The History Woman's Blog

Love and Death in Dystopia

Posted in Dystopia, literature, Reviews by thehistorywoman on January 16, 2017

theheartgoeslastHow desperate do you have to be to sign up for a social experiment that promises you a comfortable life at the expense of your freedom?

Young couple Stan and Charmaine seem to have reached that point when their area in the North American Rust Belt is hit by mass unemployment, they are forced to sleep in their car, and their only regular treat is a breakfast of coffee and stale doughnuts.

Life in the twin town of Consilience/Positron promises the perfect solution for them: a job, a home, a meaningful life. The only catch is, once you’re in, you can’t ever leave.

Nevertheless, Stan and Charmaine seem to have few doubts. Or at least they are quick to ignore what niggles they might have. A nice meal at the restaurant and a pair of soft bath towels at the Harmony Hotel seem to seal the deal.

Life seems good at the beginning. Stan and Charmaine spend alternate months living together in their house in Consilience and working in the town, and the others separated from each other at Positron Prison.

And it’s the prison months that really mess with their brains. But the couple seem prepared to go to great lengths to preserve their sheltered and comfortable life, their illusion of being safe. And as they do, they cross lines they might never have touched before and test their relationship to the limits.

You can’t help but see numerous tributes to the great twentieth-century utopias/dystopias as you’re reading Margaret Atwood’s latest offering, The Heart Goes Last (2015). Consilience has something of the consumerist utopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), where the fulfilment of material needs becomes the focus of a society starved of love and real feelings, while the prison universe is more akin to life in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), where orders are given by talking heads on screens and asking questions is not encouraged. (more…)

Uncertainty and the post-truth society

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, Journalism, News, Political Thought by thehistorywoman on December 18, 2016
niccolo_machiavelli_by_santi_di_tito

Niccolò Machiavelli knew about the importance of appearances.

The word ‘Brexit’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time this month, only weeks after Donald Trump was elected as the next president of the United States and ‘post-truth’ was chosen as the word of the year. All three events are to a greater or lesser extent manifestations of anger with the establishment, a distrust in experts and the frustration of the losers of globalisation in a world of increasing uncertainty.

In the middle ages, the people in Europe had religion as their certainty and the Catholic Church as their guide. Life might not have been easy for poor peasants struggling to survive, but the rules to live by were: Be good, fear God and your reward will be in heaven. The reformations of the sixteenth century changed much of that, as individuals like Martin Luther came to question the authority of the Church and its hierarchies and the onus was laid on the individual to explore the Scriptures and establish a more personal relationship with God. Calvinists’ belief in predestination could also cause uncertainty in individuals who could not detect any signs of being one of the elect in their daily lives.

The Enlightenment tried to free the people from the shackles of religion, and faith increasingly became something they could opt in or out of. Society came to look for certainty through reason and science as scholars and scientists were trying to push the boundaries of human knowledge. The Industrial Revolution subsequently brought an increasing specialisation and division of labour as working processes were perfected, while the rise of the professions created the world of experts the twenty-first century has come to resent.

The people are craving security and they are increasingly finding it in self-delusion: in believing things they want to be true, be they the promises of salvation by sectarian movements, miracle weight-loss cures or fake news. (more…)

The British view of a nation that never was

Posted in History, Politics, Reviews by thehistorywoman on October 16, 2016
duerer_rhinozeros-jpg_max

Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros (1515). © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Kupferstichkabinett.

Dürer’s rhino, Luther’s Bible, Bismarck dressed as a blacksmith, a VW Beetle and a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp – the exhibits of the ‘Germany – Memories of a Nation’ show seem both somewhat random and predictable.

What I was missing most of all was a grand narrative guiding me through the exhibition, directing my view from one item to the next with that inevitable logic with which A leads to B leads to C, although, as a historian, I should really know better.

