Jay Winter on war, memory and silence

This week, we teamed up with the Connecting Memories Research Initiative in the School of Literature, Languages and Culture to bring Jay Winter (Yale) to Edinburgh. Almost a hundred people came to hear one of the world’s leading experts on the history of memory talk about war and silence. You can read Anita Klingler’s report on the talk below. You can also listen again via Audiomack or on the CSMCH podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ in your favourite podcast app).  

Jay began his talk by emphasising that, although there has been a “memory boom” within the historical profession, the term still has not been adequately analysed. Furthermore, he also posited that his central claim – namely, that “language frames memory” – required further analysis. Memory, as Jay reminded the audience, comes in many forms, among them visual, auditory, textual, or intertextual.

The main focus of the talk, however, was on just one domain of, specifically, auditory memory, namely silence. Jay proposed that the link between silence and the psychological injury resulting from the First World War, generally referred to as shell shock, must be examined more closely. He stated his conclusion early on, which was that there was a significant discrepancy between the official estimates of the numbers of shell-shocked British soldiers, and the real numbers of men who suffered this psychological injury.

Jay introduces the concept of silence

In this context, it is also crucial to note that the First World War did of course not end on 11 November 1918, but continued on, in various guises of revolution and civil war, and with extreme levels of violence, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Jay spoke of a resulting “civilianisation” of war in those areas, again raising the numbers of people directly affected by the psychological damage of war.

While shell shock had many different symptoms – among them stupor, paralysis, trembling, and nervous collapse – one of its manifestations was silence. Jay identified three different types of silence:

    1. Firstly, the silence of those who cannot speak, either because the war left them mute, or, more significantly, because they did not think anyone would listen to what they had to say.
    2. Secondly, Jay listed the silence of those who choose not to speak, either due to gender codes which forbid, especially, men to speak about certain physical and even more so psychological injuries, or due to a general reluctance to relive the past; or to cover up the past for personal or political reasons.
    3. The third silence was the silence of groups, or collective silence, which occurs when a group agrees to not speak about certain subjects either in public or in private. Importantly, Jay stressed that silence was not the same as forgetting; just because a memory was silent, did not mean that it was not present.

Jay then went on to identify a number of different social constructions of silence, as well as domains of silence. He traced the construction of silences from their creation in a social space, via the price paid by those who transgress these social rules, to the way that, once the silence is broken, the taboo subject becomes a matter of discussion and debate, and, usually, the subject’s taboo status does not last long. As an example, he pointed towards Spain’s ongoing struggles to come to terms with the crimes of its Francoist past.

As the domains of silence, the places where silence exists and what it looks like, Jay listed four key areas. These were:

    • liturgical silence, accounting for certain topics, such as the presence of evil in the world, which believers know not to ask about;
    • political silence, which denies political crimes or errors;
    • essentialist silence, which Jay used to describe the idea, that only those who lived through an experience can adequately describe or speak about it;
    • and lastly, familial silence, an unspoken agreement never to speak of certain family conflicts.

Each of these silences relates to war in particular ways, posing questions such as: How are the cruelties of war possible if God is good? How should a state or society treat war criminals? Can only soldiers understand war? And most significantly for this paper, how did the things left unsaid by shell-shocked soldiers affect their families, especially their wives and children, who often had to suffer under the violence meted out by their silent, traumatised but undiagnosed, husband or father?

In analogy to J.L. Austin’s notion of performative speech acts, Jay characterised silence as a performative non-speech act, the silent performance of the terror endured during the war. He suggested that, while official estimates put the percentage of shell-shocked British soldiers in the First World War at 2%, the real figure was closer to 20-40%. To arrive at this estimate, he compared the official estimates of shell shock at the Battle of Gallipoli with official estimates from other battles, for example the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, which he considered similar in intensity of fighting but where numbers of shell shock diagnoses were notably higher.

This method led him to conclude that between 4-8 million British soldiers suffered from shell shock as a result of the First World War. If the average family size was assumed at three, he continued, this would bring the number of people affected by shell shock, either directly or via a family member, to 12-24 million people.

Jay was passionate about the impact that this discrepancy had, and continues to have, on those men affected, their families, and British society more generally. It was militarily opportune for the British Army during the First World War not to admit to higher numbers of shell shock, as this would have had an adverse effect on recruitment; this tendency, Jay implied, continues today. His thesis was that Britain had never recovered from the First World War, and that the collective silence about the real damage done by it continued to affect people today, the descendants of World War I veterans, as well as the families of current active service members.

Jay also explored several moving literary examples of silences becoming manifest in the writings of Ted Hughes and Anna Akhmatova. He ended his talk by indicating some of the goals he hopes that his research will achieve, including meaningful change regarding how psychological damage is dealt with in the armed forces.

The talk was followed by a brief comment by the founder of the Connecting Memories research initiative, Paul Leworthy, and a stimulating, wide-ranging question and answer session with the audience.

Anita Klingler is a PhD student in History. Her research interests lie broadly in twentieth century European history, political and colonial violence, and coming to terms with a violent past. Her thesis compares attitudes towards political violence in interwar Britain and Germany.

