Disobedient Objects and Counterpower at the V&A Museum


Are museums, the sites where objects ‘come to die’, capable of helping us to think critically about our current politics? If Martin Davies is right they cannot. He reads them as part of a network of public institutions that use historicization to stop us thinking for ourselves while they get on with the business of replicating and reproducing the political and social status quo. ‘Museums’, argued Davies in Imprisoned by History, ‘ultimately infantilize public attitudes…They invite everyone to subordinate themselves to their historicized conception of reality…museums are just another coercive public agency which “does our thinking for us”’. London’s V&A museum is a prime example of Davies’s argument about how history-focused institutions bind political and economic values together. From its opening in the 1850s the museum fused the activities of design, manufacturing and British imperialism. Now advertising itself as ‘the world’s greatest museum of art and design’, the V&A has dealt almost exclusively with objects of elite production and commodification. Its politics of knowledge usually acquiesce in the reproduction of a common sense that suits dominant interests, including one would imagine those of its own corporate sponsors. As the custodian of a public space that is integral to Britain’s tourism, heritage work and education, the V&A is a very ‘obedient’ institution.











Over the past six months, however, the V&A’s Disobedient Objects exhibition, which closed last week, sought to turn part of the museum into a different kind of public space. In the words of its curators Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, Disobedient Objects was a project ‘both within and against’ the V&A. The free-to-enter exhibition showed how political and social justice activists often use low-tech, improvised and subversive design ideas as instruments of struggle against dominant power. Maybe one way in which the exhibition was ‘against’ the V&A was its staging in the museum’s Porter Gallery, which was built with the support of Dame Shirley Porter – best known in the UK as the Conservative leader of Westminster Council at the time of the ‘homes for votes’ scandal. Or perhaps this was an example of what Marcuse called ‘repressive tolerance’. We might also note here that the coalition government, which has frequently encouraged a hard line against the kind of popular dissent represented in Disobedient Objects, effectively provided the insurance cover that allowed the exhibition to take place. This having been said, the exhibition was a departure from V&A’s usual choice of subjects. In contrast to the elitist aesthetics displayed throughout the rest of the museum, Disobedient Objects featured makeshift tear-gas masks, dollar bills defaced with slogans about hyper-inequality, textiles that bear witness to political murder, lock-on arm tubes used by protesters to make human blockades, and other examples of material culture’s role in the production of counterpower. The sparse design aesthetics of the exhibition space amplified its political stance, with its recycled chipboard display mounts bolted on to aluminium poles recalling the low-cost functionalism of an Occupy camp. According to Flood and Grindon the objects they chose for display were ‘disobedient’ in the sense that their original use constituted a micro-politics of everyday resistance – acts that often pre-dated the formation of a recognizably ‘activist’ subjectivity by their users. The politics of this everyday resistance were invariably directed towards the goals of leftist social movements from the late 1970s onwards: countering climate change, resisting colonialism, extending gender rights, opposing the damaging ways in which global capitalism reshapes people’s relations to work, leisure, technology and culture. In that sense the exhibition took few political risks, its content going with the grain of mainstream liberal political values. The material cultures of far-right and neo-conservative protest groups were excluded from the exhibition, ostensibly on the grounds that their campaigns tend to target minorities rather than authorities. So there was no reference to Greece’s Golden Dawn, for example, Germany’s Pegida movement or the English Defence League. And objects of Palestinian resistance were only a marginal feature of the exhibition’s representational strategy. These exclusions can be fairly criticised, but they were not necessarily fatal to the realisation of Disobedient Objects cultural-political ambitions.











Flood and Grindon of course understand that representation is political and that the politics of representation are contested. In an attempt to democratise their own curatorial process they consulted widely and ran workshops before selecting which objects to include as representations. They ensured that social movement activists who lent them objects could display their own statements about what they had donated (written on yellow labels which appeared alongside the grey labels used for the curators’ comments). They provided wall space for groups who weren’t represented in the exhibition to display some of their campaign materials – over the next few months a sprawling collection of stickers, posters, flyers, post-it notes and graffiti filled and over-spilled onto an adjoining wall and across part of the floor. More important than the ethical working methods of its curators was the fact that the exhibition had some practical value for activists. On the day after the Hong Kong police tear gassed pro-democracy demonstrators in September 2014, for example, there was a spike in the number of downloads from the Disobedient Objects website featuring instructions on how to make a gas mask out of a plastic bottle and dust mask. And when the Public and Commercial Services Union used the exhibition as a space to put pressure on the V&A management to pay employees a living wage, those managers did at least agree to attend pay talks with the union.











