Dear Joe Corré: Please don’t

4305213891_88d17c1da0_oDear Joe Corré,

I read with concern that you plan to chuck all of your punk memorabilia onto a fire. And I wanted to write to ask you, politely, if you would mind awfully, you know, not. Please.

See, you may believe that punk has been co-opted and absorbed by the British establishment. And you may well think that Punk London, the National Lottery-funded programme of events and exhibitions, is an attempt to turn punk into a museum piece or a tribute act. In fact, you said that. You said: “Punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act.” You said it the other day in The Guardian. I read it.

Well, it is already a tribute act. You’re looking at someone who grew up during pop-punk. (I legitimately liked Blink-182 and I went to their gigs and everything. Yes, I know. Shudder.) It is also a museum piece. Loads of punk stuff is already in museums. Like this jumper designed by your parents, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. It was sold in 1976. It has been in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection for 22 years. You probably remember the V&A from when they did that richly successful exhibition of your mum’s work with all her punk clothing and whatnot. They did that 12 years ago.

Punk London isn’t just about letting middle-class people gawp at punk. Just because you think that punk is being recycled by the establishment to suit its own ends doesn’t mean that punk doesn’t belong in museums, nor that its cultural legacy should not be subject to the kind of critical inquiry that is made possible by museums, or historians. Punk has a history – one embedded in the history of our society and culture – and it is right that this history is understood and analysed. It helps us to learn who we are. We being the punks, we being the people. Does the (highly debatable) view that nothing like the Sex Pistols has existed before or since show that punk was a phenomenon that ruptured itself from cultural history, or from time? Of course it doesn’t.

You see, on behalf of historians everywhere, it makes us really upset when people destroy our sources. We fucking love sources. God, how we do. We love touching them, reading them, looking at them. But most of all – and this is where we really get horny – we love evaluating those sources in a bid to unpick assumed narratives of power handed down from the past and thereby democratising and radically transforming both our collective social understanding and our memories of who we are. We’re wild. We scrutinise the tales of the rich, critique the lies of the powerful, empower the voiceless. AND THAT’S ONLY ON THE HISTORY CHANNEL. What’s more punk than being a historian? Absolutely nothing. Honest to God, we’re great.

But we can’t do all of that cool shit when you destroy our sources. We need stuff. Now, there’s a field of historical inquiry that borrows techniques from anthropologists to study the past via the objects, things and stuff that humans made, used and owned – and humans made cultural expression through these things. Stop me if you know this. This stuff, this “material culture”, is cracking good. Not only is this a relatively new sub-discipline of history (about 20 years old, which in historian terms is fashionable as hell), this approach also offers exciting ways of studying the past that weren’t previously available to historians. So instead of just studying punk through, say, contemporary newspapers, TV coverage or photography, we can think about the things that were key to punk and elucidate their histories, their biographies.

Take, for example, that door handle you have, the one from the front door to Sex, McLaren and Westwood’s shop on the King’s Road. It’s a self-evidently valuable (I’m not talking £££) piece of punk memorabilia. It’s cool AF. It also tells us something about Sex that we can’t learn from photographs. For example, we can feel how heavy the handle is. You said it’s a metal handkerchief with a pink enamel logo saying ‘Sex 430’. I would guess that a metal handkerchief isn’t necessarily a very practical instrument with which to open doors. The weight of it, its shape, its size – these things tell us something about how Westwood and McLaren might have wanted us to feel about entering the shop. It might also tell us something about the processes that went into making it. Where did the metal come from? Who crafted it? How much were they paid? How old were they? Were they professionally skilled or a willing amateur? These questions help us to understand, among other things, the social, economic and political make-up of Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s. These questions help us to challenge the stories of the powerful that pretend that people like this don’t matter, that the histories of class, difference, protest and resistance are footnotes in the Oxford English Biography of Civilised Progress. That stuff is vital. That shit is dope. It is our history and it belongs to all of us.

As such, that handle belongs in a museum. Now, museums aren’t politically neutral. Of course they aren’t. Exhibitions and collections are very often expressions of power of various ruling groups and ideologies. For example, the British Museum’s forthcoming ‘Sunken Cities’ exhibition on ancient Egyptian cities lost underwater is likely to include a fair bit of Egypt’s past offered up as carnival for the white, western gaze. Indeed, some of Punk London’s events are barely-disguised and patronising admonitions of working-class culture. A quick look at the list of events will point to… hang on. What the… You’re on here! Your burning thingy! It’s right here on November 26. Listed as “Joe Corré burns his punk stuff”. You never said!