Julia Nicholls on the French revolutionary tradition

In this week’s seminar, we looked at one of the most paradigmatic countries of revolution: France. We hosted Julia Nicholls (King’s College London) who presented part of her excellent new book on the development of the French revolutionary tradition after the Paris Commune of 1871. Calum Aikman sends this report – and you can listen again to Julia’s talk via the Audiomack link below or on the CSMCH podcast channel.

It is impossible to consider modern France without ruminating on the impact that ‘the Revolution’ has had on the nation’s fortunes. Historians have long considered it to be the dominant theme, the leitmotif through which the recent past can be understood – so much so that the word itself has taken on an almost omnipresent significance, and is used to refer not just to the famous events of 1789 and the following decade, but to all those insurrections that erupted in imitation throughout the nineteenth century.

But what did being a ‘revolutionary’ mean at a time when Revolution – in any shape or form – no longer seemed feasible? It is this question that Julia sought to answer in her paper, by concentrating on the decade following the collapse of the Paris Commune, the last of the great ‘revolutionary’ episodes, in 1871.

She began by arguing that conventional historiography frequently portrays late-nineteenth century revolutionaries as caught on the horns of a dilemma – they were, it is said, either compelled to struggle onwards in pursuit of an imagined future, at a time when their prospects were dim, or risk becoming trapped by the fervent need to worship the past.

Julia thinks this is an unproductive false dichotomy: many revolutionary activists were actually willing to critically reassess their tradition, and did so in a way that disentangled the Revolution as an idea from its specifically French context. At the same time, however, they remained conscious of the pervasive influence the Revolution still had in late nineteenth-century France. This resulted in an apparent paradox, for although the revolutionaries continued to embrace the legacy bequeathed by the Revolution, some were also sceptical of the claims that were made in its name.

So how did this manifest itself in practice? Instead of paying endless homage to the revolutionary tradition or futilely chasing their utopian visions, Julia claimed that the revolutionaries became fixated on trying to shape the character of the new Third Republic. Having been led by supporters of the monarchy in the immediate aftermath of the Paris Commune, from the late 1870s the Republic was in the hands of a moderate republican government.

Although egalitarian in sentiment, the refusal of the republicans to support the Commune had prompted accusations from the radical left that their apparently progressive bona fides amounted to ‘opportunism’, and Julia argued that once in power the government courted popularity among different electoral groups by seeking to tame the Revolution and make it ‘respectable’ – extolling its historical virtues on behalf of the liberal bourgeoisie, while simultaneously reassuring both conservatives and reactionary Catholics that it had ceased to present any kind of danger.

This Janus-faced strategy, which venerated Revolution but refrained from trying to actually re-establish it, unsurprisingly provoked radical activists such as the Marxist propagandist Gabriel Deville, who later claimed that the ‘public love and respect’ for the Revolution was merely ‘a trick of the eye’. Rather than respond with their own uncritical celebrations of the Revolution, however, the revolutionaries tried to ensure its relevance by placing it in a broader historical context. Many writers sought to trace the heritage of French revolutionary thought by drawing inspiration from events that occurred long before 1789, citing the inspiration of Spartacus and the popular hero Etienne Marcel among others. They also pursued their own alternative concept of Revolution, one which was based on ideas of wholesale social transformation rather than the parliamentary reformism of the republican government. Their ultimate aim, Julia said, was to provide an alternative, viable definition of what the Revolution could still be.

Julia expanded her ideas further by drawing attention to the example set by Louis Auguste Blanqui – at the time one of the leading intellectuals on the French revolutionary left. Blanqui’s work was influential, and became part of a shared discourse that involved many other political activists. But even he was affected by the environment that prevailed after 1871, as was demonstrated by his reconceptualisation of revolutionary politics during this period. In an influential text he wrote on standing armies, for instance, he drew inspiration not from the Revolution, but from the ‘grandeur’ of ancient Republics and America during the Civil War.

Nonetheless, Julia pointed out that the Commune did not unleash a fundamental change in Blanqui’s thought, but merely exacerbated a sceptical outlook that had existed long beforehand: as early as 1851, he wrote a toast to French exiles in London deploring those who revered the Revolution without any restraint, which he saw as leading to a ‘hail of bullets – and poverty always!’

Emile commenting on Julia’s paper

Commenting on behalf of the CSMCH, Emile Chabal (Edinburgh) struck an emollient tone, expressing his sympathy towards the main thrust of the arguments presented in the paper. But he felt that the notion of ‘tradition’ could have been examined more closely. Perhaps what Julia highlighted was an example of an ‘invented tradition’, he mused, a conglomeration of myths and realities that were vying to outflank each other?

With that in mind, he went on to outline three points for further consideration: first, that there is perhaps a difference between the ‘tradition of Revolution’ and the ‘inspiration of Revolution’; second, that temporality is important, with revolutionaries often using the past to justify their view of the future; and, finally, that geographical distance can often preserve a tradition that has been either subverted or diluted in its homeland.