Perhaps in such small but worthwhile ways Disobedient Objects showed how, as Chantal Mouffe’s argued, museums can be ‘transformed into agonistic public spaces where …hegemony is openly contested’. Educational and cultural sites are critical to the formation of subjectivities, and this exhibition presented a public discourse about counterpower around which socio-political subjectivities might be formed and reworked. Yes, we know the arguments about how capital reclaims dissidence for itself, and how liberal spectators who visited Disobedient Objects might have seen the exhibition as something that performed their anti-capitalism for them as they enjoyed its spectacle. And yes, the commodification of dissent in the form of exhibition-related merchandising looked all too ‘obedient’. Even worse, as visitors exited the space they were met with an urgent appeal for funds. Was this money to be used to make a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the indignados, sweatshop workers and various other victims of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’ that they had just been looking at? No, it was to help the V&A raise funds to buy the Wolsey Angels, four Renaissance statues that were intended for Cardinal Wolsey’s tomb, but which had been seized by Henry VIII, sold, separated and eventually lost. Hilary Mantel described the recovery of the angels as ‘one of those miracles that historians pray for.’ Disobedient Objects was a least a reminder that there are better miracles than that for historians and everyone else to hope for.


On Truth, or do we need a pragmatist philosophy of history?

The final paper of the current series, delivered at the IHR on the 4th December by Marek Tamm (Associate Professor of Cultural History, Tallinn University, Estonia).


Marek Tamm’s paper, ‘On Truth, or do we need a pragmatist philosophy of history?’, was to be taken, he explained, as an explanatory supplement to some of his arguments as laid out in an earlier paper, ‘Truth, Objectivity and Evidence in History Writing’, which had been made available to the evening’s attendees a week or so prior to the seminar. Accordingly, in this very brief review I shall attempt a broad sweep of his whole argument as articulated across both papers.

The central thrust of Tamm’s argument, then, is directed towards the establishment of a performativity[1] based pragmatist philosophy of history resting on what strikes me as a curiously itinerant relative notion of “truth”. That is to say, a notion of a non-absolute truth (isn’t this an oxymoron?) which must surely be forever on-the-move since it is obliged to keep pace with a shifting ‘disciplinary consensus as to methods of inquiry, cognitive values and epistemic virtues’[2] on which, apparently, it depends. Moreover, this is a notion of truth that is ‘”guaranteed” by fellow historians’[3] through what Tamm describes as a ‘truth pact’ between historians’ and their readers. A truth pact founded on, for instance, an explicit understanding by the reader of a history text that its author, the historian, when writing it, intended to sincerely and professionally tell the truth – not least through the rigorous application of the disciplinary consensus just mentioned – and that the historian should thus be trusted or be given, as it were, the benefit of the doubt on matters of truth in history writing. In addition to the foregoing, Tamm also claims to have established ‘a clear connection between truth and proof in history writing [by] arguing that the “truth pact” is grounded in a critical analysis of the available evidence’[4].

Now, while Tamm’s exposition on pragmatism was well informed and interesting, I remain hugely sceptical about his underlying position as (accurately, I hope) sketched above. And it was clear from the at times animated reception of Tamm’s paper, particularly with regard to his specific take on “truth”, that I can safely assume that some of my own doubts were equally shared with a number of those present. Although I should just point out in Tamm’s defence, even though I find the following consideration at odds with his overall position as stated, that during the after-paper debate he did make it clear that his truth claims were not, after all, based on any proposed direct relation between text and past but, rather, on that between text and disciplinary consensus[5].

But is Tamm’s primacy of this particular relational strategy actually observed throughout his own text? For instance, I fully understand that Tamm’s idiosyncratic style of truth claim with respect to history writing, a claim that rests solely on an “internal relation” between text and disciplinary consensus (as just noted), could not address truth claims regarding the actuality of the past itself or of its supposed meaning. Yet the quotation occupying the last two lines of paragraph two above suggests that Tamm is actually able to establish ‘truth and proof in history writing’ through the agency of a truth pact grounded by way of critical evaluation of evidence. And the idea of a provable, grounded in evidence truth seems to imply some sort of definitive claim on the past, albeit a claim resting on that always problematic notion of ‘a grounding in evidence’, and thus it cannot be of the same kind as the aforementioned internally circulating relational truth claim which Tamm sets up between the text on the one side and a regulating, institutionalised consensus on the other. So, how can these apparently conflicting statements and their associated truths be reconciled?

