Just over a week ago, Cambridge University Press launched their first Open Access book, The History Manifesto by David Armitage and Jo Guldi. This is clearly intended to provoke discussion, as the book’s webpage has a forum section with the tagline ‘Join the Debate’. It’s been the topic of some excited conversations with the new colleagues I’ve been meeting in Oxford this past week (and with some old friends, too).
The book has three main arguments, as I understood it, and most historians will probably welcome the first: that in a world of ‘short-termism’, where culture is increasingly instant and politicians rarely look past the next election, historians can offer a genuinely valuable perspective as experts in analysing and explaining longer periods. As Armitage and Guldi put it, by studying alternative pasts, multiple stories and multiple ways of understanding these stories, historians can inform society about the possibilities of alternative futures. To fulfill this role, though, they must be willing to step into the arena of public discussion. They conclude their book with a call to arms, ‘Historians of the world, unite! There is a world to win – before it’s too late.’ (125). The second and third propositions of the book may well prove more contentious. Historians can achieve this influence, the authors suggest, by providing more works in the mode of the longue durée, covering centuries or even millennia as they grapple with ‘Deep Time’, and by embracing modern technology and especially ‘Big Data’ analysis to provide and communicate new and broader interpretations. Guldi has offered historians a toolkit for this by developing the open source programme Paper Machines, discussed on pp. 90-3 of the Manifesto. The authors confidently assert that ‘big is back’ (86).
These arguments are delivered through four chapters, two ‘looking back’ to historical traditions and two considering approaches that historians might take today. The first recounts historians’ role, from antiquity to the twentieth century, as advisors to the powerful; and then discusses the scholarly movement of the mid-twentieth century, led above all by Fernand Braudel, which sought to understand (and coined the phrase) the longue durée. The next chapter looks at the swing in the opposite direction, the methodological ‘turns’ of the later twentieth century and the emergence of microhistory, as historians retreated towards what Armitage and Guldi call the ‘Short Past’, producing studies of narrower time-frames written for smaller, and mostly academic, audiences. The moment is ripe, the authors suggest, for a return to the Long Past. Chapters three and four discuss options available to the historians of the twenty-first century, focusing on the key themes of climate change, governance, and inequality, which they show to be deeply connected. Armitage and Guldi don’t want these important topics to be left solely to short-sighted economists (who come in for quite a lot of criticism), but for historians to contribute scope and depth. In the final chapter, in particular, the authors describe the promise of Big Data projects for helping historians to do this.
Despite their infectious enthusiasm and often persuasive critique, the authors did not carry me with them on all of these points. While long narratives are very important, they possess their own dangers: oversimplification, elision, obscuring other dimensions of any story. This is to some extent evident in the authors’ own historiographical narrative. Keeping things necessarily (and admirably) succinct, they unavoidably glide over numerous subtleties and nuances in their decision to present historical writing of the twentieth century as a more-or-less neat pendulum from long to short to long. A quick scan of the Manifesto‘s footnotes – and I confess that I have not yet had time to perform the metric analysis to confirm this – gives the impression that many of the historical works cited deal with the period after 1800. Perhaps the authors do not practice quite so longue a durée as they preach. Most glaring is the absence of any discussion of historical traditions beyond Europe, though the dominance of European historical practice has been sharply criticised, for example by Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincialising Europe. If part of history’s appeal is to tell alternative stories, then alternative ways of storytelling are surely very important (and a topic about which I acknowledge I know too little). Armitage and Guldi’s definition of ‘microhistory’ is also more capacious than many historians – and certainly that field’s Italian creators – would recognise. At times, they seem to use the term to mean anything retreating from the longer perspective. As Carlo Ginzburg has described it, however, ‘micro’ refers to the microscope, the attention to significant detail, not necessarily the scale or range of that attention. In theory, then, microhistory over the longue durée is not impossible, though it might be very difficult.
