Sunday, 12 August 2012

Nothing Left... But The Words

How much do we know about Rome?  I often ask myself that question when I read a piece by Mary Beard; her articles a refreshing insight into the current concerns of classical scholarship.[i]  The answer, I find, is quite a bit, but not that much: there are so many gaps that most things can only be partially explained.  This provides a wonderful opportunity for speculative flights of fancy and insane theories.  Departments of ancient history the perfect place for the eccentric and the mad.

Let us take professor Beard’s review of a new biography of Caligula as evidence.

The focus of his book is the dissimulation and hypocrisy that lay at the heart of Roman imperial politics, and had in a sense been the foundation of the governmental system established by Augustus. In making one-man rule work successfully at Rome, after almost half a millennium of (more or less) democracy, and establishing a ‘workable entente’ between the old aristocracy and the new autocracy, Augustus resorted to a game of smoke and mirrors in which everyone, it seems, was play-acting. ‘The senators had to act as if they still possessed a degree of power that they no longer had, while the emperor had to exercise his power in such a way as to dissemble his possession of it.’ As others too have recently emphasised (in particular Shadi Bartsch in Actors in the Audience), the politics of the empire were founded on double-speak…

On Winterling’s model, successful emperors after Augustus were those who managed to exploit the double-speak, and turn it to their advantage; the unsuccessful were those who fought against it.  (It was satire)

This is a wonderful idea, and Winterling’s book uses it to explain the outrageousness of Caligula’s reputation: his odd behaviour was a political act designed to cut through the stultifying conventions of the establishment by taking its fictions literally, so that a man who rhetorically proffers his life to the emperor is expected to take it.  Here was a new way of asserting the emperor’s pre-eminence; for by cutting his way through the diplomatic play-acting of an overly comfortable nobility he could increase his control by humiliating it.  Caligula, by replacing staid social forms, which nevertheless restrained his power, with “real” action, could thus make his rule absolute.  It is a sort of establishment revolution, and inevitably results in what Sir James Goldsmith called the “necessary vulgarity” of new power; unconcerned with the refined sensibilities of a civilised elite.  Fortunately it failed, and the ruling class assassinated him. 

Reading this review I was blown away.  It was only when my head hit the garden gate did my mind begin to work again…

What this book describes isn’t so much Rome as modern western democracies, where according to theory and rhetoric the people rule, but in reality do not.  The real power of the society invested in a relatively small oligarchy – the executives and officials of the enormous multi-national corporations and the global institutions that support them; with increasing numbers of billionaires as their friends and associates.  Politicians, theoretically tribunes of the people, are actually representatives of this international establishment; for whose benefit they frame policy.  This creates a modern game of smokes and mirrors, where the politicians pretend both to have great power and to represent the electorate who they proclaim are in charge.   Elaborate rituals are then played out in the media to convince us of these untruths.

This creates a general dissatisfaction with politics as the actions of the executive is directed towards the powerful, while the public discourse is corrupted; managed, it is believed, by the dishonest and incompetent; thus creating widespread cynicism amongst the electorate.  A minority, as always, would like to radically change things; and occasionally they get the chance to try.  If they are successful a new culture and a new set of institutions will be created; such as social democracy and the welfare state after the Second World War.  However, if the discontents fail they are quickly isolated and become caricatures: Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell, Tony Benn are three prominent examples.  Although note, image is not that far from the reality: these are odd characters, their very eccentricity no doubt one of the reasons they were able to successfully oppose the reigning establishment; though all three failed to overturn it.

At some point there is a populist rebellion against this set up, usually from some outsider in the establishment – Thatcher, Reagan, Sir James Goldsmith are three recent examples – who expose the conventions and compromises of the existing culture as lies and elaborate games, which they then try to overthrow.  Goldsmith, when he was asset stripping British and American industries and was keen to apply the same model to government, called it “executive action”.[ii]   It is a form of authoritarian rule, and is often popular amongst the commonalty – contrary to much radical writing most ordinary people seem to prefer hierarchal order to individual freedom.[iii]  Now we see the power of new forces pushing their way into a settled hierarchy, which they either want to fundamentally change, or to control absolutely.   If the timing is right this rebellion can be successful, such as in Britain in the 1970s.   A period when both its industrial base and its social democracy were beginning to decline; the two intimately linked, for the latter depended on the power of the trade unions.[iv]   This arrangement was replaced by a social system dominated by financial capitalism, and which helped to radically shape a society where debt and globalization (the production of extraordinary cheap goods based on the exploitation of Third World labour) have created a dream like consumer culture – a sort of discount store paradise for the common man -[v] , controlled by vast corporations, who increasingly condition the mores of most people.  The result is that we now live in a world where advertising convinces us we can transform ourselves by buying things, and politicians tell us that they are in control.  These fantasies are broadcast daily into our living rooms.