Calum Aikman is a PhD student in History. His research mostly focuses on twentieth-century British and Scottish politics, trade union history and the fortunes of the Labour Party in the post-war era. His thesis is on the political thought of the Labour Party’s ‘revisionist’ right wing in the 1970s. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

CSMCH Discussion Group on Spanish history and politics

In the light of the upcoming elections in Spain on 10 November and the recent exhumation of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen, postgraduate steering committee members Marina Moya Moreno and Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz organised a CSMCH Discussion Group on historical memory in Spain. The discussion opened with a screening of the award-winning documentary The Silence of Others. Iker sends this report of the event. 

In recent times in Europe, the painful and troubled past has been at the centre of many political narratives. Nostalgia for a better past, or troubled relations with the recent post-dictatorial past in Eastern Europe, has somehow darkened European optimism since 2008. Spain has been no exception to this trend, and from 2010 there has been a growing social movement seeking historical justice for the victims of Francoism.

Given recent developments in Spanish politics, Marina and I decided to organise this discussion group to highlight and discuss what has been happening. Coincidentally, our event took place just one day after Franco’s remains were exhumed from the Valley of the Fallen, one of the biggest legacies of post-Franco dictatorship. Given this context, the initial discussion was on the rise of the far-right party Vox, which remembers proudly both the Civil War and the dictatorship as a struggle against the enemies of Spain, mainly the Communists and the “independentists”.

After that, we screened the documentary ‘The Silence of Others’, released last year. The documentary explores the struggle of the victims of Franco’s regime, who seek recognition to this day. Filmed over six years, the director follows survivors of the dictatorship as they organise the ‘Querella Argentina’ (Argentinian Complaint) and confront the ‘Pacto de Olvido’ (‘Pact of Forgetting’) in a country that remains divided after four decades of democracy.

The film explores three kind of victims: people who were looking for missing family members who were shot in the Civil War or immediately after, and who were buried in mass graves all over Spain; people who were tortured during the dictatorship and seek justice toward the people who tortured them; and finally, the case of the stolen babies, a practice which continued after the end of  the dictatorship, but which originated  during the civil war. Inspired by Nazi eugenics, it was premised on the belief that children born from communist families were sick and could only be made healthy by taking them away from their families and educating them in the values of the Spanishness (Hispanidad).

The documentary screening was followed by a discussion of some of the elements it covered. The first thing discussed was the issue of victims. The documentary explores how justice and memory have been denied to victims. The pact of forgetting approved in 1977 sought to close off any possibility of looking for justice. Since then, this denial of judicial redress for the victims has held firm, so that victims had to seek justice in Argentina.

One of the points that was raised by the participants was how the documentary emphasises the emotional significance for victims of achieving justice, and how the Spanish experience is not unique. There are other examples in other parts of Europe and the world (i.e. Argentine, Chile, Peru, Poland, Italy, etc).

Marina Moya Moreno introduces the film ‘The Silence of Others’

A second problem raised by the documentary that informed our discussion was the absence of attention to the positions of Spanish political parties on historical memory. While there is a strong focus on how the People’s Party (PP) has always opposed any historical justice, others parties like the Socialist party (PSOE), Citizens (Ciudadanos) and Podemos, were totally absent from this documentary. The documentary lacked a deeper representation of what other parts of Spanish society thought about historical justice. While some of the families’ victims didn’t want to “remove” the past, the documentary portrayed their concerns as a lonely battle against state and society.

Finally, we explored how other European countries have faced post-dictatorship memories. The main example was Germany. In the documentary, the main characters often cited Germany as an example of the kind of managing of historical memory they would wish for Spain. However, as some people in the audience pointed out, the process was not as easy in Germany as the documentary seemed to suggest, and it did not include any reference to what is happening today with the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland).

In conclusion, our discussion underlined how citizens of democratic states that have suffered from dictatorship manage memory and justice in post-dictatorship contexts. As many of us who are Europeans were reminded, our troubled past needs to be continually reflected upon and dealt with in order to construct a more democratic and inclusive continent.

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977). He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

Introducing Martina Reiterová

The CSMCH regularly hosts visiting postgraduate students. This year, we’re very pleased to be welcoming Martina Reiterová, who will be spending two months with us pursuing her research on Celtic revivalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this post, she tells us more about herself and her work.

Thank you for having me – I am very excited to be part of your Centre, even though it is only for two months.

I am starting my third year of a Ph.D. at Charles University, Prague, under the supervision of Jaroslav Ira, assistant professor at the Seminar of General and Comparative History. This is also where I completed my undergraduate studies. For my Master’s, I was awarded an Erasmus Mundus Scholarship to study at Eötvos Loránd University in Budapest and the EHESS in Paris.

This autumn, I am a Visiting Research Postgraduate Student in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Edinburgh, thanks to the CSMCH director, Emile Chabal, who kindly agreed to supervise me. My visit to Scotland is being funded by the Anglo Czech Educational Fund.

The main objective of my research is to explore the process of formation of collective representation at the turn of the 20th century in the Celtic countries under the influence of local revivalist movements. I compare the particular case studies of Breton, Irish, Scottish and Welsh revivalist groups and their representational strategies to reveal how forms of collective representation can be influenced.