One might also reasonably question how it is that Tamm’s theory can really be legitimated as a ‘philosophy of history’ when it rejects all interest in the investigation of putative relations between the history text and the actuality of the past, that particular interest being, I believe, a central concern for probably all historians and most theorists of history as well?

However, and to end this review on a more positive note, it has to be said that Marek Tamm’s paper attracted a larger than average attendance and, as intimated above, it also provoked an unusually lively and engrossing post-paper debate which, running late as usual, finally brought this current series of IHR seminars to a close.

Peter P Icke


[1] Marek Tamm’s interest is in the doing of history; in the practical and the performative aspects of historians’ efforts.

[2] ‘Truth, Objectivity and Evidence in History Writing’, Journal of the Philosophy of History, 8 (2014), p265.

[3] Ibid, p265.

[4] Ibid, p265

[5] It might not have crossed Tamm’s mind that the construction ‘disciplinary consensus’ is not an adequate description since it has the effect of covering over and thus losing sight of the underlying operating mode and purpose of a dominant discourse.

Student Conference – Philosophy of History: Truths, Power, Ethics

Today is our Fifth Annual Undergraduate  Philosophy of History Conference and we have come interesting papers – I am looking forward to it. Below is the programme:

Philosophy of History: Truths, Power, Ethics

Fifth Annual Undergraduate Conference

Friday 5 December 2014

Senior Common Room


10.00  Refreshments

10.10  Welcome: Mark Donnelly & Claire Norton


10.15  Panel One: Whose truths?

  • Joe Hooper, Paul Antick’sBhopal to Bridgehampton. Does the use of fictive devices make an account any less valid?
  • Joanne Rolling, Zlata’s Diary: An Exposition of Truth from the Siege of Sarajevo.
  • Alexandra Melham, Fact and fiction: can we learn from historical novels?
  • Jack Cooke, State controlled history: Memory and the manipulation of the masses.


11.00 Refreshment Break


11.15  Panel Two: Museums, remains and representations

  • Lorna McGrath, Museums: how are they presenting history?
  • Ciaran Clint, ‘The Burden of History:’ Activism, Museums and Disobedient Objects.
  • Georgina Woolfe, When will the dead be able to Rest in Peace? Human Remains and their place in museums.
  • Caitlin Jennings, To what extent do Interpretive Communities influence how history is written?
  • Nadia Townsend, What makes Truman Capote’s bookIn Cold Blood an historical account?


12.15 Break for lunch


12.45  Panel Three: Memory, memorials, Mau Mau

  • Ashleigh Weaver, Death and Memory as Tools of Activism: The Anarchist Subculture in America, 1890-1939.
  • Emily Lundie Authority in a historicised world: exploiting the past and the politics of collective memory and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial​.
  • Fatima Ullah,The rightful remembrance for the Mau Mau?
  • Maria Alempic, Mau Mau and the function of history
  • Amy Mawson, Why memorials can be problematic.


1.45    Panel Four: Fact, fiction and naming

  • Sebastian Reynolds, Blurring the Boundaries of History: Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’.
  • Rhianna Doran, ‘Maus: a challenge to Power, historical methodology and the fact/fiction divide.’
  • Harry Batory, Does historical fiction and literature produce similar or dissimilar narratives?
  • Cate Blackmore, No Longer a Terrorist Movement: A discussion on interpretive naming and the change in theoretical discourse in relation to Apartheid South Africa.


2.30    Refreshment Break


2.45 Panel Five: Pedagogy and authority over the past

  • Cas Hance, History, authority and teaching the national curriculum
  • Aimee Garraghan, The Second World War and Key stage 3 History curriculum
  • James Dodd, The use of a textbook as a symbol of authority
  • Maria Bourke Are historical films representative of historical truth?
  • Anthony O’Reilly, Should we eradicate the authority of history?


3.45 Panel Six: Making histories

  • Siobhan Trainor, Are historical accounts written using innovative or experimental forms a less reliable source?
  • Plum Bou-Assouf, Title unconfirmed
  • Lydia Birch, Title unconfirmed
  • Anthony Wareham, Title unconfirmed


4.30    Closing remarks

Conference ends

‘Impossible Histories: Derrida, the (Re)turn of Religion in Cultural Criticism, and Messianic Historical Theory’

A paper delivered on the 6th November at the Institute of Historical Research by Mark Mason (Deputy Dean, University of Chichester) and reviewed here by Peter P Icke.


