The Affective Historian

History and emotions have been awkward bedfellows for too long.

I have just finished the first year of my part-time MA in Cultural History at the University of Liverpool, so for me the last 12 months have consisted of a long struggle to understand the purpose and meaning of history. This has been especially difficult as the dark cloud of postmodernism constantly looms ready to strike at any conclusion that I come to. Can we really know anything about how our historical subjects experienced the past? My answer to that question is yes and that this relies on a basic understanding of emotions. History is emotional and always has been.

My final assignment this year asked me to discuss whether history is impossible without the historian’s imagination. Constructing my argument sent me round in circles trying to explain how historians approach sources, I always returned to the point that ultimately all interpretations are created by the historian rethinking a source in their own mind. When trying to access the meaning or lived experience of the past, this clearly does not entail looking at mere ‘facts’ in remnants of the past and piecing them together. An emotional identification is crucial. Rosenwein describes emotions as being the result of our values and our assessments. She also highlights that these values and assessments are created and perpetuated by culture, or ‘emotional communities’ as she terms it.

To illustrate why this is relevant I’ll use an example from Kate Brown’s Plutopia (a brilliant book that I would recommend to everyone and not just because of its short chapters).  In Plutopia, Brown uses official documents and oral testimony to pave the way for a deeper understanding of how and why two very dangerous plutonium plants on different sides of the globe created communities contented with their time there, despite terrible working conditions. As early as the 1940s researchers were aware of the dangers of plutonium production but little was done to alter the poor systems in place to protect workers due to the demands of the imminently approaching Cold War.  As Brown terms so poignantly, ‘public relations gradually overtook public health’ (2013: 68). Different ranks of people possessed varying degrees of knowledge and accidents were normalised in a high-risk nuclear environment. The lack of knowledge of the majority of the workers in these situations clearly altered the meaning of their daily lives. The inhabitants of these isolated plants were able to enjoy the benefits of quality housing, good schools and other pay-offs because of the ways in which the plutonium plants at Hanford and Ozersk constructed the nature of the work they were carrying out. Brown herself states that the breaking stories about radioactive contamination in the 1980s and 1990s dropped ‘like a curtain, cutting their lives into separate acts’; the first half involved unrelated illnesses and fertility problems and the second was consumed by the ‘fear that all one’s problems were due to contamination’ (2013: 199).  This demonstrates that only culture can tell us what threats are, we will have emotions based on what we know to be a threat and consequently, a lack of knowledge among the workers helped shape their understandings and emotional reactions to their time working in Hanford and Ozersk. The control of knowledge is power and in this case this power impacted how people felt towards their lives and invested meaning in it. Brown could only have got to this conclusion by considering how the different value systems in place at the time would have impacted emotion.

Understanding emotion in the past is only one side of the coin. The historian’s own emotions are the other. The construction of Plutopia was clearly informed by Brown’s own feelings towards nuclear weapons and their impact on the environment. In an interview, Brown stated that her motives for the book were founded upon a desire to expose the high levels of radioactive contamination emanating from both plants due to their design and why this topic has been cloaked in silence. Previous historiography on nuclear culture has charted politics, official decisions and largely focused on the view from above. Thus, her decision to focus on twinned ‘plutopias’ in both the United States and the Soviet Union seeks to position the dangers and contradictions of nuclear weapons above ideological distinctions, if these transcend the boundaries of the Cold War then nuclear weapons appear disreputable. Both plants created ‘plutopias’ in order to sustain workers and consequently paid off their workers with good houses, schools and leisure activities. They both monitored their workers carefully to ensure illnesses remained at a certain level ensuring production did not suffer and took shortcuts which resulted in disastrous contamination of human bodies and the environment. Linking together official documents and oral testimony was very deliberate and research on this topic could have taken an alternative route. For instance, focusing on the construction of the sites or using oral testimony alone to chart the increasing awareness of health problems and environmental contamination. However, Brown creates a history which champions the perspectives of those who have suffered and condemns those in power for letting it happen. This was the result of her feelings towards the dangers of creating nuclear bombs shaping the ways in which she decided to piece together history in her own mind.

I am using this blog to write out my ideas as often formulating essays and research projects can seem like I’m trying to untangle hundreds of threads which have been impossibly meshed together. Writing these entries will help me focus, reflect and conjure new ideas. Additionally, as I believe that writing history requires the use of the historian’s emotions, I think it is only fair that mine can be accessed. Transparency in the writing process is key in light of heavy criticisms that subjectivity renders history worthless. I hope that as I write I can also demonstrate that subjectivity actually serves to expand the boundaries of history if historian’s are willing to embrace it.

See:

Brown, K., Interview with TalkingStickTV (2014). Available from: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6Ys8ii6r_M&gt; [Accessed: 19th May 2016]

Brown, K., Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hughes, J., ‘Deconstructing the Bomb: Recent Perspectives on Nuclear History’, British Journal For The History of Science, 37.4 (2004), pp. 455-464 <http://www.jstor.org.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/stable/4028643>[Accessed: 31st March 2016].

Rosenwein, B., ‘Problems and Methods in the History of Emotions’, Passions in Context: Journal of the History and Philosophy of the Emotions (2010), pp. 1-32. Available from: <http://www.passionsincontext.de/>[Accessed: 4th May 2016]

 

 

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