Third Week

It’s so rare, in my life as an American PhD student, that: a) I get to have the experience of going to the pub after a seminar; b) that going to the pub after a seminar makes me want to go home and Have Ideas and Do Academic Work. Usually I am aggressively procrastinating on doing any real work whatsoever, and generating largely pointless admin to avoid coping with the reality of whether I am intelligent enough to take on the weightier tasks of orals and prospectus.

At the pub a faculty member was pontificating about the differences between grad school in the US and the UK. One difference is surely the prevalence of beer as a lubricant, and that as something that smooths relations between grad students and faculty, rendering those categories something other than a capitalist managerial hierarchy. Another is the view, deeply embedded in American culture, that alcohol is Not Helpful, followed by the realization that I was the only woman of the relatively gender-divided seminar who wanted to go on to the pub after. It has actually–I thought, listening to the men in the pub pontificate about politics–been rather a long time since I pointedly noticed that I was, by choice, the only woman in the room. I related to the group the story of the conversation I once had with a female colleague in an adjacent field, with whom I shared the unease of knowing that we felt comfortable in those kinds of masculine intellectual environments–especially when our gender could be erased when the conversation took a particular route–and yet that many other women might feel profoundly alienated by the same environments, and that we were letting the side down. I thought about how unimpressed I was by the male student with the posh English accent who came up to me after my class last night and tried to convince me that drama rehearsal was a good reason to miss whole weeks of my course. “I know what you are,” I didn’t say, “and for that reason I enjoyed your contributions to our class discussion–but that doesn’t mean I’m taken in.”

I came home and I felt I had no choice but to turn to a Word document that contains my latest thoughts on the subject as it arises in the late nineteenth century. Which is not to say that there is an easy story to tell here about class and gender and elitism, or that I have a political program to advance, or that there is not something about me that is complicit in perpetuating a kind of elite masculine intellectual culture that holds others back. But rather just to say that I’ve come a long way, baby, in the last decade-plus, an astounding journey back and forth across the Atlantic and the centuries, something that has left me increasingly convinced that there is something to say about the pub and the academics in it, not so different to what there is to say about Guitar Hero in Scripps Ranch in 2005, or Cameron’s late Cabinet, and thus why it was that I watched Lindsay Anderson’s if… over and over in high school, a leftist public-school romance with an ironic Kipling reference truer to what it is like to have your character formed by a southern Californian suburban comprehensive high school than any thing I know.

In the summer, just a few days before 23 June, I reunited with some old friends in East Oxford (a cartwheel of streets that feel more viscerally like home than any place I’ve ever known), and their sharp, informed political analysis was exactly what I needed to give me purchase on what was going on in the run-up to the referendum. In large part because of those pints drunk and those views exchanged, I was neither surprised by the referendum result a few days later, nor overwhelmed by it as a grand tragedy. When I posted on Facebook that I’d had a lovely time that evening, however, I was chastised for my self-absorption—a criticism that still haunts me these months later, as we face another, even more momentous, electoral contest between reactionary populism and “liberal elites,” of whom of course I am one. I said tonight in the pub that I am a liberal elite, and my politics are those of a liberal elite, but of course I am glad the world is not made up of liberal elites and I wouldn’t wish my politics on anyone else. I like that formulation, happy that it provides me with some measure of peace, proud that I’m getting better at accepting my differences of political opinion with my colleagues and that I can move past being paralysingly tortured by them. But I also like that the pub provides—across, I would hazard, classes and cultures—a space in which to pontificate, to test out ideas, to say outrageous things and see how people react, to attain some measure of control in our own social universes from events and power politics that seem so vastly removed from us as to be outside our agency. Some would hope, presumably, that the pub is the beginning, a first conversation that leads to a regenerative kind of democratic politics, a sort of Chartism for our time. I, on the other hand, am skeptical of Chartisms, particularly when a feminist critique is applied to them; and also because of the particular life experiences that I’ve had (institutionalized as I have been since the age of majority, and indeed rather longer), which have led me to view physical locations where food and drink are shared as ends in themselves, their physical location within communities (colleges, neighborhoods) constitutive of a kind of public sphere that seems very thin on the ground in our virtual age. As I was walking to work today, I found myself recalling the crazy things anonymous readers of the student newspaper used to say about me in the online comments, recalling what it was like to be a figure of outré radicalism, where now I find myself so often on the right. I remember by contrast the challenging but civil conversations I had in my last semester at Princeton, when people walked up to me—in the dining hall, the chapel, the library, my cooking co-op, outdoor spaces—and respectfully disagreed with the point of view I expressed in an op-ed that was skeptical of Annual Giving. Shout all you like after a few drinks in the pub, but you still have to see the members of your community when you’re cold sober the next day.

There are a lot of things that make me an early-twentieth-century liberal, some more objectionable than others. Tonight, what stands out to me is the pub, or (as I’ve often said) the college hall: a space many find repulsive and intimidating, but with which I (for whatever reason) feel that I know where I am; a space on which, even if fascism does come to America, I’ll continue to place my bets. There really is something about the connections you can make across political lines when you’ve properly got to know your interlocutors, and when you’re in a space (a dining hall at an elite college with endless supplies of free guacamole, a particular kind of drinking establishment with precise social rules about who buys whom drinks, a welfare state) in which certain structures are in place to smooth (if cosmetically) over social divides. I still think these are the spaces in which important things happen, even if they are things which reinforce power structures and which depend on encoding the system of references that inheres in a reference to the men who walk up and down every afternoon from 2 to 4 on King’s Parade. If not by any means the only things which demand the historian’s attention, they certainly do demand it.

I am a pessimist about politics at present, and whether I can find a socially and politically relevant role for this work if things in my country do become very, very bleak remains to be seen. One thing I do want to become better at is to live out the implications of my work; to participate more wholly and less judgmentally in the public sphere and systems of local politics, the cultivation of one’s own garden, in which I claim to have some faith; and to find a way of using the perspective that I can bring to American and British elite male intellectual and political culture for good.

Back to School

I am sitting in a cubicle (my computer is broken and I had to come into work to use one there) and I am meant to be creating tidy little summaries of monographs about the eighteenth century Church of England (corrupt or vibrant? you decide!). But weighing on me is the script of The History Boys, which I pulled off the shelf on my second day back in New York for the new academic year. I have seen the film so many times I have most of the dialogue memorized, but I had only read the script once, five years ago now, when I bought it at Blackwell’s on my first tour in Oxford. At the time I noted that the play seemed more morally ambiguous about “handling the boys’ balls” than the movie is (was able to be?), but now on the other side of the teacher/student divide, I noticed much else besides about how the play handles the problem of pedagogic eros. There are three things I think it’s worth pointing out about the play, particularly if you’re familiar with the film.

1. It seems like one of, if not the most, central driving force of the play is Irwin’s fear that he will turn into Hector. In the play it is much clearer that Irwin is gay, and knows himself to be gay, and that his conversation with Posner when the latter comes out to him as well as Dakin’s proposition are real moments of crisis to him about what that means for his future as a teacher. So is the scene with the three teachers outside the headmaster’s door when it is being explained to Irwin and Mrs Lintott that Hector is being let go. It seems like Irwin makes this sharp tack into telly-don life as a way of escaping the fate of Hector—and more what the fate of Hector means about being in tantalizingly close proximity to teenage boys than it does about having failed to become a scholar or having only gone to Oxford for your PGCE and not for your undergrad degree. None of this really comes out in the film, though now that I am more familiar with the play script I can see that the actors (almost all of whom were also in the West End production) are putting this into their portrayal of the characters.

