Monthly Archives: November 2013

On archives, and where to find them

This weekend I went home, and it was pretty nice to see my friends and family again. Plus, I got a few free meals, so I cannot complain. However, as eager as I assume you all are to hear an in depth account of my homecoming, that is not the main topic of this post. Rather, the reason I mention my trip home is that it reminded me of a book chapter I read in the first few weeks of term concerning archives, and more specifically the question of what exactly constitutes one. As whilst for many people the traditional image of the archive as a vast, imposing building whose secrets are guarded by an arcane set of rules and procedures still holds, the fragmentation of history into ever more specific genres and sub-genres mean that this opinion has increasingly been challenged.

 

The chapter in question is the first chapter of Antoinette Burton’s Dwelling in the Archive, which focuses on the experience of three Indian women during the early to mid-twentieth century. Burton’s central hypothesis is that whilst women in late colonial era India were not necessarily visible political actors in the public sphere, their power in the domestic sphere meant that they did exert considerable influence over socio-political events and issues. As such, if one wants to write a history of these women, it is no use using a conventional archive, as their battles did not play out in the open or through the traditional channels of power. Rather, the best places to investigate are the women’s homes, as only they contain all the items which hold the memories of these events.[1]

 

Certainly, Burton has a valid point. The traditional, central archive does have several important functions, notably the preservation of official documents or as copyright libraries; but to see them as the sole repositories of knowledge is no longer credible, as the rise of social, cultural and oral history (amongst others) have forced us to reconsider what exactly constitutes a historical source. For example a person’s choice of ornaments, furniture and even appliances all speak both of the person who bought them and of the times in which they were produced; and personal items such as photos, diaries and home films give us a unique insight into their lives and the society in which they lived, but these are all objects which would not necessarily make it into any central archives.

 

However, there are two downsides to this view, the first of which is that it may encourage that ever pernicious habit of hoarding. We all do it to some extent, but my worry is that if we all suddenly arrived at the conclusion that even the most mundane object is one which could potentially unlock some hitherto unknown historical perspective we would never throw anything away for fear of losing an irreplaceable part of our national history.

 

Admittedly that is taking such a view to its logical (and thus farcical) extremes, and we must remember that we can never know what a future historian will consider significant. Tales abound of collections of documents or artefacts being discarded as junk, but which are now seen as central to our understanding or appreciation of a period or event. Whilst we certainly cannot collect everything just in case it later turns out to be of some historical value, nor can we wantonly discard anything that does not fit into what we presently consider to be ‘important’.

 

The other problem is that if we deem everything to be of historical value, it could lead to the paradoxical situation where nothing has any historical value. After all, if everything has some historical importance, what is the difference between Westminster and my garden shed? It is for this reason that I have a sneaking envy for the historians of old. Criticise them all you want, but what they lacked in historical nuance they more than made up for in the certainty of their convictions. They knew that there were a set of definitively important people and events. Yes, you could debate in intricate (read, tedious) detail about exactly how important they were, but outside of these select few, nothing else really mattered.

 

Obviously, I do not agree with this train of thought. Just as with my first example it is an idea carried to ludicrous extremes, but it is one which I have heard an alarming number of people express. It commits the fallacy of assuming that there is some sort of hierarchy of history, and that to treat political history the same as cultural or social history is to somehow debase the former, and ascribe to the latter a prominence which it does not deserve. Because at the end of the day Westminster and my shed are just as important, and indeed unimportant, as each other. If I was researching Britain’s Cold War diplomatic policy, then certainly it would be foolish to seek answers in the shed; but similarly Westminster would be just as useless for studying changes in how people used and cultivated domestic land.

 

Overall, for all the problems seeing a house or a shed as an archive raises, it opens up far more possibilities. Even the most mundane building contains and produces a host of objects lacking in any immediately obvious historical significance, but which all contain memories and associations which, when used properly, can be the basis of a truly fascinating history. All of these archives are different, but their difference is not one of degrees, but of how they are used and we must remember this, lest we fall into the old trap of seeing one type of history as ‘real’ history, and all the others as distractions without any real intellectual value.


[1] Antoinette Burton, Dwelling in the Archives: Women Writing House, Home and History in Late Colonial India (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003) 3 – 30.

