Axver (axver) wrote,

  • Music:

A lengthy ramble on history.

As somebody aspiring to be an academic historian, two questions routinely trouble me. The first question is one I imagine people aspiring to every field ask themselves, the traditional "can I do it?" That's a matter of skills and job availability, really; I would like to believe I have the former and I desperately hope the latter exists when the time comes. The second question is much less pressing for my direct employment and livelihood needs, in that I could go a lifetime without even considering it and still make a living and perhaps even a name for myself, but it is a question I find far more significant and far more troubling. It is simply, "what is the point?" Why waste my time on history, and why expect anybody else to waste their time on my work? I am yet to answer that question to my satisfaction.

In attempting to answer it, I first end up coming back to the first question. I think that as a historian, you need to find a balance between doing something that already has throngs of historians poking and prodding from every conceivable angle, and doing something that is so hopelessly obscure and localised that only a few individuals and specialists, enough to count on one hand, are ever going to care. I feel sorry for historians with a burning interest in, say, World War II, since it has been so heavily analysed and studied that trying to carve your own niche and introduce something new rather than simply going over ground a hundred other people have already pillaged must be bloody difficult. Similarly, as much as I would find it absolutely fascinating to study the balance between socio-political and economic demands in the campaign to construct the Waikaia Branch in rural Southland, New Zealand, only a smattering of railfans and people along the former railway's route would give half a damn.

This makes me a bit worried. My historical interest is deeply tied to New Zealand, most particularly from the end of the Maori Wars to the rise of the Muldoon government (i.e. the late 19th century and first three quarters of the 20th), though I certainly find much to interest me both earlier and in recent times. What's the problem here? New Zealand is a small country at the bottom of the world with 15 sheep for every person, little political power outside of the South Pacific, not a whole lot in the way of economic clout, and it's best known for Lord Of The Rings and an all-conquering rugby team. I'm willing to bet that if you asked 10 people on the streets of New York or London or Paris, they couldn't tell you the capital of New Zealand (it's Wellington, people) or what island it's in (the North). What's more, I'm aiming to stay in Melbourne long-term, and the obvious problem is that Melbourne isn't in New Zealand.

So why should people care about the history of this far-flung country at the edge of existence? What the hell does it matter to people outside New Zealand, specifically Melburnians? Hell, while we're at it, why should it matter to people in New Zealand? I just cannot answer that to my satisfaction. I could give the usual cliches, that history illuminates the present and puts it in context and perspective. I could talk at length of the virtues of understanding the origins of political systems, or about why it's necessary to examine the long-term consequences of colonialism on the societies of settler countries. To an extent, this could be persuasive when talking about people within New Zealand, where issues such as the historical basis of Maori land claims and New Zealand's political role in the South Pacific are significant and unresolved. But if I write on the Kiwi campaign for women's suffrage or Julius Vogel's 1870 Great Public Works Programme or Labour politics within coal-mining communities on the West Coast or the increasing secularisation of New Zealand society since the 1970s, why should you care? Chances are, you belong to the ~95% of my journal's readership who are not New Zealanders and probably you've never been to New Zealand. What does this matter to you? It really doesn't, does it?

So I wonder what the point of all this is. Some people will be curious, either about their own heritage if they're a Kiwi or about the heritage of a part of the world they find interesting. But ... that isn't terribly significant, now is it? Sometimes I think maybe I should have run with the political science major instead and gone into some sort of non-governmental work or an aid organisation. I was once going to pursue journalism because I wanted to write; journalism at least informs people of what's happening right now, of events that may very well impact them in the short term, even if it's shamelessly focused on hocking off as many newspapers as possible. But no, I wanted to write and research more serious stuff, academically ... and now look where that's got me.

I suppose a lot of academia's just a bit of a wank, really. Whether it's history, sociology, literature, theology, or whatever, there are a lot of very smart people and even more people who'd like to believe they're very smart producing work that really doesn't matter an awful lot. Sure, an examination of how 19th century prosyletising techniques in regional Australia contributed to anti-feminist themes in the literary works of So-and-so and Such-and-such may be a pretty interesting academic exercise (and mixes the aforementioned history, sociology, literature, and theology into one big academic soup!). But somehow you get the distinct impression it pales into insignificance compared to the NGO worker helping to set up local governance frameworks in Liberia, the teams of scientists researching renewable energy sources, the surgeon performing on the injured in Accident & Emergency, or the journalist in Canberra breaking a story of government mismanagement of taxpayer funds. I don't know, maybe this stuff is actually at the core of human society, understanding how our socio-political networks and culture have developed and been manifested over the course of history, but I find it rings somewhat hollow for me.

So after these long-winded paragraphs that barely even touch the surface of what I've been thinking, I can't tell you why you should give a damn about New Zealand history. I've moved not a step closer to being able to tell you why. I suppose that from the perspective of some employment security within Australia, New Zealand history is tied into the history of women's, environmental, and Labour movements, the history of colonialism and the experience of native inhabitants, and into the politics of the Oceania region. That is, I suppose, somewhat reassuring and gives me important scope. But it's nothing that resolves my core concerns, and perhaps they are concerns that will take a long time to resolve. For the meantime, I feel I should content myself with knowing that this is what I enjoy doing, this is where my passion lies, and as long as I can take that satisfaction from it, that's what ultimately matters. Even if it doesn't mean so much in the great scheme of things. After all, look at music and books. What does it matter? You could make the same arguments. Yet my life would be absolutely hollow and insignificant without either. So I guess there's something deeper, something not entirely tangible - and maybe I shouldn't be trying to put it into a coherent blog essay that reaches a logically sustained conclusion.
Tags: history, new zealand

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