This rather challenging project has brought me to Edinburgh as part of a series of study stays I am undertaking. At the end of last year, I did a research internship in the Centre de recherche bretonne et celtique at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale in Brest, and in May, I also spent a couple of weeks in Aberystwyth in Wales at the National Library, mostly for collecting my sources.

As for the Scottish side of my research project, I am focusing on An Comunn Gaidhealach (The Highland Association) and its activities. It was founded in 1891 with the objectives of cultivating, teaching and promoting Gaelic language, literature, music, and culture. It also launched the annual gathering we all know as Mód, a festival of Gaelic language and literature which offers awards for the best Gaelic performances and texts.

In this respect, Edinburgh is a perfect place for discovering historical sources, most of them in the National Library of Scotland. An substantial part of An Comunn‘s publications are already available online, which is why I will be focusing on the study of unpublished sources, mostly personal archival materials of An Comunn‘s representatives and members.

Edinburgh’s own Special Collections are also an amazing source of information for me and many other researchers. I am excited about having an opportunity to discuss my topic with experts in the field in the Celtic and Scottish studies department, and I hope to uncover additional sources for my research.

I also hope to learn more about the more general Scottish historical context, which is necessary for understanding An Comunn‘s activities. The wide range of Scottish history books in Edinburgh will help me immensely in this task.

Last but not least, I am thrilled to be allowed to participate in the different seminars at Edinburgh, all of which help me to widen my understanding of historical research, in a thematic as well as methodological perspective. This experience is very beneficial to my personal development too.

In short, I am grateful to spend this rather intensive and packed time in Edinburgh. I hope to be able to transmit some of the inspiration from here to Prague as well – and I would be  happy to repay you for your hospitality, especially to those interested in Central European History and research opportunities in Prague. Please, do not hesitate to get in touch with me during my time in Edinburgh for a chat, or even afterwards at a distance!

NB. Martina’s e-mail address is martina.reiterova@ff.cuni.cz

Paolo Gerbaudo on politics and the social media revolution

Speaking before a packed audience, Paolo Gerbaudo (King’s College, London) delivered a lucid commentary on how online platforms have transformed political life beyond all recognition. Robbie Johnston sends us this report on another thought-provoking talk for the CSMCH. You can listen again to the talk via the Audiomack link below or on our podcast channel.

As social media has transformed the political landscape, its reverberations have been felt everywhere. Prominent analysts and commentators have been left bewildered at the ‘vulgarisation’ of public discourse, intense populist campaigns and the electoral earthquakes left in their wake. Paolo, whose book The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy, was published last year, grounds these developments in a much-needed intellectual framework to make sense of this unfamiliar terrain, and properly examine the affinity between social media and populism.

Three key shifts have redefined politics as we know it. Firstly, the consumer roll-out and mass distribution of technology, enabling people to be more or less constantly ‘connected’. Secondly, populism must be seen in its proper context – the long economic stagnation in the shadow of 2008. The flatlining of wages, job insecurity, the enforcement of austerity, feudalistic levels of inequality, meagre prospects for the young and the hollowing out of comfortable middle class lifestyles have all contributed to an overwhelming sense of decline. The signs are all too visible. And, as the IMF have darkly hinted in recent weeks, further trouble may be on the way.

The third destabilising element is the way in which this discontent has been channelled through the political process. That is, the emergence of populist parties and movements, which have achieved remarkable success almost overnight. Political groupings with hugely differing ideological complexions, from Podemos in Spain to the Italian Five Star Movement, nonetheless articulate a similar sense of betrayal and rage at the elites and experts who govern their lives.

Crucially, they pioneered ground-breaking methods of online campaigning to capture and then mobilise supporters, catching the traditional parties off-guard. Prominent media pundits, initially dismissing them as unelectable upstarts, have seen their assumptions unravel. Populists have not only made electoral inroads across the globe; they set the very terms of the debate. ‘Populism,’ said Paolo, ‘is the new common sense.’

Progressives are caught between a sense of dismay at what they deem to be the coarsening of political discourse, and, on the other hand, a realisation of the potential liberating power of mass communication. In liberal commentaries, social media is typically assigned the blame for the collapse of consensus. It represents a place where ‘fake news’ is disseminated, racism is legitimised, and authoritarian movements are forged. In what has become an all-too familiar sequence of events, strongmen then take power.

Paolo said that if we truly want to understand the problem, we have to take a wider view. Firstly, it is first important to understand the sea change in the social composition of who is active online. Two decades ago, only about 10 per cent of the world population had access; that figure is now somewhere between 55 and 60 per cent. Plainly, this constitutes a shift from an elite to a mass medium. For Paolo, this partly explains some of the more hysterical liberal commentaries, which resemble a kind of moral panic at the thought of the uneducated mass storming the public sphere.

Beyond the headlines of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, there is more going on beneath the surface. Paolo thinks that, instead of viewing social media as the property of right-wing demagogues, it should be thought of as a vital resource to persuade people to embrace an egalitarian agenda. After all, the technology itself is neutral.