2. I don’t know Alan Bennett’s corpus well, but I believe that people say that in the plays there is typically a character based on Bennett himself. The film would lead you to believe that character is Posner, whose struggles with his homosexuality get a sweet, sympathetic hearing, and who ends the closing scene by saying that he lived up to his teachers’ example by becoming a teacher himself. In the play, by contrast, it’s very clear that the Bennett character is Scripps, the devout Christian, who becomes a writer and actually narrates the play, stepping out of the scene to provide a retrospective view on events. In an introduction to the published script, Bennett cements the connection, discussing how religious he was as a teenager and explaining that he puts his own experience of going up to Oxford for interview directly into the mouth of Scripps. Posner, by contrast, grows up a really hapless eccentric, essentially broken by all the events, who fails to find a profession and becomes a crank: in the middle of the play, we see him as an adult, confusedly, almost crazily, trying to wrest some kind of apology from Irwin for what happened when he was a sixth-former. This adds to the sense that the play offers a rather different account of homosexuality as a sexual orientation and the significances of that than is offered by the film. The play and the film were produced fairly close in time to each other, though, and fairly recently. I can see why the film might have wanted to do less to valorize sexual abuse of minors given that it achieved a much wider audience than the play, but otherwise I’m not sure why the treatment of homosexuality seems so different.

3. Twice in the play, characters ask with some urgency, “Why does Hector lock the door?” This is not a line in the film, and it gives an added frisson of weirdness to what it is Hector does in his classroom. Of course, both the play and the film make clear that Hector only touches the boys on the motorbike—but the locked door both introduces the problem of suspicion (as in history, stories about pedagogic eros are as much about what people fear might be happening as about what is happening), and helps our minds to make a connection between Housman and Brief Encounter on the one hand and genital fondling on the other. It raises huge questions about educational structures that transcend the fantasy environment of the play, sharpening this moral question Bennett wants us to come away with about whether the boys have been “scarred for life” or whether they’ve had a really special educational experience that resounds throughout their later lives.

As anyone who reads the New York Times knows, I came back to New York just at the time that the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities can be considered employees and as such are entitled to form unions. My university and the union my colleagues are trying to form was the test case. The senior administration at my university, by contrast, argue that unionization would damage relations between graduate students and faculty/the university and disrupt the things that make the university special as a place of work, study, and community. My orals reading in eighteenth-century English social history suggests to me that graduate students and post-PhD academics have much more in common with pre-industrial guild artisans, the clergy, or possibly other traditional professions than they do with industrial workforces, and I have little patience for the small but vocal minority who support unionization at the expense of other models of relation, or who use unionization rhetoric as a way to co-opt all academics into a proletarian struggle as much as, if not more, romanticized as my craft-and-calling vision. But even so, there is no evidence to suggest that the senior administration’s claims hold water. And The History Boys dramatizes how that is so. Learning is a matter of personal relations, structured in deep emotional investments of all kinds: desire, power, adoration, longing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by those emotions, especially if you are someone who temperamentally is intoxicated by teaching, and troubling things can happen behind locked doors. Individuals who struggle to get along outside educational contexts can look to the institutional structure to provide them things they can’t find elsewhere: affection. appreciation. a lover. a family. And genuine desires to connect, which can be deeply sympathetic and endearing, can easily be turned to highly inappropriate ends. The History Boys is unquestionably a sexist play, but it shows us that these things happen not necessarily because of the patriarchy, but because well-intentioned people get a little too far up their asses in imbuing transference with some kind of positive value. As the headmaster says in both the play and the film in response to Hector’s high-minded invocation of a western tradition of pedagogic eros—eliciting an unexpected moment of sympathy for a character the play seems to want us to hate—”Fuck the Renaissance…. This is a school.” Present-day structures of human resources and health and safety and harassment policies and so on bring us down to earth, keep us from getting carried away or thinking we’re special, and remind us that duty of care is about the students, not about us and our feelings, which we need to find healthier and less grandiose ways of working out. In this case, bureaucracy isn’t a bad thing, and reforming and making more efficient the bureaucracy currently in place, or trying to introduce a new kind of bureaucracy through a framework such as unionization, are worthwhile goals.

The problem we’re left with, though, is that you can’t hate Hector, even though he has committed the grossest violation of professional ethics, and even though a well-played Mrs Lintott would make clear just how small and self-absorbed are all these men by whom she’s surrounded. The problem is that, like Irwin, some of us might have more of a Hector fantasy than we’d like to admit. And while we might agree with the headmaster, Mrs Lintott and the boys that “there’s not room for his kind anymore,” and probably view that on balance as a good thing, we might well still feel a sense of loss at Hector’s passing, and a sense that that yearning has a role to play in determining who we are as teachers and as students.

All this is jumbled up in my head as I deal with the more mundane aspects of back-to-school, like booking classrooms and buying notebooks (and getting back to orals), making it difficult to think straight. I’ve spent an hour writing this. I suppose the moral of the story is a caution against assuming that there is a straightforward black-and-white answer to the future of the university, of education as a vocation, and of the Youth of Today. These issues are huge ones, unequal to any particular political program. I suppose, then, that they wind up making a case for the humanities, since they deal with the deepest questions of the emotions and intellectual responses that make us human, and how we live among other humans in a community and a polity. From the fairly basic type of textual analysis I attempted to do for The History Boys here, to the more large-scale questions about the structure and culture of educational institutions which I intend to approach historically in my dissertation, there are clear avenues for how to approach what seem to be intractable and extremely complicated problems, and clear social and affective roles for my colleagues and I to play, regardless of how we approach questions of reform and revolution.

Orals Diary, 5; or, History and Politics

I had made plans to meet a colleague for lunch yesterday, and when he walked into the café I jettisoned all greetings and immediately blurted out “Did you see that Leadsom has dropped out of the Tory leadership race?!” Fifteen minutes of animated conversation about the implications of this latest development in the insanity that has been the British news cycle of the last month followed. “It’s a great time to be a modern British historian,” he concluded—though admittedly, I think, with a touch of irony.

Well, I don’t know about “great”—I think a lot of my colleagues and I have had the sense that we are howling about parliamentary sovereignty into a void and no one is listening to us—but it’s not a bad time to read for orals. My deep immersion in British political and constitutional history is exactly what I’ve needed to make sense of this crisis, and it’s also been a great source of motivation, making my orals feel like something that will improve my general knowledge and capacity to engage with the world as a thinking person in addition to a hurdle that has to be cleared in the long and idiosyncratic course of training that is meant to credential me in my chosen profession (fellow graduate students should take heart that would-be clergymen in the early eighteenth century, as I learned yesterday from Geoffrey Holmes’ Augustan England, often spent seven or eight years at university, and that this guaranteed them nothing better than “perpetual curacy,” the adjuncting of the day). Many of my teachers and colleagues have published insightful&ndbsp;pieces on the EU referendum and the ensuing domestic political crisis (for make no mistake, what we are experiencing now in Britain is a crisis within the parliamentary system, and one that has been simmering for some time, and not an extra-parliamentary revolution (though that may yet be to come, in part depending on how the parliamentary crisis is resolved) or much to do with how Britain’s relations with Europe may be affected by the outcome of the referendum). Introducing myself and my research interests at an event last week, I found myself for the first time grouping “political history” among my interests. It is something I am slowly coming to understand, and something that I see is at the center of my work on educational institutions and the plans their founders, reformers, and funders had for them—not unlike the plans that many others have had for states and their constitutions, and just as organic and messy and filled with unintended consequences in the result.

