Unreviewed! Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind

There are two kinds of popular history book: the cameo and the synthesis. Historians find it easy to fit cameos into their working lives. They produce exquisite little portraits of a family in Wars of the Roses England, or uncover the poignant mental history of an aristocrat at the end of the long nineteenth century. They focus on a crime or an incident or a vignette and use it to draw little lessons and inferences about the world in which it took place.

Syntheses are different. They only incidentally involve the writer’s own original research; they are commentary which should inform the lay reader while also making the expert see a familiar area in a new light. But what they should have at least is a solid angle. The Mediterranean’s history can be told as a giant narrative of interlocking narratives, for example. Or, the history of the world can only be told through money (reprise).

I’m not sure Yuval Harari’s Sapiens has a compelling angle, judging by the extract or whatever it was I read in the Guardian from last weekend. He starts by suggesting that there have been:

almost no scientific studies of the long-term history of happiness.

This might come across as less goady if he then made the slightest attempt to set out a suitable research strategy for this, but he doesn’t, or at least not in the Guardian piece. And scientific studies, really? What he means here is “rigorous”, which is all anybody in a qualitative discipline can aspire to; it’s exactly this kind of sloppy thinking that makes STEM people think HASS people are basically being funded to make shit up. The works to which he obliquely refers on measuring happiness in modern populations normally talk about markers like mental health and reported life satisfaction. It’s certainly an intriguing idea that we might be able to find some corresponding measurements from previous eras and stack them up against each other but that sounds like a lifetime’s work for several people complete with conferences, a dedicated journal, acolyte students, three schisms, seventeen famous blazing rows and eight trillion pints of beer.

And that’s not what’s going to happen, because what Harari is planning to do instead is gallop through the great revolutions in the history of modern humans and offer his take on whether or not they were Good Things. That really seems to be all there is to it, and that’s not an angle. Depending on your specialism, you will find some of his takes intuitively correct, some mildly revelatory and some shonky and over-simplified. The trouble is, once you’ve seen shonky over-simplification in one place, you suspect that it might be lurking in other passages whose background you don’t know so well. For me, the tell was the agricultural revolution. Harari – along with every palaeo-geek and primal dieter on the internet – thinks this is a Bad Thing. The subject is foregrounded in the Guardian piece and caught the attention of the subsequent reviewer:

It’s a neat thought that “we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”

Well, so it is, but it’s not Harari’s. Ian Hodder, Jacques Cauvin, Peter Wilson and pretty much every Neolithic specialist who has come after them have played with the idea that domestication is always a two-way process, and that changes in the head or in social arrangements may have led change in the environment and not the other way round. Above all, the field is implicitly familiar with the fact that agriculture brought tremendous problems to the burgeoning human populations it produced. This is not new. If it were, Harari wouldn’t be able to quote Jared Diamond, for god’s sake, suggesting agriculture was the greatest mistake in human history, which he duly does. Synthesizers quoting other synthesizers. Aieee.

Lack of novelty may not a problem in historical synthesis, but lack of close examination is. That cutesy “agriculture was a mistake, we belong on the savannah” line is a commonplace internet chatroom trope of (usually) white American middle-aged men. It quickly falls to bits when unpicked – what savannah, in what time? Exactly when were we eating “the perfect diet”, how many human groups in a world of massive bio-diversity were really eating it, and above all, how many of the disadvantages of this Eden are you willing to take on board alongside your nuts and berries? Incidentally, there’s also an entire field of philosophy called population studies dedicated to teasing out the implications of the position Harari seems to take as read in all this, that fewer, happier people are better than more, miserable people. Derek Parfitt calls it “a repugnant conclusion” that this is not in fact the case – from the point of view of the potential individual it is better to exist, however miserably, than not. Did no-one mention this to Harari, really?

Maybe I just know the most about the part of history Harari is weakest on, and maybe this is why most people don’t write synthesis history, because everybody’s a well-informed critic about something, the bastards. I’ll read the full thing because I’m a sucker for this stuff, but it don’t look promising so far.

Why do people cry on Who Do You Think You Are?

Genealogy is, when I think about it, the thing I have been doing longer than I’ve been doing pretty much anything else – over twenty years. This fact is surprising to me when I remember it, because I don’t really think about genealogy that much. For a start, it’s a bit of a finished project – there are parish chests I could plunder and mysteries I could worry at, but the easy unfurling of names bit is mostly as done as it’ll ever be. It all floats around in the background, both the doing of it and the data collected, and when I walk down a street on which “somebody” lived or my finger passes over a significant place name on a map I pleasantly “remember” a particular story or set of dates in the same way that I sometimes become gratefully aware of breathing, and then I forget again. With the exception of a couple of years, everywhere I have chosen to live in London has a family connection of some kind, as if this might serve as some kind of grounding in a life of frequent moves I suppose.

