So Lord Kitchener, Jane Austen and the Latvian Maiden go into a bar… and all of them have recently won places on their countries’ new coins or banknotes, so the chances are we’re talking about the contents of a slightly disorganised wallet rather than an encounter that would be both historically impossible and probably also somewhat embarrassing for all three figures concerned.
The latest ripple of unease about how the current British government intends to commemorate the beginning of the First World War emerged when the Royal Mint revealed that its new coins for 2014 would include an £2 coin depicting Kitchener, Britain’s Secretary of State for War between 1914 and 1916.
Oh, what a lovely coin?
Kitchener’s picture, on a pre-conscription British recruiting poster, is probably the best-known British propaganda image from the war. It’s this picture, complete with the pointing finger and the slogan ‘Your country needs YOU’, that the Mint has chosen as the first of a series of commemorative WW1 coins to go into circulation between 2014 and 2019.
(I say this was ‘the latest’ ripple of unease; as I’m writing this, the education secretary Michael Gove turns out to have written an article for the Daily Mail criticising ‘Left-wing academics’ and ‘dramas such as Oh! What A Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder’ for creating a myth of WW1 as ‘a misbegotten shambles’.)
Beginning the commemoration with an image designed to inspire men to volunteer to fight in the war has chimed with existing fears that official commemorations will ‘celebrate’ or ‘glorify’ the war in a way that has more to do with stirring up patriotic sentiment in the present and winning public support for a conservative/Conservative narrative of the past than with reflecting on the past for its own sake. (The pacifist Symon Hill, who has since started a petition for the Mint to change the design, argued that the Mint should have chosen an image that invited people to ‘mourn and commemorate the dead’.)
Beyond the sensitivities of recalling the enthusiasm of government propaganda as the Mint’s initial commemoration of the First World War, Kitchener’s actions in an earlier conflict make him an even more troubling figure to commemorate uncritically. Under Kitchener’s command, British forces in the Second Boer War forced civilians into unhygienic camps in order to prevent them supporting Boer guerrillas. Kitchener’s camps, and the ‘reconcentration’ policy employed a few years earlier in Cuba by Spanish forces under Valeriano Weyler, remain a point of reference in the history of genocide. Writing in 1950, Hannah Arendt argued that ‘[c]oncentration camps made their first appearance during the Boer War’ before evolving into the Nazi extermination camp ‘within the framework of totalitarian terror’ (1950: 55, £), and arguments about the conceptual links between colonialism and genocide (such as this article by Vinay Lal) cannot ignore them.
Taken as a whole, the Mint’s strategy of commemorating the war through multiple images may do a better job of representing the multiple, complex meanings that WW1 has to the people who will be using the coins in Britain today (yet even then could never represent them all) than its first announcement has achieved – and it hasn’t yet revealed what the other images will be – but against such a background the selection of Kitchener has brought this commemoration through currency to a difficult start.
The Kitchener problem is the second contestation over currency in Britain in less than a year, after the latest stage in the Bank of England’s rolling update of paper money – withdrawing the Elizabeth Fry £5 and replacing it with Winston Churchill (himself of course a major symbol in narratives of British leadership at war) – made it likely that the resulting set of notes would depict no women except the Queen. Another campaign and petition, organised by Caroline Criado-Perez with the aim of ensuring there would always be at least one woman from history on the Bank of England notes, led the Bank to decide that the next £10 would replace Charles Darwin with Jane Austen. (The length of time it takes to develop a banknote with adequate security details suggests that Austen may already have been in the Bank’s plans, if only as a reserve design.)
After the Bank made its announcement in late July, Criado-Perez started to receive direct threats through Twitter which attracted both media interest and police action – a level of support which, regrettably, the media and authorities do not render to most other women (especially women of colour and trans women) who have been threatened online.
The ways in which this incident and responses to it developed during 2013 online has made the banknotes campaign, from some points of view, a symbol of a white, middle-class, liberal feminism that fails to take account of more complex and structural ways in which women experience oppression – to the extent that the term ‘banknote feminism’ has emerged online as a summary of that position, as in some of this discussion on how the idea of intersectionality has made it more possible for women of colour to speak up online. This has related only partly to the campaign itself, but equally to the suggestions that some of its supporters then offered for tackling online abuse (my personal perspective is that those suggestions were indeed flawed because their consequences for more marginalised women could well have been harmful) and to their reactions to the content and tone of the critiques they started to receive. A few days ago, a review of the year in feminism on Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour reopened this when Criado-Perez challenged Reni Eddo-Lodge about women who had ‘abused’ intersectionality in online debate (Eddo-Lodge has reflected on the programme and Criado-Perez’s apology here, and Ally Fogg has commented on the baffling accusation of ‘bullying’ that Louise Mensch went on to make against Eddo-Lodge last night.)
The main impact of these discussions for me has been to make me go back over a position I’ve often expressed when writing about nationalism: that symbols of the nation are politically significant, important to study, and to critique if necessary. (Should it really matter, for instance, whose face is on the banknotes when rising living costs and social security cuts in the UK mean that not enough of any money is getting into women’s hands?)
Milda makes her way to Europe
The third new piece of currency I want to include here seems – as far as I can tell – to have been received with much less contestation: the new Latvian euro coin, which on the side reserved for a national design revives the image of the ‘Latvian Maiden’ from the 5 lat coin minted by the first Latvian republic in 1929. National identity in interwar Latvia emphasised folk customs and the forest landscape, and the maiden (nicknamed ‘Milda’) with her traditional headdress personified an idealised and symbolic womanhood that stood for the origins of the Latvian people. Soviet authorities, after occupying Latvia, removed the coin from circulation in 1941, but part of the Latvian narrative of resistance to Soviet rule is that Latvians held on to the coins and used them as decorations and gifts, making them ‘the most popular symbol of once independent Latvia’. Independent again in 1992, the Latvian state restored Milda to its currency, placing her on the 500-lat note until 1998 and using her as the standard watermark until the time came to replace the lat with the euro in 2014.
(Importantly, I don’t know how Russian-speakers in post-Soviet Latvia view the ‘Latvian Maiden’ symbol, and haven’t been able to find any research that addresses this specifically – though if the right former colleagues of mine are reading this, they may be able to help…)
A couple of years ago, the scale of the Greek debt crisis was making the idea that the eurozone would be adding rather than shedding members by 2014 seem counter-intuitive; but here Latvia is. As Latvia made its preparations to join the single European currency last year, The Economist‘s ‘Charlemagne’ column framed the choice as ‘between Europa or Milda’ – in other words, to abandon the national symbolism of Latvia’s own currency for the vaguer, impersonal designs of euro notes. Latvia’s national bank has solved the problem by adding Milda to the euro coin instead, in the space where every eurozone member puts a national symbol of its own, be it the Maltese or Slovakian cross, an Austrian pacifist or the Spanish king.
Questioning the pine marten
It was examples like the Latvian Maiden that made me start to notice how national identity was being represented in currency, when I first started to read about nationalism as a student. The most influential argument about currency I’ve read has been Michael Billig’s in Banal Nationalism (1995), a book about national symbols that has done a lot to shape how I think about cultural artefacts and the material world. What Billig suggests is that nationalism is at its most powerful when it goes unnoticed and becomes embedded into people’s everyday lives – and something that almost everyone has to do, day in day out, is handle money.
Billig illustrates this argument with an example from Croatia, which like Latvia changed its currency in the early 1990s after separating from a larger state. Croatia’s currency became the kuna, a name that originated with the use of pine marten skins as a medieval form of exchange but had also belonged in 1941-45 to the currency of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), an entity which had persecuted Serbs, Jews, Roma, homosexuals and political opponents under the supervision of the Axis powers. The NDH’s adoption of symbols from Croatian history has caused serious problems of representation for today’s Croatian state. Billig reads the introduction of the kuna as an attempt to embed the history of the NDH, as well as Croatian tradition and sovereignty in general, into Croatian public consciousness: ‘In this way, the tradition, including the Nazi heritage, would be neither consciously remembered, or forgotten: it would be preserved in daily life’ (p. 42).
This account of Croatian intentions in designing the kuna is open to critique. Alex Bellamy in The Formation of Croatian National Identity (2003), for instance, points out that the name had also been used by the communist Partisans in WW2 Croatia in so far as they had issued ‘dinar-kuna’ notes (p. 107), and reads the naming of the kuna as a tactic supporting President Tudjman’s (still problematic) strategy of national unification (urging former Communists and former NDH supporters to forgive and be silent about the past and join together in building a sovereign Croatian state).
I incline towards Bellamy rather than Billig in my reading of the kuna, but Billig’s overall message is still something I find valuable: asking why post-Yugoslav Croatia named its currency the kuna rather than the kruna or crown (a common name for currency elsewhere in the central European region that the state aspired to be recognised as belonging to), let alone choosing to retain the Yugoslav name of dinar, surely has something to tell us about how Croatia’s first president and its national bank wanted the state and nation to be represented. Who and what is depicted on Croatian banknotes, similarly, is as revealing of official narratives about the nation as it would be anywhere else. (One thing I find striking is the effort to choose a range of historical monuments that stretch across the entire reach of the state’s territory, in a country where deep regional distinctiveness can often get in the way of the homogeneity that nations are supposed to have.)
