Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dialoguing with history

What follows is the text of a guest lecture I gave yesterday for the Life Writing paper taught by Jack Ross at the Albany campus of Massey University. Over the last week or so the comments boxes at this blog and several related sites have been inundated with the ungrammatical, mispelt fallacies of Holocaust deniers, 9/11 'Truthers' and other conspiracy theory addicts. It's easy to see these people as a lunatic fringe, but the truth is that they do not exist in a vacuum. My lecture argued that Western societies are too often forgetful of history, and of the proper way of investigating the past.

I'm delighted, though, to report that the audience at Albany was wonderfully enthusiastic about historical research, and committed to approaching the past thoughtfully and reverently. My lecture was followed by a discussion that lasted a good half hour, and saw several students revealing complex and fascinating research interests of their own. I look forward to reading their work.

Dialoguing with history: some very rough notes for a talk

I’m going to talk about my PhD thesis – that great, one hundred thousand word weight which was lifted off my shoulders last year. My thesis is a study of the deeds and works of the English historian, peace activist, cricketer, and middling poet EP Thompson. Parts of it have been published in the academic journal Thesis Eleven, and (in very flowery, non-academic form) in To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps, the collection of my prose and poetry that Titus Books published in 2007. I hope to publish the thesis in full eventually.

A PhD thesis is a major undertaking: these days students are somehow expected to complete it in three or four years, but in the University of Auckland’s sociology department there were legends of students who had been at work for fifteen or even twenty years on their tome, and who had last been seen wandering the labyrinthine depths of the Human Sciences Building with unshaven cheeks and bloodshot eyes, clutching pages of reading lists.

I was lucky to get some good advice during the period when I was choosing my thesis topic. A friend who was part-way through his own thesis told me to choose a topic that I loved – that was only way, he insisted, that I would be able to maintain my enthusiasm. I chose Edward Palmer Thompson, not because I was in love with him on a personal level, but because he was a multi-talented, protean figure who was interested in many of the things I love – things like history, poetry, unpublished manuscripts, riots, and political polemic.

Edward Palmer Thompson was born in Oxford in 1924, and died in Worcester in 1993, when he ignored his doctor’s advice and tried to pick the blackberries growing in his garden. Thompson drove a tank during World War Two, took a degree from Cambridge after the conflict, and became an adult educator in Yorkshire. He belonged to the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Great Britain from the early forties until 1956, when he left in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Thompson became famous in
1963, when he published a massive book called The Making of the English Working Class, which described the riotous period between 1790 and 1820, when England was undergoing industrialisation, fighting the Napoleonic Wars, and dealing with peasant revolts and the Luddite sabotage of factories.

The Making of the English Working Class helped popularise a new style of history – it was often called ‘people’s history’ or ‘history from below’ – which focused on the lives of ordinary people, not Kings and Queens and Presidents. After the success of his book Thompson became first a fully-fledged academic and then a full-time writer. Before his premature death he produced many more histories, as well as books of literary scholarship, chapbooks of poems, and a fat sci fi novel.

Unlike a few of my peers, I managed to get to the end of my PhD thesis. I’m thankful for that, but I’m also thankful that the finished product is very different from the text I imagined writing when I began back in the second half of 2002. When I began the project I had a rather judgmental attitude toward my subject. I considered myself an objective and rigorous intellectual inquisitor, who would survey EP Thomspon’s act and works, and differentiate the good acts and works from the bad, in the same way that a farmer separates wheat from chaff.

With the arrogance of youth, hindsight, and dogmatism, I decided that Thompson had some great achievements to his credit, but that he had also made some great and easily avoidable blunders. I couldn’t understand, for instance, how a man insightful enough to write The Making of the English Working Class could have belonged for a decade and a half to the Communist Party of Great Britain, an organisation that saw Stalin as a demigod and the Soviet Union as a land of milk and honey, not gulags and the unmarked graves of Trotskyists. It was lucky, I thought, that someone of my discernment had arrived to distinguish poor old EP Thompson’s errors from his insights.

The perils of reading

With PhD research, as with life in general, I seem always to learn valuable lessons too late, and one of the most important lessons I learnt after starting my research is the importance of choosing a topic with an authoritative bibliography. As I stumbled upon more and more texts they didn’t mention, I soon realised that the standard Thompson bibliographies were sadly inadequate. I noticed, as well, that much of the vast literature on EP Thompson was far more circumscribed than the bibliographies – all too often, studies of Thompson zoomed in on a small number of ‘key’ works, and even in these works the same passages were singled out for attention, again and again. I was reminded of New Zealand labour historian Erik Olssen’s comment that everybody knows about The Making of the English Working Class, but that very few people have read past the book’s preface.

