to talk of many things
‘Tis the season. I have been conferencing, attending a workshop and a conference in the past fortnight which have both forced me to think very, very hard indeed. The two could not have been more different, but both have been hugely productive for a variety of reasons. What follows is my attempt to articulate what I have and am learning from both experiences.
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax
Passions of War, Ghent, 20th June
The first gathering was not, officially, a conference, but rather a workshop, one of a series of three being organised by the Passions of War, an AHRC-funded network exploring ‘the influence of war on constructions of gender and sexual practices, and how these constructions and practices have, in turn, conditioned the ways in which wars are waged, mediated, felt and understood’. We were a small group, no more than 20 in total, and formal proceedings were limited to a single day’s presentation and discussion. The event, the theme of which was ‘Identities’ took place in a single room at the Dr. Guislain museum, with all participants engaging with all the papers and joining in with vigorous and wide-ranging discussion.
And when I say wide-ranging, I mean wide-ranging. My own paper, which kicked things off, was an examination of why we need to explore the masculine identities of non-commissioned medical service personnel in the First World War, as well as those of wounded men and doctors. It formed part of a panel in which other papers explored nationhood, motherhood and death in war poetry (Marysa Demoor) and nostalgic conceptions of the Second World War in contemporary social and political discourse (Victoria Basham). A presentation on the now-closed War and Trauma exhibition was followed by an afternoon panel focusing on gender and citizenship in 18th-century conflicts, with papers from Marian Füssell, Stefan Dudink, and Simon Bainbridge. The day closed with a public lecture from James Wharton, including readings from his autobiography, Out in the Army.
On the surface, this range of papers might not seem to have all that much in common, other than the very broad theme of gender and war. They covered huge swathes of time, geography, media and disciplinary approach. Yet together they worked as jumping off points for intense and involving discussion. At the centre of the day’s debates, for me at any rate, was the question of the languages we use to talk about conflict, how that language is gendered and how it can and should be historicized. How does ‘shell shock’ translate into Dutch, and what are we saying if we don’t translate it? What does the changing meaning of ‘nostalgia’, from a nineteenth-century illness to a twentieth-century political tool tell us about the place of war in society? How do we analyse discourses and the literature of the past in ways which are both intellectually and historically rigorous, which speak to both the reality of past experience and the debates of today? The small group set-up of the workshop allowed these discussions to flourish, with ideas and connections developing in interesting and exciting ways across disciplinary, national and periodic divides.
While the formal procedures were enlivening, however, for me the most exciting discussions were those that happened between and around the formal sessions. It was, for instance, an honour and a pleasure to meet Holly Furneaux, whose forthcoming book on the masculinity of Victorian soldiers looks set to shape my own work in important ways. Indeed, on the back of the workshop she has sent me a copy of her chapter on Crimean stretcher bearers which I have been having a lovely time reading and engaging with this past week. Then there was the discussion I had with James Wharton at dinner (and much later into the evening than was probably sensible) about what motivates young men to enlist, how the memory and commemoration of a divisive conflict affects those who served in it, and the practical implications of the government’s current policy on military reserves. These are all issues that have arisen in my historical research; to explore their importance in a contemporary context was illuminating. And, in the end, as I traveled home on a very early Eurostar train from Brussels the following morning, the ideas that had been stimulated over the course of the day coalesced into a moment of inspiration about the argument my book is making and why it is significant. I had gone to Ghent with a paper that attempted to articulate the main argument of my introduction; I came home with the seeds of a conclusion.
Of cabbages and kings
Modern British Studies, Birmingham, 1st-3rd July
The second conference (and this one was a conference) was the Modern British Conference, held in Birmingham this last week. Organisationally, this could not have been more different from Ghent – 280 delegates, three days, 6 keynotes, four parallel panels each session – and my own contribution reflected this difference, being on the project to come rather than on my work at present. The sheer size of the conference meant that my own path through the various ways in which the rethinking of modern British studies is being addressed by contemporary scholarship was particular to me and my interests. It was, quite simply, impossible to attend all the panels that I would have liked to attend, at least not without learning the neglected art of being in two places at once.
The panels I did attend were excellent. Most were flat-out entertaining, many were innovative, all were thought-provoking. Standouts were those on ‘Interrogating British Boundaries’, which pushed me to think again about how I will approach the ‘Overseas’ section of the PIN 26 archive, ‘Money, Belief and Politics in Modern Britain’, where Sarah Roddy’s work in particular was highly suggestive about my methodological practice and the wonderful ‘Humour and Comedy in Modern British Studies’, where not only did Lucy Deplap’s exploration of anti-suffrage humour suggest an angle on hospital journals that I now plan to pursue further, but Peter Bailey gave a demonstration of conference paper presentation as performance that was as powerful as it was funny. I have never experienced a conference panel as joyful – this one, for all its potentially uncomfortable subject matter, was.
