The Bike Shed of History

I was once told a story about Richard Feynman. He had just won his Nobel Prize for his solution to Quantum Electrodynamics, and was seated next to some potentate or other at the awards dinner.

He introduced himself.

“Oh,” she said, “you’re one of the winners. In what field?”

“In physics.”

“Oh well, nobody knows anything about that, so we can’t talk about it.”

“On the contrary!” Feynman replied, “It’s because some people do know something about it that we can’t talk. It’s only the things nobody knows anything about that we can discuss.

So, weather? Social problems? Psychology? International finance?”

To this list, I add: History.

(Pseudo-)Feynman was describing “bikeshedding,” also known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. When confronted with a problem beyond their perceived abilities, people tend to focus on the smaller, trivial issues they think they can grasp and solve.

We call it bikeshedding because “Parkinson observed that a committee which was to approve plans for a nuclear power plant spent the majority of its time on discussions about relatively trivial but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike-shed, while neglecting the non-trivial proposed design of the nuclear power plant itself.”

It will not come as a surprise to anyone in academia when I say that the Humanities and much of the Social Sciences have a bikeshedding problem. Not in the sense that those of us in these disciplines engage in it—though we do—but rather that our disciplines are seen as bike sheds.

History seems simple. After all, it’s just the story of what happened in the past, right? And with the web, putting that story together has never been easier! All the information, right at your fingertips. Why bother with someone else’s interpretation? That looks sort of like a bike shed, and I know how to build a bike shed!

There has been much talk of in recent years regarding the relevance of many academic disciplines. Any answer to such questions must be grounded in an education in the complexities involved in those disciplines. The questions they ask take training to solve. It is just as difficult to write a good history as it is to put a rocket into space. And it happens about as often.

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Truth: A Manifesto

Zero: Objective Truth Exists

One: Objective Truth is Unknowable

A properly-executed empirical epistemology cannot make absolute positive assertions about Truth. Any non-empirical epistemology must be grounded in a priori assertions and does not therefore offer a self-contained system for defining Truth.

Note: Criticisms of empiricism based on human physiology are to be disregarded on Pragmatic grounds as being fundamentally unsolvable.

Two: Each Individual Knows Relative Truths

Each individual is the unique product of their experiences and therefore possesses a relativistic understanding of truth(s).

Three: Truth and Reality are not Coequal

Things which are not real or that have never happened can still be true. This is why we write and read fiction.

Four: Contradictory Relative Truths do not Negate Each Other

That something is relativistically true for one person does not prevent its inverse from being relativistically true for another person.

Five: No Relative Truth is More True Than Any Other

There is no method by which relative truths might be compared, and therefore one cannot be considered more true than another.

Note: The equality of relative truths does not prevent one being given precedence over another for any of a variety of reasons. It simply means that there is no objective justification for doing so.

Six: The Totality of Relative Truths Approximates Objective Truth

That is, relative truths are facets of objective Truth.

Thus: By incorporating relative truths into our understanding, we come to a better understanding of objective Truth. This understanding will remain perpetually imperfect, but every time we show it to be so, we improve it.

And so we come to wisdom.

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Just Deserts

Perhaps it’s the unavoidable baggage of a capitalist society, but we, culturally, like to talk a lot about what’s owed to us and what’s not owed to others. Mostly the latter, really.

Lots of words to do with owing have taken on something of a negative valence in recent years. We like to use these to describe things Others feel the should have. Take, for example, “entitlement.”

An entitlement is, generally, a thing people whom the speaker doesn’t like think they have a right to.

A right, by the way, is a thing I think I, or people I like, am owed a priori.

The social safety net—medicare, food stamps, low-income housing–for the poor is an “entitlement”. Even Social Security is an “entitlement,” as if you didn’t pay for it with 50 years of paychecks. The right wing in this country has long known how best to frame an argument.

It’s a new word. A racialized Word. And a weaponized Word. No one used it before 1940. After 1970, everybody started using it.

Do you think it’s an accident that this younger generation, the one at cultural odds with its parents, accidentally picked up the title of “entitled”?