I found this neglect of Thompson’s full body of work frustrating and exciting – frustrating, because it left me with a lot of donkey work to do; exciting, because it gave me the sense of being a pioneer. Thompson is one of most influential historians of all time, and the examination of his whole back catalogue might yield all sorts of discoveries. I was determined, then, to read all of Thompson’s work. I kept thinking of Louis Althusser, who in the 1950s and 60s insisted that French Marxists like Jean-Paul Sartre actually had to read Marx, and not just glosses of Marx. (They didn’t take his advice.) Althusser likened Marx’s writings to a forest, and talked of the need to cut a path through this forest. I suppose I saw myself trying to hack a path through the forest of Thompson’s writings. Not all of my path-cutting was particularly useful – there was, for instance, a work with the intriguing title ‘Glue by Candlelight’, which had showed up on a database search. After quite a bit of effort I managed to locate this text on a dusty shelf, only to find that it was the title that had been given to a short letter that Thompson had written to the journal New Society back in the 1970s. New Society’s book reviewer had claimed that Thompson’s collection of essays Writing by Candlelight suffered from bad glue binding, and tended to fall apart quickly. Thompson strongly disagreed, suggesting that the reviewer must be at fault, and ought to handle books more carefully. All in all, I didn’t think 'Glue by Candlelight' was worth the hours of effort I put in to tracking it down. Luckily, other discoveries were more fruitful.

As I kept cutting my path, I gradually became aware that a large amount of Thompson’s writing had never even been published. No amount of interloaning, orders from storage, and purchases from Amazon Secondhand could hope to plug the gaps that existed. This might not have worried me – there ought to have been enough published material to keep me busy – if it wasn’t for the fact that some of the best studies of Thompson referred to unpublished texts. Usually, these studies had been turned out by old friends and comrades, who had been able to refer to their own copies of unpublished manuscripts. Thompson was both a gregarious and a disputatious man, and over the course of his life letters, internal political discussion documents, internal academic memorandums, and thesis examiners’ reports all became vehicles for his insatiable need to argue with friend and foe alike. I began to realise that this corpus of unpublished, polemical writing had been a sort of quarry for some of Thompson’s most important published texts. The unpublished Thompson cast a long shadow over the published works.

I only began actively seeking out Thompson’s unpublished work after reading the autobiography of his old friend and comrade John Saville in 2004. In his book Saville mentions that Edward’s letters to him are preserved in the Saville papers at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones library. I knew then that I had to visit the majestic city of Hull.

Before I visited the archive in Hull I met and stayed with Dorothy Thompson, Edward’s widow and an important historian in her own right. Dorothy lives in a lovely three-storey Georgian house on a small hill with a view over Worcester – in the distance you can see the cricket ground where Glenn Turner used to bat for Worcestershire. Inside the house photos of Edward and his brother Frank cover the walls, and Edward’s books sit on the shelves.

Dorothy was pretty unimpressed with the drinks I’d brought over to have with the dinner she'd been cooking for me. I’d wanted to bring some New Zealand beer, but I hadn’t been able to find any in Worcester’s shops, and had had to settle for XXXX, which I figured was at least Antipodean. Dorothy was horrified at this offering, and gave me a lecture on how important it was for researchers to develope a taste in wine. As the evening wore on, and a good deal of her wine was consumed, I was able to ask Dorothy about Edward and his work. Dorothy was, and has remained, very supportive of my research into her late husband.

I moved on to Hull, and met John Saville. I was looking forward to talking to John, partly because the autobiography is so full of fascinating stories. It tells of how, posing a salesman, he used to smuggle messages from the Communist Party of Great Britain into Hitler’s Germany, and of how on one mission he was shipwrecked in the English Channel and had to swim ashore at Dunkirk. Then there are the stories about Saville’s war service in India, where he used his leave time to work secretly with the independence movement, and the story of how at the end of the war he got a job at the fledgling University of Hull, and helped establish oral history and labour history as important fields of academic study in Britain.

It soon became apparent, though, that I was not going to be able to conduct a very fruitful interview with John. He sat down to talk with me alongside his wife, who soon proved to be an indispensable intermediary. When I explained to John that I was from New Zealand – he had repeatedly referred to me as ‘the boy from Tasmania’ – he turned to his wife, and said ‘Constance, have I ever been to New Zealand?’ John’s memory has been severely affected by his advancing age.

Matters were not helped by the way that I had prepared a brace of absurdly detailed questions, about such burning issues as editorial decisions that Saville made forty years ago. (Being immersed in research makes me lose perspective, and believe that everybody is as interested as me in the minutiae of my subject.) Even when I asked John more detailed questions he tended to answer: ‘I’m sorry, I know I should remember, but I don’t.’ My hopes rose briefly when I asked him about George Orwell, whose path had crossed with his on one or two occasions. John nearly jumped out of his chair, exclaiming ‘George Orwell – he was a shit! A real shit!’ But when I asked why Orwell was a shit, John could only reply ‘I’m sorry, I know I should remember why Orwell was a shit, but I don’t. He was a shit though.’

