Monday, 14 March 2016

The Face of History

Recently I posted a question on Facebook, asking what emotion lay at the heart of Steampunk. Punk and Goth, and even Hippy I can understand; but when I look at Steampunk and it's gewgaws and thingamajigs, I don't understand the emotion that lies at the heart of it. One of the people who responded made a point of saying that Steampunks dressed like Victorians, but did not think like them.

I confess this comment stopped me in my tracks, because on one level it suggests we are a different people, almost a different species to our Victorian ancestors. Quite apart from the hubris that suggests, and the rather sweeping statement that captures over six decades of thought and declares 'we're different to all of that' (seriously, all of it? a period that gave us minds as diverse as Karl Marx, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Emmeline Pankhurst and many, many more? Truly we live in an age of luminaries to be able to make such a judgement).

I was slightly staggered by the lack of thought that went into the statement. Humans are products of four things: environment, technology, knowledge, and 'hardware' those parts of our brain that govern our instincts whether that be our chromosomes, our reptile brains, or what have you. Three of things can change, as a species we are becoming increasingly urbanised, leaving the country behind for cities and towns. It isn't so long ago that we passed the mark where the majority of the species now lives in the closely packed environs of the urban. Soon I imagine, the countryside will be largely empty, populated only with large farms (and to play doomsayer for a moment as we enter the next stage of Industrialisation with drones and so on, I imagine the countryside will become slowly more inhabited by machines than people). The rush towards urbanisation really began, in Britain, in the 19th Century as the countryside jobs vanished and people were forced to move to cities. So any change we see in our character as a species is at least partly because of that, and the fact that most of us grow up in larger community. That's not say that our 'troupes' are any bigger, science has shown that most of us still know between 80 and 120 people (indicative that we haven't changed that much on an essential level and are still bound by our primate nature).

Technology is one the biggest changers of human behaviour. It shapes our societies without us even thinking about it, consider the way the mobile phone has altered how you work, or communicate with friends. Or how the existence of social media has altered how much you reveal about yourself. With access to so much technology our horizons are different, we can both connect and disassociate ourselves from our fellow humans. I honestly believe that if Westminster genuinely wants strong communities, it'll have to invest in a time machine and prevent the television and motor car being invented. As things stand we're able to contact anyone we choose (provided they have internet access), our sense of community is much looser, defined by interests far more than geography. I can talk to fantasy fans, and goths wherever I wish, or connect with anyone else who shares my passions. This goes hand in hand with knowledge, in the context of history, we know far more about other cultures than our ancestors did. Bear in mind that at one point the village down the road was terra incognita, and a century ago the Far East was still shrouded in mystery. Now, unless there are political blocks in place, juntas, authoritarianism, and so on, it feels as if we can learn anything we want from anywhere. So we come into contact with more people, we have the technology and the kowledge to inform ourselves, and we have had a few events that altered our perceptions of what was proper. The First World War for instance, shook up the views of what women could do, arguably contributing far more to the suffrage movement than the previous years of campaigning and social disruption created by the Suffragists and Suffragettes (doubtless the Russian Revolution also helped). World War Two also assisted, if only because it blackened the name of eugenics as a science so completely that we have never really returned to the subject. It also prompted what has so far been the longest successful experiment in establishing peace in Europe, via the EU (where the levels of bureaucracy the British Government finds so vexing may simply be a mechanism for making sure that you can never rapidly expand your war capacity). Kidding apart, there's a reason why our world is growing progressively less violent, and it could well be because of the amount of data we have forces us to see our fellow humans as just that, rather than othering them all the time and seeing them through the focus of stereotype.

Of course current events in Syria don't reflect that, which is unfortunate, but does need to be seen in the context of the growth of Fortress Europe, the reinforcement of borders and the growth of nationalism: two movements that are linked to globalisation and the fear of losing work, and indeed to the growth of the super rich which threatens to return us to the feudal state just with brand logos instead of heraldry. If this is advancement on any level, I fear the John le Carre novel, Smiley's People, is entirely correct when George Smiley says 'I have seen people hop up and down and call it progress'.