But it is time to make an important distinction. This is something that is far different, to me, to saying that my work will have any particular bearing on how we understand contemporary political (or social or cultural or intellectual) issues, that this is my research’s primary purpose, that I have an ideological stake in the kind of society I would like modern Britain to be that is reflected in my historical research. I have certain ethical commitments that structure my work: I believe in the importance of the individual and her or his emotions and personal lives, in looking for stories that haven’t yet had the opportunity to be told (though not particularly the stories of those who have historically been structurally disadvantaged—you could not say that the history of universities is history from below, and I wouldn’t want to claim it as such, or to say that it is therefore less important or worth doing). I believe I have a certain responsibility to my subjects to render their stories faithfully, to understand the perspectives from which they saw the world in their own time and translate them into terms that modern readers and interlocutors might understand. I look for complexity, ambiguity, ambivalence. I also see a close relation between my research and my teaching, and try to listen to students as I might listen to sources, meet them where they are as I would sources. I see my research not primarily as something that will change how we—and by “we” I particularly mean people outside my specific subfields—think about any particular topic (though I can certainly, if pressed, make claims to significance within the fields in which I am in conversation), but rather as something that gives me personal pleasure, which I strive for my own sake to do to as high a professional standard as possible, and which will credential me to teach history, hopefully British history, to young adults in Britain or North America. Only at the level of in general thinking that we should all be kind and love one another (even if “one another” = dead people of historical significance who left behind personal papers) does my practice as a historian have anything to do with how I vote, the kinds of policies I would like to see the governments of Britain, the US, or Canada (my three countries, not divided by common language but united by shared, messy and distasteful, imperial history) enact, or even really the kind of conversation my colleague and I had at lunch yesterday about what it will mean for Theresa May to be Prime Minister.

Which is, then, why I bristled when I read a blog post announcing the next Birmingham Modern British Studies conference next year, and then picked a fight on Twitter about it:

In remaining within the confines of our particular fields, we also evade the most difficult questions about what our discipline is — and should be — at this particular historical conjuncture. As we enter a moment of genuine crisis, are some kinds of history more important than others? As the political, social, cultural, and economic effects of Brexit become increasingly manifest, should historians pay more attention to questions of inequality, power, and the global economy — all comparatively neglected at #MBS2015? When the role of the ‘expert’ in public life has been so spectacularly undermined, do we have to think again about who we are and what we do?

I worry about where people like me are left when historians try so hard to pin their work to present political circumstances. As I said in the ensuing Twitter conversation—which Will Pooley summarized and responded to on his blog yesterday—not only do we risk casting aside work that might turn out to be “relevant” later, when the political circumstances move on, we risk giving preference to work that endorses particular political perspectives (in the sense of partisan or parliamentary politics) at the cost of others. At the last Birmingham MBS conference last summer, I and a colleague who both considered ourselves very left-wing were shocked to find ourselves at the conservative end of the spectrum of conference attendees, and we were disturbed by the kinds of ideological purity being enforced, particularly in the conference’s plenary sessions. One plenary speaker asserted that someone who voted Conservative could not be a good modern British historian, an assertion that no one in the room of hundreds sought to challenge. Others made large-scale presumptions about the party-political preferences of the conference, and pegged their claims to significance on the ability to speak to or bolster such a political perspective. Colleagues who, like me, felt discomfort with these assumptions—even if we might have voted for the same party as the most strident speakers—whispered awkwardly to each other in the corridor. When I asked a question in the final plenary session, challenging the speaker’s assertion that political history whose role is to challenge “neoliberalism” from a leftist perspective is more important than the kind of intellectual and cultural history I do, the room felt cold, frightening, and hostile. I’m no stranger to sticking my neck out in public historical settings (I’d also note that in that final session, another historian made a great critique of the conference’s assumptions from the left, challenging its lack of racial diversity among participants and lack of attention to imperial topics), but I’m not sure that’s the kind of climate that a conference which purports to speak to all modern British historians (as well as those working on modern Britain in other disciplines) should foster. The MBS blog post, however, suggested to me that the conference organizers had a different view: that it was important to them that history should make political interventions. But if that’s the case, then you’re working with the kind of political categories, such as parties, that exist today, trying to achieve goals that are possible within those structures. Maybe that doesn’t create so much cognitive dissonance for historians who work on the recent past. But I work on the nineteenth century, I don’t do marxist social history (which I also believe is like, a morally defensible life choice), and so it’s not clear where that leaves me as a participant in a modern British history organized around different concerns.

One great thing Will Pooley brought up in his engagement with me on Twitter and later on his blog is that we are probably working with different definitions of “politics”: some would call the ethical commitments I outlined above a kind of politics, and would understand that word more expansively than the sense of present-day party or parliamentary or electoral politics in which I’ve been using it here. Pooley put it this way: “politics in the sense of: who (or what) gets to have a history, what factors do we consider when writing history, what do we owe to the people we write about, and similar questions.” I think this is a totally fair position, and I really respect historians who view the commitments that drive their work in this way. But I don’t think every historian has to see what they’re doing like this. It reminds me of an experience I had my first semester at Columbia. My department there has an explicitly political cast that my previous departments at Princeton and Oxford definitely didn’t. Many of my colleagues see—perhaps like some participants in MBS—a close relationship between their historical work and present-day political goals, invariably from a very left-wing perspective. I experienced and continue to experience a lot of culture shock, a lot of guilt and cognitive dissonance, when I interact with colleagues in that environment. I have tried very hard to engage with important parts of my colleagues’ lives as graduate students, such as many people’s commitment to union organizing, but however much I’ve wanted to I haven’t been able to change my views to agree with the particular kinds of leftist politics they have and that drives their work in and out of the archive. After one union town hall meeting I burst into tears from my guilt that I couldn’t see things from what was obviously the more morally blameless point of view, that my work didn’t have obvious leftist political investments like theirs and that I didn’t come to grad school to advance the cause of the oppressed. My colleagues tried to comfort me by reassuring me that all work has a politics; my work could advance leftist causes too even though it was less obvious. This, however, was not comforting. What I was really looking for was a world in which I could have the freedom to seek other frameworks for living a good and ethically committed life, and in which my historical scholarship could be practiced to different ends.

I want to clear one thing up: contrary to what some people on Twitter asserted, there is not a binary between politically-committed history and Rankean objectivity. It is possible to be something between a leftist and an arch-conservative, and it is also possible to take no position on such a spectrum while still being self-conscious about one’s methods and how one reads sources. I study the 19th century, but I do not live in it. Bodies of work such as gender and queer theory that have been fundamentally shaped by the leftist political concerns of a slightly earlier era have been essential to how I have conceived of what I do when I read documents. I do think that it is a historian’s responsibility to be honest, faithful, and committed to a truth, and that some histories are better than others in the sense that work can be more or less precise, more or less rigorous, more or less sophisticated. But there are many truths and many ways of representing truths, and rigor is not code for some nineteenth-century fantasy of objectivity. For some—such as, perhaps, for Pooley—understanding this responsibility may be inextricable from politics. And sometimes—not always, but sometimes—I find that the best way to make sense of a story about the past that I am telling is to give it a political edge, such as in the case of a draft paper I am working on, which is partly (though not exclusively) engaged in reviving an older strand of women’s history committed to feminism. This is probably the thing that I have written that would find most favor with the leftists. But it isn’t all of what I do, and it isn’t why I became a historian.