The Brynmor Jones library is a curious place – one of Hull’s few pieces of avant-garde modernist architecture, it looks on the inside like a shrine to its former manager, the ultra-conservative Philip Larkin. Larkin’s famously grumpy face stares at visitors from photos, paintings, and sculptures. The small archives reading room was virtually empty, apart from a few desks and two supervisors whose job seemed to be to stare silently and intently at me as I took notes and filled out photocopying requests. A day in the room felt a bit like sitting an exam, for eight hours on end.

In Hull I worked my way through the Saville papers, moving from the 1950s through the ‘60s to the '70s. It was exciting to be handling some of Thompson’s own manuscripts and letters, which were often yellow, stamped by coffee mugs, and covered in corrections, exclamations, and curses in his wild handwriting. In all, I found about a dozen unpublished essays or articles, the longest of which ran to 15,000 words, hundreds of letters from Thompson to John Saville and others, and a smaller number of letters from Saville to other collaborators discussing Thompson and his work.

Because Saville had edited journals which had published Thompson, I was able to observe the composition, submission, and anguished revision of several classic texts, simply by following the letters between editor and writer. Each time I observed this process, I felt a little like I was peering over the shoulder of a midwife, watching the troublesome birth of a beautiful baby.

Learning to listen

After I returned to New Zealand late in 2005, I found myself unpacking folder after folder of photocopies and notes, and pondering the complexity of Edward Palmer Thompson’s life and works. As I read my through more of his unpublished oeuvre, I began to lose some of the dogmatic confidence I had brought to my PhD.

There are many examples that could illustrate my change of heart, but I’ll use only one. I’d been inclined to judge Thompson harshly for belonging for a decade and a half to the pro-Stalin Communist Party, but then I read letters from Edward talking about the stark political situation of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, when the party seemed to be the only organisation in Britain that was prepared to oppose Britain’s brutal efforts to hold on to its empire in places like Kenya and Malaya, and when communists were the only trade unionists with the courage to stand up for causes like equal pay for women workers and the right of women schoolteachers to keep working after they married. I started to understand why Thompson stayed in the party so long, and how wrenching it must have been for him to leave his old comrades in 1956. Instead of imposing my own preconceptions on Thompson I listened to his voice.

I didn’t quite realise it at the time, but I was following in the path of Thompson himself when I began to listen to the voice of the archive. I still thought I was sitting in judgment of the man, but I was actually learning from him.
It is hard to believe now, but EP Thompson never intended to become a historian, and didn’t even consider himself a historian until at least halfway through his remarkable life. As a young Communist in the years after World War Two, Thompson joined the party’s literary organisation, not the legendary group of historians that included Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, and John Saville. Until the late 1950s, at least, Thompson considered his main vocation to be poetry. Thompson came to history accidentally, as a result of his research into the great English painter, poet, and designer William Morris.

Thompson was a huge fan of Morris, and in the late '40s and early '50s he was appalled by the way that both sides of the Cold War were turning the man into a weapon in the battle between Moscow and Washington. Moscow’s allies in the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain claimed Morris as a communist, even though Morris advocated a decentralised, democratic form of socialism that had little in common with the society Stalin was creating in the Soviet Union. Conservatives in the West, on the other hand, saw Morris’ socialism as a childish mistake, which should be discussed separately from his art and literature.

The fight over Morris reflected the politicisation of the past during the Cold War. When George Orwell wrote 'he who controls the past controls the present' he might have been describing the mindset of the ideologists of Soviet communism and Western capitalism, who were determined to reinterpret the past to justify their poliical positions.

Thompson dived into the archives, and found the real William Morris there. The result was a nine-hundred page biography, which was published in 1955, at the height of the Cold War. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary failed to satisfy either communists or conservatives, but in the more tolerant climate of the 1970s it was adjudged a classic, and reprinted. Today it remains a much-loved book.

‘When I wrote William Morris...the material took hold of me’ Thompson once said. Throughout his career as a historian, Thompson emphasised the importance of careful research amongst primary sources - of 'listening' to the voices left in letters, diaries, court records, and even the reports of spies. In a 1976 interview he explained that:

I think it is like being a painter or a poet. A poet loves words, a painter loves paint. I found a fascination in getting to the bottom of everything, in the sources themselves...[the scholar] has got be listening all the time. He should not set up a book or a research project with a totally clear sense of what he is going to be able to do. The material itself has got to speak to him. If he listens, then the material itself will begin to speak through him. And I think this happens.

Thompson’s argument that the scholar should not begin a research project with a completely clear idea of where he or she wants it to go is an important clue to his practice as a historian. For Thompson, documents like letters, diaries, and court transcripts mustn’t just exist to furnish prefabricated arguments with convenient examples and quotes - they must be allowed, or rather enabled, to speak to us, to challenge the prejudices we bring to them and, where necessary, to force us to change our interpretations of the past.

