Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 8 with Anita Klingler

Our eighth CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

For the final episode in this series, I spoke to Anita Klingler, who recently submitted her thesis on public discourses of violence in Britain and Germany in the interwar years. Amongst other things, we talked about the relationship between discourses of violence and actual violence, what it means to write about violence, and whether Europe is once again heading towards a “violent” future.

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

This episode brings to an end our first series of Showcase podcasts. We hope to return later in the year with new guests and new ideas.

For now, I’d like to thank the guests who agreed to subject themselves to my haphazard questioning. A special mention, too, for PhD student Mathew Nicolson, who selflessly dedicated himself to producing and editing every Showcase podcast episode for nothing. We are all in his debt.

— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 7 with Enda Delaney

Our seventh CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

In this episode, I talked to one of our most senior professors, Enda Delaney, a well-known specialist of modern Irish history. We started our wide-ranging conversation by discussing some of the latest developments in the historiography of modern Ireland and the importance of a “transnational” understanding of Irish society. In the second half, we moved on to Enda’s ambitious and exciting new project on the history of cognition.

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

Join me next time when my guest will be Anita Klingler, with whom I’ll be exploring the history of political violence in interwar Europe.

— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 6 with Jeremy Dell

Our sixth CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

This time around, I talked to Jeremy Dell, our recently appointed lecturer in 19th century African history. We began by discussing his intellectual trajectory and, in particular, his first encounter with West Africa via Paris and Dakar. As a specialist of West African Islam, I also asked him to tell us more about the place of African Islam within broader histories of the Islamic world. We ended by talking about the history of the book in West Africa – and how some of that history became part of the justification for the French-led intervention in Mali in 2013 and France’s plans to “return” colonial artefacts.

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

Join me next time when my guest will be Enda Delaney, with whom I’ll be discussing about his current project on the “global” history of the Irish Revolution and his exciting new project on the history of cognition.

— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 5 with Ismay Milford

Our fifth CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

In this episode, I talked to Ismay Milford, a research fellow at Edinburgh, about her work on African anti-colonial activism in the decolonising moment. Amongst other things, we discussed transnational histories of activism, the usefulness of “space” as a historical concept, and whether we can learn anything about our present political crisis from postwar visions of the decolonised future. We also spent some time unpacking the conceptual and empirical frameworks in her excellent article in The Historical Journal on ideas of “federation” in East and Central Africa in the 1950s and 60s.

During the course of our discussion, Ismay made reference to several books and projects, including:

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

Join me next time when my guest will be Jeremy Dell, with whom I’ll be talking about West African Islam, Sufism and the history of the book.

— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 4 with Julie Gibbings

Our fourth CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

My guest was Julie Gibbings, our recently appointed lecturer in the history of the indigenous Americas. Amongst many things, we talked about how Julie got interested in Guatemala, what it means to work on a post-conflict society, and how indigenous knowledge can reshape our understanding of time and space. We also explored some of the main themes of her new book, entitled Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala (Cambridge University Press, 2020)

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

Join me next time when my guest will be Ismay Milford, with whom I’ll be talking about the revolutionary dreams of East and Central African activists in the decolonising moment.

— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 3 with Kate Ballantyne

Our third CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

My guest was Kate Ballantyne, who is our resident postdoctoral fellow in modern and contemporary history (you can find out more about her in an autobiographical blog post she wrote earlier this year). In our interview, we talked about the mythologies of the American South, the challenges of writing about activism, and the echoes of the past in today’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Over the course of the conversation, Kate mentioned a number of op-eds, Twitter threads and books, and I’ve included the link to these at the bottom of this blog post.

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).


— Emile

Podcast: CSMCH Showcase 2 with Joe Gazeley

Our second CSMCH Showcase podcast is now online!

My guest was Joe Gazeley, who is finishing his PhD on Malian foreign policy since the 1960s. In our wide-ranging conversation, we talked about how Joe came to work on Mali, and what his research can tell us about the specificities of post-colonial sovereignty. We also explored the controversial notion of “la Françafrique” and how foreign powers have exploited or ignored Mali since independence.

To listen to the podcast, click on the Audiomack link below or subscribe to our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

My next guest will be our resident postdoc, Kate Ballantyne, with whom I’ll be discussing the wonders of Tennessee and the history of student activism in the American South.