Well, now what? That’s sort of just proved my point. Now you’re a part of this tribute-act-museum-piece thing that you wanted to avoid. It’s almost as if you are part of the spectacle. Perhaps what this demonstrates is that the meaning of punk is far more complicated and far more powerful than you suggest. Punk isn’t a victim of capitalism; it needs capitalism. Its practices follow the most basic examples of capitalist enterprises. Produce, market, exchange, invest. Sell records, make clothing, spread the message. Far from being manipulated by the processes of capitalism for commercial gain, as you say, punks were heartily involved in commercial manipulations of their own. 

After all, Westwood and McLaren were traders. They marketised punk, put a barcode on it and sold it to kids on the Kings Road before anybody heard the first G-chord of Anarchy in the UK. And they did rather well out of it. So did you. Inherited wealth, by the way, whether that is cash or assets tied up in punk memorabilia, is pretty close to the definition of “establishment”. (Ah, to be 48 and white and male and rich and punk!) Moreover, selling was always part of what punk was about. It has always been ephemera. It has always been throwaway trash. That was the point. Was it not always about holding up a mirror to meaningless degradations of capitalism, to the horrific unreality of its depressing spectacle, to highlighting the life-affirming truth that under the modern world’s alienating machinations we have all become sick?

So you are right to identify that the monetary value of your memorabilia is a warped way of understanding its importance. You are right, too, that “we need to explode all the shit once more.” But please, please don’t. On behalf of historians everywhere, put down the petrol can. Step off the flaming barge.

Giving this stuff to a museum is possibly the most punk thing you could do with it. You can help to challenge the stories of the powerful, stories that pretend that the people who created and adored this stuff don’t matter, that the histories of difference, protest and resistance are without value.

In so doing, you offer people their own history. Their own, for them to claim, if they want it. Future, no future. Whatever.

Image: John Blower


What use is a museum of concepts to the historian?

Image: Daniele Prati

Why are there so few museums for the history of ideas? It is a question that sounds a little trite — like a first-year philosophy undergraduate who, after their first lesson in formative ontology, asks: ‘But is that desk really there?’ — or even unnecessary, wilfully ignorant or contrarian. Rather like those men who, annoyed at the spread of feminism’s so-called anti-male agenda coined the term ‘meninism’,[1] it appears to be missing the point. Ideas, after all, are not ‘things’ in the material sense; we do not experience ideas in the same way our philosophy student senses the desk in front of them. However, ideas are at least partially formed through our experience of the material, and material objects are often experienced through the lens of ideas.

Things and ideas have lives and biographies. As historians use materials to understand and unravel the processes of the past, so too do historians use ideas and concepts for similar ends. Historians working in material cultures use museums as part of a dialogue with the past. An eighteenth-century tobacco tin owned by a merchant in the East India Company, for example, has a genealogy, a lineage of owners, uses, values, transformations and movements through space. Its materiality is inherent to its value as a source for the twenty-first century historian; the material turn in cultural and social history towards the end of the last century has opened new roads of inquiry. A major partner in that has been the museum, helping historians to negotiate a new relationship with things, preserving items of significance, refreshing and revising historical narratives and presenting those things informed by historical scholarship.

But no such partner exists for intellectual history. Terms, concepts and ideas are as much a part of the fabric of human experience and yet there are no public presentations of their history and potency; there is no exhibition for ‘authority’, no museum of ‘liberty’, or ‘property rights’.

In particular, while the teaching of intellectual history is dominated by political thought, the presentation of those ideas, perhaps influenced in the UK by Quentin Skinner and the Cambridge School, remains textual and linguistic. Too often, when historians talk about the history of ideas, they actually mean the history of a bunch ideas that fall roughly within the field of study of the humanities or social sciences. There is seldom much of a look-in for physics, biology and engineering, for Hawking’s Brief History of Time, say, within a tradition of intellectual history dominated by the study of liberal political thought and its landmark texts.