Thompson was a ferocious book reviewer, and he liked to put hatchets deep into the backs of historians and social scientists who didn’t share his passion for dialoguing with the past. He disliked historians who tried to approach their subjects scientifically, using tables of data and computers. He also tired of more conventional historians who filled their books with too much detail, and forgot that it was the job of the historian to dialogue with the past. In his review of Religion and the Decline of Magic, a very influential book by the distinguished historian Keith Thomas, Thompson complained that:

[Thomas] proceeds, again and again, by the accumulation of instances, presented in rapid sequence…it is like flicking through a card index, when every now and then one glimpses an unusual card and wants to cry ‘stop!’…

To boil down 20 instances to a line or two apiece must, after all, entail much selectivity and the suppression of much attendant evidence. The reader must still place his confidence in the historian…

In the end, however ‘scientific’ our pretensions, we must make an act of faith…in the judgment of the historian…


History today

What relevance does Thompson’s concept of a dialogue with the past have for us today? The Cold War finished long ago, and Thompson has been dead for fifteen years. Thompson’s biography of William Morris and The Making of the English Working Class may be classics, but are they not the classics of another age? As you’ve probably guessed, I think that Thompson’s ideas about how to do historical research have a great deal of relevance for us today. The Cold War may be over, but the societies of the West still have trouble with history.

In our digital twenty-first century capitalist world, the past is all too often forgotten, as we succumb to the lure of the eternal present created by twenty-four hour news broadcasts and continually updated fashions. If the past does figure in our lives, as a source of entertainment or information, it is often presented to us in terms of the present.

We are arrogant enough to see our market-driven consumerist society as the culmination of - perhaps the consummation of - all history, and we judge history by our own standards, rather than submitting ourselves to its standards, or simply wondering at the otherness of distant epochs and societies. Some of us who are unhappy with the society of the twenty-first century show a strong interest in the past, but these people tend to treat history simply as an escape from the present. They try to vanish into the past, instead of setting up a dialogue between the past and the present.

(An analogy might be made here with our attitudes to the environment. All too often, we treat the environment as a sort of standing reserve – a mere resource, subordinated to our needs. We cover indigenous grassland with quick-growing radiata forests, which we harvest and turn into toilet paper. We turn hilltops into wind farms. We dam rivers so that our carparks can have all-night lighting. There is a reaction against this blatant subordination of nature to humanity, but it tends to involve a veneration of ‘virgin’ nature – that is, nature apart from humans. The importance of relating humans to the environment in a balanced way is forgotten.)

I want to use a couple of quite well-known biographical films from the past decade to help make my point about our problem with history. The first film I’ll mention is Richard Eyre's Iris, which tells the story of Iris Murdoch, the novelist and philosopher. I did a bit of research on Murdoch, because she was a lover of EP Thompson’s brother, and I was fairly unimpressed with the picture of her presented in Iris. Much of the film focuses on the young Murdoch’s adventurous sex life, ignoring her writing and her philosophy. This is not in itself bad – many people would say sex is as least as interesting as literature and philosophy - but the context in which the young Murdoch’s flings are portrayed was all wrong, because it assumed that a bit of playing around had the same meaning in the staid 1950s as it does now, when we have TV programmes like Sex and the City and much more tolerant attitudes to female sexuality. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Iris Murdoch’s casual sex with men and affairs with women were very rebellious; now, they would be almost mainstream. Certainly, they wouldn’t have the political edge which they had in a much more repressive society. Rather than present Irish Murdoch as a daring rebel, who was a young communist, a career-oriented woman, and a sexual libertine in a sexist, repressive society, Eyre's movie shows her as an apolitical hedonist. Iris views the fifties through the prism of the noughties, and consequently fails to do its subject justice.

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a very different movie. Those who have had the dubious pleasure of watching it will know that it is a very long drawn-out and bloody depiction of the last hours of Christ. On the surface, the film appears to be painstakingly historical: in the interests of authenticity the actors have gone to the trouble of learning the now-dead language of Aramaic, and no expense has spared on period sets. Gibson espouses an extremely conservative brand of Roman Catholicism, and regards the modern world, with its sex shops and strip malls and mini-skirts, as an abomination. His movie’s versilimitude reflects his desire to escape into a purer past. And it is just this feature of Gibson’s film which prevents it from being truly historical, despite all its period pretensions. Gibson’s Christ is a collection of pious details, not a flesh and blood character, and his crucifixion does not move us. The Passion of the Christ won’t help Christians grapple with any of the problems they face today, because the film is designed to have nothing at all to do with the world of today. It deals in absolutisms that are alien to those of us who live in a complex and contradictory world. It is an escape into the past, not a dialogue with the past.

In their very different ways, then, both Iris and The Passion of the Christ fail to deal properly with their subjects, and with history.

How do we dialogue with the past? How do we dialogue in ordinary life – with a friend, for example? Creating a dialogue may seem like an easy thing to do, but in fact it takes skill. If I sit down with a friend and talk a great deal about myself or my interests, dominating the conversation, then I am are not taking part in a dialogue. Conversely, if I withdraw, and let my friend dictate the subject and tone of the conversation, then I am not dialoguing. I can only create a dialogue if I find the correct distance between myself and an other – if I let the other be an other, yet also engage with him or her.