— Emile

Jake Blanc is the first guest on our new CSMCH Showcase podcast series

Like everyone else in the university sector, we have had to suspend our activities because of the COVID-19 epidemic. This has been particularly hard for us because the purpose of a research centre is to foster intellectual exchange and encourage conversations, all of which happen far more easily in person than over the internet.

However, we do have one asset: our members.

Here at Edinburgh, we’re fortunate to have a wonderful community of modern historians. And, since we are temporarily unable to welcome any visiting speakers or fellows into our ranks, we thought we’d take the opportunity to introduce you to some of our best and brightest minds.

We’re doing this in the form of a new podcast series called ‘CSMCH Showcase’.

As the title suggests, the purpose of this series is to showcase the work of some of our members. This will mostly come in the form of short interviews with some of our staff and PhD students. We hope that this podcast series will allow you to share in some of the research that is happening in Edinburgh and allow you to maintain a connection with us until we are next able to meet in person.

My first guest was Jake Blanc. When we met virtually, I talked with him about his own biography and his experience of left-wing political engagement; the history of rural political movements; and the importance of looking at Latin America from the inside out. Check out the podcast by clicking on the Audiomack link below or via our podcast channel (just search for ‘CSMCH Edinburgh’ from your favourite podcast app).

My next guest will be Joe Gazeley, who will be discussing his doctoral research on Malian foreign policy. Join us then!

— Emile

Kristoff Kerl on ecstasy, cultural revolution and counterculture in the 1960s-1970s

Every year, our CSMCH-IASH Fellows present their work to the Centre’s research community. This year, it was the turn of Kristoff Kerl (Koln) to discuss some of his work-in-progress on Western countercultures in the 1960s and 1970s. Rory Scothorne sends this report – and you can follow the link below to hear Kristoff discuss his work in a short interview with the Centre director, Emile Chabal.

On Tuesday evening, students packed out a basement room to explore the radical, mind-expanding possibilities of sex, music and psychoactive substances. Kristoff Kerl’s talk on “Ecstasy and Cultural Revolution” never risked turning into an impromptu rave, but it did offer some valuable insights into the ambiguous “politics of ecstasy” which suffused the western countercultures of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The structure of Kristoff’s talk

“Ecstasy” here means not the eponymous drug – not popularised until subsequent decades – so much as a type of experience, in mind and body, which countercultural theorists believed could overcome the neurosis, repression and violence of modern life. Kerl focused on West Germany, but the counterculture he described was spread across the western world, from a focal point in Berlin to London, Berkeley, Paris and even – albeit much more muted here – Edinburgh.

The various strands that made up this diverse and complex drift against an equally vague cultural and social order shared a conviction that a particularly insidious form of social power was exercised through culture, and had to be challenged there too. This included areas that had been hitherto less politicised, such as bodily and sensory experience. For theorists like Sven Reichardt, Peter Bruckner and Raymond Martin, counterculture meant the pursuit of authenticity and liberation against the “alienation of the senses” and “sensorial deformation” that resulted from repressive structures like the bourgeois family, the state and the workplace, and were reinforced through much of mainstream culture. Overcoming this could be achieved, individually and collectively, through various experiences of “ecstasy,” which was portrayed as a kind of psychic weak spot in the walls of alienated life, attained via things like sex, dancing, confrontations with the police, yoga and psychedelic substances.

Historically, psychedelics – along with other, more established mind-altering substances like alcohol – have been viewed by some radicals as a means of reinforcing the status quo, enabling temporary escape rather than emancipation. The new counterculture of the ‘sixties, however, saw ecstatic experience as a means of self-improvement, enabling the reshaping of the self by making and reflecting upon new, horizon-expanding experiences.

It was also framed as an ingredient of collective action: “have a joint, transform your hatred into energy,” as one slogan put it. Yet the old concerns remained – theorists like Bruckner argued that there was also an “ecstasy of affirmation” or “ecstasy of philistines”, whereby drugs facilitated a retreat into strictly delimited scenes that failed to challenge the wider social order. Ecstasy had, therefore, to be somewhat deliberate and political if it was to produce radical change.