Mark Mason’s brilliant, lucid and (considering the demanding nature of its subject matter) remarkably accessible paper, ‘Impossible Histories: etc.’, drew upon the conceptual resources of ‘the (re)turn to/of religion’ as expressed in recent cultural criticism and, in particular, upon its focus on Derridean deconstruction. Or, to put that differently, deconstruction as it equates to the messianic[i] motif in Derrida’s work and the manner in which that motif can be seen to destabilise all historicisations. At bottom, I think that this paper might best be grasped as a singular, uniquely argued and, indeed, damaging critique of ‘historical representations’ as variously circulated in our current cultures, complimented with the suggestion of a positive ‘way forward’ shaped in the form of an appeal for a more overtly self-critical, reflexive mode in its theorisation. That is to say, a suggested style of theorisation which explicitly recognises, foregrounds and affirms the ‘im-possible’ condition of all historical (re)presentations[ii], both in their unavoidable epistemological failures to determine ‘what is to come’ (argued here as a very good thing) and in their, let us say, conspicuous or even wanton over-production generated through the agency of a ‘history machine’ which is simply not configured to reflect on its own condition of im-possibility. And, seen in this way, Mason’s overall argument constitutes a move towards a (messianic) renewal in history rather than a move towards a rejection/extinction of it.

Now, in such a brief review as this I cannot expand on the multiplicity of concepts indicated above and, accordingly, I direct the reader to Mason’s ‘Deconstructing History’[iii] and his ‘Exploring The Impossible’[iv] for an account of the messianic and its implicit notion of ‘openness to the other’  in Derridean deconstruction. I would, nevertheless, highlight here a central and important strand of Derridean thought, an imperative, which informed to some substantial degree the argument presented. And I refer to Derrida’s urgent demand to keep the future open through the rejection of all ‘discourses of closure’ which, to the obvious distress of some of those attending the presentation, would include pretty much all of history as currently practiced. For the doing of history, notwithstanding historians’ best efforts to claim otherwise, is a goal seeking, teleological enterprise driven by the desire for truth-at-the-end-of-enquiry. The point here being that notwithstanding historians’ acknowledgements of history’s incompleteness, their magnanimous embrace and incorporation of plurality, their understanding and agreement that its arguments might be subject to revision and so on and so forth, it still remains the case that historians’ very evident collective purpose/desire is to eventually, and against all the odds, get at the “truth of the past” and tie it down, fix it once and for all. And that’s closure.

Borrowing for a moment here something of a supplement to that previous point which I draw from Keith Jenkins’ essay, ‘Sande Cohen: on the verge of newness’, where, in the course of reviewing Cohen’s History Out of Joint, Jenkins notes Cohen’s observation that historical writing/narration has, right across the discipline, become very much a war amongst ‘claimants’ – claimants who each seek to legitimate their own individual, contentious, present interests through their respective attempts at narrative closures –  and further that, with all of this in mind, the central thesis of Cohen’s book may now be stated thus: ‘that narrative historicisations aim to prevent the appearance of new claimants on the future’[v].  And, of course, such attempts to close down the future through ideologically positioned ‘fixes’ in the present make no concessions whatsoever to that urgent Derridean ‘imperative’ mentioned above.

To close this short review, then, a summing-up, or rather a summing-up of a summing-up which necessarily carries along with it all sorts of risks. But here it is anyway.

So, the central message advanced and defended by Mark Mason might be boiled down to this; that all historical (re)presentations are already ‘marked for failure’ and that it might just be worthwhile to explore what it means to rethink historical (re)presentation and its theorisation as emancipatory in the messianic sense outlined by Derrida. Or, to spin that around and into the interrogative, what would be the implications of theorising histories as ‘messianic and emancipatory promises’, endlessly subject to failures which would in themselves help to both affirm and maintain the opening of a non-determinable future? That, I think, is the crucial question addressed in this paper.

Peter P Icke

[i] I should make it clear that Derrida’s use of the word ‘messianic’ does not signify a space that belongs to any determinate Abrahamic religion. Put simply, it concerns a performative notion of faith – the ‘believe me’ or, for Derrida, ‘the promise’ which launches any discourse and which, in a sense, can be taken as that discourse’s absolute presupposition(s). This, then, the performative dimension of the promise, is embedded in and rests on the messianic or, better still, the messianic structure that belongs to all language.

[ii] Just a short explanation for the bracketed (re) in (re)presentation as follows: History, articulated through the medium of narrative, merely “presents”. Strictly speaking it can’t “represent”, it can’t be a representation because a representation presupposes a represented and in the case of history there is no perceivable represented available since the past is dead and gone. The very notion of a represented, a supposed concrete referent exterior to the historians text, is an illusory reality effect generated within history’s characteristically narrative medium of transmission or exchange. It’s the product of a style of figurative internal circularity that has no linkage outside its own discourse and this notation, this (re), signals that problematic. To neatly sum-up this point one might say, following Roland Barthes (in spirit at least), that a ‘crafty’ operation is in play here, a scarcely noticed operation which collapses the putative referent into the signified.

