Monday, March 24, 2014

Chris Finlayson and the end of history

Minister of Culture and Heritage Chris Finlayson has announced that thirteen of the seventeen scholars who have been labouring on Te Ara, New Zealand’s internet-based encyclopaedia, will shortly lose their jobs. After thanking Te Ara’s employees for researching and writing thousands of entries over the past few years, Finlayson explained that the website had now been successfully built, and that only a skeleton staff of four will be required to maintain it.
In a press release issued after Finlayson’s announcement, Public Services Association National Secretary Brenda Pilott lamented the job losses at Te Ara,  pointing out that ‘history does not finish, but rather is constantly being made’. Te Ara’s employees should be kept on, Pilott suggested, so that they can write about new events in Kiwi history.
Pilott’s point is reasonable, but it doesn’t address the most serious misunderstanding of history implicit in Finlayson’s treatment of Te Ara.  Finlayson sees the past as a large pile of facts, and believes the task of historians is to gather and describe the most important of these facts. Now that Te Ara’s staff have created entries on a large number of significant events and personalities in New Zealand history, from the Treaty of Waitangi to the Christchurch earthquake and Te Kooti to John Key, they have, as far as Finlayson is concerned, completed their task. The facts they have collected are like bricks in a building which can stand indefinitely, with the help of a little low-cost maintenance.
What Finlayson’s plan for Te Ara ignores is the importance of interpretation to the study of the past. Every historical fact, no matter how insignificant or portentous, comes to us wrapped in interpretation. Just as actors and theatre directors reinterpret old plays, excising or emphasising certain scenes and lines and promoting and relegating different characters, so historians decide which events and characters from the past must be emphasised, and which can be downplayed or passed over.
Historians select the facts that fill their essays and books on the basis of their interpretation of the past. The Rubicon River has been crossed millions of times, but it is Julius Ceasar’s crossing in 49 BC that attracts the attentions of historians. The labels that historians give to the facts are also unavoidably interpretive. When a scholar describes the eastward movement of some German tanks across a few hundred metres of waste ground into Poland on the morning of September the 1st, 1939 as the beginning of World War Two, he or she is offering an interpretation of history, as well as a fact.
Because they are partly subjective – because they are made partly from our preoccupations, as well as from the material of the past – historical interpretations are always open to challenge and revision. Some historians, for instance, argue that the fascist uprising against Spain’s democratic government in 1936 should be considered the real starting point of World War Two, while others question the value of searching for a starting date, and suggest that World Wars One and Two would be better treated as a single conflict, separated by a fragile peace.
Sometimes events which were regarded as insignificant by one generation of historians are emphasised by the next. The establishment of a Maori community at Parihaka, and the destruction of this community by colonial forces in 1881, were for a long time treated by historians as curious but insignificant parts of the aftermath of the New Zealand Wars.
James Cowan, the author of a massive, meticulous, and melancholy history of the conflict between Maori and Pakeha, regarded Parihaka as a late, doomed act of defiance by nationalist Maori – one of the last embers of the fire that had been lit by men like Wiremu Tamihana and Te Kooti in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Cowan was working at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Maori had been greatly reduced in numbers and influence. In the second half of the century, when Maori nationalism reemerged as a political force, the peaceful occupation of disputed land at Parihaka began to seem less like an ending and more like a precursor of epic land rights battles at places like Bastion Point/Takaparawhau and Raglan/Whaingaroa. It is not surprising that Parihaka is given careful attention by contemporary historians.

Because the past comes to us wrapped in interpretations, and interpretations are open to change, any thorough account of an historical event should include a record of the various explanations that event has received over decades or centuries. Many of the longer entries at Te Ara possess this sort of historical sophistication. The entry on Maori canoe traditions, for example, acknowledges that nineteenth century scholars bowdlerised many old stories about canoe journeys to and around Aotearoa to create a myth of a ‘Great Fleet’ of seven waka, then explains the gradual debunking of that myth in the twentieth century, and the development of new speculations about the early pattern of Maori arrival in Aotearoa.
The four surviving employees of Te Ara will struggle to do much more than keep the vast website online and free of viruses. They may be able to add a few entries on important new events, but they are very unlikely to have the time to give old entries the benefit of new scholarship about the past. With just a handful of curators, Te Ara will not be able to reflect twenty-first century thinking about events like New Zealand Wars or the Treaty of Waitangi or the Great Depression. The encyclopaedia will quickly become dated.  
Chris Finlayson is Treaty Negotiations Minister as well as Minister for Culture and Heritage, and he has talked of his desire to make Te Ara representative of New Zealand’s Polynesian as well as Pakeha cultures. But Finlayson’s view of the past as a set of self-evident facts is acutely Eurocentric, and finds no echo in Polynesian culture.
Because they saw history as a one-way road towards apocalypse and judgement, early and medieval Christian scholars wrote histories filled with lists of noble and ignoble people and events. History was the working out of God’s plan for humanity, and that plan needed to be known in as much dry detail as possible. Older religious and intellectual traditions, which had imagined history as cyclical and the details of the past as mutable, were marginalised.
The Western attachment to fact-hunting and linear, predictive narrative acquired a new ferocity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when generations of scholars inspired by the Industrial Revolution and advances in the natural sciences tried to make history as precisely rigorous as physics. They hoarded facts and figures, and attempted to formulate general laws that would explain the past and predict the future.
By the middle of the twentieth century scientific history was in decline, and in the early ‘60s EH Carr’s book What is History? reminded the English-speaking world of the necessity of interpretation and subjectivity to any study of the past. Today the notion that historical research consists of the accumulation of self-evidently significant facts is not taken seriously inside the academy, but retains a strong popular appeal amongst Pakeha New Zealanders.
Our society suffers from the widespread view of the past as a collection of dead facts. History is too often seen as something remote and irrelevant, except as a source of picturesque backdrops and exotic costumes for films and TV dramas.
When I lived in Tonga last year I was impressed by the ways that history suffused everyday life, informing the simplest everyday decisions of individuals and communities. Tongans share songs and stories about both distant and recent ancestors at kava circles, feasts, and church services. Often the characters of the songs and stories are archetypal, and their feats are apocryphal. The details of a song or story may be altered according to the context and purpose of the singer or storyteller.
The traditional mode of Tongan history-telling is not ideal for all purposes – it is not necessarily a reliable guide to historical chronology, for example – but it does succeed brilliantly in bringing the past into the present, and emphasising the connections between the living and the dead. And, because it encourages the living to appropriate and creatively interpret the details of the past, Tongan historical discourse is a good deal more sophisticated, and a good deal more in line with contemporary academic practice, than the piling up of dead facts that Chris Finlayson equates with the study of the past.