Currency and the age of revolutions
Even before the emergence of modern nationalism, the design of coinage has always communicated something about sovereignty and authority – a practice stemming from the ruler’s mark that guaranteed the weight and composition of a coin. The shift from metal currency to paper money for the more valuable denominations, Josh Lauer suggests in a history of banknotes in the USA (£), made it all the more important for US currency to symbolise the nation: if it hardly weighs anything, why should it be worth something? The answer, Lauer thinks, is because the nation and its elected representatives agrees it is; and it’s the symbolism of the images on the paper that reassures them of that.
Before the American Revolution, British colonies in North America that issued paper money already used ‘images of ships, anchors, indigenous flora and fauna, and buildings [...] to invoke a sense of common identity and affiliation with local industry and commerce’ (p. 115-6); during the Revolutionary War, their symbols became warlike and patriotic. Even before 1861, when the US government began federally printing notes, the private banks that issued banknotes on a state-by-state basis often included symbols of the American Revolution and its values, though often also events from the locality’s recent history that would not go on to acquire national significance.
The chief clerk of the US Treasury in 1863 offered reasons for placing national imagery on the banknotes that resonate with Billig’s arguments about nationalism in the everyday:
[They] would tend to teach the masses the prominent periods in our country’s history. [...] they would soon be familiar to those who would never read them in books, teaching them history and imbuing them with a National feeling. (Helleiner 1998: 1412, £)
Eric Helleiner, who gives the quote above, also points out that the French revolutionary regime replaced the Latin language on Old Regime currency with French and printed symbols of Liberty and republicanism on its first paper currency, the assignats. By the late 19th century – a decisive phase in many ways for the uptake of nationalism by states – the convention of designing currency with symbols of the nation rather than simply of the head of state was becoming a general practice, something taken for granted in the present day.
(In the interests of centring Haiti as well as the USA and France in narratives of the age of revolutions, I’m aware that the account above also ought to talk about currency in Haiti during its independence from French rule between 1791 and 1804. I’ve failed to find this out as yet, and I’m not satisfied.)
Does currency matter?
Given this intellectual background, I’d have trouble arguing that the design of currency is something that it isn’t worth researching (or, in that case, campaigning about), or what what a state’s institutions choose to depict or not depict as representations of the nation isn’t significant. But at the same time, I’m aware that the kind of scholarship I most naturally turn to is deconstructive, or as I put it during a talk I gave last year (about representations of the Balkans in a recent film), ‘picking things apart until they fall over’. At the end of the talk, a senior feminist in International Relations prodded me to reflect further on what this kind of research is for.
I came back to that thought two or three months later when I started to see critical discussions of the English banknotes campaign (after all, writing a research article on currency is exactly the kind of thing that I might do). I suppose the only way I can reconcile these points of view is to say: the politics of representation are important, but they’re not enough, and it’s incumbent on me not to get in the way of the arguments about the other things, indeed to amplify them when I can.
I’ve hesitated several times in planning this post, which I originally meant to write several days ago after reading about the Kitchener coin, before the aftermath of the Woman’s Hour debate overtook anything I might have been able to say. White writers in particular have to be careful about ‘derailing‘ – changing the course of an argument in a way that diverts attention from the marginalisation it was meant to be about. My argument here isn’t as simple as trying to say that the symbolism of currency is important, which feels like it would be the wrong thing at this point in time. Rather, I’m trying to think through why I still believe it is important even though I’m coming to believe that a framework that was only focused on the politics of representation wouldn’t go far enough.
But then, I’m really not a disinterested party. I write and teach about nationalism, and being able to do that has helped me get the financial and intellectual security of an academic post, a job that I enjoy and which is in very short supply. In the classroom, I suppose I use illustrations like these to encourage students to think critically and analytically about more than just nationalism, to pay attention to the details of things, and to see perspectives they might not initially have thought of – and all of these are skills that have a role to play in the humanities and social sciences. Yet the challenge of seeing beyond representation still remains.
Edit: as I was finishing this post, Sara Ahmed posted the second of two excellent posts on the limitations of ‘criticality’ as a stance in research and activism. In the first of them, she made the point that:
Assuming one’s criticality can be a way of not admitting one’s complicity. I think complicity is a starting point. We are implicated in the worlds that we critique; being critical does not suspend any such implication.
We need to keep this in mind when doing ‘deconstructive’ research.
 Recently, historians such as Liz Stanley have suggested that Afrikaner nationalists during the 20th century over-emphasised the level of British brutality in the camps in order to strengthen a narrative of suffering within Afrikaner national identity, though they do not dispute the level of starvation, disease and death. Here, my account of the historiography relies on Elizabeth Van Heyningen’s (paywalled) 2009 article in History Compass, particularly the discussion on pp. 27-9.
 I believe @WassailingGirl, on Twitter, came up with this first, but please correct me if I’ve miscredited it.
 I’m conscious that this paragraph is summarising six months and thousands of words from many people, of which I can only have read a fragment. I hope the account I’ve given here does enough to outline it for readers who haven’t been part of these discussions. There’s a wider structural context here of unequal access to the mainstream media for feminists who are white and middle-class on one hand, and those who are speaking from more marginalised positions on the other, which has been reflected in another painful controversy that emerged from the Women’s Hour debate over what came across as an inappropriate attempt by white feminists to ‘reclaim’ intersectionality, a concept developed by and for black women (Kimberlé Crenshaw building on the work of the Combahee River Collective) in the 1970s and 1980s.
Earlier this month I was asked to be the closing speaker at the Huddersfield History Postgraduate Conference, an annual event where postgraduate history researchers from Huddersfield and elsewhere give presentations about their research. This is an adapted version of the talk about learning and the research process that I gave at the end of the day (based on my original notes, plus marginalia, plus recollections of things I added on the spur of the moment and responses to some of the Q&A, so it’s far from being an accurate transcript of everything I said, but gives an idea of what I was talking about…
This isn’t the sort of talk that I usually give, but when the postgraduates organising this conference asked me to be the closing speaker, they asked me to talk about the satisfactions and challenges of research, thinking about my own experiences and the climate today. So I needed to make remarks that would be as relevant to someone researching, for instance, late medieval culture as they would be to someone researching the late 20th century, like I do.
At one point earlier in the afternoon I heard myself being referred to as the ‘main’ speaker, but I wouldn’t like to think of myself as that. I don’t feel like the main speaker at an event like this – you’re the main speakers. So my first act probably ought to be to abolish myself – but then it’s the same kind of problem as with the Marxist doctrine that on the road to Communism the state ought to wither away, but in practice Communist officials turned out to be quite reluctant to make themselves wither away…
Anyway: the point of a conference like this isn’t to sit around listening to lecturers talking at you, but for you to present your research to each other and to the rest of the department who are there to support you, and for you to hear about and comment on what everybody else is doing. It’s a way for you all to mutually support each other as researchers, and to build up the History community in and around Huddersfield. Hull and Huddersfield historians are building up more and more links themselves – I sometimes hear people referring (like John Prescott) to an ‘M62 corridor’ – and rather than thinking primarily in terms of departmental communities or even university communities, I want to encourage you to see yourself as part of a much wider network of postgraduate and early career researchers in the North, of historians and others with similar interests, of people with interests in the past whether or not they’re studying academically – all of these are networks where you belong and you have a place. And you’re going to need each other.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend all of the conference [I'd been teaching a class at Hull that morning], which makes it harder to carry out the closing speaker role of tying everything together and hopefully leaving you going away thinking: all this different work we’re doing is actually contributing to the same thing. Whereas what you may well be thinking is: ‘I hope she’s going to finish quickly so we can get away to the pub’ – or, ‘I hope she’s going to finish quickly so that I can get home and sort out dinner for the rest of the family’, or ‘so that I won’t be late for the job I need to go to after this conference is over today’. And all of those are valid responses.
But the reason for explaining about my timetable is because when I thought about the different things I had to get done today it brought home to me how, over time, the activities you find difficult sometimes become less so. So I’m going to start thinking about this as an example of the learning process, which I’ll then tie more closely into the process of research, and ramp up towards thinking about sharing authority, co-production, and some of the ideas that were coming up in the discussion at the end of the panel I was able to attend.
The spiral of competence
The first year that I was teaching was in 2007–08, in the last year of my PhD [at UCL SSEES]. I was teaching two seminars, one after each other, on a module called the History of Eastern Europe since 1856. I remember being so drained after those two seminars one after each other that I knew that was it, the only thing I was going to be able to get done on Fridays was to go in and listen to that lecture and teach those two seminars. I could get some reading done on automatic pilot in the afternoon and evening, but in terms of anything more active, let alone producing words or delivering more words, that wasn’t going to happen.