[iii]Mary Caputi and Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. (Eds.), Derrida and the Future of the Liberal Arts: Professions of Faith. Bloomsbury (2013), pp93-121.

[iv] Mark Mason, ‘Exploring the Impossible – Jacques Derrida, John Caputo and the Philosophy of History’, Rethinking History, Routledge, No.4 (2006), pp 501-522.

[v] Keith Jenkins, At the Limits of History: Essays on Theory and Practice, Routledge (2009), p283.

Ken Breen Scholarship in History

Cherelle and Glenn

The Ken Breen scholarship prize for best performance in history at level 3 was awarded to Cherelle Nightingill on the 7th October 2014 by Glenn Richardson. Cherelle was an outstanding undergraduate student who wrote a first class dissertation on Tudor History.

The prize, worth £500, was founded in 2009 by Mr Stephen Gilham in memory of Ken Breen who was previously head of History at St Mary’s. Previous winners have included Graeme Ancient, Sam Spranger and Danielle Kemsley.

Well done Cherelle and good luck for the future

Review of ‘A Quasi-Substantive Philosophy of History’


‘A Quasi-Substantive Philosophy of History’

Delivered at the Institute of Historical Research on 9th October 2014 by Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

(Doctoral Research Associate, University of Bielefeld) and reviewed here by Peter P Icke


This autumn’s series of IHR ‘Philosophy of History’ seminars was launched on 9th October with the delivery of a paper by Zoltán Boldizsár Simon bearing the captivating title ‘A Quasi-Substantive Philosophy of History’. And I must say right away that I was impressed with both Zoltán’s assured style of presentation, his enthusiasm for his arguments and, indeed, his unswerving defence of those arguments during the post-paper debate; a debate which revealed the somewhat splintered nature of the opinions and positions of those present.

But to continue with the matter at hand, I want first to very briefly set out my reading of the central stuff of Simon’s argument. Then I will try to equally briefly set out what must surely have been the most apposite of the counter-arguments despatched against it from what, as I have already pointed out, was a divided floor.

Now, to turn to the paper itself which opened with the declaration that there is no longer the need to propose a quasi-substantive philosophy of history because such a philosophy has already entered the discourse through the works of various theorists including, and in particular, Eelco Runia, Frank Ankersmit and Jean-Luc Nancy. And, further, that this “quasi-substantive philosophy of history” differs from its earlier goal and meaning driven “substantive” counterpart in the extent to which it is ‘without a definite goal, without meaning and without a proper substance’. But, and this can be taken as the central motif or perhaps the “narrative substance” of Simon’s argument, notwithstanding these three ‘withouts’, a quasi-substantive philosophy of history is argued here to set a previously static history[1] on the move again. And ‘history’ in this instance, Simon explained, is to be understood in the sense of our coming future or ‘the history ahead of us’[2].

So, how exactly does this argument hang together? Well, the ‘move’ just mentioned rests on a notion of identity-shift brought about through violent rupture or discontinuity in the passage of past events (the French Revolution being often taken as its paradigmatic example) which effects a dissociation with the immediate past and its identity or ‘ontological subject’, the previous ‘them’ as Simon puts it, while giving birth to a new ‘we’. That is to say, the birth of a new ontological subject which, in the fullness of time and midst ruptures arising out of ‘monstrous deeds’ to come[3], would itself become the previous ‘they’ to the birth of the next ‘we’, and so on. All this comprising a ‘movement’ based on discontinuous change since each new ‘we’ is a break with rather than an unfolding of its previous ‘they’.

Thus, this proposal for a quasi-substantive philosophy of history takes shape as a self-repeating mechanism driven by human nature and rooted in rupture and disassociation which, from time to time, imposes change on or ‘movement’ in human affairs. Not a substantive move towards some goal or fulfilment of an ultimate purpose (in other words, not a teleology) but, rather, a movement that’s destined to continually repeat itself contingently, as it were. That, I hope, is a fair reading of the core element of Simon’s much broader and complex position which, along with those of Runia, Ankersmit and Nancy[4], seems to me to be phenomenological in kind and, consequently, I would like to register, right here and now, the not insignificant point that one might thus question the validity of their appearance in the discourse of history. Anyway, I guess that I should best let that contentious issue rest there, at least for now, and promptly move ahead to the matter of the audience response to Simon’s presentation.

