Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jeremy Paxman vs History

Last fall I went to a talk by Newsnight Presenter Jeremy Paxman on the subject of his new book, Empire: What Ruling the World did to the British. The talk was only mildly interesting, but Paxman delivered an interesting aside during the Q&A session when he remarked on something he found frustrating when reading ‘academic history’. I don’t recall the context for his answer, but the venerable journalist (best known for asking Michael Howard the same question 14 times running, and for his knack of making every interview about Jeremy Paxman) began grousing about how academic historians are all so darn specialised! Instead of thinking about the big picture, according to Paxman, they spend all their time obsessed with matters of minute detail, caught up in trivialities, all the while missing out on the grand sweep of history as it unfolds marvellously before their unfocussed eyes.


I thought about Paxman’s gripe having spent the last few days scrambling around Kampala between Makerere University Library, the National Library of Uganda, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Parliament, and the Uganda Management Institute. My quest: to explain the politics of wildlife in east and central Africa during the colonial and post-independence years. My sin (according to Jeremy Paxman): specialisation. My penance: to hurl myself beneath the wheels of the nearest boda boda, the driver of which would be all-too-happy to speed me on my way to whatever horrific afterlife Jeremy Paxman envisions for specialists (probably, it involves being perpetually interviewed on the Newsnight set by Paxman as he asks—over and over and over again—‘What’s the big picture, what’s the big picture?’). Well, perhaps he’d actually prefer that all we sinners write Big Books (or Big Dissertations in my case) about Big Events and Big History.

But as I hauled myself back from the brink, Kampala’s traffic swirling around me, breathing in the copious amounts of exhaust spouting in thick great gouts from, I wondered whether Paxo had actually thought through his criticism of historians. Sure, there are those historians (most of them) who write highly specialised narratives about what are, in the cosmic scheme of things, seemingly ‘minute’ events. And there are those who write Big History: histories of whole Empires, nations, movements, etc. But let’s step back and unpack the journalist’s complaint. It’s worth doing, because it’s a gripe you often hear in public about supposedly self-indulgent academics who study ‘irrelevant’ things (right-wing critics would undoubtedly put research on climate change and stem cells and palaeoanthroplogy in this category along with social and environmental and gender history). I suspect it at least partially accounts for the ‘Well, that’s interesting’ remark that I often get from people in the tone of voice that suggests they’ll momentarily drop dead of boredom if I don’t shut up directly about my research topic.

Firstly, historians who write Big History are often past the half-way mark of their career. This is for multiple reasons: their jobs are more secure, so they can tackle more substantial projects; they’ve spent more years amassing knowledge, and so are better able to tackle such a project; having researched diverse topics, they’re interested in piecing them into something larger; they’re professional development is more advanced and so they’re more likely to be asked by a publisher to write such history. Admittedly, you do occasionally get youthful historians writing Big History. Niall Ferguson, who tackles topics like Empire, Finance, and War, comes to mind. But Ferguson writes purely ideological history which, as in his book on the British Empire, appears to be less the product of sustained, serious research than of cherrypicking a select series of events to support his ideological slant and make his point. You could ask Ferguson any number of critical questions about the British Empire that he simply could not address by recourse to what actually happened, because there is no room in his history for a critical appraisal of whole swathes of colonial history, hence his status as an historical stunt-man, who through sleight of hand makes the impossible look plausible. Now most histories are informed by their writers’ outlooks, but in most cases, serious historical training and practise prevents writers from degenerating into quite so crude a caricature of their subject.

And wouldn’t it be dull if all historians spent their times writing books with subtitles like, ‘Britain, 1688-1997’; ‘The British Empire, 1603-1979’; Modern Africa; and so on. People would want some detail. Then Paxman and his chorus would be complaining about all historians wrote about the same thing, and how what they need is a healthy dose of specialisation.