I was probably expecting the museum counterpart of the undergraduate introduction to modern German history, ‘From Bismarck to Hitler’, or, if we want to start in the early modern period, ‘From Luther to Hitler’. And this being a British exhibition originally created for a British audience about its World War II enemy, some of that was certainly there. But it seems that the collaboration between curator Barrie Cook of the British Museum, and his former boss, Neil MacGregor, also tried to avoid too much coherence and inevitability, and that was probably a good thing.

Yes, there was the Reformation with the invention of the printing press and Luther’s Bible translation, there was the Thirty Years’ War, there were references to the nationalist movements of the early nineteenth century with their romanticised depictions of the German countryside, and space dedicated to Bismarck’s German unification of 1871. Yet, none of those movements settled the national question in any sort of definite or satisfactory way. The Reformation left Germany divided into Catholic and Protestant states and any subsequent attempts at German unity were overshadowed by the question who should or should not belong to the club.

There was surprisingly little about World War I, but a broad selection of bank notes illustrating the hyperinflation of the Great Depression, while World War II was represented more through images of suffering in concentration camps or destroyed cities like Dresden rather than by the standard narrative of Hitler’s rise and fall. Post-war German history was represented by the new division of East and West, a labyrinthine model of Berlin’s Friedrichstraße station as a central border crossing and the rather unexpected wetsuit worn by an East German in his attempt to defect to the West by swimming across the Baltic Sea. You need a lot of imagination to fill the gaps. (more…)

Historians and the Fifth Estate

Posted in Academia, Comment, History, Journalism, Politics by thehistorywoman on August 6, 2016

IMG_0158Historians should get more actively involved in shaping policy, in particular foreign and defence policy. That is the gist of a recent call by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in The Atlantic for a Council of Historians to be established in the US.

Taking advice from historians, they suggest, could have helped President George W. Bush in 2003 to appreciate ‘the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam’s regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority’. It might even have prevented Bush from choosing to topple Saddam Hussein and leaving us with a great mess in the Middle East.

Allison and Ferguson also suggest, historians could have helped Barack Obama appreciate ‘the deep historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine’ and consequently ‘the risks of closer ties between Ukraine and Europe’, before Russia went to annex Crimea.

Applied History 

The political scientist Allison has long been involved in US policy making as an analyst, consultant and advisor, and his push for a Council of Historians is no doubt influenced or given additional urgency by a real fear that Donald Trump could win the US presidential election and embark on a wrong-headed and dangerous mission to ‘make America great again’.  Together with the British historian Ferguson, Allison co-directs the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project, so, it should be added, they are promoting their own work.

Now, I’m not normally known for agreeing with Niall Ferguson or the advice he has chosen to give to the UK Education Department for that matter, but I do think the two scholars have a point. It is essential for politicians to be aware of the historical complexities of the issues they are faced with, and they need historical experts to help them respond to those issues in an appropriate way. (more…)

Political Thought in Times of Crisis, 1640-1660 – Symposium, 1-3 Dec

Sponsored by the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought, Washington, US.

Execution_CharlesI_IIWas the mid-seventeenth-century crisis in Britain and Ireland essentially one aspect of a broader “global” crisis? How might scholars theorize the relationships between political thought and other verbal and non-verbal expressions of change and instability (political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental)? Extending its recent investigations of the discursive and spatial boundaries of political thinking in the early modern period, the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought will offer a distinctive symposium that demonstrates the continuing value of the study of political thought, not least in showing the relevance of early modern thought to the concerns of our own world. The symposium considers political thought as it crosses language and geo-political domains beyond Britain and Ireland. The geographical range includes the pan-European world in the culmination and aftermath of the Thirty Years War as well as such global contexts as the colonial Americas and Asia. Scholars whose work considers these issues are encouraged to apply.

