Category Archives: What I've been listening to

Podcast: The Octoroon and Other Fantasies

I wish I could just pop over to The Jewish Museum of London to see their current exhibition ‘Blood’, which is open until 28 February 2016. Being on the other side of the world, there’s little chance of that happening, but it looks fascinating.

The next best option is to listen to Professor Roger Luckhurst, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birbeck, University of London. He  gave a presentation there on 26 November 2015 which riffed on the topic of blood, called ‘Blood Fractions: The Octoroon and Other Fantasies’.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the slave trade, colonial administration and racial science developed a whole structure and language for calculating the precise mixture of blood in the offspring of white Europeans and their subject populations. The official line was that mixing was impossible, but the improvised language of ‘half-bloods’, ‘quadroons’, ‘octoroons’, and other terms suggested otherwise. This was the vast mixed population that existed ‘beyond the pale.’ In Victorian culture, the octoroon (a person with one-eighth black blood) was a kind of vanishing point, a focus of anxiety about detecting the taint of ‘bad’ blood. While in the twentieth century, the Nazis sought to protect ‘pure’ German blood from becoming tainted by the blood of Jews. In this talk Professor Luckhurst explores literary and cultural representations of mixed bloods.

You can hear it at Backdoor Broadcasting at

http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/11/roger-luckhurst-blood-fractions-the-octoroon-and-other-fantasies/

After warning that much of his talk would be offensive and placed in air quotes, he starts with a digression on Dracula before moving on to the gradations of colour described in the literature of slave owners.  Calculations down to 1/512th ‘negro’ heritage were reflected in some of the sensation literature of the day, but were revisited in the research justifying the anti-semitism of Nazi Germany.  Lest we think that such concepts are firmly cemented in the past, he closes by looking at the blood quantum laws that define membership in some Native American nations today.

A wide-ranging and interesting podcast.

Podcast: Margaret Bird on time consciousness in 18th century England

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Backdoor Broadcasting has a wonderful archive of  UK academic podcasts on a wide range of topics.  I enjoyed listening to historian Margaret Bird from Royal Holloway, University of London, speaking on “Inculcating an appreciation of time pressure in the young: the training of children for working life in 18th-century England.”

Abstract: The rearing of children has been a topic at the centre of academic debate since the Annales historian Philippe Ariès analysed le sentiment de l’enfance in 1960.
Margaret Bird’s exploration of the tensions between respecting children as individuals and the need to hurry them into maturity for working life relates to the mercantile and manufacturing class in England. Understanding time pressure, as in expecting six-year-olds to watch the clock, formed part of their moulding as useful members of society. Time-conscious capitalism and Calvinism lay behind much of the thinking. It draws in part on the newly published diary of Mary Hardy, wife of a farmer and manufacturer.

Bird challenges E. P. Thompson’s assertion that time-consciousness was a result of industrialization. Instead she argues that during the 18th century, before the rise of large-scale industrialization, middle-class mercantile families had a strong consciousness of time and inculcated it into their children from a very early age.  She uses as her source the family diary of Mary Hardy (see website), the wife of a Norfolk farmer, master and brewer. She kept a diary for 36 years, running to half a million words, detailing family life and business operations on a daily basis.A second diary penned by her apprentice covers four of those years. Working on the Mary Hardy diaries has been a long-term project (25 years!) for Margaret Bird, who has editted and published them in a four-volume set, with a detailed commentary to come.

It’s a lively presentation by someone who obviously loves her project, well-integrated into the academic literature.  The website has the powerpoint images that were shown during the presentation, and the question time that follows.

Podcast: Linda Colley on Magna Carta

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The Magna Carta has had a Big Year Out in 2015, the 800th anniversary of its signing.  A search on ABC Radio National’s webpage will bring up lots of podcasts and programs, and arguably there’s quite enough podcasts about Magna Carta already.

But I was rather taken by this one delivered by historian Linda Colley in 2014 from Backdoor Broadcasting.

Professor Linda Colley CBE (Shelby M. C. Davis 1958 Professor of History, Princeton University) – Magna Carta in British History: Memory, Inventions and Forgetting

Abstract: 2015 will witness celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Yet how this iconic text has been understood, used and commemorated has changed markedly over the centuries, not just in England, but throughout the British Isles and in the one-time British Empire. This lecture explores some of these shifts over time, and discusses how – and how far – the cult that evolved around this text can be related to the UK’s lack of a written constitution.

She explores the nature of the Magna Carta as a written product and physical artefact and juxtaposes it with the American constitution.  It’s delivered very (very) slowly and deliberately, and takes it as a historical and political phenomenon rather than a strictly legal one.  Linda Colley (author of Britons and the excellent The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh which I reviewed here)  is a historian of empire, and so she particularly deals with the influence of Magna Carta on nineteenth century colonies.

ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum: From Invasion to Federation

Last Monday 20 October I attended a panel forum presented by the ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum, the first of four that will be conducted over the next year. This first one dealt with the era from Invasion to Federation; the next one planned for March 2015 will look at Federation to 1920; another in August will cover  1920s-60 and in October from the 1960s into the future.  Judging from the first session, the series has certainly got off to a good start.

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Given the time span delineated in this first forum, I expected Henry Reynolds to speak on the frontier wars between settlers and indigenous people, but he didn’t.  Instead, he spoke on the work he is currently undertaking on the Boer War (1899-1902), which coincided with Federation.  His presentation focussed on the Federation celebrations held in Sydney during the first weeks of  January 1901.

Australia had a great deal to celebrate. Along with New Zealand, it had the highest per capita income and better distributed housing and education than anywhere else in the world. It had strong institutions, a burgeoning labour movement that was represented at the political level, and a constitution adopted by referendum twice. It was one of the most advanced democracies in the world.  And yet, it was as if they (we?) didn’t know how to celebrate political achievements.

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Instead, the celebration was trumped by the military.  The Australian colonial troopers were engaged in the Boer War, the newspapers were full of military news, and when the returned soldiers marched in the Federation parades, it became a celebration of military might rather than political achievement.  The mother country had sent out a large contingent of  grandly decked-out imperial troops in what Reynolds suggests was a deliberate statement.  There was an emphasis on the glamour of war, empire and aristocracy, and the largest cheers were for Lord Hopetoun, the Governor-General.  Even then, there was the anxious pride that we be seen to be ‘punching above our weight’- an ongoing trope of insecurity that we’ve heard voiced again recently.  The newly federated Australia gambled on the permanent continuation of the empire, but it was an empire in decline.  We were a nation defined by race and culture rather than continent.  The sad reality is that India was always more important than Australia.

Reynolds was followed by Anna Clark from UTS who has been working for several years on the process of history-making, particularly in schools. Her interest is “historical inheritance”: not just what we produce, but what we consume.  History is to the nation, she says, as memory is to the individual.  The histories we create are inherently selective, speaking to the concerns of the current generation.

She spoke of her own family history, which she had understood to be that of an honorable pioneering family.  It was only when she realized that a massacre of an aboriginal woman and children on the O’Connell plains occured on her family’s property, that she came to question this family ‘truth’. Five men were charged for the massacre, and all were acquitted. This was her family.

Forgetting and the deliberate withholding of history is never benign, even though it may driven by motives of ‘protecting’ the family.  Especially in light of the recent recommendations about curriculum that call for “imparting historical knowledge and understanding central to the discipline instead of expecting children to be historiographers”, there is a danger that we will forget that histories are always constructed, subjective and incomplete.

Then, Tony Moore from Monash spoke about his recent publication ‘Death or Liberty’ (review to follow when I finish reading it!), which will form the basis of an ABC documentary next year.

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The European historian George Rude estimated that there were 3000 political prisoners sent out to the Australian colonies, and Moore’s work examines these discontents of Empire who are often revered in their source countries but largely unknown here in Australia.  He emphasized the transnational radical scene of which they were a part, with an emphasis on the Scottish martyrs, which is appropriate given that the forum was being held in the Melbourne Unitarian Church (Thomas Fyshe Palmer, one of the martyrs, was a Unitarian minister).  Some of these political prisoners returned home, published and even became public or political figures in their home countries which had earlier sent them to the 19 century equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.  Some chose to stay in Australia.  The post-federation national focus has blinded us to the internationalism of these political figures.

Finally Clare Land spoke about solidarity between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in the indigenous struggle in pre-Federation Victoria.  She focussed on two people: Ann Bon, a critic and then member of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, and John Green, the manager at Coranderrk mission at Healesville.  She questioned what it meant (and means today) to be an ally of the Aboriginal people of south-eastern Australia.  Always it is about land, but also constitutional reform (the referendum then, the Recognize campaign today).

The question-and-answer session that closed the evening was interesting. It is a sobering thought that Australia will be spending $325 million on the commemoration of the centenary of Gallipoli.  That’s two hundred times what the UK is spending and twenty times the expenditure of New Zealand on the same event.   Henry Reynolds left us with the observation that perhaps the ease of returning Australian troops to Iraq today has been made easier by this well-funded, twenty-year campaign to glorify war. (Again, I urge you to read his recent article ‘Militarism Marches On’ available here).  This ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum, and the ones to follow, is just one step in countering this expensive, swaggering campaign.

