Italy in the last European Cup) or predictably (England pretty well every tournament)? Moreover, there is the power of the individual, whether trainer or a single dominant player, to try to manipulate the responses of the team; it’s not just about the plan, but the ability to get the players to follow the plan successfully. There are some indications that the Sicilian Expedition might have had a chance of success if Alcibiades had not been dropped, and then flounced out of the training camp in a huff; conversely, Nicias might have been undroppable from the expedition, but it’s clear that the Athenians would have played better under different leadership. The jury is out as to whether Cleon was a disastrous replacement for Pericles after his injury, or whether his role in the Pylos victory balances his disruptive effect on team morale…

The results? 1. Argentina 2. Germany 3. Brazil 4. Spain. Still working on the algorithms for individual games, but this evening looks like a safe 2-0 for Brazil.

Oh, and the human thing being what it is, events tend to repeat themselves in more or less the same manner, so England are likely to go out on penalties in the second round…

One of my key intellectual influences as a historian is Fernand Braudel, both for his pioneering interest in environmental history and for his (closely connected) theorisation of the different speeds of historical time. Of course the division between l’histoire événementielleconjunctures and la longue durée is artificial and somewhat problematic, but it remains a useful starting point, reminding us not only of how far individual actions and short-term events are shaped by medium-term developments and processes, but also how far those economic, social and cultural changes are themselves shaped by still longer-term, more powerful forces and structures.

Debate about Braudel has tended to focus on whether he under-values the significance of individual events in the face of the very big and long term – hence the suspicion that he tends towards some form of determinism, encapsulated in his comparison of l’histoire événementielle to the froth on top of the ocean or remarks like “Its [the event's] delusive smoke fills the minds of its contemporaries, but it does not last, and its flame can scarcely ever be discerned” (from On History, p.27). This is, after all, the pace at which most humans experience ‘history’, rather than the glacial periods to which Braudel wants to direct our attention – which from his point of view explains why others might seek to cling to the importance of events, without that making them correct to do so. What has not, to the best of my knowledge, yet been considered is whether we have paid sufficient attention to other speeds of change, equally alien to human experience: what one might call the micro-event, la très, très courte durée, or nano-history (perhaps the neatest term; it has, on the basis of a quick Google search, previously been used to describe the history of nano-technology, but not as a label for a distinctive approach to understanding historical time and change).

This was all brought to mind by a fascinating article by Andrew Smith in yesterday’s Grauniad on High Frequency Trading within stock exchanges, a subject on which I now know marginally more than nothing.

Here was a market beyond human control, dominated by super-fast machines running complex computer algorithms that jostled and fought each other at the level of milliseconds, microseconds – and with no meaningful oversight. The familiar cliche of gaudily dressed men waving arms on a stock market floor was history: trading now happened within black boxes housed in highly secure, unmarked “data farms”. Not only that, the algorithms at the heart of this world were run not by finance or programming people, but by “quants”: quantum physicists, climate scientists, theoretical mathematicians. Some of the most formidable minds in the world were now employed in a technological arms race, a hidden war stalked by million-dollar predator algorithms that could swarm those of the larger, slower players – typically, pension and mutual funds – in the same way a shoal of piranhas might an ox, cutting them to shreds and pocketing the profits. The regulators couldn’t keep up. If they tried, the algos simply mutated.

Tens of thousands of transactions and messages within micro-seconds; this all happens well beyond the limits of human perception, and the sheer volume of activity clearly makes it difficult to grasp events even in retrospect. Why does this matter? Because these transactions are shaping the prices of shares, the performance of different funds and currencies, the overall health of the world economy, all beyond not only human control but human comprehension. At least within the modern digital world, events are shaped not only by long-term inhuman structures but by very-short-term inhuman activities.

This suggests that writing the history of the present will demand new forms of analysis to cope with mountains of data; new forms of representation (perhaps anticipated by SF; I can think of episodes in some of Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels that emphasise the unimaginable speed of Mind cognition and action – and maybe that whole “bullet time” thing); and new forms of historical consciousness – 0r at least a reminder that there are things going on beyond our usual horizons that have an enormous impact on our societies, that have to be grasped through a leap of imagination beyond our normal human experiences of time. Of course you could write such a history in a relatively conventional manner (much as the article is framed around the experiences of a couple of individuals investigating events, plus some general metaphors like the ‘shoal of piranhas’ image, rather than trying to convey the detail of the events themselves), but it remains to be seen whether that’s wholly adequate. For nano-history, the challenge will be to narrate and analyse the micro-events themselves, their myriad interactions within a horrendously complex system, and their impact on the analogue world…

Update: A couple of further random thoughts – as is doubtless evident, I’m making this up as I go along… The distinction between ‘nano-history’ and (so to speak) ‘history of nano’ seems to me ever more important, like the distinction between, say, Marxist history and history of Marxism: it’s the difference between a distinctive form of historiography and a conventional historiography of a topic. So, Smith’s article is essentially the latter: it presents things from the standard human perspective, framing the account around the efforts of different individuals to make sense of what is going on in the digital realm (above all in terms of its impact on the analogue world) rather than attempting to offer a full narrative of events in the digital realm. It’s a bit like the sort of anthropocentric history that takes the environmental context more or less for granted except when it explodes dramatically and buries a couple of cities; there may be a certain amount of general explanation of vulcanology and pyroclastic flows, but the account is organised around its human impact. Obviously this is what interests us most – would we be worrying about what predatory algorithms were getting up to if they didn’t have the potential to unleash unexpected catastrophe in the non-digital world? – but I’m not sure it’s wholly adequate as an account of digital events.