Is Winterling reading back into Roman history our contemporary society?  Beard’s review, although she doesn’t say this, suggests he is: forcing a theory onto a rabble of facts that resist it.

He is… repeatedly forced to adjust a good deal of unpromising, or even conflicting, evidence to fit his basic scheme. Too often, he takes some bizarre anecdote supposedly illustrating Caligula’s madness and ingeniously reinterprets ‘what actually happened’, to end up with yet another example of Caligula’s resistance to (or exposure of) imperial double-speak and hypocrisy.

Beard offers a solution more attuned to the realities of Rome, where the central problem was legitimacy in an empire where the succession was always uncertain, the reason for its bloody imperial history.  To legitimise the murder of an emperor gothic horror stories had be manufactured about their heinous deeds; and thus the tales of Caligula’s madness and cruelty; a fiction created by the elite to secure their positions after his death – it was a way of distancing themselves from the dead victim.  In a society dependent on personal rule the defects of the ruler become paramount, and discrediting him by claims of madness would seem a reasonable political strategy; made juicier in the retelling…

This sounds convincing too, until we realise we live in a post-modern age; a label created by intellectuals who believe the media world is a mirror of reality.  A “soft” world where there is no truth only carefully manufactured fictions; and where life is a series of public performances.[vi]   The result is a prime minister who changes with each election broadcast: from Christian socialist to neo-liberal, from a law enforcer (“tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”) to international war criminal - even his own legal team doubted the legality of the Iraq invasion.[vii] 

Is Mary Beard overly influenced by this fashionable academic model?[viii]    Is she turning the empire into an historical drama, made for the BBC?  Her discussion earlier in this piece of film adaptations of the emperor’s life is suggestive.

The public in a modern democracy finds it difficult, if not impossible, to understand what is really going in the offices of power.  And yet it is they who are supposed to legitimize the political system.  This need for the general consent of an ignorant electorate is conducive to political fictions.  Verification of the facts will be hard, and confined to a politically active minority with little influence; made more so by their own limited understanding of how the system actually works – they will tend to be outsiders with a too academic approach to what is essentially a rough ready business, governed through a network of personalities.[ix]  

A more knowledgeable aristocracy, closer to the holders of power, would not be so convinced by these stories, which could easily turn into the kind of conventional forms Winterling writes about – they become part of a reflexive tradition to rubbish the deposed emperor.  Another form of play acting, which has only a tangential relationship with the exercise of actual political power; for no one actually takes these stories seriously; because they don’t need to – power resides in their person and not in their position.  If this is true Mary Beard is mistaking an essentially ideological or literary convention for the workings of politics.[x]  

Alternatively, rather than ideological actions around political legitimacy, we may be simply witnessing court gossip, which tends towards hyper-inflation, especially if someone is especially odd; and Caligula does sound eccentric.   This is then recorded in the history books because it is more interesting and can potentially suggest a moral: the mad and tyrannical are fated to fall (success in a society usually requires conformity, which such a story conveniently confirms). 

To justify her interpretation professor Beard quotes Pliny.

Just occasionally Roman writers themselves recognised that survival in Roman imperial politics depended on the ability to reinvent oneself at regime change. In the nicest example, Pliny, in a letter written in the early second century AD, told of a dinner party where the conversation among a group of friends turned to one Catullus Messalinus, a notorious hatchet man during the reign of Domitian. ‘I wonder what he would have been doing now, if he was alive today?’ one of the guests asked. ‘He would have been eating here with us,’ another replied. Whatever the ups and downs of double-speak, the fact is that most of Caligula’s senatorial friends and enemies survived his years in power to denounce him after his death; their vitriol is our legacy.

Without reading the original letter one wonders at this interpretation.  She is surely right that “their vitriol is our legacy”, but it doesn’t follow that it is related to personal reinvention at the reign of a new emperor; for clearly Pliny and his guests here make no attempt to distance themselves from Catullus Messalinus.  Instead they recognise that he is both a morally ugly character and an intimate colleague, who if alive would be sitting at their table.  This seems right to me.  The real man and the fabulous stories about him co-exist, and which suggests that the latter are not that serious; hardly more than tickle tattle.  That is, the professor seems to be exaggerating the need for fictions after an emperor’s death – would a person own up to being a friend of a hated victim, as they do here, if the need to distance oneself from them was that acute? 