The third problem with Paxman’s criticism has to do with how Big History tends to be written. The approach of what I’ll uncharitably call ‘celebrity historians’ to their topic is often to write a kind of anecdotal history. That is, they’ll choose a somewhat random-seeming series of events or individuals, and extrapolate from these to weave some grand and usually colourfully-written narrative which is engaging but usually troublingly-incomplete. Ronald Takaki, not trained as an historian (although he was an academic, so Paxman wouldn’t be letting him off the hook), wrote a beautiful history of the United States entitled Iron Cages. It’s a very convincing read, and I happen to like it, but it’s not what I’d turn to if I wanted an account of the ‘whole’ history of the United States since 1776.

On the other hand, when a ‘serious’ historian sits down to write the Penguin History of This, the Oxford History of That, or the Definitive History of Such and Such, they’ve not, as a rule, done archival research on the whole period, geography, or theme that they are tackling. Human lifespan mitigates rather severely against any such undertaking. Imagine the scale of that undertaking: reading the primary sources about every single historical event you mention! If you consult the footnotes of such books, they tend to cite a lot of secondary literature. That is, they cite what loads of other historians have written about a bunch of small, seemingly-insignificant topics. To be more explicit still, Paxman’s Angels, the generalists, the writers of Big History, depend...you guessed it, on the dreaded specialists!

I think the relationship between what Paxman sees as fundamentally different ‘kinds’ of history, but which are actually just different parts of the same process, became clear to me in a Medieval History class I took some years back. The Professor was an immensely learned man, a pillar of his profession, almost amusingly-passionate about his subject, and incredibly kind (our seminar convened to tea and biscuits each week). He’d recently co-authored one volume of the Penguin series on British history, which he referred us to as a general reference. Now this professor obviously knew aspects of this period of history like the back of his hand, having spent decades in the archives. But clearly he could not know it all himself, and his references and acknowledgements were a testament to the ultimately collaborative effort that is Paxman’s Big History.

But there’s a final point. ‘Specialist history’, as it’s contemptuously referred to by some, can offer more illustrative home truths than can the supposedly more bird’s-eye Big History. Some of the most thought-provoking reads might be on seemingly obscure topics that, in their careful assembly of evidence, make a case better than a more sprawling history could. Accounts of how medical investigators confounded malaria, of ancient Korean military families, of how families and households gained their hold on a South African frontier, of ‘industrial cowboys’ in California, might be as compelling as the story of the rise and fall of a whole empire over hundreds of years. And the writing of such histories depends in turn on the work of those who have written at a wider scale. For example, when I want to explore how the politics of wildlife in east Africa fits into larger questions about race, environmentalism, internationalism, and anti-colonialism, of course the first thing I do is to read what other historians have written about these processes as they operate at a level analysis several times removed from the level at which I’ll ultimately incorporate them into my own research. So I’ll read books about interwar internationalism, the Mombasa dock strikes, the Mau Mau War, the Kenyan colour bar, environmentalism in the United States, and so on.

In his somewhat casual remarks about the writing of history, Paxman articulated what is, I suspect, a common misunderstanding of how history writing works, one which imagines the historians’ world as a place split between Big Historians who bestride the ages like colossi, and rodent-like specialists, who scurry around their feet after the crumbs. But the study of history is a process which relies on the work of historians who study the past at all levels of analysis. The big picture is reliant on the labours of those who write ‘smaller’ narratives, and those smaller narratives are themselves inspired in one way or another by larger narratives (whether written or otherwise). In fact, the same people, at different times, write histories that function at different analytical levels.

I expect that Paxman’s book on the British Empire (the subject of the talk that sparked his diatribe) couldn’t have been written if the journalist, who hardly had time to comb through archives across the British Empire covering hundreds of years, hadn’t read the works of historians who were tackling ostensibly less grand topics.

So, having thought this through, I made my way with a lighter step, convinced of my relevance, towards Parliament, to see what the venerable predecessors of today’s Ugandan politicians had to say about wildlife back in the 1950s...Jeremy Paxman would undoubtedly disapprove.

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