Let me start by laying my cards on the table. In my darkest times, I often think to myself that all history is bad.
It’s only natural to feel this way. As an aspiring academic facing a (British) university system that has changed dramatically in the last few years, that has slashed funding for the humanities, devaluing the teaching and research that gets me out of bed in the morning, it’s hard not to feel that either the government, the general public, or the Almighty are rather indifferent to historical research. And the little voice in my head can tell me plenty of reasons why. Who cares about the funny little people you spend your time researching? What do you think people really learn from studying the family lives, emotions, or sexuality of our ancestors, beyond soft ideas of cultural relativity or platitudes about the importance of tolerance, reason, and understanding? Whose life are you saving with your ‘research’? Who will even read it?
Dark thoughts indeed, and not the kind of thing I need at the point in my career when I’m trying to make the jump from being one graduate student among many, to being one of the few who both want and are able to secure a full-time academic position.
When I was thinking about this yesterday, my mind wandered from my own insecurities and failings (I’ve quoted it before, and I’ll quote it again, David Foster Wallace on what we choose to worship: “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/sep/20/fiction) … and wandered instead to the one of my favourite annual silly stories: the igNobel awards. These alternatives to the Nobel science prizes, in the words of their website, honour ‘Research that makes people laugh, and then think’ (see: http://www.improbable.com/ig/).
I think there would be quite a lot of interest in a similar kind of thing for history (or indeed other humanities). Just think of the number of times people in social situations comment to you about how ‘specific’ your research is, often meaning irrelevant and unimportant. Yet when I tried to think of a list of works of ‘bad history’, I quickly found my brain racing to find explanations for why apparently inconsequential topics are actually vitally important.
Think of the weird mind of the sixteenth-century miller, Menocchio, which Carlo Ginzburg used to probe how humble people in the Renaissance read books, and how oral and print cultures mingled in the worldviews of ordinary people (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Cheese-Worms-Cosmos-Sixteenth-Century/dp/1421409887/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1407923338&sr=8-1&keywords=ginzburg+cheese+worms).
A different example: forty years ago, who would have been interested in the bizarre records that nineteenth-century schools, prisons, and other institutions kept about waist and height measurements? But the booming field of historical anthropometrics has revolutionized historians’ understanding of poverty and exploitation in the recent past by using these records to work out how well-fed and how healthy men, women, and children were.
And I could suggest many more… Ice-cream has an unsuspected history in the early-modern period, beyond social elites, that redraws historians understandings of consumption (http://past.oxfordjournals.org/content/220/1/35.extract)… A concern with sign language in the eighteenth century is the high road to a better understanding of the links between the epistemological concerns of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=1084)… People in eighteenth-century paintings didn’t smile because their teeth were so awful (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Smile-Revolution-Eighteenth-Century/dp/0198715811/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1407924150&sr=8-1&keywords=jones+smile+revolution).
Off the top of my head, these are just some of the slightly weirder historical projects I can think of… yet all are excellent, demonstrating the power of the past to surprise and disorientate us, and the inventiveness of historians in reading sources against the grain. I suppose the term ‘bad history’ won’t really do for describing what I am talking about – ‘Research that makes you laugh, and then think’ – since it might suggest that what I mean is lazy history (not enough research and reading, poor argumentation, citation, and writing). I don’t want a bad sex award for history (http://www.theguardian.com/books/badsexaward).
Nor is this about singling out (and therefore inadvertently promoting) bigoted and wrong history (Holocaust denial and the rest of that ugly mix). Do not feed the historical trolls.
I’m not calling for a campaign against shoddy history (although perhaps we could do with a concerted campaign against some of the more mawkish and factually… problematic… drivel being produced to commemorate the First World War…).
Instead I wonder if historians as a profession might benefit from an annual award that promotes the weirder and more unusual types of research many are engaged in, in order to reach out to the general public and explain what it is that historians do, and why – despite seeming ‘specific’, even trivial – it can actually be deeply important. The baddest history, but not the worst.