I have been catching odd moments of the current Who Do You Think You Are series, which is mostly useless for getting at the actual experience of doing genealogy (nobody wears white cotton gloves and brings you pre-identified bound volumes containing everything you could possibly need to know unless you are Stephen Fry) but excellent at invoking the mythology around it. The pattern is that the fresh and curious disciple arrives at their kitchen table or their desk to join the gently steeple-fingered experts, expresses curiosity, relates some family legends, a few jokes are made. Then the hunt begins, the experts unfold terrible knowledge like calm old Jedis and the disciple is led down a path of admixed discovery and self-discovery that ends, ideally for TV’s purposes, in them bursting into tears.

I’m not being caustic here. It’s a pattern that reflects in a highly dramatised form what happens when you do it yourself. You may not actually weep in record offices – though I have seen people do that – but the ticklish magic of researching family history is that it is an unpicking, of temperaments and circumstances and decisions that might explain why you are what, and where, you are. It helps you to think about family, about the long durée, about life and love and how all decisions have mixed consequences. I gravitate towards well written family histories because I can sense the writer doing that unpicking, not because I am interested in the data itself.

And yet there’s a sort of fiction at the heart of all this, because none of these events in which you are desperately seeking foreshadowings of your own temperamental make-up actually happened to you. You are not culpable in any of it. The decisions you have taken yourself – surely the more relevant data in the project of understanding yourself – are not the things under scrutiny, so you can blub in an uncomplicated way for someone else’s mistakes or misfortunes. The fantasy at work in WDYTYA is more or less that you arrive at the research as a completed and serene person who has resolved everything in their own life, and needs to look further afield for insight and catharsis.

What I suppose we are seeing is somebody displace their own knotted problems onto someone else. Someone dead who never – in modern parlance – agreed to have a public profile, unlike their soggy descendent, which if you think about it is rather spooky. And even if most people who do genealogy don’t get to cry on TV, they still experience the frisson of turning over new data, and they draw it into an account of their background that suits them. Maybe genealogy is a bit of a predatory business.

Can you teach through the medium of Stuff?

If I were unbearably cynical, I would suggest that the Teaching History with 100 Objects project was an attempt to co-opt a major national institution into supporting a particular cast of goverment education policy, but the People’s Republic is a place of wide-eyed, dewy-cheeked innocence, as you know, so we will confine ourselves to commenting on whether it’s a good idea or not. Pfft.

Maybe it’s an idea that ought to delight anyone trained as both a historian and an archaeologist – history told through Stuff and Things. The question is, should you do that? It’s not so much that the selections are – this is inevitable – screaming with omissions. It’s that I’m not sure I believe in the iconic power of objects to stand for history. Or even archaeology, come to that. The real fun in archaeology isn’t goggling at individual objects, it’s goggling at graphs of classes of objects and trying to figure out what their number, distribution and changing form tell us. It’s true that whenever I’m by the British Museum and have a moment I have a little commune with the Sutton Hoo helmet, but that’s because I spent a term learning about the burial, the society, the mysterious nature of the spearholder and the provenance of the spoons. And the gold enamelled shoulder clasps (seriously, good grief) probably look far more amazing to me than you (yes, even you, howsobeit that you are clearly an intelligent, discerning and highly sophisticated reader, and that colour really suits you, by the way) because I looked at so many diagrams of post-holes and excavation reports that term and I have a crude idea of how much archaeology is Yet More Bloody Potsherds and then, suddenly, woosh, garnet cloisonné work. Without all the background knowledge and context Sutton Hoo is basically one big glass case of insurance headache. No wonder so many children wander round museums looking underwhelmed. You gotta wanna see it.

Teaching history is surely about teaching ideas and patterns, as with any humanities subject. If that doesn’t float your longboat, then as with any subject at all, no hard feelings. But it seems a strange endeavour to try to inspire children to learn about ideas by giving them objects instead. Objects are not easier than ideas. They do not provide better access to knowledge, but different access. The notion that learning history is done by starting from a particular physical object as “inspiration” and working outwards to the patterns and ideas bit is actually pretty complex, and calls for some kind of materialist/semiological defence which I dearly hope the DfE SpAds are too busy to construct. The objects are doing the job of icons here, representing a whole bunch of epistemological categories in an intellectual enterprise that is not really “about” physical objects at all. It’s  bordering on the mystical, though I suppose education policy is one of those areas where we seem to think a bit of mysticism is appropriate – inspiring minds, unlocking potential, all those things.

I also think it forms more of a departure than the schools minister Nick Gibb thinks from the strait-laced chronological curriculum laid down by Michael Gove which, gleefully piss-rip-worthy though it was, did enshrine a hazy version of the premise that in order to understand patterns you need to start with a lot of data. This project could be taken to advocate starting with one bit of data, a physical bit. I’m not sure whether that’s right or wrong, I just think it’s different. I guess a lot lies with the teaching, but that’s always the case, and incidentally the reason why (as ever) I wonder if there’s any earthly point in governments specifying curriculums to this level of detail in the first place.

Can computers replace historians?

This Bank Holiday weekend’s Question To Which The Answer Is No And Which Successfully Winds Up Alix Mortimer (#QTWTAINAWSWUAM – it’ll never catch on, though it clearly should) is this one from the Beeb’s Rory Cellan-Jones:

Can computers replace historians?

here is the biggest claim so far – crunching through the big data of history can help us spot patterns and work out where the world is heading next.

