Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Spy in the House of History

The Melbourne Writers' Festival this year is host to eminent historian, David Starkey, and he's also giving several talks at the university this week. I first came across his work on the late medieval royal household many years ago when I was working on Wynnere and Wastoure, and was keen to go along and hear him now that I am once more working on English court culture.

On Monday night I felt a bit like a spy.

The talk was hosted by the History Department. Starkey gave an extraordinarily fluent and practised performance, without a single piece of paper in front of him. He is a celebrity Tudor historian in Britain and in Australia; his "Elizabeth", sold, he said, 500,000 copies in the Commonwealth (not sure if this was TV series or his book). The emphatic burden of his talk was that while history was flourishing in popular and public culture, academic history was destroying itself in post-modernism and textual scepticism. He drew attention to the relative novelty of history as an academic discipline, and to the various vogues (for example, economic history) that set trends in history at different times. In apocalyptic vein, he threatened the death of academic history, amid the continued flourishing of popular history.

Hmm. As if the two aren't now completely inter-dependent.

Anyway, the historians were very polite. In addition to the general seduction of an audience by clever asides, funny stories about the Queen, there was certainly a vocal chorus of approving murmurs and laughter, and a few Dorothy Dixers in question time. But I know that many of my colleagues in my sister-department weren't in agreement with him. And I know that most of them are not afraid to speak their mind. So I thought they were extraordinarily polite. And I began to wonder about the different social cultures between English and History. My own department-that-was (before our recent re-structure) would have shown no mercy. (One example: I remember a colleague asking a British Council-funded visitor who kindly explained semiotics to us in the early 1990s how he would account for his "neo-naïve" position.)

Starkey kept saying, provocatively, that he expected to be shot down in flames; and yet the discussion was really quite docile. It's true the talk was more in the nature of a polemic than a reasoned, argued academic paper; and so perhaps the historians felt there was no point engaging. Anyway, a fascinating glimpse into the meeting of two worlds: popular and academic history.

2 comments:

Lauren said...

As probably the only undergraduate student at that lecture, and as one who's spent a small but significant time in English-that-was, I do know what you mean.
History and postmodernism certainly don't seem to sit very neatly for a sizeable number of the History-department-that-was... it seems to be a real sore point of sorts, and as such I read a certain uneasiness into that polite veneer of the evening's procedings. It's certainly interesting, as I prepare to go into postgraduate study, to note that tense sort of embattlement within the discipline. I would be amused if I didn't believe that it runs quite deeply, almost as an internal History Wars, where the life-or-death future of the discipline is being continuously, bitterly fought over in the name of "relevance".
Maybe English-that-was, despite being subjected to "restructuring", has had fewer identity crises than History, with a different set of social, extra-university demands being placed upon its output. That's probably not the case, but I nonetheless think that Starkey was prodding some open ideological wounds on Monday night.
(Incidentally, I've enjoyed reading your blog for quite some time, and as this is my first comment, I'd just like to take the opportunity to wish you the very best!!)

Kathleen said...

To join my two-cents' worth to Lauren's...

I spent a year teaching in a non-Melbourne-yet-sandstone-university History Department. I do wonder if perhaps the docility you describe was because historians are a) very used to being told that they need to step up their game and b) so well-insulated by their masculinity, grants, student intake, Centres for American Studies, etc. etc. that they don't feel the need to engage with the idea.

Now, you characterise the Melbourne U. History Department in a way that suggests this wouldn't be their usual reaction but...my experience indicates that this would have been the reaction in the Department I taught in. There, the claim is that history that takes into account "literary texts" is somehow revolutionary or avant-garde; or that "interdisciplinarity" means showing some artworks in your lectures.

Okay, enough cynicism - for now.