Josephine Crawley Quinn, meanwhile, has asked if I can think of ways of applying these ideas to the ancient world – if only as the ‘very short’ rather than ‘very very short’ term. Not sure; unless we’re going to start trying to chart the firing of individual synapses in Caesar’s brain as he comes to make a decision, are there actually realms in which events take place at a speed that’s a step change faster than in the human realm before the development of the digital? The major source of risk in antiquity seems to be the slowness of communication rather than its superhuman speed…

Perhaps the most striking thing about Tom Holland’s fine and interesting article in this week’s New Statesman on ‘Why Empires Fall: from Ancient Rome to Putin’s Russia’ is how far it ignores, and even at times rejects, the promise of the title. What the casual reader might expect to find under such a heading is a general theory of the imperial life-cycle, perhaps drawn primarily from Rome as the archetypal empire and the paradigm of decline and fall, that can be applied to the present (focusing on Russia for a change, rather than the usual debates about the USA as an imperial power). Instead, Holland offers a range of narratives of different imperial collapses, emphasising the complexity of events and the plethora of competing interpretations, and also identifying the great counter-example of China; it’s all thoroughly historical and historicist, eschewing the kinds of social-scientific theorising that one might find in Michael Doyle or Michael Mann or in a typical ‘Empires Ancient and Modern’ op-ed. What does persist through time, in his account, is not a universal principle of imperial destiny but the belief in the paradigmatic status of Rome, regularly revived as model, ideal – and awful warning.

The article doesn’t go so far as to state clearly that the real problem with trying to learn from the past is the persistent belief that we can do this because the pattern of future events has already been set in the past. Indeed, there are a few points Continue Reading »

Career Advice

It has been suggested that one possible, partial explanation for aspects of Michael Gove’s educational reform programme is his biography; we all have a tendency to generalise from our own experiences, and so it must feel quite natural to him to assume that what worked for one bright working-class boy – Latin, old-fashioned pedagogy and discipline, school uniforms etc. – ought to work for everyone. This is brought to mind by the publication this week of the results of a survey on how to tackle the problem of PhDs without permanent academic jobs (see http://hortensii.wordpress.com/). There must always be a concern that those with some power to make a significant difference to the insecure lives of would-be early career academics, i.e. established scholars, may not be best placed to grasp or address the problem. After all, we are the ones who have made it, somehow or other; assuming that we don’t simply take the self-serving line of “I made it, so clearly it’s a matter of inherent brilliance and hard work, and if the weak fall by the wayside and get eaten by jackals that’s their problem”, we may make unhelpful extrapolations from out own experiences (which are, if nothing else, likely to be several decades out of date) – and however much we emphasise to our research students that there are relatively few academic positions, the competition is fierce and there’s no guarantee whatsoever, we are sitting there as proof that it is nevertheless possible to get a permanent academic job (especially if our research students are less over-awed by us than we might believe or wish, and so are quietly thinking “well, if he can do it…”).

One of the most impressive aspects of the survey, and particularly the discussion and recommendations, is the sensitivity to this potential problem, above all through the careful distinction between respondents at different career stages and in different positions. For example, one question asked whether the stigmatisation of failure to get a permanent position might be reduced if the role of luck as well as merit in academic success was emphasised (something with which I thoroughly empathise; looking back over my own career, it’s difficult not to see it as the result of a whole series of contingencies that happened to work in my favour at a particular moment); 75% of academics without a permanent position thought that it could help, only 44% of ‘prominent’ academics agreed (how far some of them might have felt that it would devalue their own achievement is not recorded…). There is greater agreement that we could do more to disabuse PhD students of any illusions they might retain about the academic life, even on a permanent contract – so, all the occasions when I’ve let off steam to my supervisees about university bureaucracy or the iniquities of the REF were actually valuable career development support, rather than self-indulgence…

The basic problem is unavoidable: academic is an attractive profession, even now, for certain kinds of people seeking certain kinds of satisfaction (even if these days it can feel like a constant struggle to make space for those aspects of the job), and there will always be more applicants than positions. What we can do is help prepare PhD students for the possibility of failure, and work to alleviate the worst aspects of their situation in the meantime – which means above all not exploiting them. Not always easy, given the financial pressures on departments and the eagerness of some of them to be exploited in the expectation that such experience will be to their advantage… If I can do one decent thing, as I get ever closer to the point when I take over responsibility for the department for a couple of years, it will be to think properly about this report and the issues it raises, and then actually do something about it locally.


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