“Ecstasy” is therefore politically ambiguous, and Kerl demonstrated similar concerns in its application to pop music, sexuality and transnational networks. The music producer and festival organiser Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser was also a prominent countercultural theorist, and argued that pop music risked producing an order-affirming ecstasy if it didn’t break down the barriers between performers and listeners – something that could be achieved through rhythms that “let the masses go crazy,” elaborate light shows and the heightened sensory experience enabled by psychedelics.

Psychedelics were also seen as a means of heightening sexual experiences and reducing inhibitions, allowing people to discover their authentic selves. But this radicalism was hollowed out by the often highly heteronormative and patriarchal views of its advocates: acid-evangelist Timothy Leary, for instance, saw homosexuality as a perversion to be cured by LSD.

Psychedelics also played a role in the formation of new transnational countercultural networks, with Berlin becoming an international capital of ecstasy thanks to the greater availability of substances and the localised networks that grew around them. Kerl’s account of the international “hippy trail” – travelled and promoted by figures like Allen Ginsberg – stressed the role of orientalist caricatures. Counterculturals believed that the experience of psychedelic ecstasy was heightened by the innate authenticity of places that had been reimagined from afar. In fact, such far-flung experiences often happened in places frequented by westerners, allowing expat communities of ecstasy to form at sufficient distance to preserve the exoticism of foreign cultures through closer contact.

Angela Bartie (Edinburgh) offered a short comment, which was read in her absence by Centre director Emile Chabal. Angela noted Edinburgh’s own role in the currents of transnational counterculture. Amongst other things, she pointed to the small rhino’s head sculpture on the Informatics Building that commemorates the old site of Paperback Books, established in 1959 by the American Jim Haynes, who became a key participant in international countercultural networks.

Reflecting on Haynes’ involvement in founding Suck – Europe’s first “sexpaper” – and the Wet Dream Film Festivals in 1970-71, Bartie considered the heavily gendered politics of counterculture that Kerl had also mentioned. In its celebration of sexual “ecstasy”, how far did countercultures incorporate perspectives which challenged the male gaze rather than reinforcing it? Bartie noted the testimony of Sheila Rowbotham, whose memoir stresses the immense pressure on women in the 1960s to “liberate” themselves into a (hetero)sexuality that was still defined by and for men. Bartie’s comment reinforced Kerl’s own suggestion that the countercultures of the 60s and 70s were defined by highly contradictory tendencies – ones which could incorporate alternative cultures into existing power structures even while attempting to challenge them.

Understanding that complex process of incorporation – which Kerl mostly just hinted at – would mean a longer view, and I would have liked to hear more about his sense of the broader historical context. Is there a longer tradition of the “politics of ecstasy”, going back through Walter Benjamin’s experiments with – and writing on – Hashish, into the lifeworlds and politics of interwar surrealism, and deeper still into the intoxications of Baudelaire and Dumas? How does this carry forwards, too, into the chemically-fuelled intersection between rave culture and “DIY politics” of the late 1980s and ‘90s? Answering these questions would be a much bigger project, but Kerl’s work provides a stimulating basis for further exploration.

Rory Scothorne is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of social movements, the development and contestation of the public sphere in the twentieth century, and the political thought of the radical left. His thesis focuses on the relationship between the radical left and Scottish nationalism from 1968 to 1992. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

Sarah Badcock on Russia’s revolutions from a provincial perspective

A seminar on revolution would be incomplete without some consideration of the Russian Revolution, one of the great world-historical events of the twentieth century. Fortunately, we were able to persuade Sarah Badcock (Nottingham) to come and talk to us about her “kaleidoscopic” perspectives on 1917. She gave a wonderful panorama of the Russian Revolutions in the plural. Anita Klingler was there to hear it.

Sarah began her talk by stating what it was she would be arguing against, namely the notion, still widespread, that revolutions ‘belong’ in capital cities and that all that spreads beyond the urban centres are ripples. Instead, she wanted to put forward the idea that an opposite dynamic is often at play, wherein the elites’ decisions and actions are shaped and determined by what is happening in the provincial hinterland. To this end, she said she would be examining structures of power and powerlessness during the Russian Revolutions of 1917, looking at people on the margins of society, and examining the case study of the food crisis. Her ultimate aim, she said, was to show why regional studies matter and what they can add to our understanding of history.