The people who would need to worry would be the relatives, close friends, and clients of the deceased tyrant.  Their emotional and material commitment to the dead man would make them suspect.  And no amount of storytelling would change that.[xi]  

An alternative explanation could be that these gothic tales are the reflexive response to people thrown out of the charmed circle of power; abused and ridiculed because now outsiders who still pose a threat, albeit small.  It is the loss of their power that exposes them to slander – compare the press treatment of the failing Brown and Major premierships with the rising ones of Blair and Thatcher.  And we see this all the time, although today there is a significant difference: because so much of politics is mediated through journalists, intellectuals and academics, individuals tend to be excommunicated rather than exiled or killed; and thus we see the exaggerated use of certain words like anti-Semitism and genocide to discredit people who disagree with particularly the media establishment.[xii]  Today fictions are extraordinarily important to position oneself inside the elite.  Was this really the case in Rome?  Was it as suffused with ideology as our society?  On the face of it this seems unlikely: the ties that bound the ruling elite together were surely more personal than ideas or political positions; the latter two the main preoccupation of contemporary journals and the press, whose function is both to record the doings of the establishment and mediate them to the wider polity, which has hardly any connection with them at all.  That is: we only know the rulers through images and ideas;[xiii]  which now become immeasurably important in determining their success and failure. Though this may also have been the case in Rome, there was nevertheless a significant difference: then the public was not regarded as part of the political nation, as they are today; and the need to influence them was therefore much less.[xiv] 

If my assessment is true what Pliny and company are writing is not history but literature.  While the latter can offer insights into the former, the former cannot be reduced to the latter.  Instead we have to sieve out these different elements, to establish what is likely fact from probable fiction.  It is possible that over time this essentially literary genre came to be mistaken for real history.  And now there is a huge counter-reaction as the academy becomes aware of the literary artifice.  However, as with all new movements it is tending to exaggerate its discoveries.[xv]   With the corollary that there may be a tendency to project these literary fictions back onto the original events, and so fictionalise them.  The result is that ideology, or more specially the intellectuals who produce it, replace the events themselves as the main area of study.[xvi]   This produces a curious effect; with the academy increasingly coming to resemble today’s corporate media, which often confuses itself with a reality it only occasionally renders accurately.[xvii] 

No doubt there will be a further reaction, and the hard facts of political life will be recognised as something different from the reports written about it.  Although I expect we will have to wait till the next generation for that. Or maybe there will never be enough hard facts to decide.  Always, it seems, we have to make it up as we go along.