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On the Killing Fields, and how to remember genocide

Over the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to have been able to visit several sites where genocide has been committed. I say fortunate not just for want of a better word, but also because these experiences all brought home to me how genuinely lucky I am to live in a country that, for all its flaws, does not actively persecute me based on my gender, ethnicity, sexuality or personal beliefs. Of all the places I have been, none have affected me as deeply as my visit to Choeung Ek (aka the Killing Fields) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which not only resonated with me on an emotional level, but it also made me think a lot harder about how we as historians should present such issues to the public.

 

There were several things about the Killing Fields which really struck me, the first of which was the audio guide. For the most part, it provided a historical narrative of the Khmer Rouge’s social policies and attempts to establish a classless, self-sufficient agrarian economy; and the role the Killing Fields played in trying to achieve these goals. However, you also had the option to listen to first hand accounts from prisoners who survived the Killing Fields and the guards who served there; as well as clips of the music which was played to hide the screams of the men and women who were killed. All in all it was a deeply moving guide, which set the emotional tone for what I was about to experience, as well as providing a lot of very useful information.

 

The memorial stupa filled with the skulls, bones and clothes of those who died at Choeung Ek is incredibly poignant also, especially as it is at the end of the route. However, the real impact came from the fact that most of the site had been left intact. This is partly a function of the fact that, at the time of writing, the Cambodia Tribunal (the body responsible for the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders) is still ongoing and as such many of the mass graves cannot be disturbed in case it undermines the prosecution’s case. Furthermore, not everything was left untouched, as many buildings were destroyed in the immediate years after the site was discovered.

 

Aside from this, everything had been left more or less as it was. And it was effective. It is hard to capture in words just how eerie it was, walking around seeing bits of clothing and small pieces of bone scattered across the site; or standing in front of a tree which Khmer Rouge soldiers used to beat babies to death. It was unspeakably upsetting, but it was an experience which I do not regret in the slightest.

 

But is this genuinely the best way to remember acts of genocide? Certainly at first preserving these sites intact seems the logical answer. However, there are two problems with this method, the first of which is that it runs the risk of attracting the wrong sort of person. Whilst I cannot say I experienced when I went, it is hardly beyond the Pale to say that Dachau and other former concentration camps may attract their fair share of Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis. And whilst it is true that any site dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust or similar historical events will always attract those who seek to justify, or even worse deny, them; these sites carry an emotional resonance which even the best exhibition or memorial ever can, making them unparalleled sites of protest for those groups who want to cause as much harm and distress as possible.

 

The second issue arises from the emotional impact these sites carry. Obviously, it is right that when we talk about the Holocaust, slavery, or any sustained programme of crimes against humanity that we talk about it in a fashion that fits the nature of the subject matter. However, creating a sense of moral outrage on its own is not particularly useful to anyone, and in the wrong hands it can be actively harmful. As I said before, one of the most morally duplicitous museums I have ever visited is the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam, as its exhibits were crafted to foster a virulent anti-Americanism, and made no attempt to try and analyse the Vietnam War in anything approaching an ‘objective’ fashion. If the same approach was taken at a site like Dachau or Choeung Ek, it would be incredibly difficult for anyone (myself included) to step back from our emotional state and analyse whether the information being presented was accurate, and not just a means to support another historical falsehood or for political ends.

 

Which is why I feel that the Killing Fields got it right. Whilst it provokes an enormous sense of indignation at the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, it was not directionless, as in addition to the audio guide there was a museum to help contextualise the experience you had just been through, and the historical detail it provided helped to inform your emotional state. As such I left Choeung Ek reflective rather than angry, as whilst it laid bare the horrors of the Khmer Rouge it presented them in a relatively objective manner, rather than using the emotional weight of the situation to present a dubious historical narrative as unquestionable fact.

 

Of course, it is reasonable to question whether the committees and organisations which run such sites would use them in this way. I like to think that no one would, but sadly it is always a possibility. It is imperative for sites such as Choeung Ek to remain as neutral and objective as possible when presenting the history of what occurred there, as to do otherwise does an unforgiveable disservice to the memories of the millions who have died needlessly at the hands of despots and tyrants.

On Twitter

After having a twitter account for two months and posted exactly zero tweets, I begrudgingly accepted that I should start updating it more often. And by ‘more often’, I mean at all. I have no idea how often I will update it, or indeed what I will update it with, but if you want to read about more historical things and stuff (actual academic terms) that I have been up to outside the blog, add me at @tpdwhitehead23.

