Rupture, Repression, Repetition? A conference on the Algerian War at the University of Leeds

One of our affiliated staff members, Hugh McDonnell, attended a conference on the Algerian War held at the University of Leeds on 7-8 September 2017. Here he reports on some of the things he heard.

Mohamed Ben Kassen, Fusia El Kader, and Brahim Hadjadj in ‘The Battle of Algiers’ (1966)

Newcomers to the conference organising scene will have good reason to resent University of Leeds PhD student Beatrice Ivey and her colleague Dr Daniel Hartley for having set the bar quite so high with their hosting of ‘Rupture, Repression, Repetition? The Algerian War of Independence in the Present.’ That said, their debut was no doubt facilitated by the exciting offering of papers, spanning the spectrum of French and North African studies. Particularly satisfying was the constructive and sympathetic engagement between historians and those speaking from more theoretical or text-oriented backgrounds. The event did justice to the ambitious range of topics underlying the call for papers, ranging from French and Algerian wars of memory, and past and present states of emergency on both sides of the Mediterranean, to historical temporality in the thought of Alain Badiou.

Pinpointing particular papers inevitably fails to reflect the quality and insights across all panels, not least in the welcome roundtable for current PhD students. Nonetheless, personal highlights included offerings on cultural transpositions from the Algeria’s war of independence to its décennie noire; the war in contemporary Algerian literature; Nina Wardleworth’s exposition on the Algerian war in the French detective novel; Maria Flood on Jacques Panijel’s documentary on the Paris October 1961 massacre, Octobre à Paris; Patrick Crowley’s ‘Temporalities of War, Figurations of the Present: Literary Afterlives of the Algerian War of Independence’; and Andy Stafford’s insights into Mohammed Dib and the responsibility of the writer.

These were complemented by penetrating historical analyses of the same period. Stand-out contributions here included Tom Hunt on the unrecognised legacy of Algeria in the invention of Late Antiquity; Selim Nadi on the Algerian Revolution, the French State and the Counter-Colonial Strategy of the Holy Republic; Dónal Hasset on the narration of Algeria’s First World War through the lens of the War of Independence; and Claire Eldridge’s talk on generational change and memory transmission within the Algerian pied-noir community.

Emblematic of this exchange between literature and history were the two keynotes from Jane Hiddleston and Natalya Vince from Oxford and Portsmouth Universities respectively. Hiddleston’s compelling interpretation of ‘revolving memories’ in the work of figures from Boualem Sansal to Kateb Yacine was counterpoised by Vince’s stylish paper on ‘The Permanent Reinvention’ as a lens through which to view the Algerian Revolution in recent pasts. Nicely weaving together questions considered over the two days, Vince’s conclusion pinpointed the importance of memory as refracted, repackaged, repurposed. She stressed the periodisation of memory post-event and critiqued the notion of “Franco-Algerian” “memory wars”. At the same time, she urged scholars to avoid methodological nationalism, by encouraging them to reflect on Algeria in an international and local memory context. She ended by questioning the dichotomy between ‘public’ and ‘vernacular’ memory, which seemed an appropriate way to end a stimulating conference.

Hugh McDonnell is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Politics and International Relations on the European Research Council Starting Grant project entitled: Illuminating the ‘Grey Zone’: Addressing Complex Complicity in Human Rights Violations. He has recently published ‘Europeanising Spaces in Paris, c. 1947-1962’ (Liverpool University Press, 2016). He is an affiliated staff member of the CSMCH.

Writing ‘the Troubles’

The Centre recently sponsored an excellent PhD and early-career workshop on the place of ‘The Troubles’ in Irish history (8-9 September 2017). This guest post from Thomas Dolan summarises some of the discussions that animated the event.

Republican mural of the Battle of the Bogside, Derry

The incursion of Arlene Foster, the DUP and, by extension Sinn Féin, back onto the centre-stage of British politics has produced an upsurge of interest in the political situation in Northern Ireland reminiscent of the darker days of its long-running conflict. A fake news article circulating on social media during the fallout of the general election satirised the situation wonderfully: a London ‘hipster’, it was reported, had proudly proclaimed that he had been reading-up on the religious and conservative ethos of the DUP long before it had become fashionable to do so. The sold-out (a happy first for HCA’s Irish History Group) public lecture ‘Scribes, Sectarianism and the History of the Northern Ireland Troubles’ delivered recently at the University of Edinburgh by Professor Richard English (Queen’s University, Belfast) evidences how such events nourish a need for contemporary Irish and Northern Irish history in Britain.

