Sunday 11 March 2012

Questions of crime and punishment in History

"If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they dont have to worry about the answers".
(Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow)

This term the LAB decided to go in the direction of crime and punishment in History - particularly the question of guilt, and how we take it on and deal with it. These are serious matters, not least for historians, and you could tell by the crowded, yet subdued tone of the LABS that everyone recognized how serious.

There used to be a time when it was believed that History was moving to a position where it would be 'value free' and the necessity of judgement would be no more. For was History not a social science, and was social science not a window on the world where what you saw, you saw, free from idiosyncracy and bias. Judgemental history was bourgeois: partial and privileged. Social science history, on the other hand, would capture the whole truth, the entire picture, with graphs, wavy lines, and acres of robotic prose in giant text books writen for nobody in particular by nobody in particular. As a student I can remember writing essays about what modern young Social Science would do for History once History got rid of its sad old bastard value laden ways. And whatever it was going to do for History it was going to do it in modern, young, value free environments. Like the University of Sussex for example. We all thought this sounded a bit far fetched I have to say (1960s students were not exactly 'vale free' I have to admit) but the tutors seemed keen, and Talcott Parsons seemed keen, and insofar as Marx and Engels had declared Socialism to be modern and scientific too, well there must be something in it.


Well it didnt happen and here was NEW HISTORY LAB in another era going back over the same old ground albeit with a much more grown up agenda. Paul Lay, editor of History Today, started the term with a slashing defence of History as the defender of our rights and freedoms not because it had jettisoned values and judgements but because it had put itself right in the thick of them - across cultures and contexts. Lay did not tell us how to tell the guilty from the innocent, but he did say that without asking the question of guilt or innocence there would be no History. Or at any rate no History worth having....

...which brought us to James Campbell who followed Lay with an account of the idea of 'restorative justice' in Black American history. Unlike Paul, James did set out the reasons for laying the blame and how it might be done. Even after enslavement, black Americans had their troubles. James gave examples of racially motivated murder, arson, discrimination and lynching and explained how it was argued that restorative justice would help make amends for the past. Not that the past is always the past. There are victims and perpetrators of crimes who are still alive and who have not seen justice. But for me the problem arises when restorative justice seeks to go beyond the living in order to make amends for the dead, and to do so by going after the generally implicated (the lazy sheriif, the bent journalist, the unseeing neighbour) rather than the legally implicated. I fear there would be no end to this. Even truth commissions cannot rule off the past. I worry about 'commissions' writing history.

Olaf Jenson showed Night and Fog, a French film about Nazi concentration camps made in 1954. This is a harrowing film. If you see it you will not forget it. But it is not good history. The sources are jumbled. The periodization is blurred. The intentions (as Olaf made clear) were mixed. You are not quite seeing what you think you are seeing. At the very least it is a film that shows the need for the discipline of History. Of course we are driven to the judgement seat, but it should be the case that we undersatnd better than most the rules of evidence and engagement that brings us there.

Last Friday Janet Marstine of Museum Studies and Elizabeth Hurren of Historical Studies talked to the LAB about (what they call) 'the body', and how it can be used as historical evidence and how it should be treated with respect. As with all these LABS the discussion was as wide ranging and serious as the talks. We learned about the 19th century trade in bodies for anatomical research (massive), and we learned also about how New York has taught itself how to remember its 9/11 dead. I'm not sure, however, why the 'corpse' has become a 'body' in historiography, and the extent to which a 'body' (dead) has rights in the way that a person has rights. All historians deal with the dead. Unfortunately, in death as in life as in History, all bodies are equal only some bodies are more equal than others.

This has been a truly great term for NEW HISTORY LAB. By any standard we have excelled ourselves. Attendances high. Blogs better. Cakes larger. Tea pot newer. Tea hotter. Beer cheaper (OK that's a lie). But still the questions keep coming as they will next September. Here's a few more on historical crime and punishment for your post LAB Marquis drink. You will have heard them before:

1. How do we judge a poor young man full of noble ideals who wishes to murder a wicked rich old woman?

2. How do we judge a passionate young woman who decieves a husband she no longer loves?

3. How do we judge the attackers who thought they were about to be attacked?

4. How do we judge the idiocy of those who were brought up to be idiots?

5. How do we judge the past according to the lights of the present?

And now we move to the Trial of Richard III. Axes at the ready. For this is Leicester 1485