On Tonic sol-fa, and the influence of popular culture

As I said in last week’s blog, for me one of the most interesting aspects of many Victorian social movements was the emphasis they placed on self-improvement. One the most interesting manifestations of this idea is in the tonic sol-fa movement, whose advocates believed that one of the foundations of a virtuous society was that its citizens listened to more wholesome music. Whilst I feel their rationale is not entirely sound, nor is it entirely baseless; and furthermore, the question of how far music (and popular culture more generally) influences social norms is one which still resonates today.

 

The tonic sol-fa movement was founded by Reverend John Curwen. The son of a Congregationalist minister, Curwen’s experiences at Sunday schools imbued in him the belief that if people listened to a superior quality of music, they would become more responsible and rational people. He therefore believed that such music should be available to anyone, regardless of age, class or gender, but in this he faced the significant problem that many people struggled to read music notation. Inspired by Sarah Ann Glover’s Norwich sol-fa, Curwen’s tonic sol-fa used bar lines, half-bar lines and semi-colons in order to establish the rhythm; and replaced notes with the first initials of the seven tones (do re mi fa so la ti do), so as to make the music more accessible to those without much training, and in turn introduce more people to the spiritual benefits of a higher class of music.

 

One of the main motivations for Curwen’s opinions was that he felt most music at the time served to only to debase the population. He, and those who followed him, argued that contemporary music was the cause of a host of sins, such as excessive drinking, lewd dancing, and provocative theatrics; and that as long as people were routinely exposed to such music, they could never hope to improve their moral, or indeed material, condition.

 

Does any of this sound familiar? It should do, because we hear these exact same arguments on an almost day to day basis in modern society. I have got to admit, I am divided on the issue. For one, I do not personally believe that video games, television, films, music or any other medium can take a regular, law abiding citizen and turn them into a serial killer. At the end of the day, we can tell the difference between reality and fiction, and too often such claims are used to try and suppress freedom of speech and expression.

 

Similarly, many moral outrages often fail to present the offending material in any sort of context. The most infamous case of this was the Brass Eye paedophile special, whereby a show satirising the media’s sensationalist, and arguably insensitive, coverage of the issue was presented by some national newspapers (no names, no lawsuits) as a deliberate and calculated insult aimed at those who had been sexually abused as children.

 

But I think it would be disingenuous of me to say that pop culture has absolutely no influence on our morals or personalities, as whilst it may not be capable of breeding psychopaths, it does have the capacity to promulgate behaviour and social codes which are less than desirable. For example, if people regularly watch films where the female characters are effectively treated as objects for the male characters to do with what they please; play video games which frequently present ethnic minorities as the enemy; or listen to music filled with thinly veiled (or in many cases openly) sexist, racist or homophobic statements, this is bound to lead to a state of affairs in which such attitudes are normalised.

 

Which is why I have a great deal of respect for Curwen’s ideals. Even if there is no definitive scientific proof that music doth maketh the man, he realised the power that popular music could exert over people. He understood that it could produce, promote and perpetuate ideals and behaviour which were not particularly conducive to a civilised society, and furthermore rather than simply bemoan its evil influence, he chose to try and harness music’s potential and use it to create a more harmonious and enlightened community. Whilst I would hardly claim Curwen is beyond criticism by any means, to dismiss him outright as an ‘interfering do-gooder’ or a ‘condescending elitist’ is just as erroneous. His mission was not motivated by intellectual snobbery, but the desire to invigorate and elevate the populace, and even if his means were somewhat inadequate, they were not without merit.

 

By no means am I saying that all culture should be ‘high’ culture. For all of its undisputed literary merits, I can think of many, many books I would prefer to read than Ulysses i.e. those with a story. And nor am I saying that pop culture should become a bland, puritanical sludge so as not to offend those that see offence in every word and action. But at the same time to simply accept the messages it conveys and the behaviour it popularises without question is worse. At the end of the day, refusing to criticise pop culture when it does promote genuinely bigoted and ignorant attitudes for no other reason than it is only pop culture and therefore does not matter is unjustifiable, and we should ask for better. John Curwen did, and we can learn a lot from his example.

