The Origins of Historical Origins

One of the pieces of advice that has stuck with me from a workshop I went to on academic publishing is the idea that publishers (and readers) like history books that deal with origins, or the dynamic processes that ‘gave birth’ to ‘modern’ phenomena. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class is the archetype, but there are many more that spring easily to mind: classics such as Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, or more recent, and perhaps equally excellent books such as Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex or Colin Jones’ upcoming The Smile Revolution. These books tend to share a common purpose: to demonstrate how things we might think a-historical (‘tradition’, ‘sex’, even smiling), have been radically transformed in the recent past, even, in some senses, invented as if out of nothing. (Another interesting example would be Sophia Rosenfeld’s Common Sense: A Political History).


If you search Amazon’s history books for the word ‘invention’, you get some 6,453 results. While many of these are outside of the field of academic history I am talking about, I think this nonetheless gives some idea how pervasive the idea is.


But consider an interesting counter-point: in this interest in ‘invention’ – as perhaps in plenty of other areas – historians are swimming slightly against the cultural tide. To use another brutally over-simplifying technique, Google N-Gram shows that ‘invention’ is been on the decline, no longer quite as popular a word as it was in the high Victorian period, or even the early twentieth century. ‘Making’ has the mixed history you might expect of such a broad term, ‘creation’ seems to be gaining ground (because of its religious meanings?), and ‘revolution’ maintains a steady presence, undulating with political events such as ’68.


Hey, fellow historians: maybe we aren’t on to a winner with this one.


So why are many historians still so caught up in an idea which smacks slightly of the radical cultural constructionism of an era when Foucault reigned across the humanities? Well – and I sense I might get myself in some trouble here – I’ve been wondering if it isn’t guilt. Does all of this interest in historical novelty, innovations, and dramatic transformations have anything to do with the fundamental and inescapable conservatism of the historical enterprise? I mean conservatism in its literal sense, the desire historians share to conserve something of the past, a desire which underpins the key historical methodologies, methodologies that are implicitly hostile to innovation. Historians write in the words of others. They uncover, rather than inventing. They cut, paste, and mount.


They are scrap-bookers.


Now scrap-booking is a topic I wish I knew more about, especially when I read things like Matt Houlbrook’s post  from last year about some great examples from the 1920s he acquired ( I’m also thinking of Eloise Moss’s forthcoming piece (which I had the pleasure of reading) on a celebrity policeman who also kept scrap-books (follow her on Twitter @ladyburglar), or Anke te Heesen’s chapter on ‘News, Paper, Scissors’ in a book called Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science.


What I have taken away from these three historians (I’m sure there are many more for anyone who is interested!) is how scrap-booking is one of the material (dare I say, literal?) ways that people in the past ‘constructed’ their identities. They cut and pasted words, images, ideas that were not their own into new formations that were. They built a material self out of other people’s words, in the same way that historians always speak in the voices of others in the name of something new. In fact, isn’t this how all humans behave?


I worry that historians interested in the ‘origins’ of privacy or the ‘invention’ of the body, on the other hand, are reacting against this unoriginality at the heart of their endeavours, overemphasizing radical breaks and creation stories in order to escape that kind of undergraduate suspicion that it’s just ‘one damn thing after another’, the same bloody ideas recycled. These historians of ruptures often talk about ‘construction’ in terms that are either explicitly, or implicitly, about linguistic or cultural or intellectual construction, in the kind of vague sense of the human ability to perceive things and describe them in different ways. The world was never the same, they tell us, once the word ‘modernity’ itself came to the fore in the nineteenth century.


But these kinds of linguistic or soft culturalist accounts fail to discuss the very real material sense in which new phenomena are ‘constructed’, the ways that privacy, for instance, is built using walls and curtains, or underwear (which isn’t to say nobody does that: Alain Corbin and Daniel Roche discuss underwear for instance, and I bet there is a whole literature on material culture and privacy). Using the same old ideas may not sound like a very exciting account of history, but if we are talking about things, perhaps this does get a little more exciting. Herein lies the enduring popularity of lego.


So I guess I’m suggesting it might not be such a bad thing to be proud to be unoriginal, to forefront these borrowings, continuities, and hangovers. It might not be such a disaster for historians to write books about the long echoes of history. The models exist. I’m thinking of Guy Beiner’s account of the after-memory of the failed French invasion of Ireland in 1798 in Remembering the Year of the French in Ireland, or Stéphane Gerson’s account of the after-memory of Nostradamus. A maxim: nothing new under the sun, except the ways people use, stick together, repurpose what has always already been there.


And yet.


Perhaps the reason why ‘invention’, ‘origins’, even ‘revolution’ and ‘making’ are so popular with publishers and readers is because they represent ideas easily swallowed. After all, The Invention of Tradition is a slightly snappier title than The Constant Reappropriation and Manipulation of Previously-Existing Materials to Suit Changing Conditions. The only strategy left to the critics of ‘invention’, ‘origins’, and – the term so often hiding behind this language – ‘modernity’, tends to be outright opposition. Perhaps historians still have to swallow Bruno Latour’s bitter pill. Perhaps these radical discontinuities are our greatest bindspots. Perhaps We have never been modern.

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