Moreover, the potential of mass-communication to build a mass-movement is self-evident; there are already countless examples on the left. Moreover, as Paolo reminded his audience, today is the first time that people are engaging in public writing on such a mass scale. People who you would not usually expect to have strong political convictions are now expressing their hopes and visions for the world. Moreover, there is enormous potential for a broader educational agenda, to spread knowledge and develop a framework in which to interpret political power.

Paolo explores the ‘reactive’ quality to social media politics

The reality, of course, often falls short. Rather than producing meaningful action, social media can produce a more emotive and shallow form of political engagement. In particular, Paolo underlined the problem of the asymmetry of power. Online platforms promise interaction and that all voices matter. For much of the time, though, it results in a kind of ‘reactive’ democracy, whereby ‘power-users’ (e.g. famous leaders) post messages, which the mass responds to with likes and comments. Politics, in this way, risks becoming another form of casual entertainment.

Another key example of a trend towards this form of ‘reactive democracy’ is the way in which Podemos and the Five Star Movement’s online platforms have worked in practice. Paolo’s work has found that issues debated online and settled through internal referenda almost invariably follow the guidance of the parties’ charismatic leaders. For all the rhetorical allusions to ‘the people’, the dominance of the ‘hyperleader’ reflects the persistence of top-down organisational structures.

In a thoughtful commentary, Rory Scothorne (Edinburgh) focused on intellectuals’ own troubled relationship with populism. For the most part, intellectuals have traditionally preferred deliberative, thoughtful spaces to impulsive populism. Historically, this found expression in their ‘fear of the crowd.’ Today, though, they can hardly escape social media and, by extension, a populist state of mind.

More and more intellectuals feel they have to take to online platforms and so threaten to become locked in a cycle of addictive populism themselves. In his closing remarks, Rory suggested that the political party, allowing for a deliberative form of democratic participation, still provides the best means of effecting real and substantial change.

In a wide-ranging Q&A, an audience member echoed this pessimistic message. Do these technologies not ultimately serve as a great distraction from substantive politics? Are we, in the words of Neil Postman, amusing ourselves to death?

Paolo recognised that social media can reduce politics to another form of superficial entertainment; a spectator sport. However, he stressed that, for all its faults, political engagement on social media is unavoidable. It is a fact of life. Progressives must keep in mind its power to spread empowering messages, overcome a hostile media environment and actually influence events. But, in the end, there are no certainties. As Paolo has written elsewhere, ‘Only time will tell whether social media is a sphere for radical and vociferous, but democratically legitimate, expression, or a channel for authoritarianism’.

Robbie Johnston is a PhD student in History. His primary research interests lie in the twentieth-century politics of Scotland and Britain. He is currently working on a thesis which explores the development of Scottish Home Rule and Nationalism from the 1970s to the 1990s. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

Call for papers: Ecstatic States of the Body and Social Group Cohesion

This year’s CSMCH-IASH Fellow, Kristoff Kerl, is organising a conference in March 2020 as part of his fellowship. The call for papers is below – please circulate it widely!

Ecstatic Communitarization/Sociation: Ecstatic States of the Body and Social Group Cohesion from the 19th Century to the present

Having sex, using intoxicating substances, listening and dancing to music, making sports, driving fast, experiencing pain, getting into religious trance or committing acts of violence – all these body practices have been used by different groups of actors in different times, at varying places and in manifold and changing ways to create and experience ecstatic states of the body. Doing this, they aimed at the intensification of emotional and bodily experiences, at transcending the self or just at having a relaxing and joyful leisure time.

Furthermore, the practices of getting ecstatic and the experiences of ecstatic/intoxicated states were in manifold ways linked to processes of sociation and communitarisation and, thus, contributed to the shaping of social groups, milieus and societies. For instance, during the Third Reich, the Nazis used techniques and events to create states of mass ecstasy that aimed at the strengthening of political allegiance and the ‚Volksgemeinschaft;‘ during the 1960s and 1970s, Western counterculturists conceived of ecstatic states as liberating the body and the self from the shackles of western capitalist societies and they drew on manifold practices of getting ecstatic in their striving to create new forms of society; and in milieus such as the Burschenschaften (student fraternities) drinking alcohol has very often constituted an important tool of male bonding and of consolidating group cohesion.

However, it is not only the (common) experiencing of ecstatic states that constitutes an important factor of communitarisation/sociation, but also the (shared) opposition towards (specific) forms of intoxication and ecstasy. For instance, the antagonism towards sex, drugs and rock ‘n‘ roll was an important driving force in the context of the conservative turn that took place in the United States during the late 1960s and that contributed to the election of Richard Nixon.

