VoxPop2015: The People’s Conclusion

Mark Hailwood

It’s been a lively old summer here on the ‘monster, and as the dust finally starts to settle on our ‘Voices of the People’ online symposium it’s probably time for a few conclusions. The vast range of thoughts provoked by our brilliant contributors are impossible to capture in a humble blog post, so there is no pretense here of providing a definitive summary of all the key points: for that, you’ll have to read the posts (and the #voxpop2015 hashtag on twitter). Instead, I’ll keep to highlighting a few of the themes that featured most prominently in your comments, both on the posts and on twitter; and that seem to me, therefore, to set the agenda for keeping the broader conversation about ‘history from below’ moving along.

History from below is… popular

peopleLet’s start with the vital statistics: since the start of the symposium in July, the many-headed monster has received over 20,000 views. Add to that the 80 comments made on the blog posts, and the countless tweets about the symposium that have used the hashtag #voxpop2015, and I think it is fair to say that VoxPop2015 has been – appropriately enough – popular. One endorsement went so far as to say that ‘ is the best thing on Twitter. If there was a Twitter fire, it’s the one thing I’d save; the rest could crackle away’ (@CBarnacles). Not an opinion of twitter we share, I hasten to add, but it’s a compliment we’ll take! A huge thanks to everyone who has participated in the event in some shape or form.

We might reasonably enough take this as evidence of the enduring and wide appeal of ‘history from below’, and participants in our conversation have ranged from community outreach officers in Indiana (@Coach3_us) to wood workers from the Yorkshire Dales (@FlyingShavings), although most of our comments have come from self-identifying historians of various stripes. That is not to say that the event has been carried out in a kind of virtual ivory-tower echo-chamber, as evidence from twitter reveals. Ann Bond, an independent historian, championed the event as ‘learned yet accessible & free to access. Boon to those like me no longer formally attached to an institution’ (@History_Ann); it has been enjoyed in the sunshine as a post-submission treat by recently completed PhD students Roisin Watson and Freya Gowrley (@roisin_watson & @Freya_Gowrley1); and enthusiastically received by undergraduate students too (as reported by Christine de Bellaigue: @cadebellaigue). Fully-fledged academic historians have been embracing the discussion as well, of course, with Jenny Hillman (@dr_hillman) asking ‘Is it just me or is anyone else totally confronting the type of ‘history’ they write thanks to ?’ The traffic on the blog and on twitter suggests the latter. 

History from below is… possible

But what, exactly, has the symposium shown? Most emphatically, it has proven the point that the recovery of non-elite voices from the historical record – whilst never straightforward – is not only possible, but can be done in a remarkably wide range of historical contexts. From the life story of a seventeenth-century London capper, to the nineteenth-century novellas of a teenage Breton farm servant, to the ‘philosopher plumber’ of a 1960s Tyneside shipyard, the voices of the people are lodged in the historical record. Even in those records that seem least likely to have captured anything of the way the world was seen ‘from below’ – for instance, the colonial archive – we have seen that it is possible to say something about the power structures that constrained the voices of the people, and to catch glimpses of how the less powerful could nonetheless find a way to exert their agency – even if it that sometimes meant resorting to silence rather than speech.

However you want to configure ‘below’ in any given society, its likely that some echo of the voices of the subordinate can be found. Contributors have strained to hear the voices of those subject to hierarchies of class, gender, race, sexuality, colonialism, nationalism, poverty, and historians of each should continue to compare notes – as they have done here – on the challenges they find and the techniques they use to tackle them. Indeed, several participants have highlighted the potential to broaden this conversation out yet further still to an even wider range of historical contexts: a comment by Bob Taylor called for more ancient ‘history from below’; on twitter Andy Burn (@aj_burn) helpfully provided links to two (1 & 2) recent discussions of ‘voices of the people’ in the medieval period; and Helen Rogers (@helenrogers19c) drew our attention to Ushashi Dasgupta’s discussion of ‘Voices from Below in Literary Studies‘.