After a couple of years off from teaching during my postdoc [at Southampton], during the last year of my postdoc the history department there asked me to design a new first-year option on one of my research interests because they needed to offer some more options at that level. And the year after that was almost entirely a teaching year – I had a teaching contract in London for half the week replacing someone who was on research leave, plus another module became vacant at Southampton for the same reason, then at the last minute Southampton also asked me to put my first year option on again. In terms of the range of teaching I was doing, not just in terms of topics but actual subjects, I felt like I was teaching across the full range of what I was capable of, which is a challenge that I wanted… and if I’d have been able to teleport between London and Southampton it would have been great.
If my circumstances had been different, if I’d had more people depending on the money I was earning with my time, I wouldn’t have been able to do that, and anything I’ve gained from that combination of experiences, I’ve got to acknowledge that it was circumstances like not being a carer which made it possible to even have them. As a structure for getting the best people into the jobs they’re best qualified for, this isn’t good enough.
But at that time in 2011-12 where the amount of teaching I was doing had expanded so much compared to the first year when I was teaching, and the amount of different things I had to get done in the same day was also much greater, I would think – ‘wow, there used to be a time when two hours of teaching would knock me out, and that was it?’ I’d gone through a spiral of competence. The things I used to struggle with, I now had a routine for preparing for, and I was used to. And that creates space to struggle with new things.
At an early stage it might be – ‘I’ve actually got to design my own seminar tasks, how do I do that?’ And then later on – ‘I haven’t just got to mark assessments, I’ve got to work out what the assessments should be, and what skills I actually want this module to develop, so that I can use the assessments to test how well students have achieved them.’ And you go along the spiral of competence. The tasks you used to worry about become more manageable, and new space opens up. This is why people talk about ‘continuous professional development’. It’s how we get more experienced. Knowledge that was new becomes familiar, and that makes us ready to start learning and practising something else that is new now.
That doesn’t mean that the things you’ve done many times before suddenly take no effort. I still very frequently find myself in front of a blank screen thinking I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to put in here. That’s part of the process, I’m not sure it ever goes away. But what changes, with time, is that you’re able to have more of a sense of: ‘yeah, that’s how I felt the last time too, and then I did it.’
This is something that you’ll probably start noticing too, in some or other aspect of what you do. In fact you’re already further along the spiral when it comes to writing and researching than you were in the past. If you had to write an undergraduate dissertation, for instance, for many people that’s the longest single piece of writing that they’ve ever had to write. ‘How the hell do I write an undergraduate dissertation, at 10,000 words?’ It felt like everything you’d done over the last however many years of your degree was meant to get you up to that point. And now, if you’re writing a PhD, something that length would only be a chapter in a much longer piece of work.
So that’s the first thing I wanted to say, and for all of you there’s probably something in your practice as history researchers where you can recognise that. ‘I don’t struggle with that as much as I used to in the past’. Everyone will have something like that, because this is how learning works. Whether it’s learning details and information, or learning in a much broader sense, how to actually do something.
[During the Q&A, somebody asked me whether this meant we were always in a state of 'conscious incompetence']. The thing you want to get towards is ‘conscious competence’. And you can break this down into many kinds of things you do. [Helpfully, the conference venue had a copy of the Vitae 'Researcher Development Framework' - a breakdown of the many skills that researchers use - painted on the wall...]
What I like about the Researcher Development Framework is that it distinguishes all these different things that researchers do, and also gives a progression of what they can look like at different stages, whether you’re a postgraduate researcher or somebody who just won a grant worth millions of pounds from one of the research councils, so there are always ‘aspiration points’ that help you answer the question of ‘what should I be working towards next’. (I could also have used the analogy of a ‘skill tree‘ in video games where you develop a character over the course of a game – the point is that you build competence in a certain skill to a threshold level and that opens up new things that you can then go on to learn, but advanced skills won’t open up until you’ve developed the prerequisites enough.)
How we know what we know
The week before the conference, I told the organisers that my title for the talk was going to be ‘The problem of knowing what you don’t know’. And I wanted to talk about learning and training, because this is what all of you are doing.
You’ve had very different experiences before now and the paths you each take after your current research projects will also go in different directions; also, your circumstances are different from each other right now. But one thing you have in common is that all of you are at a stage where you’re becoming independent researchers, with one or more universities and maybe another kind of cultural institution supporting you to help you become that.
You’re in charge of making the case for why your project matters. You already started to do that just by applying to the programme of study that you applied to, and as part of your research you’re in charge of making that case in a deeper and more detailed way.
You’re in charge of planning how this research is going to be done: seeing what methods other researchers have tried, which work, but also, what methods other people researching that topic haven’t tried yet, which might then tell us something new.
You’re in charge of making sense of the results you find out, and then putting those into context by reflecting back on what other people have written about that topic before.
And you’re in charge of delivering all this within the agreed parameters – the word limit – and on time – which you don’t need me reminding you about…
You know better than I do, as well, what you want to do with yourself after having gone through this process, or what you want this process to have done for you. Some of you – but I don’t want to assume that’s what everybody wants – will be seeing it as another step towards working in higher education, though I don’t want to assume that is what everybody wants. In the past, universities tended to assume that the only reason anyone does a PhD is to become an academic, but if you still encounter that attitude today, it’s out of date. Postgraduate research prepares you for a much wider set of careers than that.
But probably what all of you have got in some shape or form is the aspiration to do more with the topic of your research than you were able to do before you started researching it. To do more with the content of your research, or to do more with the skills you’ve used and learned while you’ve been researching.
One of the things you learn as you go through this process is about how we know what we know. In historiography, or in introductory training for teaching, you’ll probably encounter thoughts about this. How for instance do historians know that what they’ve found out in their research and what they write about has the status of ‘historical knowledge’? The answer to that may be: they’ve gone through all the sources that are still available, they have discovered the historical facts through the evidence available, and the weight of that evidence provides the most justified interpretation of that aspect of the past. A postmodern or deconstructionist historian might say that actually all of us are involved in ‘authoring’ the past just through the practice of producing a narrative about it, even when we frame the narrative as ‘the’ truth about our topic in the past.
Each of those positions leads to a very different opinion about what historians actually do when they study history, but both of them are positions about ‘how we know what we know’, and what counts as ‘knowledge’ for historians.
So it’s useful to be aware of what your assumptions are about how we know what we know. But something else is also very important for researchers, if not anyone – and that’s trying to have a sense of what you don’t know. Because that actually has a lot to do with how we learn and understand.
If we go back to those examples of learning how to teach, or learning how to put together progressively longer pieces of written work based on independent research.
These are gradual processes, and teaching and learning researchers like to say that they depend on ‘scaffolding’ – to be able to learn at the top of the scaffolding, you’ve first got to have grasped whatever was underneath it. But then in order to move up the scaffolding, towards more advanced knowledge and competence, you have to know that there are new things to find out that flow from whatever you’ve already learned.
In the framework of a university module or a programme of study this is easy, a lot of that pathway is already visible because it’s already been designed.
In independent research this is much more difficult. A PhD topic is something that no one has ever explored in the same way as you, and this is why it looks so daunting at the beginning: how are you going to map a pathway through making sense of these sources, towards the comprehensive understanding that you want to finish with? You want to know as much as possible.
But at the same time, as part of that process, you also need to be open to what you didn’t know was there. What you will find from the sources that makes you rethink what you thought you knew about the topic, the categories you use to think about the topic with, or even the framework that you want to bring to the task of representing this topic as a whole, because suddenly the sources are challenging what you had expected it might be possible to say.
This is part of the research process for almost everyone. It should be part of the research process. Although the trouble is that when it happens, we usually experience it as a crisis. Something doesn’t work. And then it’s a stressful moment. But often it’s also one that turns out to be transformative – the eventual piece of writing that you end up with wouldn’t have looked the same way if not for that moment. Your initial framework changed, to accommodate that thing that originally you didn’t know. On a much larger scale it’s like that blank-piece-of-paper, what-am-I-going-to-put-into-these-lecture-notes moment. When you do encounter a research crisis like that, that may be what it’s trying to tell you, but your mind might process it first as confusion.
So if that’s an important stage in the research process, then another challenge comes from that: what can be done, methodologically, to create space for those ‘knowing what you don’t know’ moments to happen? Those moments where you become aware that how you’ve understood and experienced the material up until that point doesn’t actually give you a full account of what’s been going on?
Towards an ethics of listening
For me, this is one of the things that’s attracted me to oral history interviewing as a methodology. I used it when I was researching foreign languages and peacekeeping in Bosnia as part of the project I was involved in after my PhD. There simply weren’t enough documents about what we were interested in, so I was going to have to do something more active anyway in terms of finding out about the topic, but what also appealed to me about interviewing was that with interviewing you cannot get away from the fact that the researcher is implicated in producing knowledge and narrative, it’s more complex than accessing a repository of information that is already there. What you ask, who you and the interviewee are, who each of those people is in relation to the other, and even when you do the interview and what else might be going on at the time, all has an influence on what comes to you as ‘the’ source or ‘the’ narrative from that person. You have to come to terms with this in order to interview, you can’t hide from it.
