Flattening History

Flat earth

I recently wrote on this blog that we might view historical works differently now than half a century or so ago. My point was that since the postmodern assault and the subsequent rebalancing of the historical profession’s intellectual understanding of itself, we are less likely to see one historian’s tome as the final word on a subject. In doing so, I was guilty of something I’ve been increasingly aware of having to do: flattening history.

As historians, we spend half our time insisting the past was more complex than is typically appreciated and the other half simplifying everything beyond our central focus at that moment. The centuries before our period are condensed into a few sentences. Everything after collapsed into a single step-change between then and now. The entire human race beyond a local or national case study lost within a broader pattern or written off as something entirely separate. The further we drift from our beloved thesis, the more we indulge in that which we criticise in others.

The danger for me is often in writing off British society before the First World War as somehow unitary or fixed. While I want to avoid this, the priority is to make sense of the changes that took place thereafter. The irony for me is that I often want to explain the significance of the old to the new: the place of traditional aspects of British society and culture in the seemingly rapid changes of the interwar years, the extent to which traditional motifs framed dramatic developments, or that those which survived were reinvented. It would be easy in such an undertaking to fall into the trap of implying that the traditional was not also previously new, or assuming something seen as traditional was in fact the same as what had come before. ‘Victorian values’ as understood in the 1950s or preached by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s were products of their own time as much as of the Victorians. In short, traditions must be invented – and are often reinvented too.

These complexities are part of the story, yet it’s also important to maintain focus. As some of these relationships between old and new are the focus of my writing, it makes me all the more aware when I simplify those I leave on the sidelines. When I say the way we view historical works has changed since the postmodern assault, it doesn’t mean I believe historians in the 1960s had no concept of interpretation or never debated what emphasis should be brought to bear beyond merely questioning the facts. Rather my intention is to suggest that, in relation to my own specific point, the dramatic changes seen since then have dwarfed the complexities of that time.

In this respect it is both a narrative and an analytical device, sacrificing the detail to draw attention to a particular episode or aspect that taps into some larger truth – playing out in miniature the constant compromise of the metanarrative. We do so because we must – it’s a simple necessity of achieving any sort of clarity in historical writing. It would be impossible to give equal attention to every facet of the lived past. We must put our focus somewhere.

At times, when I’m writing, I end up beating myself up over this. What keeps me writing, and helps me to write better, is essentially the mindset that allowed the historical profession to rebalance, re-understand and reinvigorate itself in response to the postmodernist challenge, rather than simply folding. We can become more nuanced and thoughtful in what we do, not by rejecting criticism of our inevitable shortcomings, but by acknowledging them. In my head, I find myself summing this up in two words: be aware.

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