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

2:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


12:12 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Good commentary Scott. It is true, history is far from an accumulation of facts. Interpretations and viewpoints change (it is nothing to do with Relativism anon, although the study of History involves thinking about the way different people see things and the way different people and cultures interpret the same events).

As far back as Herodutus we have had to accept the provisional and changing nature of history.

I have an old book about the history of Europe and the writer (Fisher) starts by more or less saying that not much of significance outside of Europe has affected the world. Nevertheless the book will be informative but a reader has to realise there are many other histories of Europe.

And Cowan is only one of many who have written about NZ history. It is because of the changes in history that we now speak of 'The Maori Wars' as 'The New Zealand Wars'

"Mankind" is used less frequently as many of our leading intellectuals and indeed historians are women.

There is much else, history is constantly in flux.

12:45 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

the sad thing is that, with the advent of the internet, not to mention I phones and kindle that can continually update the books they hold, a twenty-first century encyclopaedia need not become dated, in the way it predecessors inevitably did. I grew up with some World Book Encyclopaedias that were published in, I think, 1975: they were already showing their age, and not only because of the events they inevitably failed to include!

9:48 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Although of course not all encyclopaedias should aim at avoiding obsolescence. I'd love to see a copy of this strange specimen:

9:50 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Scott I think that is a great advantage of computers and the internet, but ironically, it is the very fact that things "go out of date" (in a deep sense nothing does really) that fascinates collectors and also it can be useful in evaluating how change occurs, as well as the uncertainty and problematic nature of truth and the question of what knowledge is.

The Govt. of course are always cutting costs, but we need historians and others in related fields very much.

I like encylopaedias and reference books and I have a lot as you know. I want an extra book for a Britannica I have (one missing either I mislaid it or I bought an incomplete copy): I still see advantages of books (even of reference) but of course I use Wikipedia and I have donated to them twice.

I saw a discussion of that Codex once (they have things featuring special books from time to time on and it is quite amazing for sure.

There is a NZ artist* who does work something like that - probably more than one. I see Calvino wrote about it - an untranslatable language!

*More than one but I was thinking of Julia Morrison. Others might include poss. Megan Jenkinson, Richard Killeen, or the strange (uses cryptic symbols from maths, Greek etc) of Terrence Handscomb.

3:28 pm  
Blogger ryan bodman said...

Hey. Great read, thanks for posting. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment though, ironically, I need to offer a factual correction. Perhaps I'm missing an in-joke(?), but wharepaku means toilet. The Maori name for Bastion Point is Takaparawha, or in more recent times Takaparawhau. Cheers. Ryan.

2:54 pm  
Blogger ryan bodman said...

Now it reads whakapohane. Has your account been hacked?

8:50 am  
Anonymous jh said...

Reinterpreting could go on and on; surely that can be done outside Te Ara. Otherwise it will just be a vehicle for people with an axe to grind.

1:04 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Everyone has an axe to grind, jh, and every statement about history is interpretive (to say this isn't to say they are all of equal value, of course). Folowing your argument, Te Ara never needed a staff of historians in the first place - we could simply have scanned some old copies of the 1966 NZ encyclopedia...

9:18 pm  
Anonymous jh said...

Whose to say an institution doesn't get captured by people with a particular axe to grind?

9:17 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

If I wanted to capture an institution like Te Ara and make sure it promoted a single view of the past, then the last thing I'd do is produce texts for the site that emphasise the variety of ways in which the past can be interpreted. So I think that entries for Te Ara like the piece on canoe traditions, which emphasises the variety and fluidity of interpretations, are a reassuring sign that the institution hasn't been turned into a propaganda machine.

10:04 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

It is nevertheless inevitable that the entries written for Te Ara over the past few years will be full of presuppositions and preoccupations that reflect the era in which they written the worldview of the people who wrote them. We can't do history without some background beliefs, but these beliefs also limit our ability to see the past. They both reveal and conceal.

The best way to deal with limitations like these is to make sure that new interpretations of the past reflecting the perspectives of new generations appear in places like Te Ara. The alternative is to end up as obviously dated as that 1966 NZ encyclopedia. That's why Finlayson's decision is regrettable.

10:09 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Ryan,

just saw your comments! The coupling of Bastion Point and Wharepaku reminded me of a leaflet I wrote once for an anti-war group in which Musharaff, the name of Pakistan's then-dictator, was turned into Mascara, courtesy of spellcheck! I'm not sure if a computer or my brain was malfunctioning this time...

10:13 am  

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