Well, it seemed to me that the initial clutch of post-paper questions merely worked around the periphery of Simon’s theory without presuming to dislodge or destabilise it in any way. However, later on in the debate a question was raised which confronted and challenged one of the paper’s primary underlying presuppositions head on, so to speak. And that question turned on the general understanding that all descriptive language is of a metaphorical kind and that Simon’s paper comprised a set of descriptions and, therefore, it comprised a set of metaphors. The paper thus constituted, as metaphors do, an invitation to its listeners/readers to adopt a particular point of view on its subject matter. Or, put differently, an invitation to “a way of seeing” but not “the way of seeing”. However, the paper appeared to be presented as an explanation for its subject matter, as the definitive way of seeing, without the support of any validating authority outside its own descriptive metaphorical constructions. Hence, the central thrust of that questioner’s challenge – the demand to know at what point and by what mechanism the metaphorical language of the paper’s descriptive constitutive elements transformed itself into a sort of “literal” language of definitive explanation – seems to me to remain an urgent question bereft of any sort of answer.

But, as I have already observed, the floor was divided and even a little perplexed by this difficult yet thought provoking paper which undoubtedly sees the current series of IHR ‘Philosophy of History’ presentations off to a pretty good start.

Peter P Icke


[1] See ‘History Set into Motion Again’ which is available in its final manuscript form here http://uni-bielefeld.academia.edu/ZoltanBoldizsarSimon . It’s in this paper that Simon explains more fully his own notion of ‘history in suspension’.

[2] Simon has a number of uses for the word history (something I find rather confusing). Here he uses it in a ‘prospective’ sense, elsewhere he uses it in the sense of historical writing, in other places as things done in the past (res gestae) and finally, following Nancy, he uses the word to signify what he calls the ‘disrupted singular’, the moment or break in which history is on the move again. However, I take the view that ‘the past’, ‘history’ and ‘the future’ are of different ontological kinds and that to gather them together under the single term history is to obscure that distinction. For me the past or the before now happened exactly as it did, it’s fixed, it’s vanished and all we have as evidence of its passing are the traces of its one-time actuality. Histories, by contrast, are the end products of historians’ efforts to grasp at that vanished past through the medium of narrative figures and devices worked up on the back of positioned readings of preferred selections of the often scant traces of that vanished past. Accordingly, histories might best be taken as variously construed, ideologically positioned substitutes for a vanished and ultimately unknowable past which escapes all attempts at its appropriation. And, to complete my threesome, the oft-times radical contingency of our yet unrealised ‘coming future’ consigns it to yet a third category, doesn’t it? Obviously words are empty signifiers awaiting their endowment with meanings which are, in the end, arbitrary – you can always get another meaning – but “for meanings to mean” it helps if they have analytical consistency.

[3] Such ‘monstrous deeds’ are argued here as the inevitable consequences of the human psyche’s subliminal drive to commit horrendous deeds to fellow humans

[4] While the arguments of these three philosophers/theorists appear in the paper alongside Simon’s own arguments and could perhaps be taken to be “of a kind”, I should point out that Simon made it clear that he was not arguing in support of them. Rather, he was presenting his own unique position.

Photo: Grey Glacier Icebergs by Stevage

Lies my Teacher Told Me?


I came across this interesting ‘comment is free’ article by Jeb Lund in the Guardian last week which is worth taking a look at. He discusses how the majority conservative school board of Jefferson County, Colorado want to make changes to the Advanced Placement American History Curriculum taught in schools in order to ensure that the history taught in the classroom “promote[s] citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights”. To achieve this they have drafted a curricula proposal that will ensure that lessons only present American history in a positive light – any negative aspects will be omitted. Students, teachers and parents are protesting – see here  and here.

This is a great example of how history is used in an educational context for political, ontological and ideological purposes as well as to encourage compliant citizens – a topic I am very interested in. Incidentally James W. Loewen has an excellent book on this subject called Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook got Wrong (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) – I recommend reading it.

We could ask whether it is wrong for school history lessons to be so partisan and political? We could ask whether it is wrong that history as taught in schools essentially has political and economic functions – it is intended to promote citizenship, patriotism and the free market – rather than simply conveying the truth about the past.

But I would ask is it ever possible for history to be taught in a neutral, non-political way? Would we really want that?

What interested me about this piece is summed up in this quote “[t]he bind facing the Jefferson County school board and the conservative movement in general is that history happened, and pretending it didn’t takes effort.”

“History happened”.

