Another installment in my long-term project to make available copies of old chapters and articles, when I have a spare moment. This one is prompted by another exchange with Will Pooley at Bristol, who asked on the Twitter about modern historians using the dialogue form, whether invented or found. My immediate thought was Keith Hopkins’ A World Full Of Gods, which (if you don’t know it) experiments with a variety of unexpected literary forms to capture different aspects of religions in the ancient world and the numerous historiographical issues involved in trying to study and represent them. As I think I’ve remarked on here before, I’m not convinced that many of Hopkins’ experiments actually work properly – the professional exponents of science fiction do time travel stories rather better, for example – but it’s amazing that it was done at all, and a great shame that this aspect was largely passed over by reviewers as quickly as possible with an air of great embarrassment. Continue Reading »
I am not a gambling man – but I know a pretty sure thing when I see one. David Engels has written a substantial rejoinder to the critique of his ‘The EU Is Doomed, Because Rome’ argument written by Roland Steinacher and me, characterising it as an Althistorikerstreit, and concludes with the suggestion that time will show whether he’s right or not. Fair enough; if over the next 20-30 years Europe collapses into civil war – and it’s worth stressing that this is not about a return to warring nation states, according to Engels’ model, but about conflict between suburbs and districts within different regions of Europe – and then willingly surrenders in toto to a single charismatic autocrat, then he wins, and as the prophet of the new regime will presumably be in a position to have me locked up and my property confiscated. We win if it doesn’t. My real problem is deciding what the stakes should be; let’s say 10 litres of fresh water, as that will be worth its weight in gold in any post-apocalyptical wasteland you care to imagine, and will be perfectly serviceable in any case. Continue Reading »
The publication of Yanis Varoufakis’ And The Weak Suffer What They Must? in paperback has been heralded by a short video in which James Galbraith, Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek and Jeffrey Sachs offer their praise; the latter presents him as “the Thucydides of our time”, and Vintage have taken that as a key line for their publicity. It’s an interesting indication of the contemporary standing of Thucydides – but also a little puzzling. Continue Reading »
“The future is dark, the present burdensome. Only the past, dead and buried, bears contemplation.” Thus G.R. Elton in The Practice of History, a book that I read at an impressionable age and so can still quote large chunks verbatim despite disagreeing with most of it. This line has always struck me as particularly, but interestingly, wrong; it encapsulates, tongue in cheek, the essentially conservative view of history as a means of escape into a past that is always conceived as preferable to the present – if only because it’s already over, so human suffering is more bearable (echoes again of Hegel’s account of history as the view from the shore of a distant shipwreck). It’s also linked to an explicit anti-determinism; there is no underlying logic to historical development, so the past speaks only to itself, not to the present, let alone to the future. Stuff happens, and we can grasp it properly only in retrospect. Continue Reading »
I don’t have the time or the patience to look through more than a couple of pages of search results, so this is not a definitive conclusion, but Googling the phrase “hacking history” produces plenty of accounts of the history of computer hacking, and not a lot else. There’s a summary of a 2014 talk on how the rise of digital tools ought to have led to a democratization of the production of history, and an advertisement for a History Hacker’s Camp on a farm museum in Maryland in June (tickets still available!), where children can learn all about farm life in the early 20th century through practical activities; in both cases, “hacking” seems to be little more than shorthand for “new and exciting!!!” Finally, if you look instead for “history has been hacked”, you’ll find an Assassin’s Creed III tie-in where you have to identify how the historical record has been tampered with, and a collection of links to claims that history as we know it is all a lie, the Trojan War was actually the same event as the First Crusade, the Book of Revelation was written in 1486, and no life’s just too short to start on this nonsense.
The most interesting and provocative comment on Rachel Moss’s wonderful blog post last month on Choosing Not To Give, on the sacrifices that women are expected to make in academic culture, was from Lucy Northenra: “How many women are remembered for their ability to never miss a school run compared to those who manage against all the odds to publish enough to be made professors?” Rachel’s response was equally passionate: “I may well only have one child, and during the week I see her for an hour in the morning and an hour and a half in the evening. Perhaps I might somehow write an extra 4* publication if I gave up one of those hours each day. For me, the cost isn’t worth it.”
Do you want to be remembered as a great scholar but a lousy parent – or not remembered at all except by your nearest and dearest? Why are you mucking about with plasticine instead of changing the world? Why are you wasting time on an article that five people will read with limited attention when you could be making a real difference to one or two individuals who completely depend on you? Such dilemmas go to the heart of academic ambitions and self-image.* Who do I think I really am, who do I want to be, and what to do about all the things that threaten to get in the way? Continue Reading »
This morning’s developments – Trump sacking the acting Attorney General Sally Yates for ‘betrayal’ – has brought to mind one of the more frustrating episodes of my teaching career.* Some years ago I was advising a mature student, a retired commercial lawyer, on his Masters thesis; lovely bloke, good knowledge of the material, interesting ideas, but we hit a complete impasse when it came to his style of argument. He would cite a passage from a source as if its meaning were obvious, or at best assert his understanding of it and move on; or he would make a statement, with a reference to a single modern source, and then treat the matter as settled. Our meetings increasingly became variants on the same basic conversation: “Don’t you think it might be more complex than that?” “No.” “What about these other interpretations and arguments?” “I don’t agree with them.” “Don’t you think you should set out your reasons for rejecting them?” “No, I don’t see that.” Continue Reading »