History’s Ink is a new podcast series on history, with Malory Nye. The title comes from Mark Twain’s enigmatic phrase:
‘The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.’
(Pudd’nhead Wilson and Other Tales)
History is the product of our own prejudices, whoever we might be.
It is fluid, it is in motion, it becomes something in the process of being written down. We see in history our own prejudices, our ideas, our present.
For me, the study of history is in many ways a mapping of the present — what some call ‘cartographies of the present’ — mapping out and understanding what went before, so we can see more clearly what is in front of us. History is about narrative — it tells us stories.
It is the story within history. Through exploring history we feel we are able to know and to remember, through gaining knowledge and learning about what went before.
To do so, we have to stand on the shoulders of others, who were themselves standing on others’ shoulders, and on and on. In reality, as we look backwards (or downwards from the top) there is simply too much to take in.
What we have instead are impressions, trends, bits and pieces.
These are simply fluid prejudices: the things we see, and look at through our own lenses, based on our interests, or expectations, or engagement with what has been and gone before.
None of us are free from prejudices. We all paint things in our own particular colours.
What we can do, at least, is try to keep that in our perspective — if we can. To recognise our background, who we are, and the influences on us largely feed into and influence where we stand and what we think and write.
Fluid prejudice is not (so much of) a problem when we recognise that is what we are looking at. If we assume that the ink of history is dry and sealed — untouchable and immutable — then we fail to see our fluid prejudices within the flow of knowledge and understanding.
So what am I going to be doing in this podcast series?
My aim is to explore different bits and pieces of history.
I am not a trained historian — I am an academic, with a background in the contemporary (social anthropology) rather than history.
But I have a love of history and of understanding the contemporary through the history. Thus my aim is to bring out the contemporary in what I talk about — sometimes explicitly, sometimes less so.
In some ways, the relevance of the history will be more in terms of the cumulative rather than the particular.
To help with this, I have various broad themes that most of my podcasts will cluster under. These will most likely grow and develop as I get going, but they start as:
> History of Empire and Encounter – Colonialism and the European ‘encounter’
> Exploring the Reformation – (the religious, social, and political changes of the sixteenth century)
> Europe and Islam
> Slavery: the Indelible Stain
> History of Scotland
> Perth in History
These will inevitably overlap at times (most of the time, indeed!).
My interest in the varieties of British histories, in particular — as a united nation, and in its parts, with relation to colonialism, expansion and empire building, and the encounters and levels of knowledge that have come to us through that filter are probably most central to the ‘fluid prejudices’ that I bring to my selection of this material.
And one of the general core issues from the themes will also be directly related to this idea of ‘fluid prejudice’. As an academic I have a keen interest in diversity — I was for a number of years a professor of multiculturalism.
For me the study of history is about the encounter with diversity, with difference. Not only on the basis of the past being different from today (as a ‘foreign country’), but also by the differences and challenges of diversity fuelling the changes that have brought us through history to where we are today.
And how such differences were encountered and understood in the past has itself a bearing on these issues in today’s world. In that sense, the ink of history as fluid prejudice has been about changing prejudices, changing views of difference that may sometimes shock or surprise us.
The colonial encounter is a large part of this, as of course is the long history of encounter and engagement (as well as conflict) between Europe and Islam and Muslims. Not only do our own prejudices shape how we ourselves engage with that past, we also should learn about the fluid prejudices within history.
And to conclude, it did occur to me that is was a little misleading perhaps to name a podcast in relation to the ‘Ink of History’. In many ways, a podcast is the opposite of ink, it relies on different (sound based) technologies of communication rather than literacy and printing.
But I see this podcast as part of the long long process of spilling the ink of history, in its own particular way.