A new approach to the display of the history of ideas could transform the field, renegotiating lines of demarcation, revisiting key texts and thinkers in visual, metaphorical, allegorical ways.[2] Opening to the public the scholarship of intellectual historians could help to reverse or renegotiate the ahistorical assumed hegemony of concepts like ‘human rights’, ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ as timeless ideals handed down to us from the Greeks (of the British Museum). ‘People don’t realize how much they are in the grip of ideas’, Saul Bellow wrote. ‘We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.’[3]

Can we be so sure that the material and the immaterial are so different? George Berkeley, a late seventeenth-century philosopher, questioned whether material things were really things at all, instead reasoning that material objects depend on minds to perceive them. Berkeley held that ‘we perceive qualities, not “things” or “material substances”, and that there is no reason to suppose that the different qualities which common sense regards as all belonging to one “thing” inhere in a substance distinct from each and all of them’.[4] This reasoning is valid. The concept of the ‘thing’ is unnecessary to our perception of its qualities or its ‘thingness’. Berkeley also holds that there are unperceived objects, since some things in reality are unperceived, and that when a thing is perceived we ‘mean something more than that it occurs.’[5]

Bertrand Russell, however, doubted Berkeley’s idealism: ‘[A] mind and a piece of matter are, each of them, a group of events. There is no reason why every event should belong to a group of one kind or the other, and there is no reason why some events should not belong to both groups; therefore some events may be neither mental nor material, and other events may be both. As to this, only detailed empirical considerations can decide.’[6]

Berkeley had a profound influence on problems in twentieth-century philosophy, such as subject-object quandaries[7] and perception, and his valuable insights are relevant for the present discussion. As events mental and material cannot satisfactorily be separated by our perceptions, the practices of material history, which operate among these relations, can be modified and informed by a new approach to monumentalising ideas in the form of a museum. Considering how museums have been conceived in conceptual spheres, it will be possible to locate ‘museums of ideas’, metaphorical or otherwise, and argue for the value of such projects.

The conceptual museum has been developed by artists. Artists collecting art has a long history but, Kynaston McShine writes, ‘it has relatively recently expanded into the idea of making a museum of one’s own’, that is, in ‘applying museological practices to the field of art.’[8] Often requiring neither a permanent location nor a permanent collection,[9] artists have helped to pioneer the ideational museum.

Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum (1965-1977) was ‘a freestanding structure containing a collection of fictionalized objects (some found and altered, others created by the artist)’. These included foods, body parts, tools and souvenirs. The museum was ‘a comment partly on collecting (the selection’s combination of irrationality and obvious system throwing the whole practice into question) and partly on the ingenious, yet inane, mass of mechanically reproduced material that floods our society’.[10]

Susan Hiller’s From The Freud Museum (1991-96), a collection of fifty cardboard boxes containing personal objects belonging to the artist, allowed her collection, ‘a construct of the artist’s imagination’, to become ‘a personal epic with biographical, archaeological, and political elements that move the spectator through a gamut of intellectual and emotional tonalities, from the banal and sentimental to the academic and metaphysical.’[11] Hiller succeeded in raising a fundamental issue of the museum, for both the curator and the visitor, McShine, writes, that is ‘the need for visitors to establish their own rapport with what is presented and to create for themselves a unique, personal poetic experience.’[12] Indeed this personal experience is one of metaphysics, envisaging the item one perceives in contexts other than the one in the current collection; the visitor traces the item into their imagination, dematerialising the thing, giving it impermanence and taking it from (perceived) mind-independence to something intellectually real. As these artists have shown, the conceptual museum has us dematerialising its collection, putting the multifarious thingness of the things at the heart of the collections. Ideas are at the core of the museum.

Reinhart Koselleck, the German historian who pioneered conceptual history, was arguably such a collector. Along with Werner Conze and Otto Brunner, he co-edited the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Basic Concepts in History: A Historical Dictionary of Political and Social Language in Germany, 1972-1997), a multi-volume encyclopaedia in intellectual history which charted the genealogy and development of concepts in (not exclusively) political thought such as “solidarity”, “anarchy” and “ideology” in the context of their historical meanings.

Koselleck, in his entry on “crisis”, in the third volume, sought to reappraise the usage of “crisis” in the modern period as a descriptor of temporal semantics, conveying a certain human drama or an end point. He compared the term’s use in an Ancient Greek context, identifying the root of the word (“krisis”) to mean, roughly, a moment of diagnosis by a doctor. Its negative connotations, as it is taken in a modern context to mean a dangerous state in which an individual or society may be at risk, developed historically, coming to mean in the Middle Ages (in the Christian world) something eschatological, used to describe a telos in which human history would come to an end. In the age of revolutions in Europe, “crisis” came to mean a political disaster but one subject to rational prognosis, one which required the cognition of probabilities, as politics prepared for the future; it came to mean something mundane, a man-made problem resolved by man as opposed to a spiritual one resolved only by the awesome destructive power of God.[13]

The Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe functions a little like a museum. We can see Koselleck’s processes of collection across eight volumes and 122 concepts, his mode of curation, citing concepts alphabetically (Volume 1: A—D, and so on) rather than by theme or period and his method of representation, displaying his concepts in textual form, attempting to defeat the reductivism of such a collection via an engagement with the complexity of the concepts, using economic and philosophical approaches to historicise the concepts and their changing semantics.[14] It is a museum devoid of the material, but operates on the same plane as a museum.

Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk (Arcades Project, 1927-1940), a substantial body of works on urban life in nineteenth-century Paris was, though never finished, a significant critique of bourgeois consumer culture. Benjamin reproduced the nineteenth-century Parisian arcade in a palimpsest of images and short aphorisms. Benjamin sought to present quotations from others alongside discussions of his own, categorising these insights into groups as apparently disparate as ‘photography’, ‘Baudelaire’, or ‘progress’.[15]

A material historian might take a particular interest in Benjamin’s interest in commodities by which he historicises the modernist era (and pre-empts the postmodern one[16]). Conceived as a Marxist analysis of urban commercialism and space (and supported, in stipends, by Theodor Adorno for that reason), it is a work profoundly embedded in tensions of temporality, concerned as Benjamin was with the experience of time in the nineteenth century. His grouping of reflections is undoubtedly a form of curation, inspired by his concern with contemporary efforts to exhibit materials. World exhibitions, he wrote of the Exposition Universelle (World Exhibition) in Paris, ‘glorify the exchange value of the commodity. They create a framework in which its use value recedes into the background. They open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted.’[17] Benjamin saw the commodity as impossible to imagine without its conceptual framework. His ‘museum’ of the arcades can be read as a project in the history of ideas.

A more recent example of such a curation is in the work of Orhan Pamuk. The Nobel Prize-winner’s Masumiyet Müzesi (The Museum of Innocence, 2008), is a fictional ‘museum’ within a 2008 novel in which Kemal, the male protagonist, attempts to aid his emotional pain at separation from his lover, Füsun, by collecting objects important to his memory of her. Each object comes to represent a temporal moment in their relationship, often a moment of happiness for Kemal. He then displays these items in Füsun’s home, after they are again separated, as a ‘museum of innocence’. Influenced by Milan’s Bagatti Valsecchi Museum, a reconstructed home made from found objects from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Pamuk created a museum of his own, based on the one in the novel, in Beyoğlu, Istanbul. The museum has a collection of items that in some way represent the period in Istanbul in which his novel is set, containing the ephemera of everyday life, minute conversations with the rules of existing culture, a dialectical process that Certeau might call the ‘procedures’ or ‘tactics of consumption’.[18] The novel and the museum are as one,[19] to be considered as partners in our experience of his work. ‘Still,’ Pamuk writes, ‘words are one thing, objects another. The images that words generate in our minds are one thing; the memory of an old object used once upon a time is another. But imagination and memory have a strong affinity’.[20] Indeed, the imagined (not to mention to fictional) is key to Pamuk’s concept of the museum, his mode of presenting memory and time. The immaterial, for him, is as crucial to the museum as its physicality.

Such a museum of concepts or ideas can have value to historians in pedagogical, genealogical, proprietary, representational, temporal and metaphysical terms.

The first use for a museum for ideas would be in pedagogy, in the simple instruction of ideas and concepts to historians and the public as a means of presenting the past. In transferring knowledge in philosophy, law, politics, science, culture, art, and beyond.

The second use would be in reconstructing new genealogies of fundamental ideas and concepts which would inform both the study and practice of history and also our social memory, our communal relationship with the past. Genealogy, Michel Foucault wrote, must ‘record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous family; it must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history — in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts; it must be sensitive to their recurrence, not in order to trace the gradual curve of their evolution, but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different role[s].’[21] A museum of ideas could help to track the development, emergence and dominant powers that have helped to shaped the critical concepts of modernity.

Another use for such a museum might be to reflect on the proprietary rules within a ‘material’ museum and consider how this may be similar to the ownership of particular concepts and ideas, the persons and nations that may seek to claim an idea for their own. A reflexive dialogue between historians of the material and the intellectual, it would open up new borders of inquiry as material historians sought to unravel the possession of museum items within conceptual frameworks.

A further technique for the historian may be in considering how a museum of ideas presents its content: which ideas are missed?[22] As historians consider museums for their representation of artefacts, so too might they consider the role of curators in hosting the immaterial.

Furthermore, concepts in (for example) political thought are in certain ways invented, designed or developed to remedy changing conceptions of temporality. Scholarship in the shifting relation of time to ideas – which began in earnest with Koselleck – is of vital importance to historians.[23] Just as the material historian appeals to a concept of time at all stages of reading a particular text, so too must we understand the temporal forces which act at all times upon that text.