I became a historian because John Addington Symonds wrote letter after letter to Walt Whitman, trying to get the famous poet to admit that his “Calamus” poems really described a type of person, the male homosexual, whose existence Symonds, for personal-is-political reasons, desperately wanted his hero Whitman to acknowledge—and because Whitman refused to buy into Symonds’ worldview. I became a historian because the two men’s letters showed how their different levels of education, differing cultural contexts, and differing understandings of politics revealed them to be completely talking past each other. I became a historian because I was able to show that Symonds wasn’t, as so much literature has represented him, a gay liberationist avant la lettre: he was a rather conventional upper-middle-class Victorian who had this one part of his being that just didn’t fit with everything else—but he used rather conventional upper-middle-class Victorian tools to make sense of it. I became a historian because Symonds showed me how rich and rewarding, how alien and confusing, how different from our own nineteenth-century British ways of understanding the world were. I became a historian in order to capture that difference—and also because I felt a calling to give my life to the university, and this seemed like a way to do it.

Last week I had the immense pleasure to be an instructor on a three-day workshop for some of the students in my department who are writing undergraduate theses. Many of our students see important present-day implications to their work: they are driven to their topics because of how they allow them to engage with issues of massive present-day consequence: the global financial system, colonialism and colonial identities, Marxist thought, women and politics, the machine of diplomacy. They are driven by an enthusiasm and energy that I remember from when I was in their shoes, the thrill of their first trips into the archive. I love their eagerness to make sense of the world through the methods of historical research. But somehow in our workshop we didn’t talk about the crisis of capitalism. We did talk a bit about topics like how to read against the archive, to figure out why it was compiled and what voices are missing, which I suppose is generally understood to be a political question. But we also talked about how history-writing is a creative act, how making sense of those archival silences can involve many different approaches and affective relations with one’s sources, how there is also an extremely important technical aspect to history work, involving how one organizes one’s research and how one processes data on a large scale, particularly if one is working on a topic that involves quantitative analysis. There is so much to history, and to how it is not objective, that we can talk about without needing to agree ideologically.

Looking around me at Britain and at the whole world today, I can completely see why people would believe that conditions are so urgent that we all need to mobilize whatever skills we have to respond to crisis. This is also the response that many academics, completely reasonably, have had to crises such as racial injustice in the United States, to intolerance of political dissidence in India, to Donald Trump, to climate change (the invention of the analytic category “anthropocene”), and so on. What would I then say in particular about the Birmingham MBS conference? Of course, this post isn’t really about the Birmingham MBS conference, it’s about the culture shock that I have experienced over the last couple years as I have gone from being one of the most left-wing people I know to one of the most conservative without feeling as if I have changed any of my views or electoral habits, and growing sick and tired of always having to beat myself up for not being right-on enough. I guess maybe what I would say to Birmingham MBS is that if the conference has an explicitly political orientation it should say as much, that it should be clear that some views about politics, and not only some kinds of history, might be more welcome than others. This strikes me as a perfectly defensible viewpoint given all the rhetoric of “crisis,” even if it’s one which would mean I might be less likely to attend the conference myself. Though perhaps this happened already in 2015, and I just didn’t know how to read the signalling closely enough or was otherwise a bit clueless. Will Pooley asks “why some voices so clearly feel policed by the left-wing.” I guess what I would say in response is that I thought I was part of the left wing (I mean, you would, if you grew up in Republican country and the other children would come up to you in primary school and tell you that you were going to hell, and parents would tell you to stay away from their children, and you were sent to the principal’s office because you wouldn’t intone the Pledge of Allegiance with everyone else), until I found myself losing friends and colleagues because I didn’t participate in particular ritual acts of ideological positioning within academia. I am of course very elite, and have much to apologize for, but I sometimes think that other people who are as privileged as I do escape the need to apologize by committing themselves to certain kinds of leftist rhetoric or by positioning themselves as part of a proletariat that is oppressed by greater forces such as capitalism. I am not sure I find this stance convincing, and I find it frustrating, tiring, and depressing to live among it, as much as I understand that the crisis of our times demands some kind of response from everyone, but particularly those who have a lot of privilege. I am sure that many who will read this post will see it as entitled and self-absorbed, and perhaps that’s entirely appropriate. I welcome that feedback if it’s how you read it, and I’d urge you to get in touch and tell me so.

I keep trying to go to union meetings at Columbia and understand what I’m getting wrong, and so I look forward to attending MBS2017 (if it will have me) and trying to engage with this way of doing modern British history that seems very different to what I’m doing. I think I’d also say that our students always benefit from getting a variety of viewpoints, and that each student clicks better with some teachers than with others. I think of a particular person who taught me during my master’s with whom I never established a connection because they had a particular leftist political cast to their work and I suspect interpreted me as conservative and thus hostile, but who was an incredible resource to many students who shared that political cast and who felt isolated within the conservative atmosphere of the Oxford History Faculty. I’m so glad that person is there for students who desperately need to talk to and be supported by someone like them, even if I regret that politics seemed to create a barrier between this person and me, against my will. I also think attending MBS2015 helped me to clarify what I actually was seeing and experiencing after the culture shock of my first year at Columbia, and it’s been helpful to try to learn more about the real reasons that historians bring an explicitly leftist cast to their work, to understand where they’re coming from. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that I am wrong to persist in the belief that it is morally conscionable for me to do what I see as a kind of history that doesn’t fit easily within present-day political frameworks or speak to the present-day condition of Britain and other nations whose histories were shaped in relation to Britain’s, or a kind of history that doesn’t engage deeply and primarily with questions of identity and difference or with marxist economics. But I guess I’ll just say that my mind hasn’t been changed yet, and thus I think that leftist historians and I may need to do a bit more meeting in the middle (I promise, leftist historians, that you wouldn’t really have all that far to go—for despite everyone who has sought to label me to the contrary in the last few years, I am not a conservative or a Conservative and I hope I never will be).

Pooley and others who engaged with me on Twitter yesterday were really warm and generous, and I derive a lot of optimism from how respectful everyone was in that conversation. It suggests that even if my views are in the minority or not part of how the conference is explicitly oriented at MBS2017, I and the kind of history I do might still be given a fair hearing. Pooley invited me to respond to the blog post that he wrote yesterday. Will, I’m not sure if any of this very long reflection helps to clarify where we disagree, but it does seem clear that we are working with different categories, and it looks to me as if these categories are shaped by certain political (in the more expansive sense) assumptions we had going into thinking about history and what made us historians, as well perhaps as who we are as people, what our childhoods and our higher education and graduate training were like. I think as participants in a discipline we all might need to develop clearer statements, and revisit older debates, about what we think the purpose of history is, how it relates to politics (particularly of a specific left-wing, electorally- or social-movement-oriented kind), and be really explicit about these commitments if we have them. And if we create or enter echo chambers, we should do so self-consciously, and be wary about how our ways of thinking may be out of step of those in the countries we live in at large, as both the 2015 general election and this latest referendum demonstrated to many British academics. This isn’t at all a criticism of your position, Will: I really appreciated how you expressed it in your blog post and how you clarified where you were coming from.

I can’t believe I wrote so much about this. I’m going to step away now and return to orals: today, I think, I am going to read some work in which historians grappled with how to define friendships and romantic relationships between women in the past, invoking particular kinds of feminist and queer commitments as they did so. Queer theory is a great way to think about the relationship between history and politics—it is astonishing how many queer theorists who were not trained in history still make use of historicist arguments—so hopefully this will be the basis for further reflection.

Orals Diary, 4

Finally the sun came out for the longest day of the year, and I met up with a long-lost childhood friend, and discovered the concept of the vegetarian scotch egg, and I feel grateful for what I have (though mostly for blue sky and green fields), and I wonder what I will read tomorrow. Yesterday I tramped eighteen miles up and down South Oxfordshire, getting wet and walking on too many busy roads, and felt a painful affectionate sadness for this country that has had so many ups and downs over so many centuries, some of which you can see simply in the lay of the land and the architecture as you walk through its fields and towns.

