Privileging the Past

November 23, 2008

In my third post of the day…

A recent conversation about atheism and the privileging of faith, made me think about the privileged status the past has in our society. Things are so often justified on the grounds simply that they are old. In a particularly irksome example, the standard defence of prostitution on the grounds that ‘it’s the world’s oldest profession’ has been trotted out again this week in response to the criminalisation of men who use controlled/pimped/trafficked prostitutes.

Slavery also has a long pedigree. It doesn’t make it right.

The History of Emotions

November 23, 2008

I went to a very interesting workshop on Friday, discussing Roger Smith’s book, Being Human. It was organised by the History of Emotions group set up at Queen Mary University, in conjunction with the Wellcome Centre. They have lots of other seminars planned and I am quite excited about them. I hadn’t really thought of my project in scientific/medical terms before, but talking to people who are working on the history of emotions has opened up some new avenues. Perhaps I’m looking at the history of the emotions of history! This is probably too much of a new departure for my thesis but I’m currently very keen on moving in that direction afterwards…

Review: Waltz with Bashir

November 23, 2008

My full review of Waltz with Bashir is now online at the DFG Docs website:



November 18, 2008

I’ve just finished teaching a seminar, which a student said was ‘actually fun’. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or insulted!


November 13, 2008

I’ve recently been working on an article, based on the idea behind the post below on ‘The historical shiver’. I’m in the final drafting stage and am getting ready to submit it to a Journal (my first time).


Then, on Friday, someone pointed me in the direction of Carolyn Steedman’s Dust. It’s a wonderful book, which I unreservedly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it. But there it is. A beautiful, playful, engaging encapsulation of everything I was trying to say. She even follows the same trails – Freud, Derrida, Michelet. But of course it is far more than that, she weaves together so many strands – from a social history of dust, to a meditation on the meanings attached to rag rug. And all with a lightness of touch I can’t imagine ever matching.


So where to go from here? Part of me is encouraged that I managed to arrive at (some) similar points on my own, part appalled by the gulf between my writing and Steedman’s. Of course I can revise my article, making it more of a reflection on her study. But my point – the point I thought was mine alone now seems so sad, so pointless. Essentially, my article has turned to dust.   

Taking Liberties

November 11, 2008

I went to the British Library’s Taking Liberties exhibition on Saturday. it was incredible to see all those hugely important documents in one room. And so many of them were huge physically as well as politically/symbolically. These massive scrolls and sheets of vellum really show how our relationship with the written word has changed. They are imposing objects, not just working documents. My personal favourites were The Agreement of the People and Charles I’s death warrant. Also some of the suffragette material was amazing to see – particularly Emily Davison’s purse and return train ticket to London. 

All in all though (and bearing in mind the theme of this blog) I was surprised that I didn’t feel The Shiver. I stared and stared at them, trying to imagine the documents being touched, signed and sealed or the purse being dropped, but somehow it didn’t happen. Perhaps I tried too hard. They are all So Significant and presented in such numbers that in a way it’s hard to feel a connection in the way that you might seeing each individually.


Certainly deserving a second (and third) view though! 

It’s done!

November 5, 2008

I have very little to add to the vast amounts of commentary but felt I couldn’t let it pass without a note. The references to ‘making history’ and to ‘historic change’ are everywhere. There is an undeniable sense of laying history to rest – of overcoming its legacy. But at the heart of the celebrations is a strong element of commemoration. We don’t set past suffering and brutality aside, we carry it forward as a foil against which later achievements make sense.

Returning to The Uncanny

November 4, 2008

Having begun this blog with the discovery of The Uncanny on my doorstep (still no explanation btw), it’s time to return to it here….


The Uncanny – or ‘unheimlich’ / ‘unhomely’ – is associated with the repression of something which was once familiar. It manifests itself in strange returns, reappearances, doublings and hauntings. (Freud also connects it with the fear of castration and losing one’s eyes and with severed limbs but I’ve not processed the implications of that yet!)


It seems to me that there might be something uncanny about our interest in the past. Read the rest of this entry »

Progressive Nostalgia

November 3, 2008

A friend just sent an email raising the idea of ‘progressive nostalgia’. I thought I’d comment on it here.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Historical Shiver

November 3, 2008

It seems to be fairly standard to draw a dividing line between memory and history on the grounds that the former is affective and sensory and the latter critical and dispassionate. Even theorists who propose a ‘reconciliation’ between the two continue to see them as sitting at opposite ends of the spectrum on this matter.[1]


I accept that history and memory represent different ways of approaching the past. However, I am struggling with the idea of history as fundamentally non-affective and non-sensory. Conversations with colleagues suggest that I am not the only one to experience a shiver at opening an untouched box of archives.

  Read the rest of this entry »