Thursday, March 31, 2005

There Is Such A Thing As Modern History

Certain misguided individuals have recently questioned whether it is possible to study the history of the recent past in an academic manner, suggesting that to do so throws into doubt the status of History (with a capital 'H') as an academic discipline. It is with great pleasure I take this opportunity to refute such a viewpoint.

To begin, we must first establish that we are discussing 'History' as an academic discipline and practice, rather than merely 'history' as 'the past'. Clearly, under the latter definition, my lunch is history. Rather, the question must be whether historical enquiry on the lines of the scholarly discipline which has emerged in the past few hundred years can be appropriately used on events recent to the historian. The key contention appears to be that personal attachments to the issues concerned are so much greater in recent history that it is impossible to objectively consider their causes, course and contingency with any semblence of perspective.

This whole assumption is predicated on historical enquiry being a 'view from nowhere', and the alien gaze of an ahuman observer peering into the past to deconstruct it in an utterly dispassionate and impartial manner. Such a model is, in fact, utterly bankrupt: historians are unintentionally coloured by their own outlooks no matter the period they study or the period in which they write. The middle of the twentieth century has seen a fascination with demographic and economic studies of medieval Europe, with camps reverberating along Marxist or secular Malthusian lines reflective of their own views (and in the case of some- their own experiences in fleeing or living in Communist Russia). To assume that events closer to our own time are necessarily more likely to arouse partisan passions or personal biases is incorrect. We need only consider the place of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Culloden and the Battle of the Boyne, to see events which, 300 years on, are far more politicised than the study of the 1961 Suicide Act or the 1982 Falklands War. The idea that we get closer to an objective and open perspective as time passes is mistaken, and the existence of such a position is impossible. By claiming objectivity, we are merely professing blindness to our own perspective: where we stand in the room affects the way we view the portraits of the past, but we cannot even see them unless we stand in the room. To claim to be outside the room is risible, and I would strongly dispute the notion that there is a defined 'proper' perspective from which view the portraits anyway. We can only do our best to declare our perspectives transparently, and get on with observing the portrait to the best of our ability.

The greatest legitimate indictment of 'modern' History is its access to sources. Whereas we may reasonably assume that our primary evidence of the events of the Glorious Revolution, the Boyne or Culloden have now emerged, there are doubtless documents regarding the sinking of the Belgrano which have yet to emerge. There obviously can never be a 'definitive' History written of any incident or period, when so much of History is necessarily based on judgement, assessment and balance. That a scholarly study of the Falklands will lack certain important pieces of evidence will hinder those written now, and their contentions may be undermined by such evidence, but the work of constructing an empirical narrative and, crucially, offering paradigms through which we may understand the conflict can begin immediately. Indeed, the Falklands highlights a crucial difference between what is routinely billed as 'military history' and military History as historians would understand it: the factual details of the invasion and their exploits, as far as we can empirically re-establish them, are the mere trivia of the historical (with a small 'h') narrative. Trying to understand the ambiguities and judging where to stress significance from the multitude of facts available is History.

A History of that kind could therefore be written about the Falklands now- it could, indeed be written about the second Gulf War, even if the events for its epilogue are still being played out in the blood-stained sands of Iraq. The art - practice - nay, perhaps even 'science' - of History is one developed for the analysis of contingent events from the past, but it is not in itself linked directly to the past, and the age of the subject being considered is relevant only in how it affects the types and volume of the sources available for consultation. The actual business of Historical analysis grows from these, and cannot exist without them, but it is not hampered by the existence of inaccessible sources. They may invalidate past assumptions, and help us get closer to the past as it essentially happened, but that is no reason for refusing to begin consideration of events where the full body of information is not yet available.

Certainly, the idea that our Historical enquiry is less valid in the recent past because of our own proximity to them is no legitimate objection to modern History. A Historians' personal beliefs or political opinions are not lineraly less likely to be aroused by topics the further into the past they reach, and to assume that such opinionated biases are the only biases, or even significant biases, to Historical investigation, and a Historian's perspective, is mistaken. Indeed, the bias will always be with us. We cannot even fully comprehend the extent of our own disabilities in this department, but so long as we seek, and the we strive, to honestly undertake Historical enquiry, we may leave it to successive generations, with their own biases, to judge us and take up our ideas by endorsing and dismissing them. This will be the fate of the medievalist, the early modernist, the modernist and the much-maligned ultra-modernist.