It is the aim of the workshop to shed light on the relationship between ecstasy/intoxication, the users’ self and processes of sociation/communitarisation. Possible topics for papers presented at the workshop are, amongst others:

    • Ecstasy and social cohesion: How did common experiences of ecstasy/intoxication contribute to the shaping of social groups and societies? In which way did the shared antagonism towards certain kinds of ecstasy/intoxication constitute a factor in processes of strengthening the sense of belonging to a social group?
    • Ecstasy/intoxication and societal conditions: How did different social actors link ecstatic states of the body to social conditions, for instance, by conceiving of ecstasy/intoxication as a means that contributed to social change or the conservation of social conditions? How did different political regimes draw on ecstatic states to stabilize the social order and, thus, their political power?
    • Ecstasy and social categories such as class, race, gender, (dis-)ability or age: How did social categories such as class, race and gender shaped the experiences of ecstasy? How did the doing and experiencing of ecstasy/intoxication contribute to the stabilization or undermining of social and cultural stratifications and power relations?
    • Settings and spaces of ecstasy: Which role did certain spaces and their design play for the practices of getting ecstatic? For example, how did material and spatial arrangements influence the creation and shaping of mass ecstasies?
    • Objects and technologies: What kind of objects and technologies were used to create or to prevent certain states of (mass) ecstasy?

Please send proposals (max. one page) and a short biographical note to the organizer of the workshop, Kristoff Kerl (Kristoff-Kerl@gmx.de). Deadline for applications is December 15, 2019. The workshop will take place at the University of Edinburgh on March 26, 2020.

Introducing Kate Ballantyne

At the end of the last academic year, the School of History, Classics and Archaeology appointed Kate Ballantyne to a one-year Career Development Fellowship in Contemporary History. Alongside her research and teaching, one of Kate’s main responsibilities is to help with the organisation and coordination of CSMCH activities. So we could get to know her better, we asked her to write a short blog post about herself…

I’m thrilled to be joining the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History as the Career Development Fellow this year! I also hold a research fellowship with the David Bruce Centre for American Studies at Keele University, and before coming to Edinburgh, I was a teaching fellow at the University of Birmingham during the 2018-19 academic year. I completed PhD and MPhil degrees at the University of Cambridge, and my undergraduate studies in History and Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina.

I came by my love of history naturally.  My hometown is Oak Ridge, Tennessee, most famous as a ‘secret city’ created in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project. This programme consisted of three sites across the country which produced the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

During World War II, Oak Ridge was a secret military facility complete with guard posts and checkpoints, where people from across the country came to work.  They knew they were participating in a secret part of the American war effort, but didn’t know what this entailed. After the war, the city was run by the Atomic Energy Commission, before becoming incorporated as its own city in 1959. Since then, the city has retained a national reputation for scientific research with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

This complicated history, I’ve come to find through my work, has shaped me as a person and as a historian.  As a third generation Oak Ridger, history was everywhere from family stories to laboratory sirens that would test across the city every week. The city itself, set out by the Army Corps of Engineers, was laid out East to West with the streets running alphabetically in that direction. And many local restaurants that have popped up in the last couple of decades pay homage to the atomic history with menu items named after the lab or the bombs, such as the ‘Fat Man’ burger at one longstanding drugstore or the ‘atomic’ hot sauce at a Chinese diner (here again is that complicated history).

Moving to South Carolina as an undergrad, I discovered the Institute for Southern Studies almost by accident, and became fascinated by studying  southern culture, and most importantly, I would argue, what it means to identify as a southerner. Moving away from the South and teaching American history, much like William Faulkner’s character Quentin Compson, I’ve been forced to reckon with much of my regional history and culture.

What does it mean to love southern food and music while also acknowledging the complicated past of slavery, racial segregation, and disfranchisement? Personally, I don’t know that there is a clear answer to this. I can say, however, that despite my continually diminishing southern accent, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Appalachian apple stack cakes, and proper biscuits and milk gravy. On the other hand, I don’t much care for Civil War battlefields, am vehemently against Confederate war memorials, and dislike most depictions of southerners in popular culture (the films Steel Magnolias and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? are notable exceptions).

My research interests are, broadly, social movements and student activism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  While my doctoral research and first manuscript focuses on Tennessee and its history of student activism from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, my next project analyses conceptions of free speech and the role these have had in campus-based protests across the U.S. since the 1960s. Both projects probe issues concerning regionality, activism, and race.

I also lean on oral history in my research. I’ve conducted oral histories since my undergraduate dissertation research, and find the practice incredibly rewarding and important to studies which centre on individual experience. I look forward to discussing these areas of research with centre members and seminar attendees this coming year!

NB. Kate will be presenting some of her work to the Centre seminar in May 2020.

Malika Rahal on the Algerian Revolution of 1962

After a successful opening roundtable, we moved this week to a close examination of decolonisation, undoubtedly one of the most important revolutionary processes in the modern world. We were fortunate to have with us Malika Rahal (Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent) who talked us through perhaps the most emblematic anti-colonial struggle of all: the Algerian War. Kate Ballantyne was in the audience, and she sends this report.

A celebration to mark the independence of Algeria in the summer of 1962.

In her well-attended talk, Malika presented her research, a reconceptualisation of the Algerian war for independence (1954-1962). Specifically, she argued that, to gain more clarity on the war’s impact and significance, historians should focus closely on 1962, an approach that allows them to better understand popular memories of the war as well. Utilising interviews with activists as a central part of the research, Malika’s work presents an exciting opportunity to better understand the meaning of revolution and decolonisation.