The final approach may be to consider the way metaphysics shapes material history. The evaluation of a text, in the mind of a material historian, analysing mind-independent things, appeals to metaphysics, to physicality beyond sensual experience. Metaphysics in this way helps to do the history but it is largely lacking from the narrative so-called, of history. The ideational has spheres within the material world.

As many material historians might say that some things in the past are not mind-independent, what thing, not of myself, can I study as a thing if it is part of myself? History, after all, is not biography. Things that we cannot perceive cannot be studied by material historians, but they are part of the tools of the historian. Things that can be both perceived and imagined can be so studied. Those things perceived by the material historian are a soup of interpretations, politics and contexts; they are appeals to concepts that may or may not be in relation to something mind-independent.

The museum of ideas has a vital role in stitching these paths together.



[1] Cf. ‘What is Meninism?’, May 13, 2007 <> (Accessed January 9, 2014). ‘Lads, It’s Time for Some Meninism’, The Huffington Post, January 10, 2014 <> (Accessed January 16, 2014) is a recent example.

[2] On how museums have played a significant role in shaping intellectual life, see Steven Conn, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[3] Sanford Pinsker, Conversations with Contemporary American Writers (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1985), p. 14.

[4] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London and New York: Routledge, 2004; 1946), p. 592.

[5] Ibid., pp. 597-598.

[6] Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 599.

[7] On the subject-object dilemma in relation to things, see: Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York and London: Routledge, 1993).

[8] McShine, ‘Introduction’, in The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1999), pp. 11-23, in Bettina Messias Carbonell (ed.), Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 506-520

[9] Cf. Marcus Broodthaers’s conceptual museum Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, 1968-1972).

[10] McShine, ‘Introduction’, p. 509. See also: Malcolm Baker and Brenda Richardson (eds.), A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1997).

[11] McShine, pp. 509-510. See also: Christian Boltanksi’s Archives (1987) exhibition.

[12] Ibid., p. 510.

[13] Koselleck, ‘Crisis’, Journal of the History of Ideas (2006), Vol. 67, No. 2, pp. 357-400; Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (London: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1979).

[14] Niklas Olsen, History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012).

[15] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991).

[16] Hannah Arendt (ed.), ‘Introduction’, in Benjamin, Illuminations (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), pp. 1-58.

[17] Benjamin, The Arcades Project (London: Belknap Press, 1999), p. 7.

[18] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol: 2 (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998; 1980), p. 108.

[19] The book contains a ticket printed on one of its pages which is stamped at the door of the museum for free entry.

[20] Pamuk, The Innocence of Objects (New York: Abrams, 2012), p. 18.

[21] Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in John Richardson and Brian Leiter (eds.), Nietzsche (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 341.

[22] Stephanie Moser, ‘The Devil is in the Detail: Museum Displays and the Creation of Knowledge’, Museum Anthropology (2010), Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 22-32.

[23] Koselleck, ‘Modernity and the Planes of Historicity’ in Futures Past, pp. 3-21.


Image: Daniele Prati

Outrage at Michael Gove shows that historians trump scientists at indignation

© Policy Exchange
© Policy Exchange

IT is not very often that historians get to act like scientists. History is a field of interpretation, nuance and theory, and while evidence is the blood in its limbs, a historian would rarely claim to use a word like “true” in same way as a scientist.  Gravity, evolution: true. Agincourt, Pankhurst: contested. A crude summation, but the sciences and humanities operate in different (though not exclusive nor always competing) planes of experience.

So it was with some relish this week that historians got to pull out the “not true” card, stored often in the back pocket for Holocaust deniers and let-them-eat-cakeists, to attack Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, for his comments on World War One. Scientists dip into that pocket with greater ease to batter climate change deniers, Creationists, proponents of Intelligent Design, and so on. This time, Professor Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and Tristram Hunt MP, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, led the charge from the historians’ trenches.

Gove said that interpretations of World War One as a ‘misbegotten shambles’ are left-wing myths, propagated by Marxist academics and Blackadder, ubiquitous in school classrooms, and that the war was ‘just’, fought to repel German imperialism. It is a view as simplistic as it is contrived, contrarian point-scoring designed to out-muscle Labour in the mawkish, national festival of commemoration to come in 2014, imbibed with a zest of anti-European paranoia and British protectionism: let’s have our memorial. Which party can appear the most British? It was, after all, a British war. Britain alone. Not the 17 other nations who sent soldiers to the Triple Entente. Not the Australians who, having not been granted the right to declare war by the British empire (so much for German imperialism), were forced to send thousands of combatants as part of the war effort, many of whom were sent to a slaughter at Gallipoli by broadly inept British generals.