[i] Also see my The Specialist.
[ii] All wonderfully recounted in Adam Curtis’ The Mayfair Set.
[iii] An interesting illustration of this statement is Pieter Geyl’s Orange & Stuart.  To use his words, it was the mob that wanted a strong man in charge.
[iv] For more comment see my Aguirre: The Wrath of God.
[v]  This is the theme in Adam Curtis We’re All in the Same Boat – Aren’t We?
[vi] Barack Obama seems a post-modern master at this kind of thing.  A few weeks ago I heard him confess that he has been unable to change the Washington political establishment.  It is difficult to capture on the page but his comments sounded extraordinarily cynical: to be elected he created a fairy story about reform, and now he is saying that other people have prevented him from doing it.  Of course, there is a lot of truth in the statement, but there is also an enormous lie: he never intended to change it in the first place, and once in office has simply submitted to the balance of forces, too weak even to fight them.  Now he is asking people to elect him again even though he says he won’t be able to do anything.  It shows fantastic chutzpah.  (For an excellent running commentary on the Obama presidency see David Bromwich’s articles in the LRB)
[vii] The number two in the foreign office legal team, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, resigned because of her doubts.  See John Kampfner’s Blair’s Wars.
[viii] Looking at it from a different perspective I suggest this is the case in The Specialist.
[ix] Christopher Meyer’s DC Confidential is a useful insider’s account of this political world.  It is an endless round of networking and meetings, and where most policy initiatives are reactions to immediate events.  There is an over-arching culture, which supplies the commonsense understanding and the political and ideological clichés that guide their decisions and justify their actions.  However, this is a place where things are done not thought about; at least with any originality.  It is wonderfully captured by Paul Krugman:
            “The fact is that most senior officials have no idea what they are talking about: discussion at high-level meetings is startlingly primitive…”
[x] What Meyer shows is how little our rulers are aware of ideology.  Other people in their immediate circle are their primary concern.  Ideas are simply decoration, signs to show they are part of the in-crowd: the ball gowns and dress suits that establishment figures wear to identify themselves on public occasions. Only in moments of cultural crisis – like in the 1930s or 1960s, - when the nature of the social system itself is being transformed, does ideological conflict enter into the political arena; and the intellectuals have a more prominent role.  They are now useful in rubbishing the old and legitimising the new.  
           Did each change of emperor involve such a cultural shift?  This seems unlikely.
[xi] For a sense of this in a later court see J.E. Neale’s Elizabeth I.  Reading this biography one feels there is a large difference between interpersonal relations and the elaborate ritualised language of court life; the latter a weak hold on the Queen’s affections, and thus a poor instrument of influence and control.
[xii] During the Cold War it was Communist and Bourgeois Imperialist; while during the 16th century, that other ideological age, it was heretic and anti-Christ.
[xiii] And this was recognised by Machiavelli:
            “Men in general judge by their eyes rather than by their hands; because everyone is in a position to watch, few are in a position to come in close touch with you.  Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are…  The common people are always impressed by appearances and results.” (The Prince)
[xiv] Meyer’s book is again instructive in this regard.
[xv] See H.R. Trevor Roper’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Macaulay’s The History of England.
[xvi] A good example of this is Chase Robinson’s review of a new book on seventh century Middle East history.  According to current scholarship:
            “The field has taken a sceptical turn…  Arabic accounts of Muhammad’s life in Medina and Mecca, for example, can be shown to derive from a reservoir of biblical stereotypes, themes and tropes, which function to integrate Arabian prophecy into the deeper (and better-attested) monotheist teleology of the Jews.  Conquest narratives often hopelessly confused in chronology and contradictory in detail, can be shown to reflect the political, legal and administrative concerns of the post-conquest state, particularly its frequently anxious elites, both Muslim and Non-Muslim.  To the tradition’s sharpest critics, what we have in this material is not history in the modern sense of the word, but narrativized theology (and law)… ”  (Lost Decades, TLS 11/05/2012)
[xvii] It also shares the same superficially attractive sophistication.  Thus in his review of a book that tries to determine between what is fact and fiction in the Islamic conquests of the seventh century Chase Robinson writes:
“[To exempt] Islamic religious thought from the highly creative and adaptive hermeneutics that helped forge Jewish and Christian identities, is to misunderstand late antique religious history.”
This all sounds very impressive.  And those outside the television studios, not well versed in this glossy expertise, can be simply dismissed as unfortunate fools.  Thus after the knowing reference to the latest fashion, we have the holy condemnation from the high altar:
“Howard-Johnston… is an unapologetic positivist.  Historical understanding begins by reconstructing events that, occurring in time and space, are subject to human observation (be it first- or second-hand, visual or aural), such observation first being recorded, contemporaneously or subsequently, and secondarily transmitted, faithfully or less faithfully.  Doing history thus means finding reliable witnesses, the earlier, the better; ‘autopsy’ is the explicit ideal, though in this case very difficult to achieve.  It must be said that these presumptions sit awkwardly alongside the consensus that human perception itself is a process governed by cognitive biases and limiters, and that memory is malleable, creative and suggestible.  Eyewitnesses, a mountain of research is showing, can be notoriously unreliable… distortion is intrinsic to perception and recall, and that all modes of rendering the past in narrative form necessarily reframe, filter and fill in.” (Lost Decades, TLS 11/05/2012
If we were to take the latter sentences of this passage literally not only history but nearly all empirical knowledge would have to be condemned as impossible. And perhaps we could go even further: even life itself would defeat us.  For how can we be sure we won’t be arrested next Thursday for something we did last Wednesday – was that tin our car hit actually somebody's head?  Imagine living all the time with such doubts.  If you can’t, read Kafka’s The Trial.