The future of history from below should, then, be based on a commitment to continue to talk across the boundaries of discipline, sub-discipline, and chronology that so often serve to compartmentalise scholarly fields – as well, of course, as those boundaries that divide academics from the wider public (more on which later). To make these conversations happen, history from below needs to convince people to take it seriously. For too long now this way of approaching the past has been dismissed by many as trite – a product of an outdated, overly-politicized, and ultimately rather naive project on the part of Marxist historians to blindly valorise the working man. Another key feature of this symposium has been to demonstrate that history from below today is characterised by anything but such an unthinking and dogmatic approach…

History from below is… reflective

There are no sacred cows or party lines in evidence here. The appropriateness of only pursuing history’s ‘small heroes’ has been challenged – in Julia Laite’s memorable phrase, we should study ‘assholes’ too. The very notion of ‘the people’ has been put under scrutiny, and few here accept that subordinate groups in any society spoke with a homogeneous voice: we all study ‘some people’, not ‘the people’. The idea that we are ‘rescuing’ our subjects from historical obscurity has been repeatedly questioned: is it really empowering for us to dig up their story of poverty or prostitution? Perhaps they would rather be left alone. And do we have a right to ‘intervene’ in this way? The ethics of ‘history from below’ have been debated at length here. The relationship between voice and agency has been queried: its not always through the act of speech that a historical actor makes their mark. Speech could be forced, constrained, distorted. Silence could be a weapon, a form of agency. It might not be though: it too could be a reflection of subordination. Little is taken for granted: no one here claims to have found the ‘authentic’ voice of the people, unmediated by the sources. Careful reflection is the default approach.

51JzAwfMtwL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

Menocchio: subject of Ginzburg’s famous micro-history, The Cheese and the Worms (so named because Menocchio thought the cosmos was a giant ball of the same).

Then there are issues of representativeness, which raise their head in a number of posts and comments. Bryan Ayala (@Coach3_us) hit the nail on the head in his comment: how much can we really say about an individual or their views from the fragments we are usually left working with? When we can say more about an individual, we then face the ‘Menocchio question’: what can that individual really be said to reveal about their wider culture; about bigger historical processes? Answers are attempted, but maybe the real answer is ‘nothing’: perhaps the point should be to demonstrate that history is chaotic, that individuals are unique and complex, and that attempts at wider conclusions and explanations are futile. Perhaps the past is just a chaotic maelstrom of cheese and worms. But where does that leave us?

History from below is… political?

All of these questions are crucial, and the fact that they have reared up during this symposium shows a capacity for self-reflection that history from below approaches have sometimes been accused of lacking. But it potentially comes at a price: where does all of this emphasis on complexity leave the politics of history from below? The tradition started out as a political project, after all, and for many that is crucial to its ongoing appeal (a useful overview of the tradition’s development can be found here). But what, exactly, is the political contribution of the history showcased here? We’ve produced as many questions as answers – can you build a political platform out of questions? There has been some debate between contributors as to whether political messages are something that we should be explicitly stating, not to mention whether it is possible to offer any clear – and uniform – definition of the political implications that might be taken from these posts anyway. The clearest attempt to do so comes from Tim Hitchcock’s post, and maybe his idea that we are looking to promote a ‘politics of empathy’ is something we can all agree on: whatever your politics, surely an exercise in trying to understand difference – bridging the divide between historical or cultural contexts to see the world through the eyes of others, if not necessarily to valorise them – is a valuable human endeavour. It is something history from below excels at.

For those to whom a political dimension is a must have for the future of history from below, another potential rallying point is a campaign to democratise history. History from below cannot just be a way in which academics approach the past: it is hardly in keeping with the spirit of recovering the voices of ordinary people to shut those voices out of contemporary history making. Admittedly, it’s the work of academics that this symposium has been showcasing, but in its nature as an open-access, free, online symposium it has looked to reach a wider audience. But we want to do more. Brodie Waddell has called for more of the sources of the kinds explored here to be made freely available online, to allow ‘ordinary’ people to investigate the history of ‘ordinary’ people for themselves. There remain various practical hurdles to making such sources freely available, but they are hurdles we should be working to overcome. But this process should not just be about opening up sources: it should be about opening up conversations. This does not just mean making academic work more easily accessible to non-academics, though this is important too. It means having a dialogue between academics and those with an interest in history outside of the academy, and learning from each other.

