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The Historian and the Public

HISTORY DEPARTMENT SEMINAR SERIES

Date: Tuesday 19th January 2010

THE HISTORIAN AND THE PUBLIC

 

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speaker_MarkusDaechsel

Markus Daechsel (Royal Holloway)
The Historian and the Pakistan Crisis

The public historian of ‘Pakistan’ has to struggle with some major problems that do not exist with the same sharpness in other geographical or historical contexts. To begin with, the very subject of study is not simply a geographical area where ‘history’ in all its fullness and manifold manifestations could be observed, studied and described; similar to let us say ‘German History’ or ‘Chinese history’. ‘Pakistan’ is and always has been a political problem category, and any engagement by the public historian amounts to an explicit or implicit judgement of either ‘What went wrong with Pakistan?’ or ‘Is Pakistan really a legitimate state that is there to stay?’. This orientation – which is strongly enforced by audience expectations – precludes a full historical engagement with histories that fall outside the narrow remit of state policy or state failure, for instance, histories of regions, of arts and culture, of aspects of everyday life. At the same time, and in stark contrast to audiences in Europe or India, Pakistani public culture does not actually provide much space for the public historian. History as an academic profession has been completely overshadowed by Political Science and Security Studies, by Law and by Religious Studies. Short historical memories and absence of a rich engagement with the past in education, politics and public life mean that the historian’s interventions are confined to a very limited number of highly politicized instances, for instance, in debates about what the nation’s founder M.A. Jinnah ‘really’ meant back in 1947. How is a public historian based in Great Britain going to engage with such a difficult terrain? A strategy very tentatively proposed here is one of dialogic engagement; one that seeks to critique and provoke different audiences in different ways, perhaps countering Western obsessions with Pakistan as a security problem with a more nuanced and multi-facetted depiction of everyday life; while confronting Pakistani audiences with a more historically conscious reading of their own past that corrects easy narratives of national decline. The third alternative – to provide ‘objective’ expertise from a neutral standpoint – is unsatisfactory because it either leaves the blinkered assumptions inherent in audience expectations unchallenged and/or lacks the authority and relevance to engage.

 

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speaker_VanessaMartin

Vanessa Martin (Royal Holloway)
The Historian and the Invasion of Iraq in 2003

This talk focuses on the expertise and generic skills of history.  It looks at their relevance and significance in the context of the period 2002-3 leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  It addresses the question of why the British government was not adequately informed, and so not adequately prepared, for the violence that followed the invasion.  In pursuit of an answer, it makes reference to the evidence given to the current Iraq inquiry, particularly with regard to a seminar in Downing Street that included expert historians and the Prime Minister on 19th November 2002. It then goes on to show how the power structure of Iraq as between the Sunni and Shi’a Arabs especially, and the historical evolution of that structure, made the violence inevitable.



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Vanessa Martin

Series Convenor



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