Malika divided her definition of revolution into three main, sometimes intertwining, categories: time, space, and bodies. In addition to the timeframe of the revolution itself (1954-1962), her presentation focused on the concept of time in terms of four phases in 1962. She argued that these four phases, spaced around three major dates (the Evian agreements on 19 March, the July referendum, and the election for the National Constituent Assembly on 20 September), are an important way to see the evolution of popular meaning around the war. The four phases were the war period prior to 19 March, the transitional period with the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) before the referendum, the political crisis of the summer 1962 after the referendum, and the emergence of an independent Algeria after 20 September.

In terms of space, Malika urged the audience to think about the contestations over land, land usage, and occupation of public and private areas for protests and demonstrations. These ever-evolving conceptions of space were, she argued, central to how activists viewed their political and social identities in 1962.

Lastly, she discussed bodies, which was relevant in terms of how activists occupied space during times of celebration, such as at the end of the revolution, but also when one considers those who died and were wounded during the conflict.  One particularly interesting point from Malika’s presentation was the discussion of military-style fashions that evolved from the revolution.

Stephan Malinowski (Edinburgh) gave a thoughtful comment on Malika’s research, focusing in particular on the importance of the three major categories (time, space, and bodies) and on the contributions her work makes to the field of social activism.

Stephan’s comment and a lively question-and-answer session confirmed that Malika’s research can make a significant contribution, not only to research on the Algerian Revolution, but also the study of twentieth-century revolutions more broadly. Moreover, by drawing our attention, not just to the beginning or the end of the war, but also to the complexity and personal significance of activism, she offered valuable lessons for historians and social scientists who analyse social movements.

Dr Kate Ballantyne is Career Development Fellow in Contemporary History at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on twentieth century southern student activism and free speech on American university campuses. She is a CSMCH steering committee member. 

Revolutions past and future: a roundtable

We started the new academic year at the CSMCH as we mean to go on: with thought-provoking conversations and a full house. It helped that our first event was a roundtable discussion on the controversial topic of revolution, which is our theme for the year. Fortunately, our panellists Jim Livesey (Dundee), Jake Blanc (Edinburgh), Kalathmika Natarajan (Edinburgh), and Megan Hunt (Edinburgh) were more than up to the task of dissecting the history of revolution. Marina Moya Moreno has distilled the roundtable into this blog post  – or you can listen again to the discussion via our podcast channel or by following the Audiomack link below. 

Jim, who works on the late 18th and early 19th century Atlantic World, opened the discussion in relation to the meaning of revolution by pointing out how, even though the terms revolution and revolutionary have  become very complex and problematic. Moreover, this denomination is deeply linked to North Atlantic dynamics and concepts of Western universalism, modernisation, liberalism etc. Nevertheless, he sought to lay out his appraisal of a revolution in terms of the path of creative action opened when the capacity to produce rational answers is exhausted. He pointed toa certain form of prefigurative politics, stressing the importance of the physical bodily participation in these.

Jake followed up by drawing on his own research area of 20th-century Latin America. He observed how many movements in Latin America have used the label of revolution, and how this label has become pejorative. This is related to the repetitive use of the term revolution to legitimise political claims. When this becomes the dynamic, who is to decide what is subversive? How does the cycle come to an end? As a result, the perception of revolution comes to be a constant struggle between different groups, a denunciation of betrayed revolutions, unfinished revolutions.

Kalathmika observed two ways of understanding revolution in relation to her own work on twentieth-century South Asia. Firstly, the term revolution is linked to a romantic idea, to the young idealists dreaming of overthrowing the British Empire. However, she also stressed that it is an ongoing theme in current South Asia, understood as part of social activism and everyday life; as an example, she referred to how many women challenge established gender-based practices.

For Megan, a specialist of postwar US politics, the term revolution is not clearly defined in her field, and she prefers to think about it as a question, rather than a fixed concept. What does revolution mean? Regarding her own research on the civil rights movement and black power nationalism, she identified a dichotomy in the analysis of these processes, with a clear emphasis on legislative and political achievements at the expense of radical ideas, the grassroots or the systemic change.

Moving forward, the dynamics of revolution became the focus. Panellists discussed how the very action of labelling processes as a revolution or revolutionary is significant in the context of analysis: were they named as such by their participants (and if so, on what grounds), or was it branded afterwards (either by opponents, members of the movement, or analysts)?

Making reference to the self-labelling of revolutionary processes and individuals, Kalathmika reflected on the use of these terms in South Asian politics. Even though she mentioned how normalised their use in the political scene has become, she also pointed out how their use is not always in accordance with everyone. As an example, she considered those who support the abolition of the Indian caste system, and how supporters of this proposal have usually been labelled as revolutionaries, a description that they would not have put on themselves. The broad and general use of this word might have resulted in dilution of its meaning, or a situation such that there is overlap with neighbouring contexts.

The following questions focused on violence and commodification. Violence, something considered an integral part of revolutionary processes, seems to have disappeared, or at least there have been efforts to have it removed.

Megan pointed out how differentiated the perception on the civil rights movement and black power are based on violence. Furthermore, she stressed the relevance of the aesthetic and ‘marketing’ choices made by different groups, and how not only violence, but these choices, served to frame their revolutionary character. As a result, whereas black power movements were easier to identify as revolutionaries, the marketing of the civil rights movement during the early 1960s was based on the construction of an image of respectability. Even when this choice changed in the late 1960s, the image that persisted associated with the civil rights movement was deeply rooted in the initial choices, differentiating it from other movements.

