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Historiography from Below July 18, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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One of the ways this blog really is propaganda is in my ongoing advocacy for the historiographical views of David Edgerton. There are a lot of historians whose work I admire, but it is shocking how few scholars are really interested in researching how our views of the past have been built through past historiography. It is a constant temptation to make our work look better by caricaturing how “we” have thought in the past, and then proceeding to knock down straw men, all the while rehearsing iconic individuals, works, and controversies that keep us tied to the same narrow track of thinking. I know I continue to struggle to eliminate this tactic in my own work, and to construct genuinely new views of the past. Edgerton has helped me tremendously in this struggle.

With the recent publication of Shock of the Old, Edgerton’s view has gained ground that the most historically important topics, the ones that make a difference to the most people, are too-often ignored because they are seen as mundane and old. Although the real test is to see if new histories of the mundane and old begin to appear and be noticed. However, his big historiographical statement is, in my view, Warfare State, which fewer people will likely read because the topic is a bit more niche. This would be a shame, because the book is notable for the way it assembles a new view of science and technology in Britain by counting people, events, and trends as significant that other histories pass over too quickly, if they take notice of them at all. The effect is jarring and the book can be difficult to read. I know I tend to page back and forth through it rather than read it straight through.

Getting to today’s topic, pop history has been an issue both here and at AHP (see my exchange with Matt Stanley on whether it is worthwhile to criticize popularly-oriented histories in professional journals, Parts one and two), but in Warfare State Edgerton discusses the value of what he calls “historiography from below”. Pop histories and, more importantly, enthusiast histories are rarely satisfying in terms of methodology, but, he points out, provide a valuable alternative perspective to the concerns of academic historians. Contrary to the narratives of Britain as a non-technological welfare state, Edgerton shows how Britain’s socialist projects were dwarfed by its investment in military-oriented R&D. Where is this history? Edgerton asks. If you look to the enthusiast literature, you’ll find generations of aircraft and other military equipment well-chronicled, if not well-analyzed.

Surely, we can argue, other histories are more interesting or have a stronger “symbolic register”. Certainly, Edgerton argues, but it is no excuse for systematically ignoring what is largely constitutive of science and technology in a time and place. He writes, “If the warfare state, and military technology, is written out of academic histories it is everywhere in ephemera, obituaries, TV documentaries, children’s books, encyclopaedias, museums and the lovingly detailed works of amateur historians.” (One should also add the internet). I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the next sentence: “While operational research [OR] was written about by academic participants, and then by academic historians, writings on guns, ships, aeroplanes and explosives are the work of non-academics.” Obviously, this has forced me to evaluate how I think about OR (there is actually a historiography from below here, as well; the link is just one example).

Even if we avoid Whiggish pitfalls, we are still not very good historians if we ignore for too long what is all around us. We will do better if we direct our criticism at the historiography rather than a “generic first-person plural” view as somehow representing “society’s” view.  This will help prevent us from seeing popular accounts as a motivation to rehearse, once again, our most basic insights.



1. Will Thomas - July 18, 2008

This topic is also a good excuse to link over to Michael Robinson’s recent post over at Time to Eat the Dogs about how he has shifted to a new topic of study: the exploration of mountains. This seems fantastic to me, because it is surely both overlooked and very important. In fact, I know it is important, because a lot of the glaciological literature on Antarctica (which is a project of mine) stems back to the study of ice on mountains–and many glaciologists who study ice sheets still study mountain glaciers as well.

2. Michael Robinson - July 18, 2008

Will, interesting post. I didn’t know about David Edgerton. You might want to email Dan Todman over at Trench Fever about this. He wrote a post a couple months ago discussing popular British military histories and some of their pitfalls. It sounds like Edgerton is saying that they also provide something of a corrective academic histories as well. I didn’t know you did mountain work – we should really have a coffee at HSS if you are going in November.

Best, Michael

3. Will Thomas - July 18, 2008

The idea of the “corrective” is worth thinking more about. I think academic historians often view themselves as providing a corrective to popular histories; in turn, we can now see popular histories as offering a corrective to academic histories. The problem, of course, is that these areas don’t occupy a united historiography with a united audience; so correctives turn into self-sustaining historiographies (which has to do with what Edgerton calls “inverted Whiggism”–there’s a post on this somewhere in the archives).

4. Michael Robinson - July 19, 2008

This makes me think about the concept of empire as it was viewed historically over the last thirty years. As you know, there was a point, not too long back, when academic historians viewed the creation of empires as a rather benign, even beneficial process. Then came the social critiques of the 1960s, Foucault, and Said’s application of Foucault to European hegemony. Since the late 70s, there was a, to use Edgerton’s phrase, “inverted Whig” response, in which lit critics, comparative lit folks, anthropologists, and historians began to treat “empire” as the all-powerful, all-pervasive Darth Vader agent of 19th and 20th century global history. I’m sure you’ve also read your share of books from the 1980s which all have “empire” somewhere in the title (its new equivalent is “Atlantic History”).

I believe that this corrective was absolutely necessary for many fields to progress. At the same time, when I came of age as a graduate student, it began to feel like a doctrine that, if challenged, would place you into the camp of traditionalist or reactionary historians. At the same time, I realized the the cultural stories about exploration in the US only make sense if you assume that empire isn’t all powerful. This was a controversial point at the time and I felt like I had to explain myself carefully or get pummeled by reviewers.

Anyway, I like the historiographic threat you’ve got going here. My only beef with Edgerton is the name. “inverted Whiggism” sounds like it could equally be refering to people in the past using their own preconceptions to judge the future (Star Trek , Metropolis, etc do an excellent job of this). It seems to me that what E is talking about is not so much “inverted” Whiggism but ( I almost flinch to say it) “Hegelian Whiggism” where one historiographic trend (popular) generates an antithetical trend (academic) which ultimately both prove to by partial and unsatisfying (thesis). Ok, now I am officially a snot. Checking off, always intersting Will. Michael.

5. Gustav - July 19, 2008

Empire: Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World is a different, decidedly non-Darth Vader take on the subject. An interesting read.

6. Will Thomas - July 19, 2008

This is probably a good prompt to do a post on what moral postures the historian is expected to take–if we think we have it bad, try being a historian of 20th-century Germany. (Christopher, our new contributor, is interested in this issue, and is planning some big series of posts or something that will touch on this).

I feel the moral pressure a bit when I work on Cold War issues, but I think this is more a remnant of reading literature that is 10 or more years old than anything most historians will really call you out on now. There are definitely political and generational overtones to the whole thing, but the biggest issue is getting beyond the style-issues that were placed in the service of the old political programs, like case studies that demonstrate the links between text and context, but never seem to come together into new interpretations of the larger picture.

Gustav’s ref. to Ferguson is case-in-point that the straight-up historians are less shy about consolidating their gains on topics like the British Empire. If someone in our field were to write a big book consolidating our gains, I’m not even really sure what it would be about, which I guess is why I’m so anxious to see it and speculate about it.

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