#shs40, #storypast and academic memory

lancaster castle
Lancaster Castle, Tuesday 22nd March 2016.

Tuesday this week saw a trip up to Lancaster and the Social History Society’s 40th anniversary conference. It’s always fun to take the train somewhere new, and this was no exception – the gap between the arrival of my train and the departure of my bus gave me a few minutes to wander around the castle hill area of the ancient town. While I wouldn’t necessarily stop to take a photo of a prison normally, HMP Lancaster Castle is both a grand beast of a castle, and the site of the last breaths of two great-great-ad infinitum-uncles in the 1740s: Robert Brearcliffe, the only one of the family ever to be called a ‘gentleman’ but who died here in debtor’s prison in  1741; and Lawrence Briercliffe who was (probably) hanged for murdering one John Hind at the Ram Inn, Cliviger, the year after. Those are stories for another day though.

On getting to the university campus, I had limited time for many actual panels, but took in the Space & Place strand with some really interesting papers. My role for the day though was to be part of #storypast live, an experimental version of the very successful Twitter reading group, Storying The Past. Alice Violett and I did five minute presentations (my first at an academic conference, no less) and we opened up to both the real-life floor and the Twitter floor.

I have to say it was pretty exhilarating, all things considered, at least in the room. Trying to keep on top of several conversations is tricky just online, and was even harder live – I don’t think I did a great job of representing the live comments to the Twitter audience, and vice versa, although I don’t really think it would have been possible to do so effectually. That said, some great conversations came up, and it was good to see a wide range of historians (ranging from those familiar with both Twitter and #storypast (including meeting Helen Rogers and Alice properly IRL) to those sceptical about both).

In the evening, the traditional plenary lecture was replaced by a roundtable featuring Penny Summerfield, Rohan McWilliam and Kate Donington. I had to leave before the cross-examination began, but that did mean time for a good chat with a historian also familiar with the Black Country (hi Neil). Summerfield’s and McWilliam’s talks in particular brought up something that had come up in #storypast earlier in the day – the academic debates of the past.

I guess this is to be expected in a ‘state of the field’ address such as this, but I was interested to see how different historians position themselves with regards to theoretical interventions over time. In #storypast, the idea that there were tremendous battles over the concept of cultural history sometime in the 1980s loomed large. Several of the, let’s say, historians that were practicing at the time of these debates, drew parallels between this period and the discussions we were having around bringing ‘story’ into history. The introduction of reflexivity, of considering one’s own positionality, of linguistic or post-structuralist ‘turns’ clearly played a significant role in the development of history as it stands now. Summerfield used one name which seems to draw intakes of breath whenever it’s mentioned: Patrick Joyce, who challenged a variety of existing standards with an unabashed postmodernism. There was also a mention of his belligerent style of presentation which raised some knowing laughs.

When Patrick Joyce published Democratic Subjects, in 1993, I had just started big school and my idea of history was something to do with drawing Doric columns and making Aztec flatbreads. Scarily, it’s feasible that there were delegates at the conference who weren’t even born in 1993. When the book was released, I was mostly interested in football stickers (I was so close to a full Merlin Premier League 92/93 book). But as Summerfield noted, Joyce’s arguments scarcely raise an eyebrow today, and that’s true – I read Rule Of Freedom on the train journey and it can be occasionally dense (and a bit neologistic), but there’s little that appears controversial. I wonder if it’s less the changes in theoretical practice that stick in people’s minds, than the rancour or personal grievances that linger in the memory. I am certain that changes in historiographical approaches should be taught and understood (the module I sat in on last year at UoB does this extremely well); I am certain too that historians should acknowledge their own emotions, positionality etc. in their research. I am less certain that we should let our emotions about how these theoretical schools came to be, prevent our engaging with different ways of thinking. We can miss out when we cloud our receptivity in this way (this is true in many fields by the way – I had take some serious emotional leaps to enjoy pork scratchings, but I now see how important they can be).

I don’t remember the 1980s very much – in fact, I note that my childhood in that era makes me a potential subject of one of my UoB colleagues’ own historical research. I was never in a position to hear Patrick Joyce vs “the old school,” just as I wasn’t there to hear E.H. Carr vs Geoffrey Elton in the 1960s. I tend to think that it’s the duty of each generation to provide an antithesis to an existing thesis, in order to synthesise something that moves the discipline forward (look at me getting all Hegelian). I’m excited for #storypast in this respect. I think challenging the principle that non-fiction is the only ‘serious’ form of history is an opportunity to do something really interesting in the way history is told, and I’m looking for ways to incorporate this with my own interest in spatially-based histories from below.

EDIT [30.3.16]: I had some interesting reactions on Twitter to this, and should clarify that it clearly wasn’t just “the old school” that was affected. Whether you consider yourself an iconoclast or not, you’d hope it would go without saying that “don’t be a jerk” would be a good motto for anyone. Apparently it wasn’t, and there’s zero excuse for that.

This week I’m off to the Urban History Group conference in Cambridge, where I’ll be giving my first ever proper paper. Will report back next week…

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