That is what Kalev Leetaru, a data scientist at Washington’s Georgetown University, believes may be possible. Using a tool called Google Big Query, designed for interrogating vast collections of data, he has been sifting through a database of events stretching back to 1979.

This is GDELT, which has collected media reports of events from innumerable sources in more than 100 languages for 35 years. “What we did here,” Leetaru explains, “was use this tool to shove in a quarter of a billion records and use this massive piece of software to just in a few minutes sift out the patterns in this data.”

What he says he found was complex patterns of events repeating themselves over the years. He has looked at recent events in Egypt , in Ukraine, in Lebanon and tried to draw common patterns.

The answer of course is No, and in fact nobody is seriously suggesting otherwise, not even the data scientist in the story.

Leetaru says historians should see this kind of computational tool as just another technique amongst many rather than a threat to their professional expertise. In any case, they may look at the patchy record of big data in areas like election forecasting and flu trends and decide their days sifting through dusty archives are not numbered after all.

For all the tail-end humility, it is worth rehearsing the reasons why this idea is being oversold, and they go beyond the fact that Google Big Query sounds like something you’d use to report graffiti in your neighbourhood or check the local bye-laws on squirrel-feeding.

The tritest first – is the purpose of “doing history” solely to work out where the world is going next? For policy-focussed think thanks maybe, for historians probably not. This is the bread and butter of undergraduate historiography seminars, and it’s not difficult to come up with reasons other than than to “do history”. Because it tells you something about the human condition which has nothing to do with mere events, because it widens your understanding of your own culture and biases and those of other people, because it challenges your preconceptions about tradition and heritage, or enhances them, or perhaps just because you have that certain bloody cast of mind that delights in intellectual problems which cannot be reduced easily to numerical values and positively require human intervention to make sense of them, and because you believe that the training and sharpening of such minds is of value to the future of the race. All these things.

Second objection, it indexes and detects patterns in media reports. Not in the Raw Stuff of Time Itself. A more perfectly designed tool to assess changes in pattens of media reportage over the last 35 years would be hard to conceive, but whether it can be said to be crunching up actual history in its neat teeth is something else. There’s a whole extra layer of analysis to slot in here about the nature of historical data and how we create it. There is no such thing as “just data”, a fact which most of the internet found itself having to explain to Chris Anderson in 2008 when he wrote a piece in Wired called “The End of Theory.” This is philosophy of science 101 (it’s archaeology 101 too). “Data” in anything other than pure numerical terms is conceived of through human intervention, through choices about what to foreground and what to omit, through the murky veil of language itself. Somebody has to put this stuff in to this difference engine, and however you do is going to shape your outputs. GIGO &c.

There is at least a certain audacity in making the source of all your inputs The Meedja, an audacity that we can only hope the data scientist in question is aware of (although US print media is famously more staid than British print media – to fully grasp how eye-popping this exercise looks from a British perspective, USian readers should imagine the inputs were TV news segments). On the other hand, at least media coverage of current events can be said to be broadly afflicted with the same problems and biases down the last 35 years or so. At least it’s consistently wrong, right? I mean, obviously after you control for differences between individual journalists and their many biases and bugbears, between editorial approaches at different media outlets, the whole meta-history of the media scene and of reportage and its changing norms and standards, particularly over the period which sees the arrival of the internet, and, er… Well, there are some issues with your input source, in other words, and being able to identify problems with your sources is not the same as being able to control for those problems, as any historian can tell you.

The third objection is the killer from an archaeologist’s point of view and it is a corollary of the second – the data involved currently goes back (like the Head of the People’s Republic) to 1979, which while it is naturally a great deal in fag-and-wisdom years is a blink of an eye in human history itself – even recorded human history, which makes the pattern-detection thing a bit redundant. What are you going to do when your newspaper reports run out? What are you going to do when basic assumptions about, I dunno, states, war, international law, human political relations, are so morphed by the passage of time as to be unrecognisable? What are you going to do, in short, when modernity runs out? What are you going to do when writing itself runs out? What are you going to do – and any data scientist should perforce be interested in answering this question – about the big, the seriously fucking big, patterns in human history when your data inputs are so patchy and variable?

Archaeologists struggle with this all the time, and it’s one of the reasons why prehistory is the best kind. You cannot seek trite, proximate causes, because you simply don’t know that this set of people invaded that, or this set of people started speaking that language because of some particular set of political pressures, or this set of people moved there because of a series of famines. We do not have the data. All you can do is try and detect much more abstract patterns in the distribution of material and try and make it say something about human endeavour (or, as prehistorians of my acquaintance colloquially put it, make it up). Historians of recorded periods are less naturally stretched in theoretical terms, but even they are dealing with much, much patchier and more variable data inputs than newspaper reportage.

For all that, this does sound like an insanely useful tool for certain purposes, and I wonder if Leetaru simply needs to scale back his terms a bit. It doesn’t seem logical in any sense that computers could replace historians. What they could well replace, it seems to me, is think tanks.