Over the course of the last week, I read five books about the nature of the nature of the British state in the eighteenth century, as well as part of a textbook/general history of eighteenth-century Britain. I am trying to force some facts into my dullard’s brain, some prime ministers and some wars and political crises that fifty or sixty years ago surely any schoolchild would have known. Of course, it isn’t fifty or sixty years ago, and that’s the thing about Britain, today, and the reason I haven’t read more than five books this week. From grieving the victims of Orlando to grieving Jo Cox MP and the vacuity of public debate in this country in the run-up to Thursday’s referendum. Of course Cox’s murder hasn’t changed the idiocy with which both sides are talking past each other. This referendum isn’t about Britain’s membership of the EU, and in pretending it is the politicians are either: a) tone-deaf to what is going on in their electorate (or perhaps they have the same wish to return to a golden age of monoethnic welfare-state class-structured Britain as said electorate); b) deliberately trying to mislead said electorate in order to work out a power game of their own devising. No, it’s about that golden age, and I would well believe the politicians are prey to that fantasy because I know that so many modern British historians are too. It’s sure tempting—I can catch a glimpse of it when I look out the window of my current lodgings to the neat rows of brick terraced houses in what was once a mostly-white working-class neighborhood and now is a mostly-white bourgeois neighborhood. The Guardian columnists know that gentrification is part of the problem, but they miss much else: the long story that Ross McKibbin and others have told about why working-class people don’t vote against the bourgeoisie, and also the story you can see when you go into any terraced house in England whose bathroom is in the rear ground floor of the house: a recent addition built into the garden, a sign of what it meant to live in houses like this one before the welfare state, giving lie to that golden age.

That was a confused paragraph. But perhaps that’s appropriate for how confused I feel right now, at a stage in my acquaintance with the modern British past where I know enough to doubt the easy answers of Guardian columnists who preach a very specific kind of comforting class warfare that their readers want, but not enough to offer op-ed-sized pronouncements of my own. I was thinking, though, about the debated and uncertain picture historians over the last fifty or so years have offered of the eighteenth-century British state. That history was first written in the nineteenth century, by the governments’ political opponents, as one of “Old Corruption,” the political and church establishment everywhere mired in the selling of offices, rotten boroughs, taxes that punished the poorest, and otherwise not doing very much. Later in the early twentieth century, the eighteenth was seen as the century of politeness, monarchy and aristocracy. More recently, other pictures have emerged: a messy and violent early form of class conflict; a far-reaching and powerful “fiscal-military state” that occupied a powerful position with respect to the Continent; a thriving proto-capitalist economy on which an empire of trade was founded. Throughout all these histories, it seems to me, there is a pervasive atmosphere of British, or even English, exceptionalism: the first to industrialize, its democracy nascent if imperfect, always favorably compared with autocratic France and Prussia. I don’t know enough yet to challenge this view, but it doesn’t make things look great for this “historian for Europe.”

Actually, though, this impasse tells us something about the uses of history. It’s foolish and misleading to draw direct parallels between past and present, as many historians who have written in the press to criticize the never-ending parallels between Trump and Hitler or Mussolini have argued. But we can use history to learn other things about how people are, how politics works, how we can understand the confusing and contradictory business of human relations, whether people mean what they say and how they behave when they interact with others who are unlike them. In his 1996 The Waning of ‘Old Corruption’, Philip Harling told an intricate high-political story of how Conservative governments marketed themselves as the guardians of sound, efficient, cost-saving government and thus stemmed radical calls for large-scale political reform. I don’t always find political history engaging, particularly in the dry, “establishment” style with which Harling relates it. But one anecdote about how government and radical extra-parliamentary critics in the years after Pitt’s death in 1806 caught my attention. In Harling’s telling, Tory ministers interpreted radicals’ calls for parliamentary reform as calls for greater fiscal accountability. They took great pains to show that they were balancing budgets, cutting taxes, and cutting out dead wood in the form of sinecures and preferments. Most opposition Whig politicians saw the government to be acting in good faith, and disappointed radicals by not taking on their cause. But the radicals didn’t really care whether the government cut the budget in this area or that one, whether they prosecuted war on the continent in this way or that way: they wanted a thorough-going commitment to complete reform, including greater democratization, a revival of the commitment to ancient liberties to which they believed ordinary men’s English heritage entitled them, and a recognition of the social consequences that continental wars had visited on people at home. So the radicals didn’t let up in their critique, but at this point in Harling’s story it wasn’t that the politicians willfully misinterpreted them for instrumental reasons. It was simply that they were speaking different languages, and something very important was lost in translation.

Some of the radicals making the reform case were autodidacts, farmers and working men; but others were middle-class, highly educated. This wasn’t really a class war, not in the way that in the tradition of some social historians it has come to appear. But it was, maybe, about differing visions of nationalism, about operating on different scales in the way that happens when some people are thinking about foreign policy and some people are prioritizing the lives of their families and neighbors in their own communities. I don’t take any direct guidance from this about what we should do about Europe today—as I said, that’s silly—but I do take some other lessons. One is that tensions about what England and Britain are, and how those tensions manifest differently across class, regional, and party-political lines, aren’t going away anytime soon. Another is that, despite how things might have looked in 1806, over the course of the next hundred and fifty years an extraordinary battery of incremental legislation turned Britain into a pretty good approximation of a democracy, and one that has—whether it admits it or no—in some respects (though of course not all) moved on from the more shameful episodes in its history, whether on these islands or in the empire. This is not a linear history of progress, of course, but one of countless messes (some it might have seen coming as the consequences of its own follies, some rather less so), all of which have demanded different responses. I’m not saying “Everything’s going to be fine,” because it might well not be; and even if everything is ultimately fine, it might take many years before that’s the case; and it might never be fine for the worst off among us, as it never has been. But I am trying to put things in 300-year perspective, just a bit, because that’s my job. It’s not a glamorous job, or a morally blameless job or even, sometimes, a terribly interesting job. But it’s the job I was called to do, and I couldn’t change that if I wanted to.

If you’re reading this and you have the UK franchise, I hope you will vote on Thursday, because there is a history stretching over centuries of women and men who gave their lives to the fight for the franchise, and however stupid it was to throw open this particular decision to the people, those people now have a sacred duty to discharge. For my own account, I hope you will vote Remain, because my considered view is that that’s what would be best for Britain today and in the immediate future, regardless of what might have been best for Britain in 1950 or in 1850 or in 1750. You know, no matter how earnestly those on the right or the left sing the praises of the welfare state or the empire, it’s never going to be 1950 again. But we can think seriously about what kind of contribution Britain, in cooperation with other countries of similar size and power and working within the constraints of new political models, can make to the world today. But if you disagree, I hope you’ll get in touch and we can have a conversation about it. There are still three days to go, so lots of time to talk.

My life has been enriched immeasurably by the last five or six years of close study of this country. I hope that I, and it, have many more years to spend together; and I hope that as I continue to read for orals I will be able to offer more cogent accounts of these messiest of political circumstances.

