Once again I turn to a TV show; and again to the show ‘Digging for Britain’’ the archaeology show presented by a person named Professor Alice Roberts. Alice Roberts in her show continuously uses a phrase which for me begs many questions: the phrase is: ‘we are changing history’ or else ‘our recent digs have changed our history.’
Now for a professor to say this sort of thing; repeatedly, even on an entertainment TV show, which might not demand the levels of rigorous presentation that an academic paper might; and for Alice Roberts’ to be insistent on repeatedly using the terms; and to the exclusion of any other more elaborate form of words; it puzzles me not a little.
Would it have been pedantic for her to have said instead; ‘We are changing our understanding of history’? Or else ‘our recent digs have altered our interpretation of history’? Or is there something more, something more ideological behind her insistence on her profession being said to be capable of ‘changing history’?
My own understanding is that history is the past; more specifically perhaps, the past for that period of time during which human beings have existed; and before this time comes the period we call pre-history. That sounds and seems straightforward enough.
This history I understand is ‘what happened’ or those ‘events’ and ‘thoughts’ and ‘words’ and ‘art’ etcetera which occurred in the past; and as such it is a fixed and immutable thing; a thing done and dusted and unable to be altered in any way.
‘“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
This position I am speaking of is the traditional conception of history; that it is a fixed and rigid object of study for interpretation.
Of course, since time immemorial and even recently, and probably yet today and tomorrow; we see history being deliberately perverted from what we might call loosely ‘known truth’. For instance The Hebrew Bible had its redactors very early on in man’s history; redactors who ‘customised’ a loose collection of stories and narratives about The Patriarchs and about Human and Earth Origins; so as to forge them into a more continuous narrative which carries a philosophy and a thread of didacticism.
The Soviets during the 20th Century were renowned for ‘changing history’ by perverting the facts or even altering them completely, as far as these were known and agreed on by more impartial entities, so that ‘things happened’ which did not happen and ‘things did not happen’ which did happen in their official history books and lessons. Uncomfortable things and events were erased and more comfortable ones inserted. Lenin in particular was a secular Father of Lies; brother to Beelzebub.
I wrote very recently about the First World War and about the political ideological battles which are still being fought here in Britain to reclaim that horror for party and for factional propaganda purposes – Yet another struggle to master the people by way of overmastering history’s popular narratives.
And so at worst historical interpretation has been and continues to be abused for ulterior and expedient purposes by those factions whose axes to grind are whetted and sharpened on propagandas.
Apart from this deliberate bending of our attempts at rendering historical truth, there are historians who simply err. The honourable and eminent historian Hugh Trevor Roper; an expert on Nazi Germany; whose small book ‘The Last Days of Hitler’ is a remarkable read; was himself led on by a clever but disgraceful forgery of what were known at the time as The Hitler Diaries. His hard-won reputation was shredded to tatters by his mistaken public backing for what transpired to be an utter fabrication and forgery. Unfortunate; but the press and media are unforgiving in these cases and take a marvellous delight in destroying people for public consumption.
Yet apart from errors and blunders, and perversions for axe grindings; there has always been thought to be since Thucydides wrote on The Peloponnesian War and onwards; a body of men and women whose aims and motives for writing history books etc were true and unsullied by party or faction. Of course, none of them have written exactly ‘true’ history; and all had their pet hates and their favourites and flavours of the month to cherish in their interpretations of the history they chose to interpret. But yet within a given and an acceptable at the time spectrum of consideration; their historical works were not filled with views which were ‘beyond the pale’.
And so by its very nature the study of history is not an exact science; in universities it is generally taught as an art under a faculty know as The Humanities; thus its element of subjectivity is borne witness to by is classification within colleges. So what is this phraseology ‘changing history’ and ‘recent archaeology having power to change history’; what might it signify and why is it used so insistently and exclusively to all other attempts to speak more accurately about the nature of historical research? I cannot help but think it is deliberate in Professor Alice Roberts that she always uses such forms of words on TV.