Sharing and hoarding

Economists and their fellow travellers are great at churning out neat little books with titles using the format of [Noun]ification: how [Noun] is [Verb]ing the World, and Why It Matters (And How You Can Use it to Get More Twitter Followers). I hardly ever know enough about the subject matter to tell how much of the contents are weapons-grade bullshit, but they’re often interesting anyway.

According to Tim Harford writing a few months ago, somebody has got hold of a set of ideas from anthropology about hunter-gatherers and sharing, and farmers and hoarding, and is using them as a jumping-off point to comment on contemporary society:

Megan McArdle, in her fascinating forthcoming book The Up Side of Down, observes that modern societies can’t make up their minds whether to adopt the morality of farmers or of hunters. The idea that hard work needs to be rewarded is a farmer’s view of fairness. The claim that “we’re all in this together” is hunter-thinking.

We could, at this point, lay into McArdle for analysing modern society in terms of Just So stories based on fuzzy, under-examined perceptions about How Things Used To Be in the Old Days – a complaint David Graeber makes of economists generally in Debt (n.b. in my impressionistic taxonomy, the single-noun pop-econ titles sit a level above the Nounification ones).

But the trouble is, she has lifted the outline of this from anthropological theory. The authorised version I read about as an archaeology student holds that hunter-gatherer societies are incentivized to share food because the supply is uncertain, and norms of reciprocity will grow up to keep you in gazelle steak when your own sub-group is not doing so hot. In any case, the mobile nature of the lifestyle mitigates against storage – if it ain’t getting eaten now, it will go to waste. Farmers on the other hand are incentivized to hoard, by implication hoard from each other – the farming year is predictable and in return for a given input of time and effort generates (all being well) food at set intervals which can be eked out over however long the producer decides. At the same time sedentism, which is held to accompany farming as a social development, enables storage (and maintenance of the stored crop). Food is power. If you have enough to feed yourself, grand, but if you have enough to start giving it away at times of your own choosing in return for favours, labour, marriage partners and general prestige, so much the better. All this is tied up with the development of nuclear families who are held to be an appropriate unit for agricultural productivity, and ultimately the beginnings of social stratification.

Of course, archaeologists and anthropologists formulated this tool of analysis without ever intending it to be used by a City AM commentator to crowbar open the NHS, but that’s the trouble with wanting to Give Something Back to the other social sciences – and theoretical archaeology regularly beats itself up for its failure to do this* – you don’t get a choice about how your ideas are used. McArdle may have bolted an awkward morality tale onto what was intended as a piece of socio-economic analysis but she hasn’t been constrained by injunctions not to do it. There is a sort of Middle England whiff about a lot of the farming/sedentism stuff I’ve read, as if people are almost slightly relieved to be recognising the roots of nuclear families, social stratification, capitalism and other jolly things. Whatever their own politics, at least it is familiar, and feels like the beginnings of a Big Thing. It’s not really surprising if actual capitalists come along and make free with it.

In fact, I’m failing to come up with an instance of an archaeologist conducting a specific and critical examination of her own politics in the context of the sharing/hoarding dichotomy which might act as a kind of user’s guide to passing economic commentators. Are there any?

* I’m never sure why. The only social science I can think of that freely nicks ideas from other disciplines and then vomits a bunch of hurriedly regurgitated theory back down their beaks is, in fact, economics, and should that be any shy, naive young discipline’s idea of a suitable role model? Really?

On being a bitrovert

As is well known in the Lib-Dem-and-hangers-on blogosphere (rather more hangers-on than Lib Dems these days, and soon presumably just hangers), James Graham is a genius. So it need surprise no-one that he coined a term only this morning which was swiftly adopted into the Official Permitted Lexicon of the People’s Republic, thus:

Several things could drive this campaign, I think. The first and most obvious is that people like narratives and categories and shorthand; it makes them feel in control, it gives them a handle on what to do in conflict situations. What can be named can be manipulated. The second is the ubiquity of personality profiling systems like Myers-Briggs, ably skewered (again) here, but still widely used by businesses, cod psychologists and bullshitting dilettantes who like nothing more than to rub bits of the abstract world up against each other “to see what happens” even though what invariably “happens” is that you have used a gerbil to nail a blancmange to a gas bill, intellectually speaking, and wasted half an hour of everybody’s time and easily two of your own.

There is a third force at work here though, and it is encapsulated in books like Quiet and The Highly Sensitive Person (are you too sensorily overwhelmed by particularly violently patterned supermarket flooring? do you too spend entire evenings round your friends’ houses wondering twitchily why they don’t sort out the harsh overhead lighting because IT’S MAKING EVERYBODY EDGY? Then congratulations, sport, you’re as fucked as I am.) You might, cruelly, characterise this trend as the Nerd’s Revenge. “Introvert” is one of those terms that is being reclaimed by the people who were originally saddled with it as a perjorative. Certainly I spent my first twentyish years convinced I must be an introvert, and I can absolutely see the appeal of having my inner child cosseted by New York Times bestsellers which tell me how veh, veh speshul this makes me.