Orals Diary, 3; or, Reading and Writing Through Current Events

“It’s always open season on gay kids.” So begins Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” published as an article in 1991 and then, three years later, collected in her book of essays Tendencies, which I read yesterday and today in the Upper Reading Room, compulsively toggling back to social media every few pages in order to take in the tragedy that happened early Sunday morning in Orlando. Of those of the over 50 victims who have been identified, over half were under 30. For those of us who teach college—the late and lamented EKS, me, maybe you—many of them were the age of our students. The youngest was 19. Sedgwick writes in the introduction to Tendencies that she had young people, her students, in mind when she was writing. At the time she was writing some of these essays, surely some of her students were dying—certainly, she writes in Tendencies of a very close friend who did—and she was one of many people who put their queer shoulders to the wheel, putting pressure on the US government and the public to do something about a cruel fate that so many young people needn’t have met with.

At the time she was writing the essays in Tendencies, Sedgwick was also living through and with breast cancer, and so the book is very much about death and mortality and suffering, but it is about slow deaths, enervating ones, a drawn-out work of mourning (she writes a eulogy for a dying friend while he is still alive). Not so the young people shot down in cold blood on Sunday morning, whose families (and their chosen families, who, as Claire Potter has pointed out, are still being denied visitation rights, as they were 25 years ago) in some cases are still waiting to learn their fates. But the metaphor of “open season” that Sedgwick invokes (she’s talking about the pathologization of effeminate men) is not inappropriate for our age in which queer people out dancing, or college students, or seven-year-olds, can be shot like so many sitting ducks in places that should have been safe by weapons that those who have shot them in war zones believe should never be allowed in civilian contexts.

I didn’t expect that setting out to chronicle my orals reading would have any relevance to the outside world. Instead, I thought it would keep me going despite the frustration of having to spend so long doing something that doesn’t seem that useful. Evidently, I can be a better historian if I set aside these seven months to absorb lots of information, but in the moment it’s easy to look round at all the other people doing good and become angry at yourself for spending hours in a 400-year-old library reading yet another attempt to explain why X canonical work of 18th- or 19th-century literature is sexually transgressive. I was taught Sedgwick in college, in graduate school, have read her on my own, and have admired her work and, through the testimony of others, who she was as a person for many years—and yet, truth be told, going through her catalogue for orals can make it seem a little formulaic. Some other literary critic produced a reading of a canonical work of 18th- or 19th-century literature—or perhaps another cultural artifact—that was pathologizing, or too crudely-drawn and obvious, and Sedgwick sets out to put them right, with all the tricks available to a talented critic showing the text to have meanings both more and less transgressive, more and less complex, than the first reader could have seen. Several of the essays in Tendencies are like this: the one about Diderot, the one about Wilde, the one about Cather, the one about Austen, even the one about John Waters’ films. They do all relate elegantly back to her central, vital theme: an extension of her argument in Epistemology, which explored the connections and contradictions between homosexuality as a minority identity and as a more public and diffuse signifier; and between homosexuality as a transgression of gender norms and as an institution of gender separatism, but also moving further beyond “gay and lesbian” into this new world of the word “queer.” And so the characters in texts don’t just turn out to be gender-transgressive, or sexually unstable, in Sedgwick’s readings: they disrupt what “family” means (as in The Importance of Being Earnest, where uncles and aunts matter more than mothers and fathers); they refuse to be categorized into the homo/hetero binary (as in Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, for whom Sedgwick makes a case that I do not entirely follow but am happy to respect as having a sexual identity as an “onanist”). The historian, who is perfectly content with the finding that the Jane Austen heroines of this world did not understand sexuality, gender, and love the way we do today and does not seek to upset any further apple carts, sometimes gets a little lost around here. But Sedgwick has more to say when she lays the literature aside, as she does with many of the essays in Tendencies, and puts her critical acumen to work in other fields. She writes critically about her own identity, with wonderfully moving things to say about her identity as a fat woman, her identification with gay men, the love-relationships of her life. Adding the chapters together, it’s possible to see how the literary reading might have helped her to read the text of her own life.

I can’t imagine this was easy. Because it’s a special, emotional, tragic occasion, I’ll tell you why. I had a friend in college who was sometimes very reserved, but put that reservation to good use watching and understanding the lives of the people around her. Once at night when some of us were drinking tea in her room, she suddenly turned to me and said, “Emily, why do you want so much to be a gay man?” I stumbled over an answer, not sure how to provide one while also denying the presence of the question. I recall others in the room remarking that it was a weird, and maybe a rude, thing to say. But it has weighed on me for years, because obviously it spoke something of the truth. As I have gotten to know Sedgwick through her writing, it is a great relief to know that—like countless queer people who found community through literature where they couldn’t among the living—I am not the only woman who has questioned her commitments to her feminist politics because of her deep emotional investment in communities of men, nor the only one who has sought to live out queerness despite what would seem very much to be unavoidable cross-gender erotic and affective commitments. I am grateful to Sedgwick for having such an unconventional critical style, with so much of herself in it, because if it weren’t for her writing I might not have known that it is okay and honest and ethical to have the inclinations that I do, couldn’t have seen someone else state them so matter-of-factly, and then work to create a larger space in which any kind of affective position that doesn’t fit into the categories available to us might be articulated.

What is the point of reading books in a 400-year-old library while the world burns around us? Some, after all, believe that those of us who find ourselves reading books at times like this are unredeemable, and advocate the violent destruction of the institutions in which it is possible for us to read them. They can rest in the comfort of their unbesmirched leftist politics, pure as the driven snow, while it is left for those of us who still read in buildings named after slaveholders to wrestle with our consciences. Wrestle we must, I think: it is dangerous to assume we are right that we are not doing harm to our students by making them confront new ideas they might find troubling; dangerous for us to assume that the world will be all right without us, or with only the odd modest donation to a cause or vote for a Democratic candidate; dangerous if we pass up the opportunity to bend the talents with which advantages and good fortune have bestowed us to some more urgent, and more life-saving, purpose. Yes, teachers do good, but that rings hollow on days when we have to remember that there are not a few teachers in recent years who have done the most good not by words and knowledge but simply by shielding their students from an unstable man wielding an assault rifle.

I think that we can take some comfort from the fact that all through the AIDS crisis, through which tens of thousands of queer and other vulnerable people in my country perished in part due to the government’s slowness to come to the assistance of some of the most marginalized and persecuted members of society, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick kept writing. She kept writing through her own illness, celebrating even when she herself was very ill the lives of her ill gay male friends. And she wasn’t just writing work with an obviously political or emotional purpose: Tendencies allows us to see that even MLA papers with provocative titles about the inner workings of classic novels, or about the minutiae of the methodology of the field of queer studies that she helped to found, add up to a larger picture of a corpus (a body, a body of work) devoted to changing the way people think.

A somewhat fainter, but really quite present, political backdrop to Sedgwick’s writing in this period is the canon wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. As LD Burnett has noted, in this respect as well we are living through a remarkable echo of 25 years ago (weirdly, I was born a little more than 25 years ago), as older and more conservative college teachers and members of the public greet with mystery and hostility the wishes of the young to pursue a course of study whose rationale they can comprehend. In the early pages of Tendencies, Sedgwick has the best possible reaction to such views:

In the very first of the big “political correctness” scare pieces in the mainstream press, Newsweek pontificated that under the reign of multiculturalism in colleges, “it would not be enough for a student to refrain from insulting homosexuals…. He or she would be expected to… study their literature and culture alongside that of Plato, Shakespeare, and Locke.” Alongside? Read any Sonnets lately? You dip into the Phaedrus often? (Tendencies, 20)

What we do with canonical texts, we weirdos who work with them to ends other than to appreciate them (or at least, not only to appreciate them), is to show our students how to look at them from perspective after perspective until the student finds just the lens that will give her strength. For one student the Phaedrus is the epitome of classical Greek prose; for another, it is a key to the philosophy of writing and poetics; for another, it proves that another civilization long ago gave public sanction to his desires; for another, it is evidence of a rigidly hierarchical, sexist and class-bound society which modern democracies should have more sense than to revere. Or, I think Sedgwick helps us to understand, all these things can be true at once. And for that reason, turning one’s mind away from Twitter and towards such study is a moral path, perhaps even (not to get too grandiose, but) a salvific one, one that can help us know what to do when we are confronted with pain.