Of course there is a simple ‘vanity’ interpretation for her motives; that she is aiming to ‘simplify’ for a ‘popular audience;’ and thereby simultaneously she is able to claim a great deal of ’kudos’ and ‘power’ for her profession; which she claims is capable of ‘changing history’ itself. This motivation would be human but not one of great academic rigor. Let it be said here that Alice Roberts is one of the new academics whose careers are as much about show business as they are study and research; that she has a TV following and a reputation to nurture and so there is greater pressure upon her and her colleagues of her ilk to play the part in which she is cast – as celebrity. Thus to ‘pep up’ things a little with some ‘economising on truth’ is maybe permissible for her when she lets down her hair in her TV magazine shows? Others of her kind do it. Led by an inveigling vanity.
Or is it more serious than this; if this were not serious enough? Is it a planned approach; for after all she never uses any other forms of words to state the nature of historical narrative? Is it yet another attempt by the post modern academics to whom she allies herself, to force a sharp break from the past, from the dusty Victorian ‘liberal’ historians whose insistence was on a fixed immutable history upon which their minds played to interpret what might have gone on to their best ability and persuasion? Is it part of a concerted campaign being waged nowadays to try to force and foist cherished philosophical agendas on a receptive public; thus it is a grab for power and influence and for claiming MY version of the world to be true above all?
Possibly; and indeed I do not dismiss the likelihood, having seen many programmes labelled as history on TV being in fact a torrent of private agendas and sometimes of pathological hang-ups.
What might such a philosophical agenda be that claims for itself that human beings are capable of actually ‘creating history’ creating the real thing, the events and the contemporary ideas and words which indubitably went on in former ages; by means of digging up old relics or by study and research of documents and records? It seems to deny philosophically the possibility of there being such a thing as an objective human past as a basis for present day human researchers to study and interpret.
Put crudely, and at its most ludicrous extremity, it begs the question whether an event such as The Battle of Marathon was actually fought; whether Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo; whether Louis XIV was an Absolutist ruler, and so on; ideas and conclusions almost universally accepted and uncontroversial in the world of historians.
If it were for these kinds of aim that the utter and absolute subjectivity of history, in its very deeds and words which actually happened, which is the philosophical position being maintained by Alice Roberts and her ilk, it may be that the position is being maintained etc so that she and her ilk are thus enabled to call into question a greater field of what has traditionally been settled as uncontroversial history?
This itself might seem innocuous; say whether Nelson said ‘Kismet’ or ‘kiss me’ to Hardy; or else whether it’s just a story accrued around a prominent man etc; but yet its logical extension allows and justifies historians to alter the fixed and actual story of history as it were legitimately – by creating history anew out of nothing – not creating its interpretation but the deeds and words of actual history – wholly anew, thus the moving finger is now enabled lawfully to ‘cancel half a line’ and to ‘wash out a word’. The key word here is ‘legitimately’ or ‘lawfully’, were such a philosophical position on history to be adopted as being the new status quo – Carte blanche for historians to fictionalise objective history totally.
I do not believe Alice Roberts and her colleagues use the forms of words they use out of slackness and imprecision. I do believe they are attempting to change the agendas of the persons who view their shows. I do not believe they are familiar with philosophy and I believe they have not thought through the folly of the campaign they are waging.
I believe they are slick smart but enamoured of vanity persons who see their day has come; and that the joys and the visceral satisfactions in wielding power; together with a naïve belief in the ubiquity of the range and consequence of their specialist subjects, and in those subjects’ outcomes for the present age; are all far beyond and far removed from objective actuality and from sober reflection. (Possibly these new academics do not even recognise such an objective actuality? If so, what bedrock then do they base their own conclusions upon?) Like so many today; even, maybe especially, in academic life, who have liberated themselves by throwing away the heritage of the past ideologically-speaking, trashing those hard won foundations on which we attempt as humans to establish our structures approximating to truth; Alice Roberts and her like are in these things profoundly ignorant and benighted.
Her phraseology; her philosophy; gives succour to the Holocaust Deniers; to the Suicide Bombers; to the Post-Truth Politics of our times; even though I doubt she sees this is so. Nor do I accuse her and her ilk of such things herself but only of being silly to an extent that they really ought to read up some Bible and so grab some ballast, true ballast for their lives. The Bible being perhaps the most conspicuous one single item not in their tote bags; it having been ‘sidelined’ and ‘slighted’ as being a ‘light thing’ by that new-in-the-making history that actually changes actual world events, as if these new academics themselves were God, and busy creating.
The original article is located at our anomalist design blog: http://blog.anomalistdesign.com/the-nature-of-history/
You can also find this article at my linkedin blog: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/nature-history-matthew-raymer?trk=prof-post