To be honest, though, I think my wholly introverted behaviours as a child were mostly down to the fact that, frankly, most of the people around me were quite rubbish, apart from the few friends who got me, and rubbish people were, and are, tiring (note how this alternative reading is still based on the premise that I am veh, veh speshul). And the further forward you go in life the more you tend to be able to select the people you keep around you, so the less the introvert thing is in point. Whether or not your introvert behaviours are set in stone by then really depends on a lot of things, your innate capacity/desire for reinvention, the environments you regularly move in, the extent to which you have tied your sense of self to certain of life’s routine fixtures and fittings &c.

But clearly I can’t escape the introvert label altogether because I absolutely love bitrovert, and logically I don’t see how they can exist as concepts without each other. Bitrovert perfectly expresses the finely balanced forces that alternately cause me to talk bollocks to total strangers in the hope that this will somehow make the world a better place for both of us and sit in corners silently howling GO AWAY AND LEAVE ME ALOOOOONE. I like that it communicates a sense of being genuinely both things (usually, indeed, in the course of one evening), and being mostly rather happy about that. It is nice to feel well-tuned, and if I spend too much time performing the introvert or too much time performing the extrovert, I get out of tune. And so interestingly we run up against the familiar tension, don’t we, in that logically both “things” have to exist as culturally constructed entities for you to be able to identify with both of them. There’s probably queer theory stuff I need to read about this so that I can talk about it on the internet some more.

Now piss off.

Letter to a Known Soldier

Letter to an Unknown Soldier project.

Dear Percy,

I’m supposed to be writing to an Unknown Soldier apparently, but I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. So I thought I’d write to you instead. It feels more comfortable. Thinking about the Cenotaph, and sacrifice, and horror, and pacifism, and all the rest of it, freezes me up; but I am happy sitting on the back steps with you just out of focus, on the step above me maybe, having a smoke (you must have smoked?) and rambling on down a sort of crackly genetic telegraph wire as we watch the white washing blow in lines across Crouch End.

Crouch End and Finsbury Park are the places we have in common. I fetch up there periodically. We just missed each other, walking round the streets. Often I would see things unchanged in the hundred years since you saw them – a battered old door jamb covered in treacly brown Victorian paint. The rooflines. The clock tower, still rather new in your day. Number 34 Park Road which I used to pass coming on to the Broadway, where your widow was living a scant seven months after you were killed, so I can only imagine you too once opened that gate, walked up the path and knocked, or let yourself in, at the original door that isn’t there any more. Sometimes I would find the shops flashing in and out of focus, clothes boutique/butcher, juice bar/fishmonger, gift shop/ironmonger, and look up at the clock tower and it would dizzy me a bit, and I would wonder, is it now or is it then? Am I about to accidentally slip behind a molecule and see him, or know something new about him?

Let me start with what we do know. You were born on 16th July 1882 in Melbourne, Australia, to the West Country-Irish immigrant parentage that was not unusual in that time and place. I think what happened is that you joined the army around 1900 – the British army recruited in Australia, and the Boer War was the first conflict your fledgeling country was seriously involved in. The family story is that you joined the army and fought in South Africa and then India, served alongside a man called Jack Wells and came home for tea with him when you were both demobbed in London, and married his sister – this last event we can pin down to 1909. You were within a few days of coming off the reserve list when the Great War broke out and hauled you into the British Expeditionary Force. When I looked up your regiment I found that they were stationed in those places, in that order, in those years. So that much I think I know.

You were red-haired. When you were a non-uniformed scout on the North-West frontier (I suppose they would call that a spy these days) you had to take extra care to keep your hair covered because you were so recognisably Caucasian from a mountainside away. You totally rocked at riding, shooting and swimming. You could dive from the top of a mast into the sea. You were a calm man, unflappable and grave. You identified as a Victorian, not an Australian – Australia wasn’t unified until after you’d left. You stood on four continents in your 32 years on earth.

My granddad, who was four when you were killed, had very few memories of you that I know about. One – and this I think is wonderful – was of you standing at the stove, stirring something. It’s a salutary reminder that so much of what we “know” by cultural consensus about Victorian patriarchy is really based on middle class norms. Father in the parlour, mother in the nursery, cook in the kitchen, maid in the attic. All right for some. In April 1911 when the census was taken you, your wife, your baby son, your parents-in-law and your sister-in-law all lived in the same two-up two-down plus attic house in Finsbury Park. How could the men not muck in under those conditions? Life must have been a constant cycle of creation, consumption, dirt and cleanliness, a steady wearing through of enamelled pans and paintwork and stair carpets of the sort that only really happens in houseshares now. Another way in which your life is closer to mine than might be expected.

We don’t seem to have Talked about the War much yet, do we. I suppose that’s my point in writing, really. Like everybody else being written to in this project you had a life, and a family, and places you saw and people you met, and all this went on for years and years before those few months in 1914 that saw you co-opted into a Grand Narrative. If you had survived the war all those things would be your defining characteristics. You would have emerged from the dramatic sepia in which you are set in your tartan trews into the shabbier, workaday light of the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps started appearing in blurry awkward poses on benches in parks. Perhaps cemented a reputation for daft humour, or the ability to write doggerel verse, or dozens of other things. The point I am making is that when I try to write to you as a soldier of the First World War, I probably know you least of all. And I imagine that we are all in fact missing the best parts of all of you when we reduce you to a noble sea of khaki. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with this whole exercise.

