Monday, June 04, 2007

Ideology and Anglo-Culture

The Kirk Center's most recent University Bookman contains William Anthony Hay's review of J.G.A. Pocock's The Discovery of Islands. Begins Hay:
Each generation revises history to fit its own needs and preoccupations because, while the past itself remains constant, the prism through with it is seen changes. Besides helping people understand their own time, history shapes identity and provides a sense of place. These factors together explain how historiography—the principles, perspectives, and methods behind the writing of history—responds to questions driven by contemporary preoccupations.
Spot on. Take British History, for example:
The Whig interpretation in Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s nineteenth century History of England and Henrietta Marshall’s children’s book Our Island’s Story describes British history as the progressive movement toward increasing liberty and prosperity. As academic history emerged in Britain under the guidance of scholars like Macaulay’s nephew George Otto Trevelyan, it largely assimilated Whig assumptions to shape public culture into the 1920s. Declining power and a crisis of confidence posed new questions that led British historians to examine the past in different ways. Marxism and social science methodology turned historiography from constitutional history and focused instead on class conflict and social change. Postmodernism reflected the growing hold of expressive individualism from the 1960s with a consequent interest in identity that posed questions about sexuality and ethnic differences. Failure of the post-1945 social democratic consensus during the 1970s followed by Thatcherism further shifted the terms behind historical inquiry.
So, what about Pocock?
Decolonization, renewed interest in histories of component nations within the United Kingdom, and reorientation toward Europe as part of Britain’s membership in the European Union have also influenced historiography, and J. G. A. Pocock’s essays in The Discovery of Islands offer a profound reconceptualization of British history....Pocock argues for a British history that examines relationships within the Atlantic archipelago and its overseas progeny.
This rings familiar--the interpretive frameworks of the Anglosphere and Bernard Bailyn's Atlantic History came to mind. The seeming symbiosis of the latter with Pocock isn't too surprising, given both Bailyn and Pocock found themselves largely on the same side (forgive the implied oversimplification) of the "republican synthesis" debates of the '70's and '80's. This leads to the context that Hay provides concerning Pocock's point of view:
Far from nostalgic pining for a world he admits has been lost, Pocock’s emphasis on the British diaspora follows from his efforts to understand the terms in which people see themselves or what he would call “the nuts and bolts of the mind.” A noted historian of ideas, he pioneered a new approach to intellectual history that viewed texts in the context of their time so as to understand the language contemporaries used to communicate ideas. Instead of great books providing a debate amongst themselves across the ages, key texts could offer insight on how men at a specific point of time saw their world. Pocock’s approach to British history as the story of nations interacting with and occasionally seceding from an imperial state plays this theme from his other work in a different key.
Both Bailyn and Pocock dealt with how ideologies were formed and used to justify the actions of individuals and groups. Bailyn has gone deeper into how Anglo culture and society has been maintained and modified around the Atlantic basin. Pocock has turned his head to Europe.
“Europeanizing” British history involves downplaying the centrality of the state and refocusing relationships toward continental Europe rather than within the British isles or overseas. Deconstructing identities often involves a smug provincialism among elites who cannot see beyond their own times. Pocock warned that demolishing Whig history—even though it brought a deeper understanding of past and present—amounted to a program for “asking the present to live without a past that justifies it.” Much the same could be said of postmodernist enthusiasm for Europe without the compensating benefit of illuminating the past. Indeed, where revisionism opened doors, the politics behind the new historiography of Europe seems eager to close them. Pocock contends that a history of either Britain or Europe must consider how it is a creation of nation-states even before attempting to transcend that framework.
Too often this mistake is made: the present circumstance is taken as a priori. Little thought is given to the political, social or cultural structures or mores that were in place that allowed [insert currently en vogue enlightened state here] to flourish. Pocock is warning that we need to be careful. Finally:
Pocock’s concluding chapters highlight the symbiotic relationship between historiography and politics. History serves a central purpose in public culture, and, consequently, the question of how it is to be written never quite finds a resolution. Each generation rewrites its history to understand its present. Pocock gives a judicious and well-written overview of the process, and his essays leave a sense that the past may not be such a foreign realm as is sometimes thought.

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