Armytage Open Lecture

Chapter 4 



1. History, the past ‘as it really was’


a. Arthur Marwick: History, three levels of meaning


- The entire human past as it actually happened

- Man’s attempt to describe and interpret that past, or the attempt to discover on the basis of fragmentary evidence the significant things about the past.

- History as a discipline.


b. Leopold von Ranke: the past as ‘it actually was’.  History should be seen as a science, providing facts and objective deductions


Judy Giles’s comments: “Orthodox historical research is concerned with the systematic production of ‘objective’ knowledge. It is ‘scientific’, seeking out facts and proven hypotheses. In pursuit of ‘objectivity’, myth, anecdote, personal and fictional accounts are relegated to a secondary place, in which the meanings or knowledges offered through subjectivity, polemic and imagination can be categorized as less ‘true’”.


c. John Tosh: History as a product, History as a result of political action.


Whereas the individual’s sense of his or her past arises spontaneously, historical knowledge has to be produced. Society has a past which extends back far beyond the lives of the individuals who happen to comprise it at any one time, the raw materials out of which a historical consciousness can be fashioned are accordingly almost unlimited. Those elements which find a place in it represent selection of truths which are deemed worthy of note. Who produces historical knowledge, and who validates it for general consumption, are therefore important questions. How well the job is done has a bearing on the cohesion of society and its capacity for renewal and adaptation in the future: That is why what historians do should matter to everyone else. Their work can be manipulated to promote desired forms of social consciousness; it can remain confined to academic circles, powerless to influence society for good or ill; or it can become the basis for informed and critical discussion of current issues.


d. E.P. Thompson, History for the working class


There is the Fabian orthodoxy, in which the great majority of working people are seen as passive victims of laisser faire, with the exception of a handful of far-sighted organizers (notably, Francis Place). There is the orthodoxy of the empirical economic historians, in which working people are seen as a labour force, as migrants, or as the data for statistical series. There is the ’Pilgrim’s Progress’ orthodoxy, in which the period is ransacked for forerunners - pioneers of the Welfare State, progenitors of a Socialist Commonwealth, or (more recently) early exemplars of rational industrial relations. Each of these orthodoxies has acertain validity. All have added to our knowledge. My quarrel with the first and second is that they tend to obscure the agency of working people, the degree to which they contributed by conscious efforts, to the making of history. My quarrel with the third is that it reads history in the light of subsequent preoccupations, and not as in fact it occurred. Only the successful (in the sense of those whose aspirations anticipated subsequent evolution) are remembered. The blind alleys, the lost causes, and the losers themselves are forgotten. l am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete’ hand" loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.


Judy Giles’s comments: “As an account of the experiences, values and beliefs of ‘ordinary’ people at a moment of dramatic social change, The Making of the English Working Class contested the idea that history was inevitably about the great and good (or bad). Moreover, it demonstrated that ‘ordinary’ people could act as agents of social change and were not simply at the mercy of historical and economic forces beyond their control. Such a belief is important, as it can enable ‘ordinary’ people to believe that social change might be possible


2. Challenges to the Objectivity of History


a. Hayden White, history as a narrative no more objective than a fiction


It is sometimes said that the aim of the historian is to explain the past by 'finding’, 'identifying’, or 'uncovering’ the 'stories’ that lie buried in chronicles; and that the difference between 'history’ and 'fiction’ resides in the fact that the historian 'finds’ his stories; whereas the fiction writer ‘invents’ his. This conception of the historian’s task, however, obscures the extent to which ‘invention’ also plays a part in the historian’s operations. The same event can serve as a different kind of element of many different historical stories, depending on the role it is assigned in a specific motific characterization of the set to which it belongs. The death of the king may be a beginning, an ending, or simply a transitional event in three different stories. In the chronicle, this event is simply 'there’ as an element of a series; it does not 'function’ as a story element. The historian arranges the events in the chronicle into a hierarchy of significance by assigning events different functions as story elements in such a way as to disclose the formal coherence of a whole set of events considered as a comprehensible process with a discernible beginning, middle and end.


2. Roland Barthes, History vs Myth


Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact. If l state the fact of French imperiality without explaining it, I am very near to finding that it is natural and goes without saying: I am reassured. In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.


Judy Giles's comments: the function of myth, according to Barthes, is not so much to falsify events or deeds but to reduce them to essences in order to render them comprehensible and significant.





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