The Seymour Biography Lecture: Ray Monk

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“How Can I be a Logician before I’m a Human Being?” The Role of Biography in the Understanding of Intellectuals, Seymour Biography Lecture, 22 September 2014

“I don’t even know who this guy is….” I thought while RSVPing for the Seymour Biography lecture in Melbourne, held last night.  When I looked the books he’s written, I understand why.  While I’ve read many historical and literary biographies, I must confess to not being overly attracted to biographies of philosophers and scientists.  However, in my own work on Judge Willis, I share the problem of working on a man who has a body of work in the intellectual realm (in my own case, an accumulation of addresses to a jury and written judgements) which, while abstract and de-personalized (in a way that, perhaps, a fiction oeuvre for a writer is not), is also integral to his own identity.

Ray Monk is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton, coming from a background in the philosophy of mathematics. Although his four works are based on philosophers and, more recently, a scientist, he does not believe that biography necessarily contributes to an understanding of all philosophers and moreover, that you can’t evaluate the philosophy in terms of the life of its proponent.   However, he was attracted to write about Wittgenstein after reading two very different appraisals of Wittgenstein’s work and concluding that, if these writers had understood Wittgenstein as a man, they would not have developed particular misunderstands in their analysis.

In a very academic-y way, he investigated the methodology of biography writing before embarking on his biography of Wittgenstein.   In effect, he followed Biography 101, commencing with classical biographies,  Samuel Johnson and Boswell, Virginia Woolf, and ending up with Richard Ellman’s Oscar Wilde and Andrew Hodge’s Turing: The Enigma as exemplars for his own work.

In his presentation, he focussed on Johnson’s own reflections on biography that he expressed through two articles ‘Biography’ in The Rambler in 1750 and ‘On Biography’ in The Idler 1759.  He addressed five questions from Johnson:

1. What is the relation between biography of other genres, most particularly history and fiction?  His answer- there’s an overlap.

2. Who deserves a biography? Many philosophers don’t live sufficiently interesting lives to warrant a biography, he said.

3. What details to include? He mentioned that there were facts that he had omitted from his two-volume work on Russell – a publication that he seemed oddly apologetic about.  He explained that had he included them, they would have completely skewed the response to the book, and so he omitted them.

4. What are the moral responsibilities of the biographer? He identified three- to the subject; to the public and to the truth. Although he nominated the ultimate responsibility to the truth, he noted that surviving relatives often have a stake as well.

5. Can one know the inner life?  Johnson believed that this was not possible: “By conjecture only can one man judge of another’s motives or sentiments”. Monk disputed this very 18th century view, giving examples in his books where he had looked to action as a window on the inner life.

There is a particular challenge, I think, in writing biographies of intellectuals, as opposed to biographies of politicians or literary figures.  There is the content of their philosophy, as well as their own life as part of a familial, historical and intellectual milieu.  Monk noted the tendency of academic biographers, in particular, to give a quote from the philosopher’s work then in the following paragraph to proceed to paraphrase and explain it. Just leave the quote alone, he advised.

He noted that a biography is not just a collection of facts: that the facts need to be shaped, and that the biographer has a point of view. He finished with a very Wittgensteinian idea that is particularly applicable to biography-writing “The understanding that exists in seeing connections”.

There’s a very good review from the Guardian (10/11/12) of his Oppenheimer book which also discusses Monk as a biographer. You’ll get a good taste of the lecture from this article.

More:

I’ve been frustrated in the past that the Seymour Biography Lecture has been delivered in Canberra and, as far as I’m aware, not in Melbourne as well. But I’ve just found podcasts or transcripts of recent lectures on the NLA site. Ah, isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?

RHSV Conference: The Other Face of War: Victorians and the Home Front

[A personal reflection]

A good  conference has a scope broad enough to bring multiple perspectives to the topic, but it is also defined closely enough for the threads and themes that emerge out of individual papers to weave something larger.  The Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV) conference on Friday 8th August and Saturday 9th August 2014 succeeded on both counts. Continue reading

AHA Rethinking Indigenous Histories podcast

You might remember that I blogged about the Rethinking Indigenous Histories panel at the recent AHA conference that I attended in Wollongong.

The podcast of the session is now available at Radio National’s Big Ideas page.

The panel, chaired by Richard Broome, Emeritus Professor of History at La Trobe University  included:

Professor John Maynard
Director of the Wollotuka Institute of Aboriginal Studies, University of Newcastle. He is a Worimi man from the Port Stephens region of New South Wales and currently holds an ARC Australian Research Fellowship (Indigenous).
Professor Tim Rowse
School of Humanities and Communication Arts, University of Western Sydney
Professor Marcia Langton AO
Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne
Professor Ann McGrath
Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University.