On the temperance movement, and its relevance today

As part of my masters I am currently studying the British temperance movement, and more specifically the United Kingdom Alliance. Whilst it is true that I will not be setting up a temperance society any time soon, I must admit that I find the movement fascinating. Broadly speaking, there were three main schools of thought on how to curb intemperance: those who advocated that the sale and trafficking of alcohol should be legally prohibited; those who felt the production of alcohol should be controlled by municipal authorities; and those who encouraged individuals to personally abstain from alcohol. I am going to talk about all three, as I feel that they all have valuable lessons that we can learn from today.

 

Whilst I must admit that I have a great deal of sympathy with the goals of the prohibitionists, (in the absence of a welfare state alcoholism could literally render a family homeless) their solution to this problem was narrow minded to say the least. Even ignoring the issue of whether or not prohibition impinges on our civil liberties, criminalising the legal sale of alcohol results in the not-so-unforeseeable issue of people selling alcohol illegally, along with all the crimes one would expect a lucrative black market trade to generate. If you want a convenient case study, just search for ‘Al Capone’.

 

However, the prohibitionists did raise an interesting point. Whilst it does have some health benefits if drank moderation, alcohol is bad for us by pretty much anyone’s standards. The question the prohibitionists raised is that if a harmful substance such as alcohol is legal, why are other harmful substances and activities which were illegal at the time not also legalised? I do not necessarily agree with them, and such a line of reasoning could potentially undermine their arguments, but it is a debate which is well worth having. Is it morally sound for society allow us to engage in certain forms of harmful behaviour whilst criminalising others? If so, why? And if not, what is the solution?

 

For me, the idea that the solution to the problem of intemperance lay in handing ownership and control of the breweries and public houses over to municipal authorities or public trusts was far more intriguing. Pioneered in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, under this arrangement all the licences in the town were transferred to one company (the bolag), made up of ‘respectable’ citizens who acted as shareholders. After interest had been paid on their investment, any profits generated from the sale of alcohol were be reinvested in facilities such as libraries, parks, museums, and other facilities which offered more wholesome alternatives to drinking.

 

This almost seems like the perfect system. Individuals can still exercise their right to get merry, but all the proceeds from their festivities go towards improving the local community. I would go as far to argue that, if properly implemented, it could probably prove massively beneficial today, but when I stop and really think about it, it sounds a little too much like nationalisation. And if the privatisation of the railways, utilities companies and pension funds have taught us anything, it is that privatisation is the one-size-fits-all answer to ensuring companies act in a socially responsible manner.

 

However, the group which truly fascinates me are the ‘suasionists’, those temperance advocates who felt that the only way to truly eradicate the evils of drink was for individuals to voluntarily stop drinking. Whilst suasionists were the core of the early temperance movement, after the 1850s their influence decreased as it became clear that their methods were not working. To me their failure is shame, as in my opinion they are the quintessential Victorian reformers, in that they believed that true social change could only be achieved through personal and moral rehabilitation.

 

Obviously there were some exceptions. The Chartists (correctly) identified that the endemic corruption in Parliament was a hindrance to social progress; and I highly doubt that the Anti-Slavery Society felt that the onus was on the slaves to break free from the shackles that held them. But for the most part I would argue this belief held true for the majority of social movements, such as the Rochdale Pioneers’ co-operative movement; Ellice Hopkins’ White Cross Army; and Octavia Hill’s social housing projects. All of these movements rested on the assumption that as long as people lacked proper self-restraint no new laws or political reform could ever lead to a truly better society, as people would simply return to their old decadent ways.

 

I raise this because I cannot help but believe that it is a sentiment which is missing from modern social activism. It may just be me being cynical: certainly there are a lot of people I know who do make personal sacrifices for their chosen causes. But at the same time I feel they are significantly outweighed by those people who want to say they are making a stand against corporations/the government/popular cause #154876, but are unwilling to make any changes which would affect them in any real way. At the end of the day I have far more respect for a vegan who lives in an entirely bio-degradable yurt, than for the person who thinks that the extent of social activism is liking a link on Facebook.

 

All in all, we can draw several important lessons from the temperance movement, even if we do not discuss temperance per se. Furthermore, whilst most may consider it a failure, temperance’s ultimate success is that attitudes to drinking definitely did change. Every time we feel guilty about getting too drunk the night before it is a hangover (pun intended) from the attitude promoted by the temperance movement, namely that getting immoderately drunk is not socially acceptable, a result which I feel is definitely worth a toast.

