PhD Theses and The Postmodern Condition

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:55 am, 5 June 2011]

A few weeks ago I ordered a PhD thesis from EThOS. A few days later they got back to me to say that the university in question wouldn’t supply the thesis for digitization because they didn’t have the author’s permission. In some ways that was a relief because it saved me the time that I would have used up reading it and the £40 digitization fee. Arguably the university and author have lost more because they’ve just missed out on a citation which would have marginally contributed to their reputation and given their research more ‘impact’. Maybe one consequence of digital history will be that material that isn’t easily available on the web might as well not exist. Which is exactly what Lyotard predicted in The Postmodern Condition in 1979 (p. 4):

The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation. It can fit into the new channels, and become operational, only if learning is translated into quantities of information. We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language. The “producers” and users of knowledge must now, and will have to, possess the means of translating into these languages whatever they want to invent or learn. Research on translating machines is already well advanced. Along with the hegemony of computers comes a certain logic, and therefore a certain set of prescriptions determining which statements are accepted as “knowledge” statements.

We may thus expect a thorough exteriorization of knowledge with respect to the “knower”, at whatever point he or she may occupy in the knowledge process. The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so.

This book should be one of the foundational texts of digital history, but apparently it isn’t.

  1. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Manchester, 1984).


Reasons not to be suicidal

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 3:41 pm, 7 May 2011]

[Edit May 2016: Oh dear. The Tories broke the coalition agreement by blocking Lords reform and the Lib Dems let them get away with it instead of pulling the plug. That was the point at which I stopped approving of the coalition. STV is still the only hope for the future.]

I’m still dreaming of a time when everyone is sick to death of Labour and Tories, but that time isn’t now. There are still some crumbs of comfort:

Further on “On Revisionism”

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 11:41 am, 7 April 2008]

More thoughts relating to my last post on Glenn Burgess on revisionism. I was making what might look like esoteric theoretical points there, and it might not always be immediately obvious how that applies to the existing historiography in practice. Anti-theory polemic often constructs a false dichotomy between all points of view being equally valid on the one hand and only one objective truth being valid on the other. I think things are more complicated than that. Although I reject objectivity I do think that there are many interpretations of history which are invalid for various reasons, including being internally inconsistent, not being very well supported by their own evidence, or even contradicting the laws of physics. But once we’ve dismissed all these interpretations as being impossible, we could potentially be left with many interpretations which are possible. This is where we get the theoretical issues that I wrote about before. It might not be possible, or even necessary, to choose between all these possible interpretations and choose a single correct one.

Applying this to English/British Civil War/Revolution historiography can illustrate the point, but it’s not necessarily obvious because other, more obvious, factors get in the way. For a start, many histories of this period (particularly, but not only, from Whigs and Marxists) have fallen at the first fence because they are internally inconsistent and/or not well supported by their own evidence (these are arguably the same thing, because poor evidence is an inconsistency for any empirical work but possibly irrelevant to non-empirical work). More have fallen at the second fence because other historians have produced evidence which contradicts them. Most, if not all, of the histories written from Gardiner onwards have shared certain basic empirical assumptions, so it’s perhaps surprising that these works have often not lived up to empirical standards of proof. Pointing that out should be alarming, but it might also be misleadingly comforting. Surely if everyone genuinely adhered to proper empirical standards we’d be able to find the one true story, wouldn’t we? I don’t think so. The fact that in practice so many historians have tried to argue for interpretations which are impossible doesn’t do anything to diminish the theoretical possibilities for an abundance of interpretations which can’t be dismissed as wrong but which can’t be chosen between. In practice we’re only just starting to see this.

Following Glenn Burgess’s example, I’ll take two different works and compare them: John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt and John Walter’s Understanding Popular Violence. Both books are meticulously researched to the highest standards (or at least higher than most other books I’ve seen). Their descriptions of what happened would be difficult to challenge on empirical grounds. Both relate to the causes and outbreak of the First Civil War but each has a very narrow focus rather than offering an overarching model which claims to explain everything. It is perhaps this focus that allows the authors to be so meticulous, and therefore avoid falling at the early empirical fences. This is not to say that they are less ambitious than Lawrence Stone or David Underdown (examples of historians who did attempt overarching explanatory models), just that their ambitions might be pointing in a different direction. Neither Adamson nor Walter explicitly claims to be telling the whole story. They have omitted many things and made arbitrary decisions about what to include, as any historian must when writing any history, but they have not attempted to close down other possibilities outside their chosen scope. This is not to say that they think anything goes. Within their chosen scope, both have demolished previous interpretations which now look impossible or at least highly improbable. The most important thing is that these books do not contradict each other much, if at all. It would be quite easy to see them as dealing with different parts of the same thing. Therefore we have two interpretations which differ because their focus and end points differ, but which are not mutually exclusive. However, I suspect that it would be difficult to synthesize both works into a single overarching thesis in the style of Lawrence Stone. They’re just different. Taken together they suggest that the civil war might be too big and complicated to ever be distilled into a single work. I think that this will become increasingly obvious in the future as we see more books like these.

  1. John Adamson, The Noble Revolt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007).
  2. Glenn Burgess, ‘On revisionism: an analysis of early Stuart historiography in the 1970s and 1980s’, Historical Journal, 33 (1990), pp. 609-27.
  3. John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1999).