We need to find the same sort of balance when we deal with the past. We can’t withdraw from the past – we have to interrogate it, and the questions we ask it have to reflect the problems and preoccupations of the present. At the same time, we have to acknowledge the distance and the otherness of the past, and make an effort to understand it in its own terms.

Technical points

You’re probably thinking that this talk about hearing the voice of the past and respecting the mighty dead is all well and good, but also rather vague. How exactly do we apply such talk, as researchers and writers? I want to discuss a couple of techniques which EP Thompson used in his historical research, and which I found useful in my PhD research. Both techniques can help us to escape from the arrogance of the present, without falling into mere antiquarianism.

The first technique was pioneered in Germany in the nineteenth century, and imported into Britain by the left-wing sociologists Sidney and Beatrice Webb at the beginning of the twentieth century. It involves the scholar writing out the information gathered in research on a series of cards; often, just one fact, event or name is kept on each card. Once scored or hundreds of cards relating to a given topic of research have been accumulated, they can be shuffled and viewed in many different orders.

I know it sounds rather old-fashioned, in this digital age, but the card method of research allows us to reassemble reality in all sorts of interesting ways. By letting us mix up different people and events and dates in arbitrary orders, it helps us to escape the teleogical tyranny of chronology, and to ignore conventional ideas about what is important. Beatrice Webb, who was normally a rather dour woman, wrote of the fun that she and Sidney had on long winter evenings, sitting beside the fireplace and playing what she called ‘games with reality’ with their piles of cards.

EP Thompson loved to play games with reality, and some of his most famous works had their origin in a pile of dog-eared research cards. His essay on the sale of wives in nineteenth century England, for example, had its origin in a set of cards he began keeping after reading a description in hardy novel of a man taking his wife to the market and selling her for a few shillings. Over twenty years, Thompson repeatedly bumped into references to wives being sold as he worked away in archives and old books researching various other subjects. Every time he found a reference to a wife sale, he wrote it on a card. Eventually he had a fat pile of cards, and as he shuffled them about he realised that the traditional interpretation of the sale of wives, which said that the practice was a barbaric expression of male chauvinism, was badly flawed.

Thompson noticed that often the wife consented to being sold, that the sale usually involved only a small, symbolic amount of money, and that it tended to be followed by a party. Looking closely at the reports he had gathered, and ignoring famous but fictional cases like the incident in Hardy’s novel, he realised that the sale was a way that a married woman who was unhappy with her husband could leave him for a new man. Thompson concluded that, far from being a sexist barbarity, the wife sale was a working class substitute for divorce, in an age when an official divorce was only available to the wealthy.

I wrote the outline of each of the hundreds of letters I found in the archive at Hull on cards, and then arranged and rearranged them. As if by magic, unexpected correspondences and new avenues for research emerged.

The other technical trick I wanted to mention is sometimes called the 'keyhole effect'. It has been used very effectively by my PhD supervisor Ian Carter, who moved in the same scholarly circles as EP Thompson in the 1970s and was powerfully influenced by the man.

Last year Carter published a book called British Railway Enthusiasm, which investigates the mysterious world of train spotters, builders of model railways, rail line preservationists, and others for whom rail is much more than a means of transport. Despite its author’s labours in the archives, British Railway Enthusiasm is not the work of a detached academic observer: Carter admits to having spent much of his youth chasing trains, and suggests that his academic research into railway enthusiasm can perhaps be considered ‘an indulgence’. In a long, elegant introductory chapter he mixes a narrative of the history of British railways with memories of his own adventures on the station platforms and in the rusty repair sheds of post-war Luton.

When does indulgence become self-indulgence? Is a mind as supple as Carter’s wasted on a subject as modest as railway-related hobbyism? Should this senior scholar not be devoting himself to an analysis of the crises of capitalism, or a study of the social implications of global warming, or an examination of the state of Western democracy? Questions like these have been muttered by sociologists who mistake grand research subjects for important research results. Such people misunderstand the method at work in British Railway Enthusiasm, and in some of EP Thompson’s finest works. Thompson and Carter both like to select a single, relatively limited subject as a sort of ‘keyhole’ through which he can view a whole society and era.

What can we see through the keyhole that is British Railway Enthusiasm? On one level, the book is a series of studies of different aspects of the railway enthusiast’s ‘life world’. Carter documents the explosion of train spotting in the forties, and the rise of a sophisticated railway modelling hobby in the same period. He laments the decline of these and other railway enthusiasms in more recent decades, and casts a cool eye over Britain’s burgeoning ‘railway heritage’ industry.