Interviewing can be a powerful tool in opening up new topics that haven’t been researched before, because you select what to ask about. My colleague Simona Tobia, another researcher involved with the project, listened to interviews in the Imperial War Museum sound archive with British Army soldiers from the Second World War whose job had been to interrogate German prisoners, and then did new interviews with some of the same people, to ask them about languages and translation. And the original interviews hadn’t had much to say about languages at all, even though, English speaking army, German speaking prisoners, someone at some stage must have not been using their army’s first language. When Simona went back to these people and specifically asked about languages, they came out with whole new narratives. Because someone had asked.
But that isn’t even the most exciting thing about interviews as a source for those historians who are able to use them. As an interviewer, it wouldn’t be worth me doing it if I already knew exactly what I was going to hear. This means I need to find out, through that interview, that there was something I didn’t know, or perhaps couldn’t even have comprehended before, because I didn’t have the ‘scaffolding’ to appreciate it. I didn’t know that it was possible to perceive that topic or that experience in that particular way. What that means is that the most important thing I do in an interview isn’t how I choose the questions or ask the questions, it’s actually how I listen. And to be able to do that, I have to appreciate that there is a vast amount I don’t know, and vast dimensions I don’t know about.
This is an important thing to recognise not just in terms of research, but I think in every dimension of the lives we lead. The wisdom that it takes to recognise what you might be unaware of, and perhaps even to recognise that there are things you might never be able to be fully aware of. This is a more difficult one for researchers, because we want to find out everything there is to know. But in an interview, for instance, can I ever know the experience of the narrator as intimately as the narrator knows it? All the more, perhaps, if there are ways that I’m in a position of power compared to that other person which makes it more difficult for me to perceive the full weight of what they’re saying. (During a previous Q&A, referring to public engagement, a member of the audience had mentioned ‘the nature of how we intimidate in events like this’ and ‘moments that prevent the co-production of language’ when talking about problems in getting the public to come to events at universities.) Could I, as a white interviewer, ever understand what it means to experience racism, as intimately as the person of colour who was narrating it to me? I can’t. So, then, how best should I listen, and after listening, what is it my responsibility to do?
What this might lead us towards is something that society’s in need of, which is an ethics of listening, and in particular an ethics of listening across these axes of power relations and privilege that we are all in some way or another embedded in. The greater responsibility in this has to come from those who are higher up on any of those axes, when we are higher up on them, to accept that our own perceptions and experiences are not universal – there are things that we will miss.
And if that’s the case then perhaps there’s also a responsibility for, not just speaking over someone or even representing them, but making space for them to be as much at the centre as you are, in the cases where you perceive yourself to be at the centre. Maybe these are some of the implications of an ethics of deep, active listening. And although whereas I’ve said earlier we can and need to know what we don’t know, this is more ‘sometimes we’re not able to learn everything we don’t know’. But the two things still have common roots in the problem of recognising what we don’t know yet.
And this brings us back to the idea of sharing authority that was mentioned in the previous session. This might be a frightening prospect. In order to share authority, does that mean letting go of some of yours? Is authority as zero-sum as that: you can’t have more of it unless I have less? Or is it more about creating extra authority by recognising someone else’s authority – the authority of an interviewee or a community member – where it wasn’t being recognised before? Though in that more optimistic model we still face the ethical problem of ways in which the researcher ultimately has more power than the participant. In the traditional model of historical research, you the researcher write the thesis or the article – a written textual document with a single author. What would need to change about our requirements for assessment and doctoral training in order for us to be able to share the authority of research as far as we possibly can?
 Obviously we should also be asking critical questions about how any kind of framework like this orders people’s knowledge about what being a competent researcher looks like – what’s being left out? what’s being covered up with euphemisms? what’s being made to look like just one person’s responsibility when actually it should be being supported in a much more structural way? Let’s not forget that competence is often collective, nor that the pressure to be ‘hard-working, self-motivating and enterprising subjects’ in the corporate university is, as Rosalind Gill puts it in her excellent essay on this topic, a huge part of the stress that contemporary academia makes researchers feel.
 I’ve written more about this in a blog post last year called ‘Starting to think about teaching about privilege‘, although it still needs a lot of firming up.
Call for papers, edited volume
Gender in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union
Edited by Catherine Baker
This call for papers seeks contributors to an edited volume (c. 80,000 words) on the gendered histories of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union during the twentieth century, aimed primarily at an undergraduate/taught postgraduate readership. Drawing on current research into a broad range of societies and experiences within the scope of the volume, it aims to explore whether or how far the course of the twentieth century has made it possible to speak of a common history of gender in this part of the world. Since the early 1900s, the region has witnessed the collapse of multinational empires into nation-states; the human devastation and divided legacies left by the Second World War and the Holocaust; the transformation of society and the economy under Communist power, and the divided legacies that this too has left behind; the break-up of the Warsaw Pact bloc and the remaining federations into nation-states that were to be remade in the image of a democratic, free-market ideal. Yet these grand narratives of transformation and transition risk obscuring divergences and specificities that historians of gender may also need to take into account.
Contributions may focus on one country or may have a broader comparative scope, but all proposals should indicate how the material can contribute to an understanding of the region as a whole. The coverage of the volume will be balanced across the time frame of the twentieth century and the region under consideration. Proposals are welcome regarding any part of the east European region or the former USSR. A major UK publisher has expressed interest in publishing the volume as a paperback, subject to successful completion of their review process.
Aspects that might be discussed within essays include, but are not limited to:
- Borderlands and the question of ‘national indifference’
- Childhood and youth
- The Communist revolutions and takeovers
- Communist parties in power
- Consumption, the home and everyday life under state socialism
- Feminism and other activist movements
- Interactions between the region and the rest of the world, including the Global South
- Labour, postsocialism and neoliberalism
- Oral history and memory
- Popular culture and the media
- Refugees and humanitarian relief
- Reproductive and sexual politics
- Queer and trans* histories
- Security and surveillance
- Socialist approaches to gender in theory and practice
- War and the military, including female participation on the front line
- War memory and commemoration
- Intersections of gender with other power relationships
Please send an abstract of 300–500 words to Catherine Baker (University of Hull) at email@example.com by Sunday 13 October 2013. Proposals will be reviewed immediately and notification will be made by the end of October 2013. Draft papers are likely to be due in July 2014. As part of preparing the book I hope to organise related conference panels e.g. at ASEEES in November 2014, although being able to attend a conference is not a requirement for taking part.
The ethics of archive acquisitions: why couldn’t an important collection of British trans history stay in the UK?
The Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada may have expanded its collection by as much as 50 per cent, according to its academic director Aaron Devor, after acquiring what’s thought to be the largest collection of material related to trans history in the UK: the ‘Transgender Archive’ built up by the sociologist Richard Ekins at the University of Ulster between 1986 and 2010, when Ekins retired and had to consider what to do with the archive next.
UVic Archives are rightly proud to have acquired the Ekins collection, which fits well with its mission of ‘actively acquiring documents, rare publications, and memorabilia of persons and organizations that have worked for the betterment of transgendered people’. The archive already contains the papers of a number of trans activists, scholars and organisations from Canada and the US, but the Ekins collection broadens the archive’s geographical scope of the archive, as Devor told the local Times Colonist newspaper: ‘We don’t have a large body of materials on the history of transgender activity in the United Kingdom, so this will flesh out that component of our collection [...] It will be great to give a more comprehensive view on what’s been going on in transgender rights and organizing in a broader swath of the globe.’
Last week, however, a report in the Camden New Journal raised some troubling questions about whether the collection might have had the opportunity to stay in the UK before even being offered to UVic. The CNJ stated that Ekins’s first choice for the collection’s new home had been the Hall-Carpenter Archive at LSE – which describes itself as ‘Britain’s major resource for the study of lesbian and gay activism in the UK since the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957′ – but that the HCA had been unable to accept it unless it was inventoried and anonymised before the archive took it on:
After an approach to Professor Ekins’ “first choice” library, the Hall-Carpenter Archive (HCA) at the LSE, the largest source for the study of gay activism in Britain, a “stumbling block” appeared when the university said to consider it they would need him to get rid of any items subject to copyright or containing personal information like addresses, and provide a full, professional inventory.
He is “at pains” not to criticise the LSE but said: “I’m disappointed it couldn’t stay in the UK, it is a chronicle of a part of Britain’s history.”
UVic, in contrast, was able to pay for the transportation and inventory of the material, which appears to already be on its way to Canada.
Reading that LSE – my former university – had been offered this amount of material and turned it down was a shock, and one that raises some difficult questions about the ethics of archive acquisitions, especially when they concern the histories of marginalised people. UVic’s archivists are world leaders in trans history, and could hardly have been expected to refuse the Ekins collection once it was offered to them. The thorny questions mostly come before that stage: how did the Ekins collection fail to find a home in the UK?