Well I am not so sure about that. For me history is a literary genre, a way of writing about events, the ‘before now’, the past. As such it offers a perspective on events, an interpretation.  While of course we can make judgements about historical texts – we can check to see if they adhere to the (contingent and temporary) protocols of the history profession and we can comment on their aesthetic, literary and political aspects – we can’t distinguish between politicised accounts of past events and those that simply record what happened.

All histories are politically motivated. Yes, some histories flout the conventions of history writing by deliberately ignoring commonly agreed upon ‘facts’ or ‘evidence’, and some employ interpretative strategies that many would find inappropriate – we consider these to be bad histories or not history at all. However, all histories to some extent either implicitly or explicitly have a political agenda – it is just that this only becomes obvious when it conflicts with our own perspective and political preferences. What we agree with is impartial, what we disagree with is partial.

What do you think?

History, Ethics and Justice

history and Justice

The next Futures of History: Cake and theory seminar will take place on Tuesday 7th October at St Mary’s University. The seminar will start at 2.30pm in the Senior Common Room – for more details about the series see here

The seminar will consist of two papers by Berber Bevernage and Anton Froeyman both from the University of Ghent followed by a discussion

Berber Bevernage

History courted by law: Some reflections on the judicialization of
history, historicization of jurisdiction

Anton Froeyman

Ethics for historians: an overview

There will of course be cake and everyone is welcome.

The image is of Justice and History a sculpture by Thomas Crawford located above the Senate bronze doors on the Capitol’s East Front – see here for more details.

Review of Aesthetics, Postmodernism and the ‘Before Now’ symposium

On Tuesday 1st July the Centre for the Philosophy of History at St Mary’s University hosted a symposium on Aesthetics, Postmodernism and the ‘Before Now’ in conjunction with colleagues from the Philosophies of History network based at Leeds University. The event was well attended by students and academics from different disciplines, and the seven speakers presented papers on an interesting range of topics. Alun Munslow (Prof. Research Fellow at St Mary’s University) started the day off with a paper on Irreality and the Aesthetics of Historying in which he applied Goodman’s five ways of ‘worldmaking’ to the subject of irreality and the fictive in the context of historical narratives. aesthetics-postmodernism-symposium-26

Following Alun was Jouni-Matti Kuukkannen from the University of Oulu, Finland. His paper focused on the objectivity-subjectivity dichotomy. He provided a brief overview of the history of objectivity and main literature in the field before arguing that he preferred to think of objectivity and subjectivity in terms of a sliding scale or axis between the two positions. Narratives occupy different places on the scale and for Jouni-Matti, more creative texts (including innovative histories) are found towards the subjective end of the scale. Following the two panels there was a lively discussion. Lance Pettitt suggested that it might be helpful to think of a third concept, that of collectivity or the authorized perspective in addition to that of subjectivity and objectivity. Keith responded to the idea that objectivity might be equated with neutrality by asking why anyone would ever write a history that was not in their interests, that did not reflect their perspective? Mike Phelan commented that he was persuaded by the arguments of Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow and then asked, this being the case, why he should continue with his PhD and how he could incorporate their critiques of the traditional epistemologies employed by historians, into his thesis?aesthetics-postmodernism-symposium-17

The next speaker was Paul Antick (Photographer, Artist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Roehampton). After providing some background information on the British massacre of 24 Chinese-Malay rubber plantation workers near Batang Kali in 1848 he read a section of a draft from his new project on the massacre. His very innovative documentary-fiction or ‘historying’ project centres on the activities of a fictional amateur anthropologist named Willing and a photographer called Smith who go to Malaysia to visit Batang Kali, and record narratives of the event. His work addressed questions of the authority of eyewitnesses, the status of story tellers, the way narratives are structured and how we deal with plural stories. It also challenged the conventions and expectations surrounding academic history papers and provided an example of an alternative type of theoretically aware, self-reflexive history. The final paper before lunch was by Helena Hammond (Senior Lecturer in Dance at the University of Roehampton). Her paper began with an extract from Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark and then explored how the power of the film as a politicized vehicle for the performance of history rests on the aesthetics of its ‘total art work’ vectors fusing visual art, music, dance and dialogue.

