Something New Under the Sun?

I write this rapidly, in moments snatched on trains or with a computer propped up on my lap as my partner asks incredulously what I need to be writing at this time of night, or day, on a weekend, halfway through a house-move, with other things to do.

What I need to be writing is some of the thoughts that the conference ‘Modern British Studies’ at Birmingham provoked in me (more than two weeks ago now! See line up here: https://mbsbham.wordpress.com/programme-rethinking-modern-british-studies/).

This was an event unlike any other I have ever attended, an event that felt like an epoch-making moment: excellent plenaries, challenging papers from a range of students and teachers, discussions on Twitter and in ‘real life Twitter’ (the pub).

I’m not a British historian, so I can’t tell you for sure how radical or new these conversations are in this field, but it did seem to me that the people there who are working on British history were saying similar things about a key moment in the discipline.

A hot moment, in the sense both of sweltering and Muggy British Studies 2015 (#MBS2015), but also in terms of the intellectual debates. The heat of something new being forged, perhaps?

So (from the point of view of an historian who is also an outsider to this area) what is it about these discussions that is new? Is there, after all, anything new in history?

I want to begin by saying that when I look over the themes that struck me as innovative, they are hardly issues that no-one has discussed before. I think that is an important point to begin with, because some of the heat in some of the discussions was generated (I felt) by a miscommunication between 1. people who are striving to innovate and who risk sounding dismissive of previous innovation and 2. those who are either trying to be careful of messianic claims, or who tend toward saying that they have seen it all before.

These are two different stories historians tell about what they do.

Put another way, there was an ongoing tension between programs and their critics. Programs were represented (in different ways) by the much-criticised History Manifesto, the Modern British Studies working papers that appeared last year (MBS WP 1 and 2), and James Vernon’s provocative keynote address.

‘We should do THIS’, the programs and manifestoes argue. ‘Who is this “we” and since when were our aims singular’, their critics respond. The idea of what ‘we’ do now makes me uncomfortable. ‘We’ rests on implicit exclusions: who is not ‘us’?

And between the two positions surely lies the productive mess of having great conversations about history.

Great discussions, but painful ones. As Lucy Robinson has already written about the conversations in Birmingham: ‘When you diss our methods and disciplinary interventions, it is personal’ (see http://bit.ly/1M1f9HF).

I’ve picked some examples of ongoing discussions at the conference that tackled issues that are hardly brand new, but were being done in different ways to anything I know of, and made these issues into sub-posts which I will be posting over the next few weeks (links below).

The posts are in no sense an exhaustive account. I have little to say about micro and macro, for instance, partly out of a sense, born of writing a lot of micro-studies, that the debates about big pictures and small cases often miss the mark completely. I think Seth Koven and Deborah Cohen made similar comments in their plenary addresses that scale is not the same as significance, that small stories convey big patterns.

I welcome comments about other important omissions I have no doubt made, especially in terms of the political significance of what I have failed to notice, or failed to discuss. I wish I had had more time over the past few weeks to keep up with posts other people have written about the event. The posts are best read together (which is how I wrote them), but I am posting them separately for the sake of navigability and intellectual digestion.

  1. Emotions Go Mainstream
  2. Intentions and Causation
  3. Diversity vs Political Relevance
  4. Creative History
  5. The Here and Now

Bon appetit, and here is hoping that the heat of the conference will not be as transient as the British summer sun.

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