So, most of the time, this language of “owing” is clear. I have a right to marry the person I love, i.e. morally, I am owed the same legal benefits as any other person who enters this subsection of the social contract.

Other times, it’s not so clear. At least, not so clear to me.

What does it mean, for example, that Israel has a “right to exist”? It has the ability to exist, and it has the ability to perpetuate its existence if it so chooses, but is that a “right”? Is Israel somehow “owed” existence? Or is any other nation-state? Does Iran also have a right to exist? Do these United States? Do I?

To me, such questions, and therefore such assertions, make little sense. I exist. I will, so long as it is within my power, defend my existence through such means as I see fit. Israel—and Iran—will do the same.

But that’s hardly the same thing as a right.

Closer to home, on the more concrete level: I was recently told in a conversation that “everyone deserves a safe space.”

This, too, is a puzzling. Is this person asserting the universal right to a careworn blanket and a cup of hot tea?** And how does one assert that right? What is the acceptable way to procure it if denied, to maintain it if threatened?

I want a safe space—more than one, if I can get it. But am I owed one?

**Individual safe spaces may vary. Offer not valid after your civilization has completed the Manhattan Project. Known to cause cancer in the state of California.

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Negative Theology

I rarely admit that I’m an atheist in public. Actually to be technical, I’m an agnostic – epistemology is important – but to the vast majority of people I might talk to, the distinction is meaningless.

My reluctance to do so is not, in point of fact, out of fear that I would be shunned or yelled at or in some way made to suffer for my (lack of) beliefs. If you’re the type of person who would behave badly towards someone because they disagree with you on God, you’re not someone I’m going to like anyway, and I would accept any negative animus from you as a point of pride. A person is to be judged by the quality of their enemies. Hated by the Daily Mail. You get the idea.

No, my reluctance stems from the fact that those who do admit their atheism in public are, almost universally, assholes.

Try to name a single public figure who has professed atheism who hasn’t subsequently been a gaping asshole on the subject of religion. Go on. I’m waiting.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Bill Nye. Richard Dawkins. The otherwise delightful Stephen Fry. The atheism of public intellectuals is aggressive and militant.

Case in point: this week, a young, black, Muslim made a clock and brought it to school. The administrative reaction, as you may have heard, does not reflect well on the state of racial and religious tolerance in these United States.

The breakdown of the popular reaction to this event fell into the expected liberal-conservative dichotomy. The talking heads have their marching orders, after all.

Except several well known public, liberal atheists broke ranks. I’m not going to name them; they don’t deserve the publicity. Google it if you want.

One said: “And this guy, this kid deserves an apology, because he wasn’t one of them… For the last 30 years, it’s been one culture that has been been blowing shit up over and over again.”

When I first read this, I was confused. Did this fellow somehow think a 14-year old was a member of the US armed forces? I thought for a second, and it came to me. And then I was angry. And then I was sad.

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The Medieval and the Modern, Part 3

(Part 1) (Part 2)

The war, as I have said, severed the connection to the medieval past through the brutality it inflicted on the land it touched and on those who participated in it. The stories of Captain Nevill and those like him—and there are many—continuously remind us of this fact. They tell us it is most emphatically not dulce et decorum to pro patria mori. Their irony remains a perpetual critique, and irony has defined the genre of war literature ever since.

After the fire comes new growth. A new approach to medieval history arose from the narrative wasteland of the postwar period. The history of the Middle Ages written after the Great War does not manage to entirely escape the nationalistic and antiquarian impulses of the prewar period, but it is aware and wary of them. The scope of the narrative expands, and for the first time, scholars begin to take a serious interest in those on the margins of their sources: heretics, the poor, women. The 1920s saw the birth of the Annales school and the beginnings of American medieval scholarship (the Medieval Academy of America was founded in 1925). With these changes came a new emphasis on original sources and, thankfully, citation. An example: in 1927, Ernst Kantorowicz published his great biography of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite certainly reflected the nationalistic fervor that defined Kantorowicz and the late Wiemar milieu that shaped him, but the book was not simply another ‘great man’ history. Kantorowicz sought after what the Annalistes had begun to call ‘mentalité‘—an understanding of Frederick as a person, of how the emperor saw the world, and not a simple listing of great deeds and decisive victories. And Kantorowicz could back up his claims. When critics dismissed his book as a Romantic flight of fancy—a criticism which could have been rightly leveled at almost any work produced twenty years earlier—Kantorowicz responded with a massive Ergänzungsband listing his sources and defending his arguments.

