A week ago I went to an excellent one-day conference: ‘A Life as a Lens: Using Individuals in Wider Historical Research’ (see: http://alifeasalens.wordpress.com/). A range of speakers talked about their research into individuals such as doctors, politicians, antiquaries, and civil servants. We also heard details from the lives of a fifteenth-century preacher, a Ming dynasty interpreter, Abraham Lincoln, and a worker-poet from the West Riding.
I walked away from the day with perhaps more questions than answers, so what follows is more interrogative than declarative.
The call for papers for the conference asked speakers to think about “The ‘ordinary life’ vs. the ‘great man’ – do histories of individuals always privilege the elite?” (see: http://bit.ly/1sBxnEu). Yet almost all of the papers were about men, almost all of them concerned individuals with significant personal independence and power, and many of them were, in fact, men who have already been the subject of biographies.
There was, however, a lot of talk on the day about how different our various interests are from ‘Great Men’ history. A few justifications stand out to me, personally. First, few of us made ‘our’ individuals the hero(in)es of our accounts. I don’t think many of the historians there chose their subjects because they led empires, nations, or even parties. Rather than their role shaping history, it seems to me many of us were interested in their subjectivities. Particularly reflexive individuals, like Laura Sangha’s (@_drsang) subject, the spiritual diarist Ralph Thoresby (http://bit.ly/1BQtbrb) give us insights into how people in the past made their own individuality.
Second, I think there was a lot of honesty about our emotional entanglements with our subjects. Charlotte Riley (@lottelydia), for instance, feels strangely attached to the ‘uncharismatic’ but important politician Arthur Creech Jones.
Given my paper – phew! – and my historical crush on Arthur Creech Jones has been very much exposed.
— Charlotte L. Riley (@lottelydia) September 12, 2014
This attachment was ‘betrayed’ by her attempt to use Arthur’s first-name throughout her paper. This led to a fairly lively discussion, drawing on Matt Houlbrook’s (@tricksterprince) post on the same topic: ‘Are We On First Name Terms Yet?’ (http://wp.me/p1MkWU-bTYgj). The jury’s out.
This emotional attachment is not always of the positive kind. Laura Sangha made some interesting comments about just how boring reading Thoresby’s diary could be. And Darren O’Byrne (@DarrenOByrne1), had an even less sympathetic take on his individual, understandable when you realize he was a Nazi civil servant named Dr. Johannes Krohn.
I would say I fall somewhere between these two extremes. As I have written here before, there is much about Félix Arnaudin that irritates or even disturbs me (http://bit.ly/1r5MZDt although Arnaudin wasn’t the individual I was specifically talking about).
I think some of the dangers here are recognizable. This emotional entanglement can quickly devolve into a blame game. Indeed, with a subject like the Holocaust it is hard to see how this trap can really be avoided. This concerns me, because I do not aim as a historian to be a moral judge of people’s character. I aim to write about how and why things happened in the past, and – forgive me for being postmodern about it – I am sometimes unconvinced that individual agencies are all-important. What use blaming and shaming?
I do, however, think a lot of these emotional dilemmas highlight a more foundational methodological one. How do we choose which individual to study? I heard a lot of different explanations on the day, and tried to keep a (surely not exhaustive!) running list.
1. People often talk, understandably, of finding their individual by accident. That’s the nature of research.
2. And this bleeds quickly into an argument that the sources are richer for certain individuals. Which also makes sense.
3. And fundamentally, many of us seemed drawn to something as vague as the fact that our individuals really interest us. Articulating why can be hard. (Have you ever felt your justifications on funding applications are a bit post hoc? What? Nope, me NEITHER!)
4. But the last explanation is the one that interests ME the most: we choose an individual because they are socially-representative, what Emily Manktelow (@EManktelow) called ‘social history creeping back in through the guise of the individual’ (if I remember her words!). This is certainly the kind of approach that has heavily influenced me, especially in the work of the microhistorians (such as Ginzburg’s Friulian miller, Menocchio: http://amzn.to/1r6P5lj) or the amazing book about a ‘nobody’ by Alain Corbin (http://amzn.to/1ploInG). Yet none of the people present at the conference claimed to be doing microhistory… And few of us were studying lowly individuals. I think this is a shame, but then I would, seeing as I was talking about a local postman and a village seamstress!
The final thing I was left wondering is how little explicit problematisation of the ‘individual’ there was on the day. There is a large literature on the idea that the individual is a ‘modern’ invention. Now, as it happens, I think that is pretty much bunkum, but I do think the problems have to be addressed.
After all, people in the past often openly denied their own agency for a variety of reasons, pretending to be powerless, ignorant, and mute. They might be baffled that an academic historian thinks their life worth writing about. Of course, this does not mean that they really lacked any agency or voice, but it does raise problems for treating their individuality as if it were self-evident.
And there are other challenges to the ‘individual’ as a category of historical analysis.
What of family? Almost all of the papers touched on the formative role of families, leading me at one point to type down that we had heard more family histories than biographies!
What of the post-human? Are animals individuals? Can a thing be one? There are all sorts of weird and wonderful questions here. I wish I’d asked Laura Sangha if a historian could write a biography of an angel (http://amzn.to/1r6QOqN). How do you write the biography of a man who survived by lying about his identity? (http://tricksterprince.wordpress.com/)
In short, how does the category of ‘individual’ which a historian might deploy map onto the historical development of the idea of the individual and how does it relate to historically-specific ways of thinking personhood and subjectivity?
Lots of questions, not many answers, just like I promised!