Carter is not content simply to describe milieux that have frequently been shrouded in mystery and misrepresentation: he also has something important to say about the Britain of the second half of the twentieth century. His book shows that, far from being the product of some odd English quirk or a mass outbreak of Asperger’s Symdrome, the rise of railway enthusiasm was a product of the particular qualities of post-war British society. Despite being superseded by the United States as the world’s pre-eminent capitalist power, post-war Britain remained an industrial superpower, with a huge, highly skilled working class. The ‘brief flowering of social democracy’ which began with the election of the Attlee government increased the spare time, job security, and incomes of many workers. What is sometimes called the ‘leisure sector’ of the economy increased enormously, absorbing workers’ free time and disposable income. Carter notes that railway modelling, in particular, represented a way that Britons could use their work skills for pleasure, away from the demands of the market and managers. The ‘keyhole’ technique but can be an important tool in study, and also in exposition. Often when we consider a subject – the whole life of a person, or a whole historical era – we can become intimidated by the amount of detail available for study. Where do we start? Where do we end? By choosing a particular area through which to view the whole, we can find ourselves a research foothold. A ‘keyhole’ view can help us when we write, as well – rather than spending thousands of pages describing an enormously detailed subject, we can filter that subject through an interesting angle in a few hundred or few dozen pages.

I used the 'keyhole' technique by focusing my PhD thesis on four texts that Thompson wrote between 1959 and 1978, and collected in his book The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays. By filtering Thompson's extraordinary life and vast body of writing through the prism of four relatively short texts, I was able to deal with a wide range of subjects, from World War Two to post-nationalist Indian politics to William Blake's religious beliefs, wthout becoming one of those unshaven, red-eyed spectres shuffling down the endless corridors of the Human Sciences Building.

I wish you all the best of luck with your own adventures in research.

25 Comments:

OpenID artandmylife said...

I am doign the Life Writing paper extramurally (which kinda sucks actually). I coudl kill for a lecture or tutorial righ now. So thanks for posting this!!!

2:38 pm  
Anonymous Mike Beggs said...

Great stuff! I was put onto the Webb card trick by Humphrey McQueen and it's been great, though I use the computer for it.

What's this about a sci-fi novel??

2:52 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Pleased to be of use, AAML. I've thought it must be lonely studying extramurally!

Mike: good to hear from you. How do you use the card system on the computer? Is there some sort of randomising programme available? I regularly get pitied by friends for my addiction to longhand, but I find it hard to use the computer to store notes, and I much prefer to compose texts with ink.

4:47 pm  
Anonymous Mike Beggs said...

Well I guess I'm bastardising the method; I don't use it so much for randomising but for shifting bits and pieces around. I have a massive word file collecting notes for example on everything to do with counter-inflation policy in the postwar period, broken down into lots of categories. Copy and paste and hyperlinks mean you can put facts, quotes and references under as many categories as you want, and shuffle them around.

Now what about this Thompson sci-fi novel?

5:09 pm  
Blogger maps said...

The novel's called The Sykaos Papers, and it came out in 1988. It's interesting fare for EPT fans, but reviewers were pretty tepid, and I see why. Here's the desultory discussion I gave the book in my thesis (I've just cut and pasted):

A word must be said about The Sykaos Papers, Thompson’s one and only published novel.679

Thompson began work on the book in 1973, but wrote most of it in the years immediately preceding its publication in 1988. The Sykaos Papers tells the story of Oi
Paz, an alien astronaut who crash lands on earth, becomes a pawn in the Cold War, and falls in love with an anthropologist assigned the task of studying him.

Paz is a member of the Oitarian species, which is distinguished by its coldly rational, rather
structuralist outlook on life. His eventual union with the sensual and intuitive Professor Helen Sage suggests, on the surface at least, some sort of fusion of worldviews.

The Sykaos Papers met with a bewildered reaction from some readers. Reviewing for
The New Republic, Paul Berman found the book both familiar and disconcerting:

Studying The Sykaos Papers is like coming on the brain of an admired and familiar author, and peering inside to find all the beloved customary figures of the author’s
imagination engaged in satanic deliriums…[perhaps] [t]he novel was FAXed from outer space.680

Peter Mandler also found The Sykaos Papers chaotic. Rejecting any easy symbolic interpretations of the book, he emphasised how difficult Thompson’s characters found it to show solidarity with one another:

Men misunderstand women; the military cuts itself off from civilians, and even within
the army officers can’t communicate with other ranks…race and nationality divide
even comrades.681

Mandler and Berman are right: The Sykaos Papers is a thoroughly chaotic work, in which attempts at satire and polemic are hamstrung by Thompson’s collapsing faith in
the international and transhistorical causes that once sustained him. The set of
polemical oppositions - agency-structure, internationalism-nationalism, solidarityauthority,
scholarship-propaganda - that are supposed to frame Thompson’s satire are themselves undermined by this loss of faith. The Sykaos Papers is written by the light of the same candle as Customs in Common.

Perhaps sensing that The Sykaos Papers’ equivocations threatened to make it politically incoherent, Thompson used an interview with the New York Review of Books to frame the novel in different terms:

I was afraid people would read it as a political tract…What I’m saying is that human
civilisation depends upon laughter and poetry. That’s not very political, is it?682

678 Ibid., pg 14
679 EP Thompson, The Sykaos Papers, Bloomsbury, London, 1988.
680 Paul Berman, ‘Space Oddity’, The New Republic, January 9-16
1989, pg 40.
681 Peter Mandler, ‘The Last Cold War Novel’, Dissent, Summer 1990, pg 411.
682 Suzanne Cassidy, ‘A Historian’s Alternative Culture’, New York Review of Books, 25/9/88, pg 12.