Still, I’m no better. In a way that started out as a joke, you have become a sort of tragic talisman. Whenever I feel my back is to the wall, in however small a way, I think, “Percy would love this, to be here in the world now, scrabbling for money, or broken-hearted, or about to go into an exam, or in the dentist’s waiting room. He was so brave, this would be nothing to him. He would swap places with me in an instant.” But really that is not about you being killed in the war at all, it’s simply about your death, and the gratitude and envy we all feel towards each other as we see-saw down history, living and dying and being born and gradually in turn figuring out the truth that we too are going to die.

But we really should say something about war, so let me tell you one little story, about your son and grandson (I imagine you might scrabble as greedily for these vignettes as I scrabble for yours). One day latish in the 1960s, my granddad and my dad were coming out of a theatre somewhere north of Trafalgar Square. There was a Ban the Bomb march on. My granddad, a staunch conservative who had fought in his own war, bristled as a man with leaflets approached him – a straggly-haired, bearded man of about the same age. This is hard to explain to you without relating a whole narrative of social history from the decades after your death; but to a certain generation and a certain cast of mind, Ban the Bomb and Stop the War marches and the like were, and are, associated with beatniks, hippies and drop-outs, people who would avoid Doing Their Bit. You can still see it in the way right-wing political bloggers talk about protest marches now.

“No thanks, I was in the last lot,” my granddad said shortly, in answer to the proffered leaflet.

The man – my dad has never forgotten this – looked at him with conviction and some puzzlement, and tried to explain. “So was I,” he said. That’s why he was there.

And in spite of what I said at the outset about the Cenotaph, I do wonder which side you’d have been on.

Anyway, I’ve finished my cigarette.  I think I’m going to go back inside now.

Alix Mortimer

Pte Percy George Stevenage Mortimer, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), kia 26th October 1914.


Is it safe to talk like an anarchist again?

Public intellectualism has its own rhythms. This week’s special guest on Things Alix Mortimer Has Been Saying in the Pub Since 2007 is David Graeber, who asked, here first and then more recently and I think forcefully here, why we are so culturally attached to the idea of work as a virtue, and by extension why jobs for all is still considered a respectable goal of economic policy, or indeed of politics at all. He has his own answer – capitalist conspiracy – but that’s not why I liked reading the pieces. One of the most interesting passages in the interview, for a liberal, is this:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.

I.e. my pub-bound discoveries were of course not original either. Anarchists and their intellectual descendents, left-wing libertarians, fans of Citizens’ Basic Income and the like have been saying this kind of thing since, well, the 1880s. Graeber relates the history without noting the corollary – certain groups of people have never forgotten these aspirations, and they have continued to nurture them in small-scale and heavily pub-centric political movements while mainstream conservatives and socialists, or variants thereof, have spent the latter half of the twentieth century re-arranging deckchairs on the head of a pin. Inside a box.

And it strikes me that all this is the kind of thing you really couldn’t discuss in the heated atmosphere of 2009 through 2011ish without being easily confused with a bastard, exactly the sort of bastard that you were in fact determined to bring down with nets. Taking 2,000 words to suggest that we need to shake all the pieces off the current board and set it up like this and like that is basically the sport of the comfortable, and it doesn’t play so well when your audience is caught up in a collective sense that there are truly pressing human problems to solve. It’s not that they mind public intellectuals pitching in on national crises with 2,000 word articles – they’re reading the damn things after all – but when things are fraught your politicised internet-consumer does like to feel a sense of immediacy, familiarity and pragmatism come off the screen. If you’ve ever watched a land taxer argue with that particularly keen-as-mustard type of social democrat you’ll know the sort of mismatch I mean. The social democrat usually has trouble accepting that someone who isn’t discussing housing policy as it currently stands could possibly have the interests of those being royally shat upon by it at heart, and s/he will quickly fall to watching the land taxer’s words for tells of conservatism, and no-one learns anything.

That’s where we’ve been for the last few years. And as such I see it as an interesting bellwether that Graeber is raising the bullshit jobs thing now. It no longer feels quite so much like a kick in the face to people who can’t get jobs and very much want them – not because those people don’t still exist, albeit in lesser numbers, but because the national narrative has moved on from “people like me are being shafted, burn an effigy at once” to “people about whom I care are being shafted, let’s have a full and frank exchange of views on what to do about it”. Not fair, not logical, highly human. Anarchist approaches to work, life and liberty are perhaps part of a suite of ideas – like land tax, like CBI – that people will start to discuss again.

(NB I’m not sure how much he talks about this in Debt, published 2011, because I still haven’t finished it and I can’t handle the emotional wear and tear of using the search function on the Kindle which has seemingly been designed by NASA to respond to every particle of matter that touches its screen except the collection of atoms that make up my finger. I read everything in order, only the once, like an ancient unrolling a scroll. I presume everybody else’s is the same and we are all just too damn embarrassed to mention it.)