On the face of it, the Ekins collection should have been well within the remit of the HCA and LSE. Although the HCA highlights ‘lesbian and gay’ activism as its theme, it already contains several smaller trans-related holdings, such as small amounts of material from Trans Essex, the Transsexual Action Group, the Harry Benjamin Foundation, the Transsexual Action Organisation and the Self Help Association for Transsexuals. (It’s not clear whether or not the HCA also systematically collects bi material, though again there are holdings related to several bisexual groups and campaigns in the archive.) The Ekins collection would have been a headline acquisition that could have made the LSE’s archives a focal point for British trans history in the future. There’s all the more need for this since historical research on trans activism and gender variance in a British context is still some way behind the US, where Susan Stryker’s Transgender History has been available since 2008.
I ought to acknowledge that I don’t know myself what’s in the Ekins collection or – importantly – what isn’t in it. I have no idea, for instance, on how fully the collection covered gender variance outside the male/female binary, or the intersections of trans-ness and race, even though those are lenses that any future history of trans people in Britain will need to be sensitive to. Despite the significance of the collection, it would be a mistake to rely solely on it to represent British trans experiences in their entirety. I still have a sense that British archives have missed out by not being able to acquire it, which seemed to be shared on social media when the Camden New Journal article was circulating on Friday.
I hope that I’d be one of the least likely people to defend nationalism for its own sake: this isn’t an argument that the collection ought to stay inside British borders just because it was made within them. Neither is this a case where a foreign archive’s acquisition of a collection can be challenged because of a history of colonial exploitation by the acquiring state over the place where the material is from. The sadness I felt on hearing that LSE had been unable to acquire the archive is to do with the accessibility of the material. I suppose my general feeling is that archives ought to be located somewhere where they’ll be as accessible as possible to the people they refer to. Unless the collection is made available online by UVic – and it’s been suggested that this will happen in due course – it could only be used by researchers based in British Columbia or funded for a long research visit there, with an impact on who that much-needed history of trans experiences in Britain could be written by, and inaccessible to nearly all trans people in Britain.
There are some parallels with the arguments that break out every few years when the papers of one or other famous British writer get bought by a North American university (usually the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at UT Austin, which plans for years to acquire writers’ papers). But the ethical problems are sharper here because these are materials relating to people who have suffered systematic marginalisation and erasure, rather than the papers of members of a cultural elite. (I don’t mean to suggest that no individual writer in their own life has suffered these things; just that the two groups, as groups, aren’t equally situated.) LSE’s response in the Camden New Journal article mentioned the lack of an inventory for the collection as the stumbling block:
“The school was last contacted by Professor Ekins two years ago and requested further information about the archive’s contents.
“The school did not receive this inventory from Professor Ekins and was therefore not in a position to give the transfer any further consideration.”
If it’s the case, however, that all collections need to be inventoried and anonymised to a professional standard before the archive can accept them, then an ethical question follows: does this mean that collections belonging to owners with less time, energy and resources to bring them up to this standard are less likely to be acquired, and does this mean that collections relating to people and groups with less privilege, thus fewer resources, are disproportionately likely to be turned down? If so, this would seem to suggest that acquisition policies would need to be more flexible in order not to perpetuate erasure. (The case of the Ekins collection is more complicated because it had previously been held by another university, and we don’t as yet know how it was archived there, why it didn’t end up being archived there after Ekins’s retirement, or how permissions and anonymisation were handled when the collection was being built up.)
More ‘flexibility’ in this kind of case would mean more calls on archives’ scarce resources, including archivists’ time and the cost of their salaries while the extra preparation work was going on. The cost of taking on the collection is therefore greater (and UVic is to be commended for funding the inventorying as well as the transport of the collection to BC). Yet it doesn’t feel as if this is a cost the LSE would have been unable to bear. I have to acknowledge that I don’t know precisely how the HCA is funded or how its own budget relates to the LSE budget as a whole; however, LSE as an institution has been capable of buying prestige office buildings in the Holborn area such as the Mobil Towers and the former Land Registry Office building on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and charges its non-EEA students some of the highest fees in the country. Although the leadership of Craig Calhoun, who replaced Howard Davies after the Gaddafi scandal, offered LSE an opportunity to ‘reassert itself as a centre of social justice, equality and fairness’, these hopes need to be backed up by action for them not to appear as empty branding promises.
From my point of view as a former student and a frequent target of LSE alumni fundraising, funding an archivist’s time to prepare the Ekins collection, or another collection in similar condition, is one of the most worthwhile things that LSE could use its money for. I’d happily have contributed to a public appeal to raise the extra funds if it couldn’t have been funded from existing resources, and I surely can’t be alone in wishing we had been asked. Equally, there might have been scope to approach the Heritage Lottery Fund (as suggested by a British social historian on Twitter), which includes archival collections among the types of project it supports. I don’t know enough about the decisions made by the HCA, LSE and the archive owner to comment further on this side of the case, but I’m left with a feeling that at some or other point acquiring the Ekins collection for LSE wasn’t made as high a priority as I’d personally believe it ought to be.
For wholly or predominantly cis organisations with self-declared ‘lesbian and gay’ interests dealing with trans-related material, there are further considerations. Unfortunately, there’s a long track record of mainstream gay and lesbian organisations reacting indifferently to trans concerns or deliberately deciding to exclude them in order to make it easier to achieve an objective that will benefit the cis people they represent. (The latest is the widespread celebration of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples Act) despite the serious obstacles it puts in the way of married trans people applying for gender recognition from the state.) Cis privilege means only hearing about this when a controversy brings it to your attention rather than because it has a personal impact on your own life (I regret to say, for instance, that I didn’t appreciate how deeply many trans people resent Stonewall until an incident a few years ago); but trans people know very well that cissexism or outright transphobia on the part of LGB organisations goes on. Because of this background, organisations with a progressive or radical remit – and the HCA would fall into this category – need to actively demonstrate that they’re aware of this form of privilege and working to undermine it, or trans erasure will continue – sometimes through ignorance rather than intent, but with the same outcome nonetheless.
At the moment, there isn’t any more information about the HCA’s contact with the Ekins archive beyond last week’s article in the Camden New Journal. My intention in writing this isn’t to single out any one person or organisation for blame, rather to express some of the reasons behind my unease that the current situation has ended up happening at all, and to raise some ethical questions that archivists and historians ought to be aware of, especially when we deal with the histories of people we have privilege over. Instances like this show all too well that, as Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook have written, ‘[a]rchives [...] are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed’ (Schwartz and Cook 2002: 1, £). Through the negotiations and choices they make in this and many other settings, archivists shape the content and organisation of their archive. For Schwartz and Cook, this makes it essential that archivists acknowledge rather than deny their power over memory:
Archives – as records – wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies. And ultimately, in the pursuit of their professional responsibilities, archivists – as keepers of archives – wield power over those very records central to memory and identity formation through active management of records before they come to archives, their appraisal and selection as archives, and afterwards their constantly evolving description, preservation, and use. (2002: 2)
Part of this accountability, surely, must include thinking through how privilege might affect archivists’ conscious and unconscious decisions about what they collect and how they collect it. The result can be archives that are as inclusive, open and public as they could possibly strive to be: helping to make future histories and memories of the past as diverse as they, too, deserve to be.
On the night of 1 May 1991, four Croatian police officers drove into the village of Borovo Selo, near Vukovar in eastern Slavonia, apparently to exchange the Yugoslav flag for a flag of the Republic of Croatia above a barricade that had been set up earlier that day by a recently-formed Serb militia in the village. Two of the four were wounded and captured when the militia fired on them during the raid. The next day, sixty fellow officers from Vinkovci entered Borovo Selo by bus in order to rescue the two men and drove into a pre-planned ambush at the entrance to the village. In the attack that followed, twelve of the Croatian officers were killed and their bodies mutilated. Horrific photographs of the recovered bodies were shown on Croatian television.
The Borovo Selo massacre amplified Croats’ fears of the rebellion against the Croatian authorities that had been growing in strength since the summer of 1990, when groups of Serbs had set up barricades across roads near Knin in another part of the country, Krajina. Armed incidents had already taken place: that Easter, a firefight in the Plitvice national park between Croatian police and rebels commanded by the Knin police chief, Milan Martic, had left one person dead on each side. The spread of violence into eastern Slavonia and the building of the Borovo Selo barricade Selo had come after the future Croatian defence minister, Gojko Susak, had fired rockets into Borovo Selo in what Laura Silber and Allan Little describe as ‘an unprovoked act of aggression’ against the local Serbs (The Death of Yugoslavia, p. 141).