The lecture was associated with the Writing the Troubles Workshop organised by members of the Irish History Group (Tommy Dolan, Roseanna Doughty, and Rachael Thomas), with the support of the Irish Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History. It brought together doctoral and early-career researchers scattered throughout these islands to reflect upon the challenging methodological and conceptual issues thrown-up when writing about the recent history of Northern Ireland. A key aim was to foster a relaxed, informal atmosphere conducive to discussion. Consequently, we opted for pre-circulated papers, with attendees delivering short ten-minute presentations on their work, followed by debate. The workshop then concluded with a reflective round-table discussion chaired by Professor Enda Delaney,

The format proved inspirational, the first panel setting the tone in terms of quality and feel. Martin’s McCleery’s vision of an ‘intimate history’ of political killings provoked much debate. His focus on the micro-dynamics of killings as a means of understanding the various ‘pathways’ many paramilitaries must adopt to overcome their instinctual aversion to murder complimented Rachael Kowlaski’s call for micro-studies of ‘nodal’ violent events during the conflict so as to better understand the intentions of the paramilitary organisations involved. In contrast, I suggested that historians try and generate conceptually-driven understandings of the evolution of a now relatively peaceful and political stable Northern Ireland, but that doing so could prove problematic for a historical community who, unlike, say, their British counterparts, have long been predisposed to the study of violent conflict and political impasse.

The second session reflected upon groups hitherto marginalised within the historiography of ‘the Troubles’. All found Adrian Grant’s vision of a ‘meso-history’ of  Belfast’s working-class communities intriguing; an approach melding ‘micro-studies with the grand narrative approach’. For example, Adrian demonstrated how focusing on the effects of deindustrialisation on these communities can generate better understandings of the origins of ‘the Troubles’, while allowing for reflections on ‘wider, global economic trends’. Aimee Walsh and Eli Davies supplied much-needed insights into the experiences of women. Considering female republican prisoners in Armagh Gaol during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Aimee forcefully demonstrated how the ‘female body has not been thoroughly considered in relation to the conflict’. Eli on the other hand, considered neglected literature produced by female authors during ‘the Troubles’, observing how the ‘daily, lived experiences of women’ have been silenced largely because they do not fit in with the ‘bigger male cultural narratives’. Discussion was further facilitated by Jan Freytag’s call for more nuanced understandings of the differing social and political roles played by individual Catholic clergymen during the conflict, as opposed to thinking of the Catholic Church as simply a monolithic institution.

The final session saw Roseanna Doughty and Rachel Thomas consider media representations of the conflict. Roseanna assessed British responses to the Peace Process, ably challenging a view widely held, especially amongst republicans, that the press merely parroted their government’s line. Rachael focused on the reaction of the American press to the 1981 republican Hunger Strikes. She argued that although these generated much Irish-American support for the republican movement, there were limiting factors, such as (interestingly) memories of the British-American alliance during the Second World War, and Reagan’s decision not involve his administration in efforts to resolve the protests. Lastly, Sarah Feinstein reflected upon contemporary representations of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison and the difficult task of dealing with the traumatic legacy of the Hunger Strikes. She focused on story-telling initiatives such as the construction of the Prison Memory Archive. As she observed, ‘what is unique among the footage is the many stories of the mundane…the everyday aspects of life where small moments of resistance, solidarity and compassion stand out…This brings a texture to both the site and the individuals who populated it’.

Professor English’s lecture

During the round-table Professor Delaney highlighted key issues generated by both the workshop and Professor English’s lecture. Above all, he noted a tension between the need to produce micro, local histories of ‘the Troubles’ and broader, conceptual studies. As Richard highlighted, ‘the Troubles’ were ‘intensely local’ and it is probably more accurate to think of ‘seventeen different conflicts’ as opposed to one. Yet he also urged us to be alert to the way in which much wider themes consistently intersected with, and impacted upon, the situation. The need for greater sensitivity to the role of religious belief in the recent history of Northern Ireland was also flagged, so too the need for more biographical literature. For example, we still lack good, scholarly biographies of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness!

Perhaps most importantly, Professor Delaney observed how although the idea of interdisciplinary scholarship is typically lauded in academia, historians rarely ever talk to each other formally, let alone with scholars working in other disciplines – and this is certainly true with respect to those focusing on Northern Ireland. In fact, the workshop evidenced how all our scholarship was heavily influenced by location; scholars based in Northern Ireland tending (on the whole) towards micro-histories: those working in Britain veering towards conceptual studies. Apparent to all, however, was the need for regular, reflexive dialogue between scholars dealing with the violent history of Northern Ireland in the post-Good Friday Agreement era. Consequently, we hope to build upon this highly successful and, indeed, very enjoyable workshop by maintaining dialogue between participants and staging further discussions in settings throughout these islands. Watch this space…

Thomas Dolan recently completed his PhD in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology under the supervision of Alvin Jackson and Owen Dudley Edwards. His thesis was entitled ‘Visions of History in the Thought of the Architects of Peace in Northern Ireland: Gerry Adams, John Hume and David Trimble’.

Summary and podcasts from our inaugural roundtable

Our first event of the year – a roundtable on ‘Truth and Democracy’ – took place last night in a packed room in the David Hume Tower. Centre director, Emile Chabal, gives a flavour of the discussion. You can also click on the links to the podcasts if you would like to listen to each speaker’s presentation in full.