As Evans pointed out, the British fought alongside a regime, in the form of Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia, that was arguably more despotic than the Kaiser’s Germany as was no more a democracy than their enemy. In 1914, only 40% of adult males had the vote – unlike 100% of Germans. Nor do the left run criticism of the war: historians Niall Ferguson and Max Hastings – not so much your average anarcho-syndicalists – have been largely critical of British commanders.

Still, lets not let facts get in the way of history. Or truth. While Gove’s attack on how we teach history is welcome – Blackadder is a text, not necessarily an authority –  and he is right to point out that the caricature of the war’s commanding officers, like Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘scarlet Majors’ who, after sending men over the trenches to be mown down, would ‘toddle safely home and die – in bed’, may not be all that helpful for historical scholarship. Iconoclasm is a valid tool of the historian. But, crumbs, Michael. I think most historians had worked that out. In the 1920s.

Reaction to Gove shows us much. Historians enjoy the opportunity to be unequivocal, to deliver a helping of outrage based on a serious body of all but indisputable evidence. Scientists, though it is easier for them, are not always as good at this. They have more on their plate, perhaps, with homeopathy, left-side, right-side brain nonsense, Darwin, global temperature rises etc. Our planet burning itself up with fever is largely more important than whether the Wild West really was a bit like the Wild West or not like the Wild West or in part like the Wild West (and whether that semiotic approach is at best limited, and does it denigrate materialist interpretations? And what about socio-economic factors? History is fun).

Perhaps scientists are spread more thinly, battling the fires of misinformation across the world such that historians’ responses to Gove seemed more dramatically audible because they were so concentrated. Perhaps, as Professor Lisa Jardine says, it’s that humanities graduates run the media and can more readily digest and transmit arguments within intellectual history than developments in particle physics. But Gove gave historians the chance to enjoy a run of indignation, harnessed to a rare sighting in history: something that looks a bit like historical truth.

Unmeatly Meditations

The full title of this essay is Unmeatly Meditations, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Utilitarianism and Love Lentils for no reason other than that is funny.


Beware my will to power
Beware my will to power

LAST month I stopped eating meat. The days of the calendar year clicked into October 1 and I surrendered my love of bacon, steak, chicken fajitas, smoked salmon and ham and cheddar panini. The plan was to give up for a month, to see if I had the required mental fortitude to eschew pepperoni pizzas. After twenty-plus years of eating meat – and eating it well, often, encheesed and with abandon – it was a tough ask. (I later found out that National Vegetarian Month in the US takes place in October; a happy coincidence.)

Why? Nobody asks socialists ‘why?’ Or act consequentialists. Or presbyterians. Alongside atheism, what other political, epistemic or ethical position seems to require such perennial, torrential and cyclical social justification? Sometimes the ‘why?’ takes the form of disbelief – usually from meat-eaters (now known to me as shmucks, or lesser folk) questioning my voracity: just how could you forego a bacon sandwich or roast lamb? Often, and encouragingly, the ‘why?’ is followed by a ‘how might I…?’ or a broad agreement with some general conception of what vegetarianism means in an ethical context, viz. I like animals, eating them might not be very nice, perhaps I shouldn’t. (Also, the ‘so why not vegan?’ question was common, one for which the answer was always along the lines of chickens, hatching and counting. It’s in the pipeline.)

The month proved tricky. Full disclosure: there was one day in week one when I opted for prawn toast at the work canteen, plated it, carried it back to my seat and performed its mastication end before realising the error, so I added an extra day to the month-goal. The activity of eating out was (and is) often exasperating as a vegetarian. Challenge: find a veggie burger anywhere, in any restaurant, that is not “spicy”. Flavour cast asunder, swapped with chilli powder. It’s not always so glum. Quorn savoury eggs, meanwhile, are, surprisingly, deeply great.

Why do it at all, even for a month? A number of reasons shape this answer. A very good friend whom I miss dearly inspired me to live a more generous life without causing pain or discomfort to other animals and while it has taken some years to follow his lead it is of no small pleasure to traverse the same road. It is also important for someone of near-unrelenting fatness to make positive choices about the foodstuffs that enter their mouths. Paying more attention to what and how to eat via not eating meat has been enlightening in this regard.