This conversation, of course, already goes on. See, for instance, the international History from Below network, and followers of this symposium may well be interested in a major event next summer that will commemorate twenty years since the death of Raphael Samuel, a pioneer in this field, and forty years since the birth of History Workshop Journal, an important journal central to this tradition: Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism: A Major Conference & Public History Festival. We at the many-headed monster also want to do more to promote a more democratic history conversation, and as such we plan to run a follow-up event to this summer’s symposium that will invite people from outside of academia to blog about their interests in, and approaches to, history from below. So watch this space – though we might allow ourselves a bit of a break from online symposium organisation first!

That’s enough from me – except to say that this conclusion is not intended as the final word on this symposium. It has been an attempt to draw out a few key themes that seem ripe for ongoing discussion. So please do offer your own thoughts below, or on twitter (using the hashtag #voxpop2015), and feel free to highlight themes I have missed, or misrepresented, or that you would like to ignite more discussion on, and let’s keep the broader conversation about history from below open and ongoing…

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6 thoughts on “VoxPop2015: The People’s Conclusion

  1. Thank you for this great round-up, Mark. It has been wonderful to read such a huge range of thought-provoking contributions, both the main posts and all the comments, tweets and spin-off posts. The issues raised here this summer, and at the earlier workshop at Birkbeck, have genuinely challenged my thinking about ways of doing history.

    I’ll just reiterate and slightly expand on one the points above: our ethical duty to the people we study. As an early modernist, I’d always glibly dismissed the question of ethics by saying that all my subjects are long dead. But, as Julia so adeptly showed in her post (and as came out clearly in the discussion that followed), if I aim to be a historian committed to doing right by the often-marginalised people that I study, I need to take this seriously. E.P. Thompson’s call to ‘rescue’ them is less stirring after thinking hard about whether they would want to be ‘rescued’ in this way. In the end, I believe that studying them, quoting them and using their real names is still the right thing to do. But this discussion will make me even more careful to use their words respectfully and responsibly, trying to avoid ‘mining’ their speech for keywords or ripping a nice phrase out of context. It has also actually strengthened my commitment to offering – when possible – a fuller version of their words by sharing my primary sources, rather merely the bits that I end up using in a published piece. We may not be able to give our subjects the freedom to truly ‘speak for themselves’ in an unmediated way, but at least I can help to make the historical record slightly less selective and foreshortened.

  2. As a part time history student [with a full time job] who has recently finished a course and is soon to lose my access to the treasures in academic libraries, the question of access is important. These historical sources belong to us all and the institutions that hold them are funded (partially?) by tax payers. Access should be available to sources and research so that, if I choose to spend my leisure time studying and researching, I have a chance of contributing.
    The popularity of family history research shows that history from below is the sort of personal history that many find interesting. The changes taking place in Academia with the rise of beancounters and metrics mean less time is spent digging in dark corners. Widening access would allow more part time history researchers to fill in the gap left by professional academics harried by their institutions beancounters away from research that does not improve metrics.

  3. I certainly need to spend more time thinking about the nuances of silence in archival records about vagrancy, but the observation that Mark and others have made that silence is a weapon is borne out very solidly in some of my own evidence, certainly in Tim’s , and James C. Scott lists it as a weapon of the weak if I am not mistaken.

    I remain committed to crafting history from below as fundamentally a ‘rescue’ project, not out of some early Fabian society desire to study the plebes in order to improve the plebes, but because there is a politics of *attention* in history, what merits it, what does not, and I’d argue that even the simple biography of the homeless and deeply marginalized still operates at a deficit in this logic of what we care about. When I say I want to ‘rescue’, it is from that inequality of attention as much as anything.

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #07 | Whewell's Ghost

  5. Pingback: Week in Review: August 28 « Freya Gowrley

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