5:44 pm  
OpenID artandmylife said...

Extramural is lonely. I think part fo the problem is going from postgrad study where you get to discuss things back to undergrad where you get told things.

Although I am told Jack doesn't teach like that

9:38 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Deep inside Jack's apparently flinty heart and head and his near-Imperious and haughty and sometimes seemingly supercilious mannerisms and muttering manners (a front for his deep shyness and sensitivity and sense of ambiguity and profundity and indeed tragedy); nay, & yea, e'en his sense aesthetic and ethical "rightness"; there lurks a trembling tenderness that surfaces despite this deep sensibility and "wrestling conscience" being at war with his vast and sometimes too cold and almost android or neo-Spockian intellect...

12:05 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Maps - a great post -again! I am always a fascinated by your stuff on NZ politics and history, and E P Thompson.

I have learnt a lot about history and and other matters by reading your Blog.

BTW this may seem trivial or invalid but those guys The Myth Busters on TV destroy quite a few of the conspiracy ideas - the obviously stupid or erroneous ones - e.g. that the US didn't go the moon.

12:10 am  
Blogger dave said...

Interesting interview with Alain Badiou on BBC Hardtalk tonight. The interviewer accused Badiou of personally attacking Sarkozy when he called him the "rat man". It took a little time for the poor guy to realise Badiou was referring to Sarkozy as the 'pied piper' who lured many on the left to vote for him. Badiou talks determinedly about 'communism' but of the 19th century variety that has to be reforged in the 21st century.
Don't you think that Thompson if he were alive would be thinking along the same lines?

12:15 am  
Blogger Giovanni said...

Videos of Badiou (and Zizek and other) at the Birkbeck conference on communism last week are up on teh YouTubez, for those who know how to look.

9:38 am  
Blogger dave said...

While on neo-communist intellectual projects of note there is the 9 1/2 hour DVD on Marx, Eisenstein and Kapital by Alexander Kluge (no English subtitles yet) http://humanobsas.wordpress.com/2009/01/23/%C2%BFse-filma-el-capital/

10:44 am  
Blogger Paul said...

Thank you. I may well find this helpful for my own research methods.

1:16 pm  
OpenID objectdart said...

man... this post is awesome, in the old meaning of the word.

i'm seriously rethinking my own (solitary) writing project, and remembering the hell of my own thesis!

3:41 pm  
OpenID objectdart said...

and reading the other comments, i now see why i remembered ep thompson.

they made us read the sykaos papers in my first-year "law and society" paper in 1991.

in a word, awful.

but the choice for the final exam was to either:
- study the stuff they tried to teach us, or
- read the book and write an essay about "difference" and "perspectives"

the choice was obvious

7:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good stuff Dr. Maps! Now, if you'd just get your nose out of those books and get down to the Council Chambers and get arrested a few times, Penny Solipsis Bright might just recognize you exist.


Naa,

Airihi.

PS Fair dues to Mrs. Thompson for forgiving you your taste in booze.
PS Morris' "News from Nowhere" is about as attractive a view of a post-revolutionary London as you're likely to find before the terrible twentieth century scuppered such dreamings. Definitely an anarchist utopia though, with not a glimpse of a vanguard party.

10:45 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

I never receive comments like the above. Sometimes I wonder whether I am doing this blogging thing right.

11:17 pm  
Blogger Bronwyn Lloyd said...

Fantastic Scott!! I now wish I'd dragged myself away from my desk, smoothed down my bed-hair and come along to Massey to hear you deliver the paper in person. I can't tell you how wonderful it was to read the account of your research, particularly the part about letting the voice of the archive speak through you.
And hey, wouldn't it be cool to produce a 'book' that was a box full of cards that could be rearranged by the reader to create all kinds of variant narratives. Maybe we could talk further about that possibility...
Anyway, thanks again for this tremendously inspirational post.

11:49 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I already have such a "book" it is called The Infinite Poem - there are an infinity, perhaps Cantor's countable infinities - or one of or all of - of possible "narratives".

B S Johnston (whose 'book in box') Maps showed me in his possession once has also done similar. Perhaps the cards approach is original in Sociological research etc ...in the PhD market!

One thing I sensed or picked up when I went to hear Scott's presentation for his thesis some time back was the rather stilted attitude of academics - the Sociologists were bit a embarrassed by Maps talked of poetry and art, even Marxism, the Political theorists were embarrassed also, but wanted less Sociology and Maps touched on Science - even maths - mathematical modeling and - how did (mix?) that Reality with Philosophy? - where did THAT all go (I mean we have to classify all these things) -

[I exaggerate]

- but also who was I - I mean ME - well I am - I - I just came because I was interested -

"Interested! Just interested!!??" ...Yes, I confess, I'm not after a Professorship...I am old and probably very invalid, but I was just interested and liked the slides and the talk and, well, the coffee and cakes...

