On Attempting to Write Contemporary History

Each kind of history-writing brings its own challenges. But it seems to me that writing contemporary history – that is, the history of one’s own culture within living memory – is more difficult than it looks, precisely because it’s so easy to underestimate the difficulties.

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In all human cultures, there’s a central but often unexamined distinction between things considered ‘comment-worthy’ and things considered ‘too obvious to need commenting about’.

This distinction is crucial for how human cultures write history. ‘Too obvious’ in this context means default, accepted, normal, unquestioned; people generally don’t write histories about these topics, because they don’t seem historical: they seem just given. These topics sit in the silent subtext of the culture, ever-present but unarticulated.

Things considered ‘comment-worthy’, by contrast, seem curious, unusual, contingent; they cry out for an explanation, and they are therefore considered suitable topics for history-writing.

Non-trivial example: before the 1960s, very few works of western history considered western gender norms, because these norms seemed too obvious to need comment; after the 1960s, in the light of second-wave feminism, pre-1960s western gender norms were moved from the ‘too obvious’ category to the ‘contingent and comment-worthy’ category, and there was an explosion of historiographical interest in this previously neglected topic.

All cultures have unacknowledged subtexts, because subtext is crucial for communication: cultures simply can’t function properly if there is no assumed subtext shared by a quorum of its members. So, if you want to see what a culture’s silent assumptions are, think about what it doesn’t historicize.

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The vast majority of our unacknowledged assumptions about what is ‘too obvious to require comment’ are cultural. If we are western, we instinctively think that today’s western culture is ‘normal’: if we have always lived in western countries, we have been implicitly trained to do this since we were born. Consequently, we instinctively use western culture as the baseline with which to judge everything else, often remaining unaware we’re doing this.

But this is why writing the contemporary history of one’s own culture, and doing it well, is so difficult. Since our own society is so close to us, we don’t recognize its exoticism and its weirdness. Our lens for deciding ‘normality’ is too close to its lens for deciding ‘normality’, and so we can end up uncritically accepting many of its assumptions, without even realizing it, because we’re just too close to our subject-matter.

These assumptions even exist at the very level of the categories we’re using. For half a century, my field has been using the terms ‘religious’, ‘secular’, and ‘secularization’ quite naively, without really thinking about the ideological assumptions that these terms imply, and without coming to terms with the fact that these categories originate in Christian theology. It’s only very lately, in the transition from ‘secular’ scholarship to ‘postsecular’ scholarship, that we can begin to unpick the ideological categories bequeathed to us by the 1960s secular revolution, and to analyse the consequences of people beginning to think in these terms.

But this problem of contemporary historians inheriting ideological concepts from their subjects also shows us how to write excellent, groundbreaking contemporary history. If we can deconstruct familiar assumptions that everyone else assumes; if we can historicize the concepts that everyone else takes for granted; if we can exoticize and provincialize a situation that everyone else thinks is normal – then we are truly engaged in the exciting task of analyzing our own culture.

Deconstructing one’s own inherited cultural framework is deeply exciting, and deeply difficult. It may, at times, be controversial. But if we are committed historians, we will be determined to historicize everything, without fear or favour. This is what I’ve tried to do, at least, in my new book: I’m trying to historicize Britain’s Sixties, by unpicking its categories, and revealing it as a provincial cultural invention.

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