Similar questions can be raised about Big Data. Such large statistical analysis is, no doubt, an exciting tool which will open new and exciting vistas on the past. Yet there are manifestly things that it cannot do. This post by Mark Hailwood, published yesterday, skilfully shows how looking deeper into the evidence behind a big survey (in this case, one done in the 1970s) can be just as illuminating as large statistics, albeit in different ways. There are also potential dangers with too heavy a reliance on automated word-searches or similar techniques. Armitage and Guldi cite an example of geographers relying on limited search terms (105), but it’s entirely possible historians can make the same mistakes. What’s more, the possibilities of text manipulation, even in self-curated collections like those enabled by Guldi’s Paper Machines, rely on having digital text to manipulate in the first place. This, despite the growing number of digital collections, effectively rules out the vast majority of manuscript sources for which computerised character recognition is not yet (and may never be) possible. By coincidence, I read much of the Manifesto on the train to and from the All at Sea conference, where much of the conversation revolved around digitisation projects – Sailing Letters, Letters as Loot, and Brill’s new Prize Papers Online. These emphasized the impressive new work that can be done with digital collections, but also the time, effort, and money required to produce them. It could be a long time before Big Data methods become feasible for many aspects of pre-modern history.
These issues complicate the main argument with which I wholeheartedly agree – Armitage and Guldi’s call for historians to ‘go public’. There is relatively little discussion in the Manifesto about how historians, in practical terms, can get politicians or the public to listen to what they have to say, or the venues that exist for this (and the fact that these often favour already well-established public figures). There is also no mention of how this fits into the stages of a historian’s career – as an early career researcher I feel I have comments to offer to public debates, but not really that I can make pronouncements in terms of the longue durée. After much teaching and writing I might change my mind. Armitage and Guldi do suggest that, using Big Data, historians could create visualisations of the kind that go viral on social media, and this is an intriguing idea, though probably with its limits. I am not convinced, though, that big stories and Big Data are always the best way to communicate historical insights widely. Some of the academic books which have proved most popular beyond academia are microhistories, like Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre, though this was presumably helped by the 1982 film. The success of Who Do You Think You Are? and genealogy more generally (discussed recently in this article) show that a personal dimension is vitally important to the appeal of the past, and this is something easily lost when we widen our perspectives. Big Data is probably most striking when combined with such a close personal focus, as in this post by Tim Hitchcock, another eloquent advocate of both digital and public history (I know I’ve linked to this before, but I don’t care, it’s brilliant).
These are problems which Armitage and Guldi recognise, and they are careful to temper their more strident statements with acknowledgements that we will still need shorter and closer studies, and traditional techniques. Most historians would find it difficult to write on the longue durée without relying on ‘Short Past’ work written by others – even Braudel was helped by his research students and colleagues. This commendable balance unfortunately sometimes renders the Manifesto less resounding than the authors might wish, essentially because it is not entirely clear what they want historians to actually do. Obviously, as the authors know, we can’t all be longue durée Big Data experts. I suspect this also arises because the book is not written just for historians; it seems to me to be as much aimed outwards, to convince others of what historians have to offer. I do hope that we as historians can live up to that promise.
This aim, I think, is one reason why (notwithstanding the issues I have raised here) I enjoyed reading the Manifesto and encourage you to read it too. It is, after all, a manifesto and not a handbook: I see it as pointing to some paths that historians might take, but leaving it to the rest of us to decide whether and how we do that. In this respect, the book meets one of its own demands, that historians must challenge the idea of an immobile status quo, the assumption that this is the way things are and must be. The future could take as many shapes as the past has, and this in my view is the book’s most important message. Historians have a role to play not just in understanding the past, but by doing so can help to outline possible futures, and we must be bold and vocal in this. If history consistently teaches us one thing, it is (ironically) that things change. Presumably – though not necessarily in all the ways predicted in the Manifesto – historians can change too.
Edit – if anybody wants to find more on the History Manifesto, besides the book’s own webpage, there is a list of reviews and links here (a specific page about the book on Armitage’s Harvard profile), and History Works have a transcript of a BBC interview with Armitage and further links here.