On the subject of the current perceptions of violence, Jim pointed out how the situation has changed since the nineteenth century. The reasoning behind the violence was that if one is not engaging in the violent response towards the system, then one is not taking responsibility as a citizen and has no moral legitimacy as such. People legitimised themselves through acts of violence, something that is nowadays often regarded as illegitimate.

Kalathmika and Jake both developed this point by exploring the relationship between violence and the state, and how this can be framed in terms of terrorism, in a way that depoliticises the term further, or how it can be (and it has been) used as a justification to increase the scale of violence.

Emile Chabal introduces the roundtable to a large audience

Finally, the discussion moved on to the commodification of revolution. Has revolution been commodified? Has it become a packaged good available for consumers? While Jim had emphasised the somatic character of the revolution and its practices, he also brought up how this can be catalysed through symbolic violence as well, through disrespect towards authority.

Kalathmika linked the commodification of revolution to a certain level of its depolitisation, but she stressed that this is not an all-embracing circumstance, and those parts of the most marginalised groups still participate in the most exposed forms of practice, putting their bodies on the line.

Returning for one final time to Latin America, Jake pointed out the ambiguities of commodification. On the one hand, there is definitely a revolutionary aesthetic cultivated for specific audiences, both outside and inside Latin America, where all these symbols, even though commodified, are still highly important as part of foundational and national narratives.

The roundtable discussion concluded with an extensive question and answer session, which focused both on conceptual aspects of revolutions, as well as current views of such processes. A number of topics emerged.

First, the problem of temporality. The audience and the panel explored whether revolution is the same when its focus is event-driven, or if it is associated with a particular individual, group, or idea, which then brings on the question of the end of such processes.

Second, the issue of revolutionary objectives and leadership. The panellists were asked to consider whether revolutions become less directed. In their various responses, they acknowledged the less tangible ends and more amorphous character of contemporary revolutions.

Finally, the last set of questions focused on the nationality and transnationality of revolutions, and how some movements seem able to easily spread throughout countries or, on the other hand, to stay contained within only one space. Jake, in particular, commented on the way revolutionary ‘feeling’ can be easy to disseminate, even when few structural changes actually take place.

As ever, this stimulating roundtable is likely to give rise to more questions than answers, but it nevertheless laid the path for this year’s seminars and subsequent discussions on revolution.

Marina Moya Moreno is a PhD student in History, working on the analysis of representations and memorialisation of the Spanish transition. Her research focuses on analysing the changes in the definitions of different narratives and portrayals of this period found within Spanish society. She is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.

Welcome back! A preview of this year at the CSMCH…

The fickle Edinburgh summer may be drawing to a close, but the hard-working CSMCH team have only just got started. After a long summer, in which our steering committee was renewed with bright new student and staff faces, we’re ready to take on our theme for the year: ‘revolution’.

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in 1961

As one might expect, the topic of revolution has given rise to some of the most brilliant and politically charged scholarship in modern history. It is appropriate, therefore, that we should have such a strong line-up for our flagship fortnightly seminar series. This year, we will be welcoming some well-known figures – like Pankaj Mishra, Richard Drayton and Jay Winter – as well as a host of new talent such as Julia Nicholls, Nat Morris and Courtney Campbell. The range of topics covers as wide a geographical and temporal canvas as possible. We will travel from late 19th-century France, to Mexico in the 1910s, via Grenada in 1979, the triumph of ISIS in the 21st century, and the revolutionary impact of social media.

We’ll also get a chance to hear some of our own colleagues speak. Our new Latin Americanist, Julie Gibbings, will talk about her work on the Guatemalan Revolution in October, and our year-long CSMCH career development fellow-in-residence, Kate Ballantyne, will share some of her research on radical student activism in the American South in the 1960s in May. And, of course, many of our paper commentators and discussants are drawn from Edinburgh or Scotland.

As has been the case in the past, the CSMCH will again play host to an eclectic range of visiting scholars and students this year. This semester, we will be welcoming a visiting PhD student from Czechia, Martina Reiterová, who is working on revivalist movements on the Celtic fringe in the early 20th century. And next semester we’ll get to know Kristoff Kerl, who will be our CSMCH-IASH Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow. You’ll be able to hear more about his exciting work on psychedelic drugs and postwar European culture at one of our seminars in February.

In terms of teaching, the CSMCH will be expanding its links with our MSc in Contemporary History programme, and collaborating more closely this year with the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities. Student participation has always been at the heart of what we do, so we’re delighted to be developing this area.

Let me end, however, with a reminder that our activities depend on you! We are always very happy to hear from Centre members about ideas they might have. There is plenty of scope to participate in our activities and, indeed, to organise your own events through our CSMCH Discussion Group or our conference co-sponsorship initiatives. In addition, students can gain ‘affiliated student‘ status (just write to us and we’ll add you), and join the steering committee when applications open in the new year.

We look forward to seeing you!

— Emile