Fear of where the rebellion and the countermeasures against it might lead had been growing since the Krajina barricades and the Plitvice gun battle. Yet even then, the visceral horror of the images from Borovo Selo seemed to change what it was possible to publicly say in Croatia. Journalists referring to the Serbs as ‘terrorists’ or ‘Chetniks’ – the nickname of the Serb royalist army during the Second World War, which had also massacred non-Serbs – became routine. In the field that I research, the entertainment industry, it was after Borovo Selo that the Croatian broadcaster stopped showing Serb musicians, even those such as the pop singer Zdravko Colic who had been acceptable as late as April 1991. After Borovo Selo, automatic suspicion of Serbs as national enemies could much more easily become ingrained common sense.
The video recorded on a smartphone in Woolwich a few minutes after the killing of Lee Rigby, a drummer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, approaches the horror of the pictures from Borovo Selo. The hands of the man claiming responsibility for the attack are still covered in blood. Both force the viewer to imagine the brutality of the killing; both depict the murder of victims who were killed because they served their state. Both are far beyond what a reader could normally expect to see on the front page of a newspaper in a time of peace.
Although many British newspapers used a still image from the recording on their front pages the day after the murder, The Guardian‘s use of the image was perhaps the most shocking. Filling the front page with the image, as The Guardian often does, the newspaper confronted readers with the photograph and a quotation from the alleged killer’s speech: ‘You people will never be safe.’ When taken up by a national newspaper, even more so by one that considers its editorial identity anti-racist, the words come perilously close to suggesting that a people – however this is going to be defined – is under immediate, planned attack, the same argument that has been put forward by the English Defence League since its formation in 2009.
On the evening of the killing, a remark apparently originating with a Metropolitan Police source that the attackers had been ‘of Muslim appearance’ was repeated by the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson (a comment for which he subsequently apologised). The Home Secretary, Theresa May, referred to the killing as ‘an attack on everybody in the United Kingdom’. The combination of words, images and commentary circulating in the British media in the aftermath of Woolwich, laid over the public ‘common sense’ about terrorist threats in the UK that has been built up throughout the War on Terror and especially since the 7/7 attacks in London, risked turning what was known about the immediate events – the attackers had claimed to have carried out the killing ‘because Muslims are dying every day’ – into a conclusion of collective guilt: Muslims are to blame.
Talking about guilt and aggression in collective terms creates an atmosphere in which the obstacles to someone’s decision to use violence come down. It can suggest that violence in revenge won’t be punished; that it will be condoned; that it will be justified; even, sometimes, that it counts as self-defence. Among the Guardian staff invited by the reader’s editor to comment on whether the front page had been appropriate, one staff member spoke about their fear that the Guardian’s use of the alleged killer’s quote would bring about precisely these results:
As someone with very religious Muslim family members in this country I watch press coverage of events like these closely, and often with a fair amount of fear. My mum, though she is one of the ‘you people’ in Thursday’s headline, lives in fear that she will become one of the ‘you people’ of the EDL’s chants.
In the five days after Woolwich, 71 hate crimes against Muslims were reported to UK police forces, including the attempted firebombing of a mosque in Grimsby (covered, like Hull, by the area of Humberside Police). A hotline operated by Faith Matters and the Tell MAMA Project has received reports of 201 incidents, ‘up from a daily average of four to six’. The EDL mobilised an unclear number of members – possibly 1,000, possibly more – to march through Westminster on Monday, easily outnumbering the anti-fascist counter-protestors who must now regroup before another far-right march from Woolwich to Lewisham on Saturday.
Many things set the killing in Woolwich apart from the massacre in Borovo Selo. In the background to each event are very different histories of discrimination, settlement, and relative power relations within and around the states where they took place. Their short-term backgrounds are very different, too, with a number and severity of incidents in the locality of Borovo Selo before the massacre that had not, thankfully, occurred in Woolwich. The Borovo Selo massacre took place within an ethnopolitical conflict where different authorities were claiming state sovereignty over territory; the far-right appropriation of Woolwich is an expression of anti-immigrant racism.
What connects them is a brutal killing, a horrific image, and what becomes more acceptable to say in public after the killing and the image become known.
In an academic context I would use the idea of the ‘collectivisation’ of threat or even guilt to explain some of the reactions it was possible to hear as news about the killing in Woolwich spread, and the increase in talk about Serb ‘terrorists’ and ‘Chetniks’ after the murders in Borovo Selo. It’s a thought process where members of a collective group, in this case a majority, recognise a threat as directed against the whole majority and coming from the whole of the minority that the killers belonged to rather than the immediate group that carried out the killing – whether the members of the militia who planned the ambush in Borovo Selo or however many people will be found to have arranged the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. And it is dangerous.
I started thinking through these parallels a day or two ago in conversation with bloggers @Puffles2010 and Sam Ambreen, who have both written about how the media’s sensationalisation of the Woolwich killing have increased the fear they feel as non-white people in Britain. Both refer to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian who was shot dead by police in 2005 who assumed, based on the colour of his skin, that he was one of the suspects for the 21/7 bombing:
[Nick] Robinson’s failure exposes a wider prejudice: the idea that you can judge someone’s religion by the colour of their skin. Once you get into that territory, you get into scenarios that cost Jean Charles de Menezes his life following 7/7. (@Puffles2010)
Jean Charles de Menezes was one of them. If we had any hopes of restitution post 9/11 (not from guilt but from between a rock and a hard place) the events of 7/7 dashed any chance of rebuilding the fearful paranoid Britain we found ourselves in. Menezes was not Muslim or South Asian, or an Arab. He just shared a similar tone of skin. What about his appearance made him look Muslim? Whatever it was, he paid with his life. (Sam Ambreen)
Sam also draws on my initial thoughts in part of a follow-up post she wrote after the EDL march on Monday. These writers, the Guardian staffer quoted by the readers’ editor, and many others, all have immediate reason to be afraid of being seen as part of a collective threat, and to vest those fears not just in the far right but also in the police. Ash Sarkar, in an update reblogged by Laurie Penny, wrote of her shock at seeing personal friends express hatred on Facebook when they heard of the attack:
I’ve seen people call for hanging, torture, extra-judicial killings, locking up/deporting all Muslims and attacks on mosques. These aren’t strangers on Twitter, but people I’ve grown up with: gone to school with, babysat for, and (in one case) kissed.
Hearing accounts like these (which deserve to be heard in full, rather than explained in a voice like mine – which, since I’m white and not a Muslim, can’t personally express the same degree of fear) points to a responsibility on the part of those of us who are being told we are collectively under attack not to contribute to collectivising guilt or threat any further if we reject the frame. The louder and safer the voice, the greater the responsibility.
Challenging hatred and the far right in the atmosphere that has become public with shocking speed since Woolwich seems a harder task, but also much more urgent, than it did before the Woolwich murder. Reading accounts of anti-fascist organising in Britain in the past, such as the Battle of Cable Street against the British Union of Fascists in 1936 or the resistance to the National Front in Lewisham in 1977, one wonders whether today’s movements would be able to organise similar numbers of people for action inherently more dangerous than the A-to-B marches that have characterised mainstream political protest in the 2000s and 2010s. At the same time, and just as urgently, we need to find ways to resist – and avoid replicating – the politics of collective guilt and threat that make direct violence more possible.
I could write this as a post about drafting three articles in four or five weeks. But actually they take a lot longer than that.
I have, nevertheless, found myself writing up three papers about very different things since the end of April. Late spring and early summer have ended up being my main conference season this year, so there would always have been some deadlines to meet in any case, but then I also agreed to join in a couple of collective efforts where my perspective could be useful, and then the whole thing turns into a game of deadline whack-a-mole, especially with student feedback and assessment on top.
One of the things I enjoy about my research profile as it’s developed is its versatility: when I can switch between different subjects quickly, I feel on top of my game, and it also creates a greater number of interesting modules I can teach than would have been the case if I’d stuck with just one strand of it. Although I work in a history department, I’ve also been part of a social sciences team, and my departmental base for research but not teaching in another institution was in Modern Languages. My regional focus is mainly south-east Europe and foreign interactions with the region, but I’m also finding more things to say about Britain, some of which I’m going to start to test in conference format after using blogging to explore them originally.
Hopefully, all three of these pieces will end up as journal articles, and depending on submission dates and the review process would be published in 2014 or 2015. For a UK academic, that’s good news, since 2014 marks the start of the next ‘REF period’, in which we all need to have four eligible publications of as high a quality as possible ready for the next Research Excellence Framework evaluation in 2020. 2020 is much too far away for me to know whether any of these three articles would be part of my REF submission (and that’s assuming that the REF would materialise in the form we expect it to), but keeping up a steady publication rate – something I’ve been doing since before I knew I was going to be working in higher education on an ongoing basis – removes pressure near the end of the ‘REF cycle’ to write something, anything.
The first piece is a paper on representations of the Balkans in the film adaptation of Coriolanus that Ralph Fiennes filmed in Serbia-Montenegro a few years ago (this link is to a detailed ‘idea map’ about the making of the film by Molli Amoli K Shinhat, which she told me about after I’d posted about the paper on Twitter). The look of the film draws heavily on news images from the Yugoslav wars, and even includes some archive footage from the wars themselves. Even though the director has billed it as a setting that ‘could be anywhere’, I’m arguing that the film depends on prior knowledge of the Balkans (or what viewers think they know about the Balkans) in order for it to make sense.