I was sad to miss panels on regional histories and creative histories, and it sounds as if panels on the 1970s, subcultures, and ‘The Future History of Race’ were all extraordinary experiences for those who did attend. However, I was able to get a flavour of all through Twitter, this being the most Twitter-active conference I have ever attended. Indeed, this was the first conference I have ever attended where live tweeting made sense, one where the sheer quantity (and quality) of online participation facilitated participation and discussion rather than distracting from it. The extent of online engagement, in addition to the normal face-to-face interaction of a large conference, was, however, more than usually exhausting. As intellectually exciting as it was, I’m not sure that level of critical engagement over three days is entirely healthy or productive. Given the many calls for self-care made throughout the conference, this may be a facet of conferencing that needs revisiting on a regular basis both by individuals and ‘twitterstorians’ collectively.
Of course, not all aspects were equally impressive, and I did come away with a number of reservations. The first of these was about an uncomfortable tendency to try to periodize Modern British Studies as a historic undertaking. James Vernon gave the most overt example of this in his keynote address, where he sought to define the field generationally, starting with the ‘generation of 1945’. I found this sort of grouping of scholarly endeavour, which also found expression in the focus on established scholars as opposed to PhD and early career scholars mildly alienating. As someone who has not had the opportunity to define myself as part of a generation, indeed has only just moved from the precariousness of a temporary contract to the security of a permanent position, I certainly don’t feel ‘established’, although I do feel the responsibility to support the intellectual endeavours of those in less secure positions within the academy. I was not clear where I and people like me fit into to this mapping of the professional field. And if we are going to talk about self-care and support within the profession, we do need to discuss issues that arise at different points in the life-cycle, not least the caring responsibilities that impact on the time and energy of so many mid-career scholars, a subject that, as far as I was aware, was simply never mentioned.
The second issue to disturb me was the rather startling absence of gender as a category of explicit historical analysis, particularly in the keynote speeches. Where gender was specifically discussed, in Geoff Eley’s public lecture, it was, shockingly, in a way in which women were viewed as the only gendered sex, thereby completely ignoring quarter of a century’s work to make men visible as gendered historical subjects. The story of gender and the political aftermath of the First World War, for instance, is far more than one of maternalist discourse v. fear of the flapper, not least because the ‘Lost Generation’ was, for most politicians in Britain, exclusively male.
Is this a piece of special pleading on the part of a gender historian? Well possibly. There is, of course, only so much that can be said in a thirty-five minute paper and the subjects addressed by Seth Koven, Stephen Brooke, Deborah Cohen and Catherine Hall were all wonderfully rich and complex in ways that defied simplification or easy summation. But given the focus on specific families in Koven and Cohen’s papers, and the discussion of domestic violence in Brooke’s, a more explicit acknowledgement that the power structures being uncovered and analysed have a gendered element would have made clear what was only in the end implicit, that gender histories continue to have relevance at least as significant as those of race. If the point that the history of modern Britain is the history of imperialism could be made as clearly and emphatically as it was over the course of three days, then I only wish there had been the space to make the parallel point that it is also the history of gendered relations of power.
Despite these reservations, in the end it was Catherine Hall’s keynote, of all the panels and plenaries over the three days, that spoke most deeply to me. At once a razor-sharp analysis of a rich, deeply problematic source with powerful implications for our understanding of both the past and the present, and a rallying cry to the profession to use our passion to demonstrate the undoubted relevance of the work we do, it left me energised and even inspired. I left Birmingham knowing that the practice of history is hard, should be hard, but however hard it is, it is also fun and undoubtedly worth doing.
And why the sea is boiling hot/ And whether pigs have wings
So, two very different events in two very different venues at which I attempted to grapple with two very different facets of my work as I understand it at the moment. Yet there were also themes that connected them. The invisibility of men as gendered historical actors, for instance, formed the basis of a question raised in Ghent, reinforcing my sense that historians of gender, and masculinity in particular, still have work to do in making our political and theoretical project clear and accepted. More positively, the relevance of the study of the past to questions of social, cultural and political import in the present was made crystal clear at both events. Every panel I attended in Birmingham contained at least one paper that addressed a contemporary debate or concern, illuminating the connection between past and present as clearly as my post-workshop discussion with James. Oh, and both were wonderful social events, where the pleasures of reunion with old friends was only matched by that of forging new friendships.
There is still much that I absorbed both in Belgium and the Midlands that I have yet to fully process. But in sum, if Ghent provided me with inspiration, Birmingham was a source of exhilaration. The remainder of the summer, then, will have to provide the perspiration that will, I hope, result in, if not a work of genius, then at least a good book.