Royalists_RoundheadsSpeakers and Session Leaders: The symposium will open with a forum that welcomes Geoffrey Parker (The Ohio State University), Michael Braddick (University of Sheffield), and Richard Tuck (Harvard University). On Friday and Saturday, the following speakers have been invited to frame discussions and inspire new lines of inquiry on a number of topics: Sharon Achinstein (The Johns Hopkins University), Jeffrey Collins (Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario), David Cressy (The Ohio State University, emeritus), Cesare Cuttica (Université Paris 8), Martin Dzelzainis (University of Leicester), Rachel Hammersley (Newcastle University), Helmer Helmers (Universiteit van Amsterdam), Ariel Hessayon (Goldsmiths, University of London), Ann Hughes (Keele University), Laura Lunger Knoppers (University of Notre Dame), Karen Ordahl Kupperman (New York University), Gaby Mahlberg (Berlin), Ted McCormick (Concordia University, Montreal), Nicholas McDowell (University of Exeter), David Norbrook (Merton College, Oxford), Carla Pestana (UCLA), and Joad Raymond(Queen Mary University of London)

Schedule: Thursday evening, Friday, and Saturday, December 1 – 3 , 2016.

ApplySeptember 6, for admission and grants-in-aid.

For more information, please see the Folger website.

You can’t buy an education

Posted in Academia, Education, higher education, News, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on June 4, 2016

UCUAs university lecturers in the UK remain locked in a dispute with their employers over pay and working conditions in Higher Education, a survey published by private student loan company Future Finance this week revealed that less than half of students think their degree will help them get a graduate job to pay off their debts.

The issues are two sides of the same coin: the commodification of Higher Education. With home students now paying tuition fees of £9,000 per year, they rightly ask for value education in return. This involves among others high-quality teaching, well-stocked libraries, a wealth of electronic resources and specialist equipment, modern teaching and learning spaces, and decent student accommodation.

Alas, high tuition fees and the consumer culture they breed among students falsely suggests that the more you pay the more you will get in return. While this might work for cars, washing machines and smartphones, where you pay more to upgrade to a better model, it does not work for university courses. No matter how much you pay, you can’t buy an education. (more…)

Improving the Nation

Posted in Early Modern, History, Reviews, Seventeenth Century, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on March 26, 2016

Slack_imageIn his new book, The Invention of Improvement, Paul Slack sets out to do two things: first, to trace the ‘notion of improvement’ in seventeenth-century ‘public discourse’ (vii) in England; and secondly to show how ‘the quest for improvement distinguished England from other countries.’ (1)

Slack has not set himself an easy task as he analyses the concept of improvement in its ‘intellectual and political as well as social and economic’ (14) context across an entire century. But he does so most elegantly and eloquently, and the wealth of primary sources – both printed and archival – he employs shows that this book has been many years in the making and draws on decades of research. In fact, the work stands out more for its author’s extensive knowledge of the period, the great synthesis of a large amount of scholarship and the lucidity of its analysis than for the novelty of its argument as such.

For the book is unashamedly ‘Whiggish’ as a ‘story of progress’ (263), as its author acknowledges, telling the story of England’s rise as a great nation based on the steady and ambitious improvement of agriculture, manufacture and trade, which would lay the foundations for its Empire.

The motor of this ‘gradual, piecemeal, but cumulative betterment’ (1) were a number of creative minds dedicated to the task of making England more efficient through the application of their learning in the form of new social schemes and institutions. The foundations for improvement had already been laid under Queen Elizabeth and the early Stuarts with men like William Cecil and Francis Bacon, but things really began to take off with the English Revolution and the various projects of the Hartlib Circle, which combined utopian speculation and social reform.

In fact, it was Samuel Hartlib, who introduced the very word ‘improvement’ in its current meaning into English public discourse when he translated Jan Comenius’ Pansophiae Prodromus (1639), ‘and in doing so referred for the first time in print to improvement.’ (99) (more…)

Being a refugee

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, News, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on February 14, 2016
Shipwreck_IoP

Woodcut illustration from The Isle of Pines (1668).

It’s weird to be writing a book about English republican exiles in the seventeenth century while thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa make their way to Europe every day. I’ve been wondering a lot what it might feel like to be a refugee and if there are experiences that might link these two very disparate groups of migrants – or indeed migrants at all times, everywhere – such as feelings of displacement, isolation or fear.