This radical shift in the scholarly approach to the medieval period was a response to the criticism leveled at the Romantic imaginary by the Great War. The old tropes and assumptions could no longer be taken as givens; irony had turned them all on their heads. The practice of history shifted to compensate. The broader and less nationally-oriented approach constituted an acknowledgement that much of what had come before had been myth-making and not fact-finding. But the old impulse behind historical inquiry, the one that sought out the legendary past as a pathway to individual and national identity, had fulfilled a very basic human need. The new history of the postwar period could not satisfy it; it needed another outlet. Unable to place such narratives in a historical reality, we turned to myth, and we called this myth ‘fantasy’ to to emphasize its distance from (historical) truth. This re-positioning is evident in the major works of the two great fantasy authors of the postwar period: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis is straightforward in his allegory. With The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he extracted an old foundation myth—that of Christianity itself—and transported it into the fantasy setting of Narnia. By thus extracting Christianity from the wrapping of reality, Lewis removed it from debates over the historical Jesus and other such attempts at justification, allowing what he saw as the universality of the Christian message to shine through. Lewis’ story never happened, but it is still somehow true. Tolkien, by contrast, professed that he “cordially dislike[d] allegory in all its manifestations, and have always done so since [he] grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. [He] much preferred history, true or feigned.” The Lord of the Rings is indeed a feigned history, Tolkien’s creation myth for the world. The events of The Lord of the Rings never happened; it cannot be history, and, although it is certainly imbued with Tolkien’s ethos and approach to life, it is not allegorical—we have the author’s word on that. Instead, this “feigned history” is Tolkien’s attempt to establish a pleasing origin story, a way of providing the sources of behaviors, ideas, and even words. Linguists have long puzzled over the origins of one of the two known surviving pre-Celtic words, ‘ond’, which means ‘stone’. Tolkien gave ‘ond’ an origin within his world, where we find it in Gondor (Stone-Land). Similarly, the bucolic lifestyle of the hobbits gave a precedent for the kind of English country life Tolkien cherished; the different bloodlines of Men did the same for the wisdom and brutality we now see in human nature. In other words, Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth was the creation of and justification for his identity. Just as the prewar historians used history, so Tolkien used fantasy.

In recent decades, the divide between historical reality and fantastical identity has started to collapse. More and more, we see an emphasis on the historicity of fantasy. The marketing of popular television shows such as Game of Thrones or Vikings emphasizes their realism (a term which is fast developing into a code word for blood and sex) and their historical inspiration. Yet the tension created by the Great War, the expectation of ironic laughter, still remains. We cannot allow history to have unironic heroism, but we simultaneously seek those founding myths, and thus we generate the tensions we have already observed in literature and film. To return to the example of The Kingdom of Heaven, each of the two characters we encounter provides an outlet for one of these necessities: Balin preserves the noble ideal, the Patriarch of Jerusalem renders delicious, expected irony. We leave our encounter with the medieval once again reassured of the nobility of our origins and the perversity of history.