Sarah introduces the key themes of her presentation

As Sarah was primarily concerned with examining Russia’s revolutions from a provincial perspective, she first reminded her audience of the complexities of the term ‘peasant’. Far from denoting just one particular life experience, ‘peasant’ could apply to a multitude of different people living away from Russia’s urban centres, doing many different kinds of work, and could even include the identities of ‘worker’ and/or ‘soldier’ simultaneously.

The term ‘peasant’ therefore is an abstract generalisation and rather a blunt tool, while more specific regional studies can help us understand more individual experiences. Furthermore, Sarah made sure to draw the audience’s attention to the vast geography of the Russian landmass, which, though described as one national whole, is so varied that regional approaches may be a very useful way of explaining and understanding historical processes away from the urban centres of power.

Looking at the year 1917 and the local committees established all over the country once the Provisional Government had come to power in Petrograd, Sarah elucidated how it was the elected representatives who were accountable to the people and who were feeding back the people’s demands to the Provisional Government, while the Provisional Government – nominally the centre of power – often found itself unable to implement its decision, for example on land use, in the provinces. Power was thus not a one-way process: without appropriate means of implementing central decrees, local communities were empowered vis-à-vis the Provisional Government and often ignored or rejected their decisions.

However, Sarah was quick to point out that this empowerment was also imperfect and excluded certain marginalised groups along the lines of ethnicity, gender, as well as along a rural-urban divide, and, given the revolutionary context, access to weapons. Young, urban, ethnically Russian, armed males were the ones most empowered in this process.

Nevertheless, within the diffuse space and time of revolutions, marginalised groups were able to stake their claim to power. As an example, Sarah cited the case of the ‘soldiers’ wives’, who, when their husbands had been drafted into war, were granted an allowance from the state. By 1917, however, this allowance was no longer sufficient to meet the needs of daily life and the wives coalesced into an unmistakable collective voice, pressuring local governments all over Russia. Writing petitions in a noticeably empowered language, the ‘soldiers’ wives’ worked effectively outside the structures of power, but also within them. In Kazan province, the Soviet became concerned enough about public order to eventually meet the women’s demands. Power, therefore, did not only lie with the Provisional Government in Petrograd, but also with those who lived and took action in the provinces.

Another example Sarah gave was that of the food crisis. The efficient distribution of food across the vast Russian space was a defining challenge for Lenin’s new Bolshevik government. While some regions produced a surplus of food, sustenance was needed particularly in the cities as well as for the army. But surplus regions were unwilling to sell their surpluses to the state at below-market prices, thus exhibiting their power to defy the authorities. The central state failed to define the discourse surrounding food distribution and found itself unable, yet again, to implement its policies in the provinces.

Sarah added that it was most certainly not the case that local people simply failed to understand the official decrees and language of the revolution, but rather that they consciously chose to defy it and take power themselves to act as they saw fit. When Lenin, after asking his generals in October 1917 about the state of the army, learned that men were deserting in their thousands, Sarah argued, these individual decisions, taken on a mass scale, shaped Lenin’s ability, or rather inability, to negotiate favourable terms at Brest-Litovsk.

Thus, Sarah concluded that political elites often had their scope of action defined by the actions of ordinary, often provincial, people. Regional studies, which Sarah identified as a fresh and exciting field of research with plenty of potential for future work, can help us uncover these actions which had a forceful potential to upset traditional power structures.

In her short comment, Anna Lively (Edinburgh) acknowledged how regional approaches help complicate out understanding of the Russian Revolution, or indeed revolutions. She raised several historiographical points, asking whether the current ‘regional turn’ will lead to new narratives of the Russian revolutions. Furthermore, she wondered how we might reconcile regional studies, and the specific insights to be gained from them, with the increasing move towards global as well as transnational histories of this revolutionary period. She also contemplated the challenges of working with silences, for example of women, in the historical record.

Lastly, Anna encouraged Sarah and the audience to consider the problems with the notion of just one Revolution; the chronology of the Russian revolutions; as well as to what extent the involvement of many different ethnicities and several national independence movements complicate the notion of a ‘Russian’ revolution.

In the wide-ranging concluding Q&A session, audience members raised issues from the importance of transport links across the vast Russian spaces, to the influence of the Church, to the role of other religious groups, national movements, education and more.

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. She is a CSMCH steering committee member.