Housing the Citizenry

You are tenacious so-and-sos, you lot. I still get as many hits here at PRoM on a bad day as I get on a good day at my new gaff. A not inconsiderable factor is that this post about political apathy among the young appears to have spontaneously taken over Google, from whence people arrive after asking questions such as “why is there political apathy among the youth?” and “why are the young politically apathetic?” and “why is everything so utterly hopeless and what does Alix Mortimer think about it?” (I am paraphrasing here, you understand).

So I have a horrible feeling that my specious rattled-off opinions about political apathy are being regularly used up and down the land to shore up last-minute “Citizenship” homework – or even, for all I know, lesson plans – and this may yet stand as my lasting contribution to The Internet. If this is what influence feels like you may keep it.

Mind you, today someone asked “how can political apathy be stopped?” which seems at least to be a step in the right direction, though I fear answer came there none, at least from me.

Anyway, two of the reasons I proffered in that post that might explain the political apathy of the young (and indeed the not so young, hem hem) related to the cost of housing. I talked about money, and in particular I talked about renting:

I do not personally recall a single instance, either in the last two years of active political interest or the previous 28 of apathy, of a politician mentioning the “r” word. Private tenants simply do not exist in political discourse. They are so invisible that, whenever anyone uses the word “tenants”, it is taken as read that they mean social housing tenants (eg, the name of a new government quango for social housing tenants, which I momentarily and foolishly got excited about: it is called the National Tenant Voice). Private tenants in this country get a worse deal with legal protection and with typical contractual terms than tenants in other European countries. I don’t know a great deal about the issues and I’m sure there aren’t instant and obvious answers. I’m just struck by the way no discussion is ever aired at all.

Mention first time buyers to politicians on the other hand, and they’ll jump like scalded cats. It’s ridiculous. No party has been able to come up with a real solution for all first time buyers “struggling to get on the property ladder” for a very good and simple reason: prices are too high and Generation X is sitting on all the money. We all know this. And no government is ever going to actively cause prices to fall even if they could. Given the Sisyphean impossibility of solving this problem by buying everybody a house (which has been the approach taken by Labour), I am genuinely puzzled as to why politicians don’t go for the lower-hanging fruit: consider the young’s actual lives as tenants instead of their aspirational lives as homeowners. Stop calling them first time buyers because they ain’t buying anything, and start calling them what they are.

(The comments point out that I was incorrect to cite only Generation X and not the babyboomers – see what I mean about specious rattled-off opinions?)

That was written four years ago, and the landscape has, with tectonic sloth, shifted a little since then. You can indeed read about the trials and mounting costs of renting as a private tenant in the mainstream press (quite probably because increasing proportions of the media is staffed by people who don’t have the option to buy). No longer is everyone under 35 represented in the Property pages by smiley pictures of Ben and Lisa simply pink with joy to be sitting on a faux-leather sofa in their very own Barrett cell after clearing the trifling hurdle of selling their kidneys to the international banking system. So that’s something.

But some things are reassuringly eternal, and The Government is still trying to solve the problem by buying everybody a house.

So the reason I attach the electrodes to this blog today is that I have just had an email round from Priced Out, who are preparing to step up pressure on the parties ahead of 2015 and to that end are searching for pieces of hay in a haystack and, well, I want to see them succeed:

PricedOut is the only campaign that represents first-time buyers and we need your help to ensure politicians give us something to vote for.

First, Channel 4 News would like to speak to thirtysomethings living in flatshares, and adults living with their parents because rent is too high. If you or anyone you know would like to find out more, please email press@pricedout.org.uk, as soon as possible.

If you fall into those categories and fancy complaining about your so-called life to Cathy Newman, you should email them.

I do still have quibbles with some of Priced Out’s language. “First time buyers” is a much less inclusive constituency than “private tenants” and only fuels the general idea that buying at all costs is the ultimate dream, which is partly what has got us where we are. But the more air time the reality of the housing crisis gets the better as far as I’m concerned.

The ways of the ancestors

The British Psychology Society research blog is reporting on an ace little piece of research about the psychological benefits of thinking about your ancestors, which I’m going to henceforth assume you’ve read. Off you go. (The original paper, referenced at the bottom, is short and also well worth reading if you have an institution log-in.) One of the reasons I liked it is because I have consciously used this “mechanism” myself – usually, it must be said, when situations of physical bravery are required, because I’m such an utter physical coward (teeth! falling over on the ice! hnnnnnnng!), and the study is concentrating on improved intellectual expectations and performance.  But still.

It’s just a preliminary study. I think there could be some two-way trade here with historically and archaeologically attested instances of ancestor worship. That is, future findings could enlarge our understanding of past societies as well as our own. And also, attested cases of historical ancestor worship could suggest directions for the follow-up research, which will attempt to isolate underlying “processes of social identity, family cohesion, self-regulation or norm activation elicited by increased ancestor salience.”