Javier López Alós (Lecturer at the University of Leeds) began the afternoon session with a paper on Goya’s ‘Disaster of War’ series of paintings that illustrates aspects of the Peninsular War (1808-1814). He argued that in some ways these paintings act as a forerunner of photojournalism, and that their power derives not from their documentary character, but from the moral message they convey. Adi Efal (Researcher at the University of Cologne) then gave a paper exploring how the concept of ‘habitude’ could be employed with regard to the past. The questions after this session centered on whether historians should take risks with their narrations of the past or whether prudence and a conservative attitude is more useful. Alun Munslow asked why anyone would want to write a history without taking a risk and also asked whether we should worry about getting things wrong. Keith raised the problem of other minds in the context of historical knowledge and suggested that this is why historians’ representations always fail.aesthetics-postmodernism-symposium-05

Kalle Pihlainen (Academy of Finland Research Fellow at Åbo Akademi University and Adjunct Professor of Historical Theory at the University of Turku) ended the day with a paper that brought Hayden White’s narrative constructivist ideas into dialogue with Kenneth Goldsmith’s notion of uncreative writing. Specifically he thought that uncreative writing could help historians break free from the logic of re-creation/recreation – historical narratives as a means representing people or events; and historical representations as a form of entertainment, just another part of consumer culture. For example, if historians simply listed items and presented materials without consciously seeking a narrative or meaning then the responsibility for creating meaning would be placed on the readers who would therefore become aware that there are always significant stories that require acknowledgement outside of their own subjective readings.aesthetics-postmodernism-symposium-21

The day was very enjoyable and provided a good opportunity for affiliates of the centre to meet with some of the organizer of the Philosophies of History network. There was lots of animated discussion and cake. For the record the cakes were: coffee and walnut, a chocolate-digestive refrigerator cake; and ginger and sultana oat cookies. We hope to organize future events in collaboration with our colleagues from Philosophies of History in the near future.

Aesthetics, Postmodernism and the ‘before now’

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Aesthetics, Postmodernism and the ‘before now’

One-day symposium on 1st July 2014

St. Mary’s University

Senior Common Room

Organisers: Claire Norton and Mark Donnelly The Centre for the Philosophy of History (St Mary’s University), and Michael J. Kelly Philosophies of History (University of Leeds)

Generously funded by the School of Arts and Humanities at St Mary’s University

Is historiography akin to (theories of) objectivity or closer to subjectivist expression? What happens if we assume that while there well may have been an ‘extra-textual’ past reality, history is always an ‘intra-textual,’ imagined and fictive enterprise? While accepting a narrativist philosophy of history requires acknowledging the irreality of historying, it also legitimises a multiplicity of possible experimental forms that could be deployed to engage with the time before now: surreal, Dadaist, altereality, uncreative, documentary-fiction historying? Is it fair to argue that the more innovative and original a historian desires to be the more subjective her output will be, whereas in contrast, the less she is willing to say, the more objective her result will be? Has postmodernism, in its rejection of universality and foundational truths, provided history aesthetically and functionally with a more radical or emancipatory platform than its objectivity-centred Modernist predecessor? Or have postmodernist aesthetics simply reinforced the status quo and thus marginalized alternative ways of engaging with our pasts?

Papers given by philosophers, historians, and artists at the one-day symposium Aesthetics, Postmodernism and the ‘before now’ will consider such questions as these. Responding to narrativist theories of history, developments in contemporary literary theory, and experimental forms of narrating or performing pasts in the visual arts they will explore the aesthetic possibilities for history writing in theory and in practice.

The symposium will take place in the Senior Common Room at St Mary’s Strawberry Hill campus. The symposium is free and everyone is welcome. For more information about the event and to book a place, please contact Claire Norton on claire.norton@smuc.ac.uk or Mark Donnelly on mark.donnelly@smuc.ac.uk.


9.15am – 9.40am Register
9.40am – 9.50am Welcome
9.50am – 11.10am Panel 1: Chair – Mark Donnelly
Alun MunslowIrreality and the Aesthetics of Historying
Jouni-Matti KuukkanenHistoriography between subjectivity and objectivity
11.10am – 11.25am Refreshment break
11.25am – 12.45am Panel 2: Chair – Claire Norton
Paul AntickSmith @ Batang Kali: Letter B to Cohen.
Helena HammondDancing in the museum: Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) and the politics and poetics of the aesthetics of the St Petersburg total art work as historical representation
12.45pm – 1.30pm Lunch
1.30pm – 2.50pm Panel 3: Chair – Michael Kelly
Adi EfalHabitude and archaeology
Javier López AlósRhetoric, Representation and Apocalypse: The Peninsular War as Religious War
2.50pm – 3.10pm Refreshment break
3.10pm – 4.30pm Panel 4: Chair – Helena Hammond
Kalle PihlainenHistory as uncreative writing
Robert DoranHayden White and the Practical Past
4.30pm Closing remarks

For more information contact Claire claire.norton@smuc.ac.uk or Mark