Oh, and I like learning things ("I know, I know, I don't FIT in anywhere -I am "invalid", old and irrelevant",.. b-b-but") -

"Remember when Universities were for people who loved learning?" ...

"What, love learning...and no rewards?! No published papers?..Extraordinary!..And you are a member of Nothing? No faculty?...

Hmmm...what a strange world this place is becoming!"

"A Borgesian libray - ha ah!"

"Who?! - was or is he, this Borges, Psychology or Sociology?"

But to the professional academics I didn't push that dangerously radical argument of loving learning things too far...just sneaked some more biscuits...

11:29 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I also heard that the History Department, The Department of Maori Studies, The Classics Department, the Anthropology Department, the English Department, The Engineering Department, The Elam School of Art, The Law School, The Computer Studies Department, The Medical School, The Elephant Decapitating School, The German Department, PhilSoc, The Winnie The Pooh Club, The Drama Club, The Terrorist & Suicide Bombers Club, The Dragon Debating Club, The Department of Giovanni Postmodern Thinking, and many others were enraged or in terrible or huge high dudgeons either to be mentioned or not as the case was or may, or may not, have been, as the case was, or was not, the case, as presented, I's dotted T's crossed, ad infinitum, or not - ceteris paribus, ad aeternam est, nihil bastardum carborundum, in Patris Filiis; et cetera et cetera...

11:47 pm  
Blogger Jack Ross said...

It was a great occasion, Maps. The students (and I) were thoroughly appreciative of the trouble you took. & they all breathed a perceptible sigh of relief when they saw it wasn't going to be yet another "neo-Spockian" lecture by yours truly ...

I'm putting up a link to your post from the course website.

Our next guest will be Michele Leggott, talking about other applications of the "Life Writing paradigm" ...

8:53 am  
Blogger Giovanni said...

I already have such a "book" it is called The Infinite Poem - there are an infinity, perhaps Cantor's countable infinities - or one of or all of - of possible "narratives".

And I have Queneau's One hundred thousand billion poems book - let's do swapsies.

The Department of Giovanni Postmodern Thinking

Noticed my restraint in not making a comment to that effect regarding the whole shuffling of the cards idea? I had to positively bite my fingers.

Our next guest will be Michele Leggott, talking about other applications of the "Life Writing paradigm" ...

Cool. Is she bringing her tokotoko? She passed it around at a reading a month or so ago and the thing is *heavy*. I've been kind of wondering if she takes it everywhere she goes now - as in "don't mess with the poet laureate!"

9:02 am  
OpenID artandmylife said...

Michelle coming to lecture?? I am so envious of your students Jack. Sheesh extramural sucks

9:32 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Giovanni - the "book" is very "postmodern" - actually it's not really - it's conceptual - in fact it was in a class taken by Leggott, Curnow, Edmonds and Roger Horrocks that I wrote in my journal - "I want to do a huge work involving politics, art, music, ideas and in fact, everything!" - Leggott commented that there was at least one such work - Zukofsky's "A" - which I have since read - partly - I studied M L's book on his "80 Flowers" and the book on L.Z by Scroggins and one on "A" by Barry Ahearn: everything in fact - so I began playing around with my "project" in 1992 but... it has changed a lot and is mainly ideational! By not actually putting it into a book it can take on Protean forms!! And its saves paying for ink etc or reduces costs of printing! But Maps published parts of my ramblings in his avant garde and very postmodernist (and quite original) SALT mag he and some friends did in the 90s... before Comrade Maps got political (after a violent Wittgenstein jag) or sociological and so on...

My "postmodernism", such as it is, has come via critics and reading "An Intro to Poetics Theory" by Eagleton and reading about and the works of the Language poets...a lot of the theory is beyond me though - but interesting and stimulating ideas abound!

But I thought you would appreciate having your own Department!!

[I must get hold of the Queneau - it is in English? - Jack will have read it as he has read everything ever published...]

11:42 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

"art and my life" you could probably go to the lecture's of Leggott - or others - I used to sit in on all sorts of lectures - once I sat through an interesting lecture on biochemistry and cell biology, some lectures on art, and I also once "gate crashed" (Liz Maw who has since become quite a significant artist/writer was there also (I knew her from giving readings at Poetry Live)) ... tutorials held by Leggott, Edmonds and Robert Creeley when he was here...the English Dept are pretty laid back and keen to see others interested in what they are doing...

Creeley gave some very interesting lectures...

I haven't attended for sometime as finished a degree in 1994...but if I had more energy I would wander into the Uni - even maybe take one paper... I think you also, as an extramural student, have access to the main library facilities - which are great at A.U.

You could probably wander up to Massey...and gate crash Dr Ross's semi-Spockian lectures...

11:57 pm  
Blogger BenjaminL said...

How can one cite the Webbs as models for anything with a straight face?

2:55 pm  

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