Don’t be stupid or self-absorbed. If you are American, contact your elected representatives and urge them to support universal background checks and an assault rifle ban. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me and for all the other teachers who lose sleep at night wondering if it will be our classrooms next. Do it for the queer Americans who have spent the twentieth and twenty-first centuries dealing with enough shit. And then take up your Plato or your Auden, kneel in prayer or go out dancing, and teach your children (for they’re your children even if you only have them fifty minutes a week in a discussion section) well.

Orals Diary, 2

Another two days staving off jetlag and mild boredom in the Upper Reading Room, another two orals books despatched. I move on tomorrow to Sedgwick’s Between Men, and as I trudged down and then up the circling seventeenth-century staircase on yet another unnecessary bathroom break, I remembered that five and a bit years ago I took a selfie (before we called them selfies) in the Easter vac—my first Easter vac (and my first Easter)—reading Between Men for the first time outside the Rad Cam on a sunny day (it was March, and too cold to sit outside the Rad Cam, but I was trying to look picturesque), because I thought it might help me with Symonds. I am still of an age when five years seems like a very long time, long enough for me to have been a different person then. I saw someone today in the street whom I first met when he was a first-year undergrad: now he’s a fourth-year, and he and his comrades finished their finals this week. My youngest grad-student friends here are submitting their doctoral theses over the next few months. I have yet to submit my exams—and I am still here, still in love; though oddly alone, while others are moving on.

It’s a strange and overdetermined segue, but in Diana Fuss’s introduction to the volume Inside/Out, which she edited in 1991, she writes of the instability and uncertainty of language used to describe gay and lesbian identities and desires, the collapse of language in the face of concepts which seemed at such radical disjuncture, it appears, with the society in which many American theorists of the ’80s and early ’90s lived. This is evident also in the second half of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, which I covered yesterday and today, in which the past looms large in how to think about lesbian and gay identities but in which almost none of those writing about it were trained as historians. I googled one after another, found them to be emeritus in a great English department somewhere—but only John D’Emilio, in his essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” made what seemed to me to be the kind of argument a historian would make. I didn’t agree with the heavy causal weight he puts on a marxist narrative of economic development in the essay, but his desire to relate the emergence of new ways of thinking about sex, the family, and society to other social and economic transformations is simply and recognizably what historians do. It was very different—puzzlingly—from David Halperin’s contribution, a set of facts Symonds could have told you about paiderastia in classical Athens (which is made to stand, as Symonds made it, for all of antiquity); or from Martha Vicinus’s and Gloria Hull’s essays, which are focused on recovering a lesbian past that I am not so sure really existed, even a hundred or two hundred years ago. I know all too well the historical context that might have given Halperin a recourse to such tropes, and I look forward to engaging further with them when I reread his One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, also on my list. But I lack the context to make sense of Vicinus’s or Sue-Ellen Case’s sense that it is a radical and essential move to emphasize the presence of butch/femme dynamics in lesbian communities. Perhaps a reader might be able to explain to me why this seemed so politically progressive in the days of the Reader, why it seems important to Vicinus to conflate historical women assuming masculine-gendered dress and behavior and historical women having romantic friendships with other women. Of course, now that we have the category “transgender,” and it is so culturally widespread, we don’t need or want to do this. But maybe the present and its politics are not the place from which to write of who people in the past wanted to be and whom they wanted to love, and maybe Vicinus’s “mannish lesbians” (in the 19th century! really!) or Ulrichs’ anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa (for he was a queer theorist too, in a sense) are no more transgender than they are gay; they are simply themselves, no matter how earnestly the academics-who-are-most-decidedly-not-historians, writing around the year that I was born, try to throw all the forces of Lacan and Derrida at them.

And so Oxford, which is sui generis: its conservatism (which I have begun to liken to that of the Catholic Church) resisting calls, however well-intentioned and urgent, to become otherwise; the kind of mystical force it exerts on its captive audience (me) defying easy explanation. In Howards End the most ill-fitting of all the Schlegel siblings, the brother Tibby, describes Oxford, not any man (or woman, but really the alternative is a man), as the object of his love. It’s been a while since I read the novel, but as I recall Tibby’s location in the plot is uneasy; he’s not swept up in the plot-driving “muddles” that his sisters are and that are the larger point to what Forster does as an author. It’s as if Oxford is a kind of unstable sexual orientation: if we were to put it in Fuss’s densely theoretical Inside/Out framework, we would surely say that it’s the slight puff of air that causes the deconstructionist house of cards (or should we say house of binaries) to come falling down.

I kept forgetting it was Saturday today, and wondering why the library was empty and the city centre clogged with tourists (if living in New York has done anything for me, it has made me exceedingly impatient with large groups standing and gawping on narrow pavements). But on Saturdays the Bodleian closes at 3, as it has at least since I have known it (Sunday opening hours, however, an innovation that occurred in my time, much like the Gladstone Link, the old tearoom and its successor, the reopening of the New Bodleian, and other such things that make it seem as if I have been here for an age). And so, now that I no longer have borrowing privileges, I set out to walk back to my accommodation along the scenic route—in both senses, that is; a detour and the Thames, on whose banks lie some of the most beautiful places I have ever beheld. It turned out to be Eights, wouldn’t you know it, and you couldn’t have picked a better case to illustrate how Oxford has not changed in 150 years, despite what should have been the grand upheaval of the admission of women: the boats half female (the marshals, though, mostly not), yet the women’s-college boats mostly men, and the towpath was clogged by people and the air thick with the echoes of coxes’ commands. I don’t care much for sport, but there it is, at once terrible (I read a couple books for my last term paper that in part blame Oxbridge rowing for World War I) and banal. So the front bedroom of the sturdy brick terraced house which I am currently inhabiting, about a hundred years old, on a side street in East Oxford next to a pub and a playing field. A hundred years ago, a family of six whose pater familias worked in the auto factory? Today, an alternative medicine clinic on the ground floor, and a spinster temporarily lodged in the flat above: with its retro wallpaper and its unconvincingly boarded-up fireplace, the stair-railing giving her déjà vu every time she walks out onto the landing and thinks of every other identical terraced house in England she’s ever entered, and the people a hundred years ago who did so before her. Said spinster heard a spooky creak a couple hours ago, and comforted herself in realizing that a century-old brick house is as sturdy as anything.

Did I think that orals would (thus far, anyway) turn out to be about being lonely, haunting a city I should have left long ago, not knowing how to explain why I’m still here, learning from what queer theorists have taught us about the limits of language? Of course not—but also yes, of course, how could I not? This is what the deconstructionists teach us, I think: the cutesy-clever wordplay that looks much less impressive than it did five or six or seven years ago, that sets me nodding off in the Upper Reading Room, isn’t really about that house of cards crumbling into nothing. Collapse the binaries and I don’t actually think you have neither. You have both. So Anne Lister can be a lesbian to a woman in 1990 who needs to know she’s not alone; and she can be a woman completely of her time whose terms are impossible to translate to another woman, not so different, yet for whom faithfulness to the past’s distance and incomprehensibility carries more personal meaning. And Oxford, odi et amo: the same place it was a hundred and fifty years ago, and yet entirely modern; I, the same person I was five and a bit years ago outside the Rad Cam, and yet changed utterly.

