What we do and how it is described are two different activities. The one is singular – you eat a chorizo burger at 1pm on June 4th at Borough Market – and cannot be repeated. The latter has many forms: we can describe it mundanely, in a piece of art, as a philosophical treatise, in biological terms, to give just a few examples; while these forms can be shaped and edited, almost at will, which we can then repeat and replicate…. The one is a hard solid fact, created by chance and circumstance; the other is subjective, endlessly flexible, and can be shaped both by imagination and rational thought.
Any attempt at description will involve interpretation, editing, and some corruption of the original activity. There is no getting away from this fact! What can we do?
We can ignore it. In our everyday life we talk about our actions as if there is no difference between the act and the description. In the old days of the academy this distinction was also ignored, at least until the latter part of the 19th century, when this problem entered the scholarly consciousness, and became acute. The other extreme is to remove the original activity completely; to concentrate only on the description. In 20th century art this meant reducing everything to the art object itself.
…the re-establishment of purely aesthetic criteria in place of the criterion of conformity to appearance – the rediscovery of the principles of structural design and harmony. (Roger Fry)
At the turn of the 20th century there was a recognition that description was a problem, across all fields. Our language, once thought of as a sheet of plain glass, had now become frosted or stained; no longer could we see the object clearly on the other side.
This has been an extraordinarily fruitful discovery. However, it can also create tedium and obtuseness, especially as the century got older, and the new insights became old habits. In history and political theory especially this has been a real problem, for definition and delimitation are of their essence. Events are almost infinite, so how do you capture them in a concept or over a period of time? This question can become so engrossing that the writer may lose sight of the wider task of their discipline – to explain the activities, the facts on the ground.
I had something of this feeling reading Linda Colley’s review of two recent histories of England, where she begins with an extended analysis of the idea of ‘national history’, and how it is ‘problematic’ (a favourite academic word).
[For] territorial and maritime boundaries are usually porous… Frontiers… have fluctuated considerably… claims to a single, all-embracing nationhood are often contested from within… or sporadically overwhelmed… from without.
Then she moves onto to that old problem of England and Britain, and to what these names relate; on the history of which she herself has done some brilliant work.
This analysis is not without point, and some insight. However, it feels all too familiar, an academic game, where a real but secondary problem, that of description, is turned into the Problem, a topic in itself. You want to know about 18th century England or 20th century populism but instead you learn how difficult it is to delineate the subject, how artificial are our distinctions (there are some excellent examples of this in Gellner’s and Ionescu’sPopulism, its meaning and national characteristics). Always, in this type of analysis, there is the danger that the activity itself is forgotten in the excitement of linguistic discovery.
Later in her (very interesting) review she reaches the main point: it is the selection of material that is crucial, for this will decide the work’s perspective. The right question, it seems to me, in the context. In this case the author, Boyd Hilton, appears to return to an older historiography, concentrating on high politics and the Home Counties.
By returning to history, to real historical events, she saves the article. But let us look again at her opening paragraphs, lets explore these scholarly labyrinths.
In 890 did the people of Leeds think of England? Did people in Norwich know they were living in Britain in 1422? And sleeping in the tube during the Blitz would people have been amused or angry if you said the Great Britain was a fiction?
In each period the person’s response to their ‘nationality’ would be different. Indeed, at the earliest date they may not have recognised an area outside the local region, for them the country would not have existed.
How to deal with this problem? since clearly we are dealing with different entities, linked only by time. One way is to give each of these periods a different name, and say they have no, or very little, connection with each other. When it comes to the nomenclature this approach would almost certainly be right – did Leeds exist in 890? But to understand why Britain in 1914 was at war with Germany you would have to know the recent history; which in turn assumes some link between the past entity and the current one; and that entity isn’t tied to geography but is a nexus of political, dynastic, agricultural, industrial, and bureaucratic forces. For Ernest Gellner a nation was demarcated not by rivers or mountain ranges, but by language…
However, imagine trying to understand the political, economic and military continuities if you use different names over time and within the country under discussion. Britain would become like a dynastic family tree, and history would be reduced to a form of genealogy – tracing the births, deaths and marriages of each locality and region. We need a shorthand, and we have them in the labels Germany and Britain.
The purpose of history, it seems to me, should be to explain a particular period of time, in order to help us understand the present. Inevitably, given it is one of many disciplines, each with their own emphasis and approach, it will be selective, and severely edited. However, in order to capture the important factors in any given period (this is quite subjective, and will depend on the author and the current intellectual fashions) facts and trends will have to be isolated, to be used to give empirical support to the proposed thesis. But to do this the scope of enquiry must be limited; and it has to be made recognisable to the audience. Thus we study England in 1766, even though the country then included America and Canada.
If the possession of these colonies is important to the identity of Britain, so that a new entity emerged during the 17th century, and ended in the 18th, perhaps we should call it by a new name, Atlantia. However, what insight would come off this more precise nomenclature? Would it lead to any greater understanding? Can we not get the same result simply be recognising that the areas under Britain changed, and then analysing the causes and effects? I think we can.
In the future England could devolve further – say it lost the West Country; and some of the border territories to Wales and Scotland. Would the fact that England was much smaller make any difference to the study of the English Civil War? Would it exclude those lost territories from the discussion?
For of course, it is through the lens of the current national arrangements that we see the past. Thus people in Bristol today will study certain periods of English and British history, which the English state deems important. However, if in 3010 Bristol was part of Wales the inhabitants would study those periods of Welsh and British history deemed central to its formation. And thus the 11th century rises up the scale, and the 18th falls down it, and the school curricula changes (and the newly Welsh parents protest against political correctness).
The only time the nomenclature becomes important is when the borders of the state change, and the actual naming becomes an activity in itself. A present day example is the ongoing endeavours to incorporate the Occupied Territories into Eretz Israel.
All history writing is influenced by the time it was written; and as the generations change so do they views of the past (see J.H. Plumb for good examples of this). Thus historians will use some of the common assumptions of the time to explain their historical period; this is one reason why interpretations vary so much; though the facts remain reasonably stable (more tend to be added, while myths are exposed). Today, like most of the 20th century, the intellectuals are excited about language; its strange properties, and how it stands between us and the world. All so new and exciting! even if it is over a hundred years old. Is it a surprise then, that historians should then make language a historical object, for serious enquiry? But like dialectical materialism, or the Whig version of history, but with much less substance, it projects a whole cluster of contemporary ideas onto historical events and times, moulding the facts to current concerns.
Of course it will have some insight, even contain some truth. But to concentrate on language is to substitute the description for the activity, the secondary issue for the primary concern. And we must never forget that our names are rough and ready tools, spades and forks to help us dig the garden. But what if we did forget; and instead of turning over the earth with a fork, we sat and discussed why the word ‘fork’ was different from the word ‘spade’. Useful no doubt, if you are philosopher, but a real problem if you want to plant potatoes.