Glenn Burgess On Revisionism

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:59 am, 4 April 2008]

‘On Revisionism’ is an important article from 1990 (you can download it free from Historical Journal) in which Glenn Burgess sets out a fair appraisal of what revisionism is (or was) and defends it from some unfair criticisms, then makes some more sophisticated criticisms. It’s possibly unfair to beat Burgess with a stick that hadn’t been published at the time he was writing and which was (and perhaps still is) considered extremely radical, but I’d like to compare this article with the work of Keith Jenkins, and some of the theorists who inform his work, because there are some surprising similarities. Ultimately Burgess and Jenkins draw different conclusions, but they are tackling some of the same problems and at times use similar arguments. For the purposes of this post I’m not going to question empirical epistemological foundations at all, but if we accept that the past really happened, and that we can know facts about what really happened, there are still many practical and theoretical problems concerning what to do with those facts.


Book Review: Malcolm Wanklyn – Decisive Battles of the English Civil War

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 5:18 pm, 6 December 2007]

[Edit May 2016: See, it’s not just me. Even Malcolm Wanklyn had a postmodern phase. His review of my book in Renaissance Quarterly suggests that he’s well and truly over it.]

Malcolm Wanklyn, Decisive Battles of the English Civil War, (Barnsley, Pen and Sword, 2006); ISBN: 1844154548.

I’m just going to get straight to the point: this is the best book ever written about English Civil War battles. I’m not being sarcastic or damning it with faint praise. It really is that good. Wanklyn argues that previous methodology of battle reconstruction is inadequate, that familiar sources need to be reassessed, and that we really know far less than we thought we did about what really happened.


Review: Liberation or Catastrophe?

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 12:19 pm, 24 September 2007]

[Edit May 2016: This still seems like a fair review of something that was good but not quite my kind of thing. I never received any more review copies of books, although I turned down another two offers around the same time as this. I’m not sure if I’d actually read Lyotard at this point or which ideas of his I thought I was referring to. The mentions of him now seem like superficial namedropping and not particularly relevant.]

Michael Howard, Liberation Or Catastrophe? Reflections on the History of the Twentieth Century, (London, Hambledon Continuum, 2007; ISBN: 9781847251596).

Before I start this review I have to point out a couple of things. This is the first time that I’ve been sent a review copy of a book rather than reviewing something that I’ve bought myself. For some bloggers this situation is an ethical dilemma, but I’ve had enough experience of PR from the other side (the thankless task of sending CDs to fanzines who ignore you or slag you off) that I wouldn’t hesitate to kick the author and publisher in the teeth if I thought that the book was a load of rubbish. I know that I’m doing them a favour even by mentioning the book on a highly Google ranked blog, and that no review is ever so bad that you can’t get a good selective quote out of it.

Second, this book is by Michael Howard the eminent military historian and founder of the War Studies department at Kings College London, not Michael Howard the former Tory leader.


Science Friction

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:38 am, 8 June 2007]

[Edit May 2016: Cringe. This post is a terrible cliche and doesn’t really have anything to say. Note that I was still occupying the false centre, which means I still hadn’t read any Keith Jenkins despite pontificating on postmodernism and history. I did cite a study on colour perception in the introduction of my book, so perhaps not a complete waste of time. Now I think that Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ really just shows that there was an awful lot of unchallenged racism in philosophy.]

Rachel at A Historian’s Craft and Kevin at Civil War Memory have both been thinking about how much historians should think about philosophy. Although they take different positions on the issue, they both approach it in a refreshingly un-polemical fashion (contrast with the “that’s you that is” pettiness of this embarrassing exchange between Alun Munslow and Arthur Marwick). It’s almost inevitable that the p-word comes up, but it’s interesting that the word “postmodernism” seems to be used more often by people who are against it than people who are for it, whatever it is. Too often it seems to be a label attached to a conflation of lots of different (and not always compatible) theories, but let’s stick with the stereotypical view of postmodernism for now. Here are two recognisable stereotypes:

The traditional empiricist, who believes that what historians do is to scientifically examine archival evidence to find out what really happened in the past, something which is achievable if you eliminate bias.

The postmodernist who believes that everything is culturally constructed, that an objective scientific study of the past is impossible, and that even science itself is an ideologically suspect paradigm.

Whether these stereotypes are true or not (and you should always be suspicious of stereotyping – isn’t it funny how stereotypes are always someone else?) they crudely illustrate what I’m trying to get at in this post: that both extremes in the postmodernism wars seem to have a stereotypical and inaccurate view of science.


Grand Narratives of Global War

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:09 pm, 19 October 2006]

[Edit May 2016: This turns out to be much better than I remembered, although I don’t think I knew enough about Lyotard to be namechecking him. I was right on the money with ‘Every person who lived through the war has their own story … every military unit (battalion, regiment, division, squadron, ship etc) has its own story’. See what Mia Ridge and I are doing at Linking Experiences of World War One. It turns out to be much harder to find out about the history of British units before 4 August 1914 and after 11 November 1918 because the standard sources (eg James, Becke) mostly use those as cutoff dates.]

Brett Holman at Airminded started a discussion about when the Second World War started (discussion of the question is also taking place at Revise and Dissent and the Rhine River). The many interesting points raised by various people show that there isn’t a simple answer because it depends on definitions and points of view. This reminded me of a post by Mark Grimsley at Blog Them Out of the Stone Age on the military metanarrative.