Aged 21, still new to Oxford.

Aged 21, still new to Oxford.

Orals Diary, 1

Yesterday I arrived in Oxford, on a glorious warm and sunny day in seventh week of Trinity. It is beautiful to be here in term: it’s light till 9.30pm, and last night I walked for an hour along the Thames despite my jetlag and having spent the previous night on an airplane, and milling about in the city centre today I was surrounded by young people (too many of them white, too many of them posh-accented) ruthlessly dissecting their exams, doing the same for parties, or (in one case) vigorously advertising a start-up. I met a friend for lunch in a college garden, and finalists floated by, covered in glitter and silly string. They look younger every day, undergrads: but I was one of them, here, only five years ago.

I came here despite intending not to, and I can’t fully explain why I came. Yes, it’s my home—I felt that for certain as I set eyes upon the river last night, cast a familiar eye over the familiar terraced houses of East Oxford—but like most people I have a conflicted and ambivalent relationship to my home, mine perhaps more so because it’s an adopted home, located in a country of which I am not a citizen, where I have lived for a total of about three out of 26 years, a place so strongly allied with class privilege and imperialism in so many people’s eyes that to have chosen it as one’s home is mildly reprehensible. And yet it is, and here we are.

I didn’t even have to come here for work, though I have let a great many people believe I am here for the archives. But no, I am here for the copyright deposit library, for I am spending the summer ramping my frantic reading for my departmental comprehensive exams up to fever pitch. At Columbia, we take our exams (“orals,” for they are) at some point in our third year, and I am slated to do mine in December or January, at some point before the start of the spring semester. I have four fields, for each of which I must read about 50-80 books, on which I will be examined viva voce. The fields are Britain 1688-1832, Britain 1832-present, European social and political thought in the long nineteenth century, and queer theory/history of sexuality. Particularly in the latter two fields, a lot of the books are new to me, and I thought I might do a bit of light writing as I go along about the experience of encountering these new texts—for I think I will be doing a lot of reading, and very little socializing, in the next six or seven months, and I thought it might ease the burden somewhat if I could talk to you. I thought it might ease the burden also of being in Oxford, a painful place where I am not at all sure I want to encounter the people who filled my past lives here, about which I am still not sure how I feel. I may not keep this up, but I will carry on every once in a while as energy and enthusiasm permit.

Today, then, the first day I cracked an orals book open, I started with my queer theory list, and I started slow, with the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, a weighty tome edited in 1993 to bring together what then was the current state of scholarship in what then was called lesbian and gay (rather than LGBT or queer) studies. I read Part I today—not much, 137 pages, but I was jetlagged—and focused particularly on the first two essays, Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” and an excerpt from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book-length The Epistemology of the Closet. I hadn’t encountered Rubin’s essay before, and I was shocked by some of the assumptions it could hold in 1984 that we could not countenance today. Rubin writes about the need to develop a radical politics of sexuality that combats “moral panics,” denying (or so it seems to me) that any moral valence should be placed upon sex. Fair enough when she’s talking about the AIDS crisis, which many groups and individuals in her day were leveraging to stigmatize gay men; but this 26-year-old has to wonder whether feminists who worried about sadomasochistic pornography, or people concerned about how children’s sexuality might be exploited by older people, might actually have had a point. In our current atmosphere of renewed concern about child sex abuse (many of which newly-discovered instances occurred in this earlier period of support for children’s sexual freedom that, as we now know, covered up instances of exploitation), it is hard to see how someone could (as Rubin does in this essay) regard NAMBLA as right-thinking or inveigh against the law’s exclusion of minors from sexual expression.

More interesting for my purposes, though, is the way in which Rubin and Sedgwick both make historical arguments. Neither is a historian, but both take seriously the view, shaped by Foucault among others, that sexuality is historically constructed—and that, moreover, our modern paradigms of sexuality were fundamentally shaped in the last decades of the nineteenth century. I think of myself as someone who knows the last decades of the nineteenth century (as far as they pertain to sexuality in Britain, the US, and Germany) very well, and I don’t necessarily think of Foucault as a historian or this moment as the most critical one in which our present-day notions of sexual identity coalesced, although it was certainly a very important time for expert (legal, psychological, scientific) understandings of sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Recourse to this narrative lends itself to a stereotype about “repressed Victorians” that I believe fundamentally to be untrue and unhelpful, as unhelpful as describing premodern people as “gay.” It also makes me wonder about how to relate this past to the authors’ present: that is, the AIDS crisis, a time of great urgency in thinking about sexuality and its relation to society, a time in which everyone’s individual right to sexual self-expression must surely have been cast into doubt (this is testified to by the many primary sources which discuss the divides in the gay community in the very early years of AIDS about whether to adopt safer sex practices). AIDS permeates deeply the entire first part of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, which is about politics, and I am sure it will make its way into the other sections as well. Recently, I reviewed a theory book for EHR which started its narrative earlier than Rubin and Sedgwick do, but which also took AIDS as its present, even though it was published last year. What are the consequences for theorizing about sexuality when it assumes a periodization that begins with the Contagious Diseases Acts, with Oscar Wilde’s trials, or with Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld, and that ends with AIDS? What is left out of this narrative, and what paradigmatic assumptions (Foucault’s?) does it make?

Another thing that surprised me about the Reader so far is that all the writers I read today assumed a constructivist position, i.e. they imagined sexual identity to vary according to time, place, and the cultural factors present therein, and not to be constant across time and place. They all believed, after Foucault, that homosexuality arose in the context of the late nineteenth century West, and did not seek to apply that paradigm to, say, antiquity, or to discuss cultural products from before Proust and Wilde. They extended the constructivist position to apply to other concepts, such as one author, Monique Wittig, who argued that the concept of “woman” is as constructed as the concept of “lesbian.” This shows some of the ideological thrust of the Reader and its editors, perhaps: for it seems evident to me that there were in 1993, in the ’80s, and still today scholars who believe strongly and centrally in transhistorical notions of gender and homosexuality.

Obviously I’m just starting out in the massive knowledge dump that is orals, and my thinking about these questions may well change. But today they made me think about the real intellectual gains of being a historian having designed a theory field that largely asks what use queer theory is to historians (my list is evenly split between classic works of theory and more recent historical monographs which engage with the theoretical paradigms). When I first encountered queer theory it was in college, before I became a historian, and I knew many grad students from other humanities departments who were very au fait with theory and often a bit dismissive about historians, who they saw as rather dull and interested only in facts, not in greater hermeneutic possibilities. Well, that was sometimes true in the history department talks I’d go to in college. But now I have my own frustrations with scholars of sexuality and other subjects who from a literary background pronounce upon the past: for instance, making statements about the invention of sexual identity in my historical period drawn entirely from literary sources or the biographies of canonical writers, or quoting academic historians as the purveyors of facts, upon which the theorist intends to put the interpretive gloss, as if the historian hadn’t already done that herself. When I reviewed that theory book a couple months ago, though, I had serious frustrations with it as a historian, but I came to realize as I read that although the author was writing about historical cultural products (mostly visual art), and sometimes situating them in historical context, he wasn’t trying to make a historical argument. Instead, in this case, it seemed to me that he was being profoundly ahistorical (part of his project was to reinvent the gay cultural canon, and canons are nothing if not in problematic relation to attempts to historicize them) and that was okay. There’s room for many different approaches, many different political and ideological perspectives—though it would be helpful if people who hold different perspectives were able to listen to and discuss them with each other.