This is the old problem of knowledge, which is different from experience and cannot be reduced to it.  Always there will be some uncertainty even in what appears to be the most well attested theories.  Once outside the hard sciences that uncertainty increases; until in some subjects, and antique history may be one of them, it is all we have.  Discovering this truth, that knowledge is different from reality, and its foundations are potentially weak, many academics, although it has been known to philosophers for centuries, become intoxicated with it.
Thus we have Chase Robinson fusing many levels of explanation into one, and so confusing them.  For example, it is true that perception distorts and creates experience – an excellent example is vision.  However, humans tend to see things in largely the same way, with important but miniscule differences (M.D. Vernon, The Psychology of Perception).  Creating the past often means shaping it rather than just making it up: having worked with the public for over twenty years it is rare to find a person inventing a complete fiction; rather their accounts are full of biases, distortions, and omissions.  Moreover, people are often surprisingly truthful; even if it is not in their own interest.  All of this is a confusing mixture; and a real headache for anyone, let alone an historian, who wants to acquire real knowledge.
No doubt eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, but such a statement needs to unpacked.  I suspect the “mountain of research” will show, except in a minority of cases, many variations on a single theme, rather numerous entirely different themes: six witnesses of a murder will each see it slightly differently, but they will not identify the corpse as Gladstone, Emperor Augustus, Mary Poppins, George Best, Chase Robinson and Leo Tolstoy.  If they do: goodbye trials by jury.  Reality, in such a case, has become insane.
Robinson’s breezy disdain also overlooks the difference between facts and interpretation.  The date of Napoleon’s birthday will never change although theories about his rise to power will alter radically, especially between the scholarly generations.  Causes, because they are not obvious, tend to be the most unstable of part of our knowledge, and they tend to follow fashion (A good discussion, particularly about history, can be found in JH Plumb’s Crisis of the Humanities).
Surprising as some academics may find it, before the current age there were thinkers aware of the unreliability of factual information.  David Hume has a section on it in his discussion of miracles, where he notes we cannot rely completely on witness testimony, although he argues we can depend on direct experience; which provides at least some confidence in the accounts of witnesses. Nevertheless, pace professor Robinson, Hume argues that miracles are impossible not on the basis solely of observation, because the witness accounts are variable in their reliability, but on the basis that they infringe natural law; the latter previously established by experience and by a series of consistently confirmed observations.  That is, both experience and a system of knowledge gives us enough certainty to reject specific phenomena that appear unnatural. And this belief in the possibility of knowledge exists in an epistemology that accepts that knowledge, as opposed to direct experience, will always include a level of doubt – because there is no absolute foundation to reason.  All is probability. It is a major insight, and should sober up our intellectual enthusiasms. (See Hume’s Enquiries)
Without Hume’s depth and acuteness the modern academic drinks too much at the sceptical well (though note: Hume was not a sceptic).  With the result that this uncertainty, the unreliability of knowledge, is being used as an insuperable obstacle to understanding: facts are impossible we are being told.  The result is a new metaphysics, where the past becomes the noumenon, to be interpreted indirectly only through the written word.  We have come full circle, to the period before the scientific revolution, where the metaphysical reality behind appearances was more important than the world itself; and which could only be grasped by an intensive study of visible signs (mostly supplied by theology).  It is little surprise that bookmen have dominated both these enterprises.
We see this in professor Robinson’s use of the term positivism; a swear word in sophisticated academic circles, used to abuse the innocents who still believe in factual research (see footnote xlv in my Dropout Boogie).  And yet what he describes as positivism, which seems to involve close reading of texts to shift out the facts from their narrative fictions, bears little relation to its classical definition:
“A strong form of empiricism, esp. as established in the philosophical system of Auguste Comte, that rejects metaphysics and theology as seeking knowledge beyond the scope of experience, and holds that experimental investigation and observation are the only source of substantive knowledge.” (The Collins English Dictionary.  See the Hume quotation in my Professional Amateurs for an example of a positivist statement.)
            The mistake Robinson makes is after his “though in this case very difficult to achieve” in the quoted passage above.  This phrase is correct.  The further in history we go back the harder it is to fill the factual gaps.  Much (most?) is going to be conjecture.  But like so many academics before him he wants to make it easy for himself, and thus that next paragraph, which effectively argues we create the world for ourselves.  Thus a reasonable point that the book under consideration might be wrong (though the review is a generous one – there are moments he accepts facts can be distinguished from interpretations) becomes an untenable assertion about knowledge itself.  And illustrates the academic’s natural bent towards metaphysics now refashioned in its modern garb of hermeneutics (see my Russian Climate for more comment). 
Curiously, if August Comte were to come back to visit our times, and was to read the TLS, he would have to condemn history as impossible: there are simply not enough facts to properly observe the past.  But this conclusion, I’m sure, is not one our good professor will want to reach.  Although it naturally follows from the quoted passage, and shows that Chase Robinson, under all the academic bluster, is nothing other than what he himself condemns.  Remove the designer clothes and we see him clearly for what he is: a Logical Positivist! (My The Specialist supplies the evidence). 

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