I wrote this for the International Feminist Journal of Politics conference earlier this month, which turned out to be an excellent place to give it, but I’ve had the idea since talking about the film with a historian friend during a conference in Denmark last year. Teaching on our department’s ‘Representing the Past in Film’ module, which I’ve been doing since October, also moved this paper up my priority list, although I’m not sure I’d use it if I was going to contribute to a film block in the module, except perhaps as part of something larger about place and space. Originally I thought I’d just write up a summary for the IFJP conference, with the intention of going back and expanding it later; as I started filling out the outline, though, I realised it was ready to draft in more or less its full form (apart from some material on Western identification with Rome that still needs to be added). That’s probably a sign it was ready to write in the first place.
The other two have needed a lot more preparatory work because, in one way or another, they were challenging me to engage with concepts I haven’t used before (which is part of the reason I wanted to do them). The second paper follows on from a conference paper I gave last December at an excellent workshop on ‘bringing class back in’ to the study of Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslavia, where I was talking about how far it’s possible to think of the local employees of international organisations in the region (including, but not limited to, interpreters for peacekeeping forces) as a distinctive socio-economic group. As a result of some discussions during and after the workshop, a research cluster asked me to be part of a special issue on their research theme. The struggle here was finding fresh data, and rather than referring primarily to interviews (which would have duplicated something else I was already working on), I ended up using two fictionalised memoirs by former interpreters as ways of opening up the wider issues that I wanted to talk about. I haven’t had the feedback on this paper yet (it’s likely to be coming in a couple of weeks), so still not sure how much more work it needs.
The third paper has put me through the most difficult writing process that I’ve had for several years. It’s supposed to be about various levels of collective identity in the study of post-Yugoslav popular music, and is intended for a music-focused special issue of an area studies journal. I’ve hit a series of obstacles in planning the article, going back to what now seems like a uselessly vague abstract I wrote last December, or even further back to thinking I could base it around a conference paper I gave last January when I already wasn’t fully engaged with the material I was talking about then, as well as my difficulties with a recent theoretical framework that I was supposed to be engaging with over the course of the paper. The breakthrough came partly through reading several unconnected books that seemed to work well with each other, but also through realising why I was having such serious problems understanding that framework (basically, my methodology, and quite possibly my mind, just doesn’t work like that – and then I could begin developing an argument underpinned by the reasons why it didn’t work like that). The paper has ended up being about the relationship between different collective identities than I thought it was going to be about – using data I was reminded of when I started setting up my music and politics web resource – and, as I write this, the issue editor hasn’t yet seen it, but I’m very glad we at least have something to revise…
None of these are large-scale projects, but I wouldn’t want to think of them as tangents either. There’s one on popular music, one on the international-organisation sector, and one on foreign interactions with south-east Europe, which is quite a good representation of my research interests. They also give a fair idea of how I tend to come up with publications. Nearly everything I’ve written as an academic output has started out as a conference paper; my first four articles were all part of special sections or issues based on the conference panel I’ve been part of. Although publishing too much in special issues can have drawbacks, I probably wouldn’t be publishing now if not for them. In particular, I owe a lot of my confidence in publishing my work to Denisa Kostovicova and Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic, who organised a conference on ‘transnationalism in the Balkans’ in 2004 and asked me to contribute my paper on popular music, which extended some of my Masters dissertation, to a special issue of Ethnopolitics based on the conference. (After various revisions, and some adventures in typesetting, the paper became this article in 2006.) Apart from a postgraduate workshop in Dubrovnik, this was the first time I’d presented a paper, and to have a benchmark for what publishable quality actually meant gave me something to aim towards with the 3-4 articles I spun off from my PhD.
(The Dubrovnik workshop is probably why I’m usually not too anxious about verbally presenting papers. Not many things about communicating research can be more nerve-wracking than presenting in a second language you’re still not very fluent in, in front of an eminent historian who also used to be the chief secretary of the Serbian Communist Party.)
These days, as I’m able to attend more conferences and as my networks have grown, the workflow often looks more like: conference where I was doing something else -> idea -> paper -> maybe a conference or two to try it out -> submission and publication -> thinking about something I didn’t quite manage to develop in the paper, which may lead me on to another idea in due course.
There are reasons why I’m able to work at this pace, and not all of them are very comfortable to talk about. Some of them are to do with my research always having been interdisciplinary, so that several academic audiences are equally important to me, and I don’t feel intimidated in adding new ones when I become conscious that I want to address them. This year, in the first year of my new post, I’ve had a reduced teaching load; my assessment load in May has been smaller than it would be otherwise, and the two bank holidays that happen to fall this month have been perfect for pushing on with difficult writing tasks. But also, I wasn’t self-funding a PhD, trying to find time for academic writing while researching part-time, working full-time hours in another job to keep up, or out of work at a time when I should have been building my post-doctoral publication record. I don’t have caring responsibilities or any emotional pressure to be home from work ‘on time’. I started my research trajectory when junior researchers didn’t have to compete for funding in order to pay the author fees for publishing in what their academic judgement told them was the most appropriate journal – and my reservation here isn’t so much ‘What if I wouldn’t have won the funding?’ but ‘How could I have been comfortable publishing what I wanted to publish and knowing that I was doing it at the expense of others who didn’t win?’
Even though I found the months between the end of my full-time contract in 2011 and being offered my current job in 2012 stressful, I still hit a lot of the privilege indicators Melonie Fullick flags up in this post on academic careers. Essentially, I get to play on a much easier difficulty setting.
So it’s my responsibility to turn this productivity into something more than a good publication record and personal benefit – and more so than ever, now that the stress of whether I’m going to find a job, and what kind of job I’m going to find, is gone. I need to keep making sure that the new ideas I work on refresh my teaching. I need to work on making my research accessible to publics outside higher education, not just in terms of ensuring that others can read the publications but also in communicating the ideas in different forms (one of the reasons I blog about Eurovision in May). Now that I’m in a post where I’m able to design projects over a longer space of time, I also need to conceive of research with public engagement built much more closely into it than I’ve done before. None of this is something I should do for my own sake.
And it all takes a lot longer than a week or two.
It may not seem this way once the first few pyrotechnic effects have gone off, but this year’s Eurovision Song Contest has been significantly reduced in scale. Since the early 2000s, a competition that used to take place in a theatre as a one-off on a Saturday night has become an event that showcases a host city and country for up to a fortnight, with a calendar of rehearsals and receptions filling up the time between the three live broadcasts – two semi-finals and a final over the course of a week – that make up the televised competition.
The feel of recent Eurovisions, including the contest in Athens that I visited in 2006, has had more and more in common with international sports tournaments. Indeed, both kinds of event are now sharing the same infrastructure: since 2000, when Eurovision was held at Globen in Stockholm, Eurovision has become an arena- rather than a theatre-based show, with obvious implications for the size of the audience, the amount of technical equipment needed to deliver a satisfying experience in person, and the scale of performance often thought to be necessary to get a strong reaction from the crowd. Athens 2006 took place in the Olympic basketball arena; the Baku Crystal Hall, built by Azerbaijan as the venue for the 2012 contest, would form part of the Olympic complex if a future hosting bid by Baku were to succeed.
Sociologists call these internationally-broadcast, nation-spotlighting moments ‘mega-events’. They’re opportunities for governments to engage in ‘nation-branding’ strategies: two classic cases, as Paul Jordan argues, being Estonia, which used its hosting of Eurovision in 2002 to reinforce its desired brand as a forward-thinking, democratic, European, technologically accomplished state, and Ukraine, where the theme for Kiev 2005 (‘Awakening’) evoked the narrative of the new Yushchenko government. The possible underside of international celebratory events – forced evictions and repressive policing of protest – has also come into play: notably, Moscow police broke up a Pride demonstration on the day of the Eurovision final in 2009, and several hundred households in Baku were reportedly forcibly evicted from the site where authorities planned to build the Crystal Hall.
Branding the nation for a fortnight, however, comes at a cost, and so does even sending and equipping a delegation to participate and compete in an event of the size that Eurovision has become. It’s a cost that broadcasters and cities find increasingly hard to justify. With public spending on essential services being cut so harshly and quickly that citizens are left in misery, can sending a song to represent the nation at a Europe-wide party really be justified?
Three regularly participating countries – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Portugal and Turkey – as well as the more intermittent Slovakia declined to enter a song in this year’s contest, and for some time the participation of Greece and Cyprus was also in understandable doubt. This year, the visual production costs incurred by the organisers have been cut in half, with hope that it will also reduce costs to future hosts. The multi-national promotional tours that serious Eurovision contenders have felt the need to engage in since Ruslana’s pre-victory campaign in 2004 (after all, why design a warrior princess extravaganza if you’re not going to tell anyone?) are meanwhile becoming a thing of the past, replaced with one-0ff appearances at strategically-chosen preview events such as this year’s promotional concert in Amsterdam.