Emile Chabal welcomes people to the roundtable

The topic of the roundtable was, as one of the speakers pointed out, a very ambitious one. There is nothing self-evident about ‘democracy’, much less ‘truth’. But we were lucky to have three distinguished speakers to offer contrasting perspectives. Unusually for a history seminar, the evening was characterised by sharply diverging opinions, both in the initial presentations by the speakers and the lively discussion afterwards.

Our first speaker was Christina Boswell, Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh. She is one of the leading experts in the fields of knowledge, public policy, and migration. Drawing on her extensive research on policy makers in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, she suggested that ‘truth’ was not – and should not – be a key factor in democratic politics. Instead, she proposed that we think in terms of ‘trust’.

Looking specifically at contemporary politics, she also pointed out that the emergence of performance targets and ‘new public management’ in the 1990s were initially conceived as ways to demonstrate the ‘truthfulness’ and ‘trustworthiness’ of political claims. But these measurements have proved to be, at best, a mixed blessing.

Christina ended her talk by exploring the tensions between a ‘ritualistic’ respect for supposedly objective ‘data’ and ‘targets’, and a more ‘impressionistic’ belief in the value of symbolic cues.

Our second speaker, Richard Whatmore, is Professor of Intellectual History at the University of St Andrews. He opened his talk with the arresting claim that, historically, political thinkers have generally seen representative democracy as a form of ‘deceit’, which purports to empower the people, but only does so very briefly at election time. He also reminded us that most of these same thinkers have been very fearful of mob rule and altogether sceptical about the principle of democracy.

In the latter part of the presentation, Richard turned his attention to Adam Smith and David Hume, and in particular their discussions of the relationship between commerce and politics. Smith and Hume had stark warnings about the corruption of politics by commerce and, in today’s neo-liberal society, there was ample evidence of what this might mean in practice.

Richard ended by suggesting that politicians and political actors have become too closely intertwined with the worlds of business, lobbying and trade. In the process, they are losing their sense of duty and the common good.

Our final speaker, Steve Fuller, is Auguste Comte Chair of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. In his brief presentation, he challenged us to rethink the notion of ‘post-truth’. Rather than view this terms in a purely negative light as a ‘distortion’ of the truth, he argued that we would be better off seeing it as a recognition of the intractable and essentially contested game of politics.

To illuminate his point, he repackaged Machiavelli and Pareto’s metaphor of the ‘lions’ and the ‘foxes’. The lions are those who defend the status quo; the foxes are those who seek to overturn it. In the current context, Brexit and Trump could be considered examples of the foxes taking charge.

The important point, however, is that a post-truth world is one in which we do not simply participate blindly in this battle between lions and foxes, but begin to recognise that this game is actually happening in the first place. Post-truth, in Steve’s words, is a ‘meta’ understanding of politics.

The question and answer session that followed the three talks was as wide-ranging and stimulating as the talks themselves. Members of the audience raised questions about everything from Facebook to Habermas, and there was a robust exchange between the speakers about the relative importance or otherwise of basic standards of ‘truth’ in a democratic system.

All in all, this was a wonderful way to kick off this year’s programme – learned, polemical, thoughtful, and far-reaching. We’ve set a high bar for the rest of the year!

— Emile

Gearing up for the new semester…

The leaflets have been printed, the programme has been finalised… and we’re almost ready for this semester’s activities.

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Donald Trump is not the first politician to upturn the relationship between ‘truth’ and ‘democracy’.

Our first event is a fantastic roundtable on the subject of truth and democracy, which will take place on Tuesday 19 from 4-6 in LG10, David Hume Tower. We’ve got three distinguished speakers and we’ll be live-tweeting the event with the hashtag #truthanddemocracy. Please do come!

After that, we have a terrific range of seminars that deal with every aspect of democracy from France to Brazil. We’ve got early career and more established scholars on the programme. And almost all of the talks feature comments from local specialists.

Beyond our seminars, we’re continuing to develop the Centre in new and exciting ways. In November, we will be welcoming our first CSMCH-IASH Postdoctoral Fellow, Rakesh Ankit from Jindal University, Delhi. With our growing network of collaborators and affiliates, we’re confident that we’ll be able to support a wide range of initiatives, including conferences, graduate events and film screenings.

Finally, we’re hoping to launch a new series of mini event podcasts and interviews to supplement this blog.

As ever, you should stay tuned to our Twitter feed and our Facebook page for more updates. And do let us know if you have an idea or simply want to be added to our mailing list!

— Emile

Welcome to the CSMCH blog!

Starting in September, we will be using this blog to publicise the Centre’s activities and to invite a broader discussion around what we are doing and what is happening in the world.

Amongst many other things, the blog will include…

  • Posts about our events
  • Guest contributions from our speakers and the wider academic community
  • Podcasts and videos
  • A range of other useful information, including details of conferences, workshops and special issues
A portrait of a scribe from the Indian illuminated manuscript, the Khamsa of Nizami (1595-6)

The blog is designed to complement our new website, which has full details of who we are and what we do.

We very much hope you will take part in this exciting conversation, whether virtually through the blog and via social media, or in person at one of our events.

We look forward to meeting you!

– Emile