Furthermore, it became, for reasons made clear below, increasingly difficult to conceive of our partner species as something other, as merely thinged objects with which we relate but do not commune in ways that share our common vitality. It became impossible to see foxes in the car park outside my house, scraping through bins, through the refuse of capital, the disregard of the world, turning our economics into their food, finding life-giving in the shittest of human spaces, without considering them to be entities of inconceivable brilliance, equal to and as evolved in every way as the pie-eating, crud-discarding, over-stuffing, inconsiderate flesh sacks from whom they reappropriated their means to be alive. Can I eat you? Can I chew through your beefy cousin, your porcine great aunt? A month proved not to be enough time in which to avoid the killing of utter majesty.

And, sure, I read some Peter Singer, too. His environmental statements on vegetarianism are well-known, summarised neatly in an essay of 1997 commenting on the McLibel case:

“To convert eight or nine kilos of grain protein into a single kilo of animal protein wastes land, energy, and water. On a crowded planet with a growing human population, that is a luxury that we are becoming increasingly unable to afford.”

His consequentialist argument is both very convincing and very troubling, a conversation with which I have tried to engage for a number of months, someone with whom I have tried to think. One argument of his, broadly construed, is that there is no morally justifiable way to remove or ignore animals from our moral considerations in that they can clearly suffer and, through our consciousness, we can interpret this suffering. Any being that does not wish to suffer, and acts to avoid pain, deserves not to have its suffering increased.

This requires us to make some assumptions about the human interpretation of animal behaviours. However, recent scientific work has shown correlations between analogous animal behaviour during pain-states and human behaviour. If an animal behaves in a way in which we interpret it as being in pain, we can monitor its vital signs and find out if anything detrimental is going on to get a sense of how to appropriate its behaviour. For example, if most mammals cower away it usually happens simultaneously with pupil dilation, increased sweating/panting, muscle tension, increased heart rate and an increased tendency for it to run away from the stimulus. All of these things happen during human fear-responses. We can therefore make a reasonable (though contested) assumption that the two are analogous, admitting that animals cannot speak to us and tell us that they are in pain, so we must fill in some blanks.

So we should not cause pain in beings if we are able to prevent such pain-giving. It is an argument utilitarian in form, taken to mean an ethical theory that considers the correct actions in a given scenario to be ones that avoid the giving of pain in favour of ones that increase the maximising of pleasure. And in relation to animals it is seductive: by not eating meat, by attempting to avoid producers or retailers which I know commit to the increased aggregate pain of animals, either in causing them to die or in the use of their products (e.g. eggs). But this is a moral argument that I reject in terms of human behaviours, so why consider it useful in relation to animals? Is it my own speciesism?

So hang on, Quorn-botherer, you might say; what’s wrong with utilitarianism? Happiness is considered a noble aim in moral actions, one that dominated philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the nineteenth century and beyond. Many associate some kind of goodness with being happy with one’s family, with one’s conscience, and so on. But while this foregrounding of happiness is, indeed, valuable to many, it betrays the naturalistic spirit of human action.

Utilitarian arguments place the finding of happiness, or pleasure, at the centre of the “good” action. But “good” people, that is to say, the best people, actualise self-overcoming; via their creative, passionate and destructive actions, they forge new values that celebrate and protect life and change; they destroy “being” as something antithetical to true human experience. Those who can see and act beyond the injured spirit of utility, the meek veneration of the defeated, those who, as Nietzsche would say, become, are the good. And while their actions may create unhappiness, pleasure and happiness are irrelevant in the creation of good humans. So, to be a good human, I need not consider my actions in relation to the happiness/pleasure/pain of the animal. There may be another way.

Is utility realistic? Rational action, as our Enlightenment brothers, our Lockeans and Humeans, might contest, is the root of human action. For we, given the right opportunity and circumstances, would act in rational ways to achieve x and y ends. As Plato displayed in Meno, this form of thinking is open to all: the very wisest or the least-educated. In reality, humans are something of a psychological lucky dip; a stew of emotions, impulses, desires, fears, misinformation and irrationalities which merely take the form of the “rational” when we attempt to give an explanation for a particular choice in a given selection of alternatives. How often is it true that one has thought of surrendering meat eating, with the best of intentions, only to find that the bacon sandwich smells too irresistible, that the roast lamb looks too juicy? These are not always rational impulses. Human action is too varied; we are vast, we contain multitudes.