The way we teach history in schools is tied to this ideology, the idea that as time progresses we inexorably move forward into a better tomorrow, an idea which is only being challenged now because for the first time we have a generation that has worse prospects than their parents. In general though we talk about history and progress as if it were the perfect Capitalist economy, forever growing and producing profit. So we grow from the superstitions of the past through the first stumbling steps of scientific discoveries to our own, enlightened, future.

There are two things to discuss here, first that the past was never like that, anymore than it was all run by men all the time, we have evidence of women owned businesses, we know that there were people exploring scientific ideas and that Aristotle's ideas and theories began to make their way up from Moorish Spain from the 12th Century Renaissance onwards. It's just that we find it handy, in retrospect, to anchor a paradigm shift to the later Italian Renaissance and cut our history into neat little packages that way. The Victorians didn't help here, they codified histories for the purposes of teaching it for the first time, and their texts tend to focus on the glorification of Empire, Christianity and the Royal Family. It is from them we get the idea that Richard the Lionheart was a good king (when in reality he was only present in England for something like six weeks in his entire reign, and his ransom beggared the nation), and that the Vikings were terrible raiders with no other interests. It is only subsequent investigations that have revealed the extent of the Norse success story. Likewise, the Victorians had a low view of Queen Elizabeth 1st, despite their own monarch's sex. Probably this was because she reigned alone, without marrying a handsome prince who would take care of the heavy lifting.

Second, that what we take from history is as much a reflection of the society we live in and the Zeitgeist we experience as anything fictional. In a celebrity obsessed culture, which has been immersed in war for over a decade, and where opinions politics, economics and faith have all sort of slumped down into a quagmire of disgust and despair, it is perhaps no surprise that we have moved from the West Wing to the Game of Thrones. We don't trust people in authority*, the idea that they're all a shower of bastards fits today's narrative perfectly, just as it ties into our simplistic view of the Medieval Period of being one infested with  lives that were 'nasty, brutish and short' to quote Hobbes' Leviathan. We cannot know the truth, so we make it up for ourselves, rendering history as fictional as anything else (and in my opinion, most of what we 'know' is fiction supported by numbers and theories). The danger here is that we think its real, that we ignore the fact that we are just cherry picking historical facts because they're interesting to us, they're exciting. Nobody wants to imagine themselves as a nobody, even though most of us are, so we live vicariously through the exciting events of the past, even when those are transposed into a fictional world. It would be stupid to deny that it was rougher in the past, and while the oft stated life expectancy of 30 is a bit of an exaggeration**, lives were certainly shorter. However it's a sensationalist view that misses the fact that, in the main, most people's lives weren't actually any different to our own. Growing up, playing, falling in love, having children, following a trade; all these things are the meat and drink of human life and they don't change. We are not a different species, just one that's got prettier toys that have changed the way we live, ever so slightly. Cut away the external trappings and we're still just the ape that got lucky. And truly, it would be as valid to write a fantasy West Wing novel as it is to write Game of Thrones, or to emphasise another aspect of Medieval life.

Each generation thinks they discover sex, each thinks it discovers history as well and, while we draw on the knowledge of the previous generation's discoveries, it is natural to interpret things through the lens of our own experiences and societies. Hence the rise of the 'crusade' against Islam and the increasing militarisation of American Christianity, from fear that somehow the world will be swamped by a new Ummah.

This returns to the 'hardware', the central processes in our brains that govern our unthinking behaviour, our instincts and so on. This has not changed through all of history. It is the part of us that governs our feelings about so much, from sexuality, to what's good to eat, even to what spaces are safe to travel through. It is the part of us that stops us taking the last cookie from the plate because we fear the disapproval of our peers, or dictates that women must be wooed. This is the fact of our existence.

I cannot tell you not to like something, only to ask you to think about what you see and read and to make up your own minds about it. The past is more complex than we care to admit, and the reason it's complex is because it was made by humans, and we're a damned difficult species.

* Something that also drives the Zombie Apocalypse genre.
** William the Conqueror's son Robert lived to the age of 80, but that might be because he spent a large period of his life in custody in a monastery.