Diversity vs Political Relevance

(This is the third of five posts on themes that I found important at the Modern British Studies conference in Birmingham at the start of July. See http://wp.me/p3QdQ9-3c)

The problem in this post is fairly easily expressed, but I don’t pretend to have a solution: how can we do justice to the variety and idiosyncrasy of culture without sacrificing the political relevance of our historical writing?

(OK, so it turns out it isn’t that punchy after all).

The point is that many (broadly-speaking) left-wing historians are interested in ‘popular culture’ or ‘popular politics’ or whatever they choose to call it, out of a sense that they can reclaim what working people wanted as an important part of history, democratizing the agents who ‘count’ in historical narratives.

Yet, as the wonderful (in many different ways!) panel on humour at MBS2015 pointed out again and again, the ‘people’ have tended to have a rather conservative, even downright distasteful sense of what is funny. Gavin Schaffer talked about the enduring popularity of comedy performers whose jokes played to stereotypes about race, gender, and sexuality, while Lucy Delap pointed out that historians have often studied the wit of the suffragettes, but overlooked the less tasteful jokes about the suffragettes.

This is not a new idea, of course. Historians of popular culture have been saying for a long time that the ‘popular classes’ don’t always live up to the historians’ fantasies.

But in a different panel on stories about the 1970s, I saw this enduring problem presented in a slightly different way.

One of the things that the panellists (Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Nathalie Tomlinson, Camilla Schofield, and Emily Robinson) were trying to do (as I understood it) was reclaim individualism from the right wing. They were interested in the ways that different people in the 1970s embraced different types of individualism.

In my own work, I’ve sometimes tried to emphasize the ‘agency’ and choices of individuals who lived in abject poverty in highly conservative societies. But where does this leave the political project of writing history? Emphasizing that ‘everyone has choice’ sounds suspiciously like the easy language of neo-liberalism. ‘Women choose careers or families’, ‘Young people choose whether to get ahead in life’, as if people all had choices, and poverty or discrimination are the result of them.

And this is even before I get to thinking about what the political relevance of millions of different people doing slightly different things with new individualist ideas might be. What kind of left-wing politics finds succour there? Anarchism of the late nineteenth-century or recently reborn kinds, perhaps?

How then can historians write about the distasteful or the fragmented, how can they attribute agency without embracing a fantasy?

I don’t know.

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