Skip to content

Response to Review no. 825

Ian Gwinn’s review of my book is generous, thoughtful and nuanced; it has made me reconsider and recalibrate my thinking about various issues, for which I thank him.

He has a clear sense of what I was intending with the book, that is, to challenge and stimulate debate about a wide range of ‘public’ / popular history issues, rather than to present a set of principles; indeed, whilst coherent and sophisticated, I always hoped that the book would not in any way close off debate or seek to be exhaustive. It began as an argument (even a polemic), but one that demanded dialogue, and in my discussions with a number of scholars from various disciplines it has continually developed (and is evolving), which is great. I am glad that Gwinn thinks I will ‘raise levels of anxiety amongst historians’, and, at the very least, provoke debate (and dissent).

I think Gwinn rehearses my arguments extremely well, so I’ll just focus on the issues he raises. I do concur that there is a tendency – probably imported from cultural studies – to see forms of knowledge and cultural practice as liberating and celebratory. Modern cultural forms often do not have political traction and emphasise concerns we might consider conservative. Similarly, I accept that – to make my point more bluntly – I maybe overemphasise the binary between public history and academic history.

Furthermore, Gwinn asks has ‘the epistemological status quo been challenged?’ Well, firstly, my point was – we don’t know, because there is so little work in this field, so why don’t we try to find out – and secondly, possibly not, but surely a shift in the frames of engagement and interface necessitate at least a remodelling? I wonder (see below) whether the issue is that I’m looking at the UK, where popular history is often  politically inert and often quite neutral; work that is ongoing in, for instance, Australia, might point to a more complicated – although less distinctive and easy to understand – set of issues. One further avenue to explore might be the ethics of popular history – an investigation that would impact upon this central question of epistemology. I’d like to consider this further, and also to engage with some of the classic work about epistemic violence and representational trauma such as that of Foucault, in a more theoretically-minded consideration of popular history. At the same time, my current work on the historical novel suggests to me that popular cultural historical product has for several centuries provided a space of complication, innovation and dissent for the ways in which society conceptualises its past.

One of the main issues of contention that I have with the book, as it stands, is that within the constraints of space I was unable to meditate in any depth on how public history works in other contexts, such as Europe or the USA. There is a burgeoning field for this kind of transnational, globalised/glocalised study and I would like in future to be able to bring this set of contexts in. The other main area of weakness is on the material side, with little attention paid to the practical development and production of television, for instance. Again, this will be addressed in future work.  I think with a great understanding of these two elements, with the addition of the great work that is going on currently in practitioner and audience analysis, we will be able to answer some of the bigger questions Gwinn asks here.