Rome immediately springs to mind as a culture engaged in formal – and quite explicitly performance-related – ancestor worship. The study’s findings of the increased perception of control and the improved promotion orientation (inclination to tackle problems) associated with ancestor salience are certainly quite handy concepts to bring to Roman history. I’m particularly struck by the finding that ancestor salience is just as marked when a subject considers fifteenth-century ancestors as when he or she considers immediate or living forbears. This rules out the possibility that it’s really the fact that individuals are relatively close in time or even known to one that produces the boost to confidence and performance. It made me think of the processions of ancestor masks, stretching into the past, that were carried at Roman funerals even under the Republic – the more venerable, the better.

We tend, I suppose, to conceive of these displays in the received terms of modern aristocracies – “blue blood”, class, noble birth and so on. But it makes perfect sense if these are the outward justifications and defences for what is essentially a beneficial psychological practice – to which everyone, apparently, has access, whether or not they knew who their ancestors actually were. The study suggests that part of the mechanism of ancestor salience is to “increase the cognitive accessibility of things [the study’s subjects] learned from [their ancestors] via intergenerational socialization processes” (p2). If this really is how the mechanism works, then a longer line of death masks at a Roman funeral really would be  better – more generations, more useful knowledge.

Mind you, I think the first experiment in the study assumes one of these received terms itself. In measuring the impact of thinking about 15th century ancestors, it instructed subjects as follows (from the paper, p2):

Please imagine your ancestors in the 15th century, that is, your great-great-great-great-great-. . . grandparents. Please imagine what they did at that time, how they lived, what their profession was and how many children they had, etc. Please also imagine what your ancestors from that time would tell you today, if you were still able to meet them.

This is a pre-circumscribed thought experiment because it encourages subjects to believe that they have only one line of ancestors – a “family-sized” line, simplified exactly as aristocracies and patronymic/matronymic systems in general do, and exactly as the Romans were doing with their successive line of masks. Of course, we all have several millions of direct ancestors living in the fifteenth century even allowing for the many duplicates (reckoning on four generations per century. Anyone know the precise way of calculating the number of duplicates? I”m sure there must be one).

It would be difficult to design an experiment to tease out why this simplification down to a single “line” is apparently necessary to ancestor salience (if it is). Is it just because a family-sized unit, or succession of them, can be more comfortably accommodated by our social conditioning? Or is it something more complex and specific to do with the linear nature of an ancestral line itself. Consider this part of the researchers’ hypothesis:

when we think about [our ancestors], we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities. In other words, because we are the successors of our ancestors and thus their genetic heritage, we tend to attribute successful problem-solving of our ancestors to our own problem-solving abilities

In other words, survival is being invoked, and by implication survival of the fittest, and that leads one to conceive of ancestry in terms of series of refinements leading down to a “perfect” result in the present (well, we’re here, aren’t we?) Half the population of England died of plague in 1348-9; one big tick against “some natural plague resistance” for the rest – and that “rest” is us. One of the many occasions on which we’ve been collectively winnowed for chaff, and disease resistance is just the most obvious example. Success of the “bloodline” is what I think the researchers are really getting at here.

Separating out the impact of notional lines of ancestry from familial warmth is one nudge Rome’s example could provide to future research. Another is the double-edged sword effect of formal ancestor worship – sure, ancestors may strengthen a sense of confidence and entitlement, but they can also provide an explicit set of targets to meet, and be used as a stick with which to beat errant descendents. So is this ancestral equivalent of parental expectation also operating in modern subjects? Or is it unique to Rome and other societies whose elites consciously emulate ancestors’ activities? Perhaps it cuts both ways, and we seek or imagine parallels between our own lives and ancestral lives – I remember being pleased to discover signs that some of my Mortimer/ore ancestors were nonconformists and part of a fairly radicalised trade (brushmaking, would you believe. Stiff with early radicalism, apparently). I wonder what attributes the study’s subjects imputed to their imagined 15th century ancestors.

One last thing about Rome as compared to the present; everyone alive today in the western world could probably say with confidence that they have it easier than most of their ancestors. Technological and scientific progress virtually guarantee it. So there’s going to be an innate widespread acceptance of the notion that our ancestors survived greater difficulties than we’ll ever have to face (five minutes thinking about the First World War and suddenly that exam or dental appointment doesn’t look so bad).

That isn’t the case with Rome, is it. Of course, plenty of similar mood music seems to surround how Romans thought about ancestors – they were simpler, cleaner, more virtuous, “good honest Romans”, and so on, and this is why they overcame various odds – but their life chances were in many respects the same as those of the descendents invoking them. Indeed, that is what made Roman ancestors such effective weapons of chastisement. We don’t have the same relationship of equals with our ancestors – our life chances are unimaginably better than theirs were. It’s possible that one of the factors future research needs to isolate is whether we’re really being reminded of our ancestors’ “problem-solving abilities” and capacity to overcome odds, or whether they simply cause us to reflect on our own technological and economic good fortune. My First World War/dentist example points that up rather nicely.

So we would have to take care in applying the lessons of modern psychological research in history or archaeology. An interesting way to use this research direction, it  strikes me, would be to identify elements of historical ancestor worship that fit modern findings – and then look at what is left inexplicable. Whatever that is, it may constitute the essence of a relationship that ancient societies had with their ancestors that we can no longer access.


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