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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Will the people of the future still be reading classical literature and thinking about ancient exempla – and, if so, in what ways? This isn’t a topic that gets a great deal of attention in science fiction; I’m not thinking of the sorts of books that imagine a new Roman Empire with spaceships (see this list – the Trigan Empire lives!) or which deploy classical motifs as a key plot element (hello BSG) but rather those that try to imagine the world of the future in its own terms, but take the time to mention whether anyone still references Thucydides. (more…)

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For all the ghastliness everywhere else, it’s felt like a good year for blogging. Partly this is because I’ve managed to keep up with this blog rather better than in previous years, and have written some things that I’m really rather proud of; increasingly, I’ve come to understand posts (and articles for online publications, of which I’ve also published a few this year) as valid outputs in their own right, rather than as either advertising for or shorter versions of ‘proper’ academic publications, or as a mere distraction from ‘proper’ research (though there have been times this year when blog posts are the only things I’ve felt capable of writing). Even more, however, it’s been the insights and ideas of other people, which I’d never have found or bothered to read without the internet (and, to give credit where it’s due, without the much-maligned Twitter), that have been most informative and inspiring – and this year I’ve remembered, most of the time, to keep a note of the posts that made the biggest impression and are certainly well worth reading if you haven’t yet seen them. (more…)

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So it begins. It seems a reasonable bet that the election of Trump will join Brexit in the category of Momentous Events of 2016, at least within the horizon of l’histoire événementielle, joining various developments whose significance we haven’t recognised yet in hammering an extra stake into the heart of that ‘End of History’ nonsense. But the beginning of what? Competing narratives before the election seemed to be offering a choice between the Return of American Greatness and the Rise of the New Nazis as the likely outcome; now that it’s actually happened, we can add ‘small earthquake, relatively little damage’ predictions like Trump as the new Berlusconi to the mix. History offers us a myriad of possibilities; we don’t know which one (if any) is the better comparison, or how far our choice is driven by emotions (fear, hope, desire, loathing) rather than any sort of reason. History offers comfort, if that’s what we’re looking for; it offers reasonable grounds for buying gold and a copy of The Zombie Survival Handbook. It doesn’t offer any kind of certainty. (more…)

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There’s a powerful passage in Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History where he talks about the appalling experience of looking at the past: the display of passions and the consequences of their violence, the rule of Unreason, the evil, vice and ruin that has afflicted every society humans have ever tried to build – and the temptation to find a way in which this won’t affect us so much:

We endure in beholding it a mental torture, allowing no defence or escape but the consideration that what has happened could not be otherwise; that it is a fatality which no intervention could alter. And at last we draw back from the intolerable disgust with which these sorrowful reflections threaten us, into the more agreeable environment of our individual life — the Present formed by our private aims and interests. In short we retreat into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore, and thence enjoys in safety the distant spectacle of “wrecks confusedly hurled.”

Hegel doesn’t endorse such an attitude – but to some extent simply offers an alternative route to the same goal, explaining and justifying all the miseries of history as the working through of a necessary process. I’ve found myself thinking of this passage twice in the last couple of days, firstly in relation to Uwe Walter’s observations, in his discussion of the Mytilene Debate and how this might offer a way back from Brexit, about the excitement experienced (if only momentarily) by historians at the spectacle of a truly momentous event, a single decisive decision rather than the usual compromise, muddling through and can-kicking. Then this morning there was a striking phrase in David Graeber’s commentary on the current travails of the Labour Party and the democratising aims of Momentum: “I cannot help find it a fascinating historical experiment.” In both cases these are honest reactions, not in the least intended to belittle the actual experience of being caught up in these events or their possible consequences – but still, I can’t help feeling like one of the people on the sinking ship, as the crew squabble amongst themselves about who gets to wear the big hat and whether the charts can be trusted, while being coolly observed from the shore…

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I had been planning to write about the debate in Athens in 415 about the proposed attack on Syracuse. Though there is one remarkable contrast between the two situations – whereas Nicias’ sensible older men were faced with the aggression and ignorance of Alcibiades’ pumped-up youths, in our time the pragmatism of the young is confronted with the reckless, après moi le deluge nostalgia of the old – there are significant parallels in the rhetoric used to argue for and against driving the city off a cliff. Nicias urges caution and common sense, and constantly has to defend himself against insinuations of cowardice, self-interest and talking down Athens; it’s a manifestly weak argument in the face of Alcibiades’ boundless self-confidence, optimism, disparagement of foreigners – the Sicilians are weak and disunited, and “most likely they will be happy to make separate agreements with us when we make attractive proposals to them” – and appeals to the true nature of Athens. Indeed, given Dominic Cummings’ well-known predilection for Thucydides, one might wonder how far the Leave campaign is directly drawing upon motifs from his speeches. (more…)

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Your Hxtory

Devastated to discover this morning that, according to Buzzfeed’s ‘Which 90s Indie Band Are You?’ Quiz, I am Belle & Sebastian, for whose music I feel a deep, unqualified and undoubtedly irrational loathing. I think I may have selected one too many answers related to books… Obviously I really wanted to be the Make-Up, or Sleater-Kinney, or at the very least Pulp. And it’s in that spirit of political provocation that this blog is celebrating International Women’s Day by banning ‘history’. At least in this post – if someone can lend me a magic bit of code to change the spelling automatically everywhere else, I’d be very grateful – it’s ‘hxtory’ all the way. (more…)

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RIP Ellen Meiksins Wood (and see also here)

A week and a half into term, and I am already being forcibly reminded of why I didn’t manage to post more than once or twice a month for much of 2015. It’s not as if I don’t have a load of stuff I’d like to write about – not least because Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australian, has just produced a load more Thucydides references in a recent speech, on the (not unreasonable) assumption that this is how to communicate with US foreign policy types these days (cf. Xi Jinping) – it’s just the quantity of other stuff that has to take precedence. But some things do deserve recognition and comment, above all – despite the fact that this blog has started to look like an obituary column – the passing of yet another significant figure in my intellectual pantheon. I have got to find some younger, healthier people to get influenced by… (more…)

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