In Nietzsche’s collection of essays, Untimely Meditations, the second essay, entitled ‘The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, contains an invocation of the problem of human temporality. Our relation with time, he argues, is unhealthy. We allow the past to enslave us. In over-historicising – in placing too great a value on our antecedents, our social memories – we deny the forces within us that affirm life. The animals, on the other hand, do no such thing, he argues. Now, Nietzsche is wrong about this. Proper wrong. Wrong as fuck. Book of Genesis wrong. Apes, dolphins, wolves are just a selection of species who display a social memory, whose actions as part of a group have social connotations and who in some way grasp some primitive aspect of temporality. But what Nietzsche is getting at, and where he is valuable for us meat-deniers, is in showing that our animal cousins are far closer than we, for the most part, in affirming life, in allowing for the passionate processes of natural will to dominate our actions. In thinking unhistorically, we can use history for a revolutionary purpose: divorce ourselves from it and start anew.

So don’t eat meat. Don’t pretend that either the animal’s happiness or its will to life are worth less than yours. Animals are healthier than us; they are more “good” in the sense that they act more often according to their irrational, creative wills. They are more full of vigour, of memento vivere, as Nietzsche would say, the more beautiful for it.

“Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see; for, though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness – what they have, a life neither bored nor painful, is precisely what he wants, yet he cannot have it because he refuses to be like an animal… A leaf flutters from the scroll of time, floats away – and suddenly floats back again and falls into the man’s lap. Then the man says “I remember” and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever (UM, I).”

Some reading, so it please ye
Nietzsche, F., Untimely Meditations (trans: R. J. Hollingdale), 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1983).

Singer, P., Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. (New York, 1990)

––– Practical Ethics (Cambridge, 1993)

––– ‘A Vegetarian Philosophy’, in Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (eds.), Consuming Passions (Manchester, 1998), pp. 66-72.

My letter to Oxford: full-time courses price out the poor

Those of you who follow my writing (eagle-eyed, I imagine, with robust gag reflexes) may have already seen a blog I wrote about postgraduate funding for the Intergenerational Foundation. Long story short: I got in to Oxford for a master’s but I can’t go thanks to a combination of tiny savings, broke Mum, no loans, bonkers-competitive scholarships and Oxford requesting all £17,000 to be accounted for up front. Ho hum.

Today, I was sent an e-mail informing me of the inevitable: my offer to Oxford (Oriel College) will expire in 3 days, short of a sudden, enormous Monopoly-style bank error in my favour that means I can pay. The response I received from the College was this:

Dear Josh,

Thanks for your quick response.

I am sorry to hear that you have not managed to find any suitable support for your MSt and would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the best with your future studies.

Yours sincerely,

Admissions Officer

Evidently, it is not the fault of the admissions officer (whose name I have not published, just in case it’s all illegal or data protectiony or a bit that’s-how-they-got-Murdoch). But I was angry at the casual tone of the response. Sorry. Good luck for the future. All the best, old bean. It’s a tone which connotes normality, acknowledging without complaint that it’s an everyday truism that poorer applicants simply cannot get in to study at Oxford. Sorry, pal. Cuh. Whatcha gonna do, eh?

So I wrote a letter of complaint to the History Faculty, homing my ire in on the rigidity of the full-time degree structure which means students must find the full fees and living costs before they enrol – a structure which clearly benefits the rich (or rich-parented) at the expense of the poor.

Dear [Faculty Graduate Admissions],

I’m writing to express my disappointment that history courses at Oxford are not offered in a part-time format. I have been made an offer to start in September, but unless I find the required £17,000 for full-time study before Friday, my offer from Oriel will be withdrawn. I am an applicant from a low-income, single parent, working class family with no savings even close to the required costs for fees and maintenance. There are no student loans for postgraduates and with scholarships being so competitive (as well as not being means tested) poorer graduates are being shut out of postgraduate study at Oxford.

It is deeply exclusionary to expect all applicants to have that amount of money up front. Moreover, with respect, it is misguided and out of date. More and more graduates are turning to postgraduate study (a five-fold increase in the UK since 1990) as a means of furthering their education and of distinguishing themselves from the thousands of other graduates competing for the same jobs. Part-time courses would allow flexibility. Students would need only to find part of the fees before their course and could earn money alongside their studies. History courses at Oxford could be opened up to thousands more applicants from a variety of backgrounds, injecting new, exciting and dynamic experiences into the study and practice of history. Until that flexibility is possible, it can only mean a continuation of the hegemony in academia, and history, of white males from the middle and upper classes.

I hope that steps may be taken to this end so that future applicants are able to accept their places and enjoy the opportunity to study at Oxford.

Yours sincerely,
Josh White

I await a response.


Response from Oxford today (04/07) at 11:30am.

Dear Josh,

Thank you very much for this. I will pass it on and hope that your comments will be put to good use.

Please let us know if you need to withdraw from your place.

Best wishes,

[Faculty Graduate Admissions]