On diaries, and their use as historical documents

I have just finished reading Henri Charrière’s Papillon, and whilst it is not perfect, I would definitely recommend it. The book details Charrière’s attempts to escape from a French penal colony after he was wrongfully convicted of murder, and it was whilst reading it that I began to think about how useful diaries are as historical sources. Many people (and indeed some national newspapers) believe that they provide a one hundred percent accurate reflection of our personal beliefs and life story. I, however, disagree, as there are a litany of problems which compromise diaries as a source of historical fact. Rather, their true value lies in the details they reveal about the psyches of the people who wrote them.

 

The first and most significant problem with diaries is that you have no idea to what degree they are re-imagining, exaggerating, or even outright falsifying their experiences, a criticism which can definitely be levelled at Papillon. If you took the book at face value, Charrière is less a brave man struggling against a hideous injustice and more like Jesus, Gandhi and Batman rolled into one. And the same is true of more or less any diary. This problem is admittedly a simple one to overcome, as a diary’s truthfulness can be established by checking it against other documents produced during the period. Nonetheless, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing diaries as an arbiter of an absolute truth, when what they actually provide is simply one person’s opinion.

 

This relates to another significant issue about dairies, namely that they are incredibly time specific. Contrary to popular belief, dairies should not (and arguably cannot) be used to construct comprehensive summary of a person’s values or political opinions, for the simple fact that all a diary entry records is how a person felt about someone or something at that time in question. As such, all diary entries are affected by a range of factors, chief among which are our emotional and intellectual state at the time in which we write them. For example, if I were to write a diary entry today regarding my opinions on the balance between personal liberties and national security it would be markedly different from one I made when I was fifteen and had just finished reading 1984. Certainly diaries do provide a glimpse into the evolution of our identities, but that is all it is. A glimpse, and one which must be placed in the context of when, and also why, it was written, as to de-contextualise a diary entry is to render it entirely meaningless.

 

Another thing we often forget about diaries when using them as pieces historical evidence is that they are personal documents. As such, they may contain thoughts or ideas which are not particularly well thought out, or are poorly articulated; or even worse they may contain feelings towards certain subjects which the author entirely regrets when they give the issue further consideration. At the end of the day, we see diaries as a place to vent, secure in our knowledge that we are doing it in a manner which will have no long term negative repercussions beyond the twinge of guilt or embarrassment we feel when we read some of our more rash or ill thought out judgements. Certainly no one writes a diary expecting it to be used by others as a primer of their personal beliefs (or maybe they do, I am not sure) and so to treat them in this way is erroneous at best, and deceptive at worst.

 

However, in my opinion the true value of diaries is not necessarily the answers they give, but the questions they raise. To return to the first problem, the important issue is not how far events in diaries are misremembered or outright invented, but why they were. Was it simply a product of faulty memory, or did the author subconsciously fabricate what happened to give themselves a sense of self-justification when they look back upon it? Similarly, we must ask why the author chose to record the events that they did. After all, even the most apparently trivial event must have meant something to the author for them to have wrote about it, and it is through the process of establishing what it meant and why we learn a great deal about them.

 

The most intriguing question diaries pose is why the author chooses to leave out certain events. For example, the majority of Anne Frank’s Diary is concerned not with the Nazi occupation, but with the banalities of day to day existence. Again, the important question to ask here is why she chose to focus on these events. For example, did she not write in more detail about the events she was living through as she did not fully understand them; or did her parents discourage her from reflecting upon them? Did she not write about the Nazis as she saw the diary as a safe zone which the Nazis did not and should not occupy; or simply because she did not care about them as they were outside her world? These are important questions, and the answers to them are just as important as any factual information that we can glean from her diary.

 

Obviously to say that we can learn nothing factual from diaries is an oversimplification. But at the end of the day the most fruitful studies are those which see diaries not as repositories of information, but as a reflection of someone’s personality. As such, we should probe and pick them apart in an attempt to establish not what a person did, and not even necessarily what they thought of it, but why they did what they did, and why they thought as they did, as by doing so we gain a greater understanding of the author, and arguably the society in which they lived.