Baku 2012 may go on to appear like an unmatchable peak – financed by an Azerbaijani government with oil wealth at hand, insulated from the financial crisis that has affected so many other national broadcasters and municipal authorities since 2008, and with an aggressive strategy to promote its capital as a world city.
Butterflies in the stomach?
With Eurovision leaking participants, and the idea of Europe as a political community becoming ever more battered in the aftermath of bailouts of southern European banks, it might seem ironic that the design of this year’s contest in Malmo foregrounds an image of European unity, based on the slogan ‘We Are One’.
Any risk of a fragmenting Europe is far away from what this branding asks the viewer to imagine. Instead, as the designers explain, the Malmo butterfly stands for unity in diversity:
Eurovision Song Contest is a shared project. It unites millions of people. In the East, West, North and South. Beyond all the glitter, there is a big idea. It’s about togetherness, diversity and happiness. [...] Butterflies have one common name, but exist in thousands of different shapes and colours. Just like the Eurovision Song Contest, one strong identity with a rich national diversities. Working together, we can achieve anything. – We are one.
Neither is it primarily putting Sweden in the spotlight. On the face of it, that couldn’t be further from the concept: the executive producer of this year’s contest, Martin Österdahl from the Swedish broadcaster SVT, has explicitly presented his approach to Malmo as a deliberate attempt to move away from the ‘nation-branding’ emphases of recent years. For Österdahl, quoted in a feature on the Eurovision website last October, using Eurovision to promote the nation in the way that has almost become customary appears to be no less than an undermining of the contest’s authentic values:
When Sweden hosts the Eurovision Song Contest, broadcaster SVT wants to direct a large part of the attention at the participating artists and countries. “Making Eurovision into something that just shows off Sweden doesn’t feel right, nor is it in line with the original idea of Eurovision”, says executive producer Martin Österdahl.
The Swedish organisational group aims to renew the Eurovision Song Contest and go back to the competition’s founding values: to bridge over cultural differences and emanate a message that all people are equal.
Martin Österdahl believes that there are a number of ways to put the core values into practice.
“To start off with, you can turn the focus away from using the program to market your own country at any cost, instead highlighting the diversity and wealth of all nationalities and cultures”, he says.
“We are going to be in Sweden and of course we need to explain this and show ourselves off. But it should not just be about our country, and we should not pat ourselves on the back and say that Sweden is best. We need to focus on all the countries taking part”.
Setting a precedent for lowering the costs to participating delegations, through measures such as reducing the length of the rehearsal period (thus cutting down delegations’ accommodation costs), supports SVT’s approach to Eurovision by ensuring that as many countries as possible are able to take part. Uniquely among mega-events – not even a one-off event like the UEFA Champions’ League final goes to last year’s victor – Eurovision presents the winner with not only an honour but a liability, since the right to host is automatically awarded to the previous winner rather than being awarded through a bidding process.
Apocryphal stories of broadcasters deliberately trying not to win so as not to have to bear the costs of hosting are common (and, after Ireland’s three victories in a row in the mid-1990s, provided the plot engine for one of the best-known episodes of Father Ted). As financial constraints on public broadcasters have increased yet the number of broadcasters interested in participation has grown, Eurovision organisers are increasingly facing a stark choice: a premium contest with few entrants, or a cheaper contest with more? It’s a decision that needs to be consciously made if the Eurovision concept isn’t to fall apart.
There are strong practical reasons, then, for Österdahl’s reorientation of the purpose. Yet at the same time, rejecting the emphasis on promoting the nation itself gives a certain impression of the nation: that it’s a country where overt, state-stimulated nation-branding isn’t necessary. In short, perhaps, that Sweden isn’t Russia, or (another potential headache for the Eurovision organisers) Belarus. Or Azerbaijan. Especially not that.
The importance of not being Azerbaijan
In 2012, when Sweden won Eurovision in Azerbaijan, it would have been hard to find two more opposed approaches to the relationship between the media, the state and the public within the Eurovision area. The Swedish representative, Loreen, was the only Eurovision contestant to have visited human rights activists in Baku during the rehearsal period, and commented: ‘These are people who have been through a lot and they should get to tell their stories [...] It will be the other side of the front that is being shown. It is a strong front, it is as beautiful as anything, but what happens in the cracks?’
İctimai Televiziya’s staging of the contest in Baku was about magnificence, the conspicuous consumption of energy and space. For a brief moment during the final, however, SVT managed to subvert the grandeur by having the Swedish votes read out by Sarah Dawn Finer’s comedy character Lynda Woodruff – a stereotypical ‘little Englander’ who has somehow become a European Broadcasting Union official despite not wanting to know anything about Europe, least of all (as the presenters would find out) how to pronounce ‘Azerbaijan’.
Distancing SVT’s organisation of Eurovision from the self-promotion of an authoritarian regime is perhaps only to be expected. Several moments in the run-up to this year’s contest would have been highly unlikely , to say the least, last year in Baku: the local police explicitly informing visiting delegations that Sweden permits the right to demonstrate, or the moderator of an official press conference challenging the representative from Belarus about her home government’s attitude to freedom of expression.
Yet the very lack of overt branding around one central narrative is a branding statement, and one that Sweden is uniquely skilled at putting across. Democracy and plurality are core values in Sweden’s highly successful strategy of promoting the nation through social media, where since 2011 an assortment of Swedish residents have been adding their perspectives to a multi-layered depiction of Sweden through the world’s most-followed ‘rotation curation’ Twitter account. The @sweden phenomenon presents the nation as the sum of many individualistic and often contradictory voices; its organisers have kept faith even when curators have taken the account into what many communications officers would regard as high-risk territory, such as commenting on Sweden’s attempts to extradite Julian Assange (different curators have spoken both for and against) or Sonja Abrahamsson’s decidedly off-message comments about Jews.
A recent study by Christian Christensen (£) suggests there are limits to the image of diversity that @sweden puts forward. Curators must already have access to the internet, be active Twitter users and be able to post in English; they must then be nominated by a third party and approved by the Curators of Sweden panel. A copy of the @sweden guidelines Christensen has obtained suggest to him that the project encourages – even if it does not always get – ‘polite, nonaggressive, nonpolitical, uncontroversial views which help to give a certain image of Sweden’ (p. 42). For Christensen, @sweden is in fact ‘an illuminating example of the carefully planned and managed promotion and nation-branding of Sweden, presented under the guise of a “transparent” and “democratic” selection and editorial processes’ (p. 31). Nation-branding, then, would not be so absent from Swedish values after all, even though in comparison to Azerbaijan, Russia or Belarus it would be manifested in a very different way.
Crisis? What crisis?
Malmo 2013′s proclamation that ‘we are one’ addresses a continent where the concept of Europe as a ‘shared project’ reaching ‘millions of people’ appears even more tattered than it did twelve months ago when Sweden won the right to host. Reactions in the German media to the southern European bank bailouts have re-activated stereotypes of Mediterranean ‘laziness’ and ‘indolence’; the mid-2000s utopianism of EU enlargement – which reached its high point in 2004, the same year that Eurovision added a semi-final to accommodate all interested participants, including the growing number from eastern Europe – has stalled and is at risk of being rolled back; the idea of leaving the EU has accelerated into mainstream public discourse in the UK so quickly that resident EU citizens now sense rights they had taken for granted coming under attack. Eurovision as a technical organisation is distinct from the EU as a political institution, but has drawn from a common reservoir of language about unity and integration in order to make its flagship annual event make sense.
Altering the scale of the Eurovision Song Contest to celebrate diversity on the grounds that ‘we are one’ might seem like an attempt to ‘invent’ a tradition in Eric Hobsbawm’s sense – that new traditions are invented to ‘establish continuity with a suitable historic past’, when in fact there has been severe rupture between then and now. At the same time, however, Eurovision has been living with the political and economic impact of the financial crisis on Europe for some years, and what television viewers see represented during the songs themselves may not be all too different from previous years: while I was writing this post, a photo caption posted by the BBC Eurovision page on Facebook promised that tonight’s semi-final would contain ‘[a] real life giant, glitterball spaceships, topless bodhrán-wielding drummers and a dress that bursts into flames’ (this last does so at approximately two minutes into the song by Aliona Moon, with unfortunate overtones of one of Katniss Everdeen’s entrances during The Hunger Games).
Whether next year’s Eurovision develops the Malmo approach, repeats the Baku model or hovers somewhere in between will depend on which country’s entry wins on Saturday, the political relationship of its broadcaster with the state, the priorities of its government, and the amount of money the broadcaster, host city and country is prepared to commit or borrow in order to realise its plan – a level of uncertainty which is ironed out of any other mega-event where hosting rights are awarded years in advance. For the European Broadcasting Union, and for millions of viewers, the chief concern is likely to be continuity: does anything more need to be changed to ensure the sustainability of Eurovision, year on year?
It’s a wonder that nobody so far has been discussing legacy…