One of the things that keeps coming back to me when I read about the present refugee crisis is a letter Algernon Sidney wrote to his father from Italy some 350 years ago, in which he describes his exile experience as that of ‘a broken Limbe of a Ship-wracked Faction’, while also often feeling ‘naked, alone, and without Help in the open Sea.’

The shipwreck metaphor

I think it’s the maritime metaphor that gets me. Even though Sidney was for the most part travelling on horseback over land, he decided to describe his exile situation through the metaphor of shipwreck. The republican faction that he was part of had failed to maintain its power base in England and was replaced by the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. It was shipwrecked and had to start all over again.

Shipwreck was a common metaphor used in England as a maritime country, part of an island surrounded by the sea. It had also been a common metaphor for the exiles of antiquity, who were part of a world of seafarers and adventurers.

Being at sea

It seems that ‘being at sea’ was one of the scariest experiences during times in which humans were much more exposed to the elements and regularly at their mercy, when every sea journey could end in death, and yet had to be undertaken for the purpose of trade, or warfare, or necessary overseas travel.

It is interesting too that Henry Neville in his exile dystopia The Isle of Pines uses the topic of shipwreck to start his narrative about the discovery of an unknown island that holds up a mirror to Restoration England. Here, shipwreck too is an end but also a new beginning and a call for the English republicans to reinvent themselves.

(more…)

Incredible universities

Posted in Academia, literature, Reviews by thehistorywoman on December 1, 2015

imageWhen I left my last academic job, a good friend and colleague gave me Ian McGuire’s campus novel Incredible Bodies, in case I would have any regrets. Like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, it’s a satirical novel about academic life and the dysfunctional characters that populate our universities and take themselves way too seriously, while pretending to shift the paradigms of this world with their research.

At the centre of the novel is Morris Gutman, a thirty-something over-worked and underpaid temporary lecturer in the English Lit department at the University of Coketown, who is still learning the ropes of the system while others are embarking on successful careers.

The aptly-named Gutman is a Candide-like character, who naively stumbles through the academic world thinking hard work, original ideas and compliance will eventually land him a permanent academic position. Alas, he soon comes to find out that it’s all about politics and whether or not certain people in power like you.

Only when an unfortunate car accident and a misunderstanding involving a challenging exchange student and a scheming colleague bring him closer to the centres of power, do his fortunes finally begin to change. (more…)

Redefining the independent scholar

Posted in Academia, Comment by thehistorywoman on September 19, 2015

Buecherregal2Three weeks after quitting my job as an academic historian it’s high time I reinvented myself. I might no longer work at a university, but that doesn’t mean I love history any less. On the contrary, maybe I had to leave because I loved my subject too much to see it destroyed by a changing academic culture driven by unrealistic targets, implemented by the corporate whip, and accompanied by an ever-growing array of pointless paperwork.

Naturally, I won’t give up my research, and I hope I will stay in touch with my former colleagues and students. I will just turn into an independent scholar – at least for a while (until Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister, abolishes tuition fees, and learning for learning’s sake will be valued again).

Admittedly, independent scholars have a bit of a bad name. ‘Independent’ is too often considered as a euphemism for ‘unemployed’, ‘amateur’ or ‘hobby’. Independent scholars are the cranks and underdogs of the discipline, who, obsessed by an idea, send random emails to busy university academics trying to convince them of the value of their projects, while struggling to get access to the most basic research tools and resources. But ‘independent’ also means ‘free’.

I have declared independence from an academic system that has left me unhappy and exhausted, and, at times, properly ill. There is only so much research, teaching and admin you can do in your officially paid for 35 hours a week, while our workloads have been expanding ad infinitum. So most full-time academics either have to cut corners or do serious overtime. From my experience in the ‘sector’ (that’s how academics nowadays refer to their line of work) it’s mostly the latter. (more…)