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The Medieval and the Modern, Part 2

(Part 1)

We cannot resolve this disconnect, this cynical optimism about our past, but perhaps we can seek to explain it. To do this, we should look into the milieu where it first appears: the period surrounding the First World War. Due to the Romantic impulses of the late nineteenth century, many of the European men and women who would experience the War to End All Wars, and particularly those with a literary bent, were steeped in a medieval mythos cultivated by fiction writers and historians. The nationalistic tensions that defined the prewar period often manifested in writings about the medieval past, for it was to the medieval and not to the ancient that the learned turned when they wanted to tell the story of their origins. Those familiar with medieval historiography are all too familiar with the fact that most of the histories written in this period are the product of nationalist fervor. Some authors satisfied the antiquarian impulse and related the history, nobility, and antiquity of the author’s town, region, and culture, filling in family trees and writing biographies of the local notables. Others attempted to trace the origins of their own modern nation-state (or, in the case of sectarian factions, what they wished to make their own modern nation-state) to the tribes and polities that had inhabited a particular region after the fall of Rome, in much the same way as the medieval Frankish, Irish, and Scandinavian cultures had followed the Roman model and claimed descent from groups of Trojan refugees. This nationalistic impulse was so important to those who practiced it, so ingrained in their work, that the discipline has been unable to completely excise it a century later, where it now exists wrapped in (pseudo-)scientific attempts to reconstruct cultures and migrations through DNA analysis. In other words, in the prewar period, the medieval past became intricately linked with not only the identity of nations, but also self identity. The American fascination with the medieval—manifested most prominently in the architecture we have already discussed, but also in a spree of collecting books, art, and other relics—is at least in part an attempt to participate in this Old World co-option of history to create identity.

The First World War is responsible for the final destruction of the medieval, severing the cord and dividing it from the modern. Although we traditionally interspace various historical periods between the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the Great War—Early Modern, Enlightenment, Industrial, Romantic—there is no discontinuity between any of them. One slowly fades into the next, the new transforming and adapting to the old. Omnia mutantur; nihil interit—everything changes, but nothing is truly lost. The trauma of four years of trench warfare, by contrast, cause a chasm, an abrupt disjuncture in this continuous progression. The world that existed the mud and the blood of the Western Front was fundamentally changed, its past a lie that had not survived the destructive fire of battle.

Many images of the Great War show how it turned the storied battlefields of Flanders, lands where kings and their armored knights had waged noble and chivalrous combat with worthy adversaries, winning glory and renown, into a ruined moonscape. The War obliterated towns and villages that had existed for a millennium. The great cathedral at Reims, the site where the Frankish king Clovis and all his men had converted to Catholic Christianity on Christmas Day in 496, burned and was destroyed. Manuscripts, or even entire archives, were lost.

Nor was this destruction only physical. In the Romantic imaginary of the medieval, heroic deeds on the battlefield must have their chanson de geste, their praise in poetry and song. The Battle of Roncevaux had La chanson de Roland; the charge of the Light Brigade had Tennyson. But there are no great Romantic epics for the First World War. The reality of trench warfare would not allow it. As Paul Fussell has put it, there was a collision

“…between events and the public language used for over a century to celebrate [them]…Logically, there is no reason why the English language could not perfectly well render the actuality of trench warfare: it is rich in terms like blood, terror, agony, madness, shit, cruelty, murder, sell-out, pain and hoax, as well as phrases like legs blown off, intestines gushing out over his hands, screaming all night, bleeding to death from the rectum, and the like. Logically, one supposes, there’s no reason why a language devised by man should be inadequate to describe any of man’s works.” (Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 184.)

The only stories were grim, and the soldiers quickly “discovered that no one is ever interested in the bad news they have to report. What listener wants to be torn and shaken when he doesn’t have to be? We have made unspeakable mean indescribable: it really means nasty.”(Ibid.) In other words, the Great War destroyed the idea of battle as a chivalrous endeavor and the literary genre that went with it.

What replaced the old ideal was irony, an irony predicated on the author and audience’s understanding of what is expected from the traditional genre. But the finale upends tradition, destroys it, and mocks us for ever having found tradition true or useful. Captain Nevill bravely punts a football towards the Boche lines, encouraging his boys to put on a good show and signaling the advance, all with one swift kick. Captain Nevill is immediately shot dead. His men are massacred on the uncut wire by machine gun fire. The attack fails. The football is preserved in the Imperial War Museum with a little poem. (Ibid., 28–29.) So it goes.

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Avert your eyes


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