Blogging Our Criminal Past, part 2: history turned upside down?

Blogging carnivals, like those hosted by Sharon Howard, began to appear in the early 2000s. The carnivalesque is a suggestive way of thinking about the transformative potential of social media. By orchestrating multiple voices blogging has a levelling effect, breaking down traditional hierarchies separating amateur and professional, young and old, new and established, theorist and practitioner, reader and writer. The carnivalesque and levelling qualities of blogging have been seized by early modern historians to reanimate ‘history from below’ at the aptly named Many Headed-Monster blog, subtitled ‘the history of “the unruly sort of clowns” and other early modern peculiarities’.[1] As many academics are discovering, blogging can be a liberating medium, freeing us from the rigid conventions of traditional scholarly discourse. Tim Hitchcock, for instance, set up his gloriously named Historyonics as ‘a space for me to rant in that most seventeenth-century sense of the word; and to cut and paste the ideas and comments that don’t seem to fit in more traditional forms of academic publication.’

Nonetheless, it is fair to say, I think, that most academics use blogging as a means of thinking aloud about work-in-progress with a view to writing it up in the conventional format of journal article, chapter or monograph. Some historians, however, are beginning to experiment more consciously with blogging as a medium to see if they can reflect on and write about the past in radically different ways. Since October 2011, for instance, Matt Houlbrook has been blogging at The Trickster Prince as he seeks to come to terms with, and complete a book about, an early twentieth-century conman.[2] Trickster Prince was one of the many aliases of Netley Lucas but it has become an alias for the historian, too, as he tries out new guises, poses, and voices (Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling). Beginning with a series of very short, enigmatic teaser posts, the blog sometimes mimics Netley’s furtive and artful style in order to inhabit and bring alive his world. At other times, the historian stands back from his subject to size up the conman and note his deceptions, before revealing (or part revealing) his own sleights of hand and tricks of the trade. By moving between the art of Trickster Prince and the art of the Trickster Historian, the author’s writing has taken different turns as the blog and book, evolving in tangent, become among other things, a meditation on history and fiction.

One of the reasons Matt Houlbrook’s blog has been so inventive is that, by assuming the guise of Trickster Prince/Trickster Historian, he has fully exploited the performative elements of social media. While many people (and scholars especially) baulk at this aspect social media, the Trickster Prince shows how playfulness and self-consciousness can be combined to rethink historical practice and produce a more reflective writing style which is, at the same time, entertaining and surprising. In a ‘short photo essay’, posted on his blog, about the origins of a book chapter, Matt Houlbrook writes:

It starts with the sources and stories; that’s where it always starts. Not stories that exist full-formed and discerned. No. These are stories that exist always-already in-the-process-of-becoming; stories that consist in half-thought ideas, half-glimpsed connections, half-baked moments.

Before there is a story, there are the sources. Yet in so much scholarly history, the sources are made not to tell a story but to make an argument, or if there is a story, it must be kept in its place, subordinated to analysis. As writers, it’s the stories and sources we cling to; they are the bits we hate to lose when forced to cut-down a paper. When we allow them to stay, they are sandwiched between topic sentences announcing their purpose and stating what they mean. Rarely are they allowed to lead, except perhaps in an epigram or opening vignette before the voice of the historian kicks in.  And as readers, academics are even less tolerant of stories. Our eyes skate over quotation and illustration to zoom in on the knock out ‘punch lines’ on method or argument. It’s the skeleton we look for, not the flesh and meat.

Writing for an audience beyond the academy, however, reminds us of a different kind of reader, who shares the same curiosity and sense of intrigue that drives us to the archive. Stories, we might find, can be used to suggest interpretation or argument, without beating readers over the head with displays of learning and expertise. Blogging, with its short digestible posts and rich visual potential, lends itself particularly well to this source-led history. In the next post in this short series, I will discuss my own recent experience of blogging at Conviction: stories from a nineteenth century prison. In particular, I’ll reflect on how I have begun to draw on some of the stylistic and narrative devices of fiction to write about ordinary offenders, petty crime, and rehabilitation and about how this might offer one way of writing ‘Our Criminal Past’ that avoids some of the more sensationalizing elements of popular treatments of crime and punishment.

[1] Formed in 2012, the Many Headed Monster is a collaboration between Brodie Waddell, Mark Hailwood, Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis; see http://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/about/

[2] The Prince of Tricksters: Cultures of Confidence in 1920s and 1930s Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

4 thoughts on “Blogging Our Criminal Past, part 2: history turned upside down?

  1. Many thanks for citing our blog, Helen! I’m chuffed to hear you’ve found it interesting, despite being rather distant from your own period.

    I’m intrigued by your comment that most academics use blogging for in-progress work. I certainly do some of that (e.g. my currently posts on Joseph Bufton) but I think most of my blogging has been on bits and pieces that I’m sure will never become a conventional publication. Sometimes that’s think-pieces about methods (e.g. digital) or approaches (e.g. history from below) and even more often it is based on some random source that I’ve come across whilst researching something else. I’m fairly sure, for example, that my ‘Norwich entertainments’ miniseries will never become a publication: it’s just archival scraps that seem to lend themselves to becoming short stories framed with some impromptu analysis. I’d be interested to know how common this is amongst other history bloggers.

  2. This is responding to Brodie and Helen! I use my blog for older projects that never got to be published, new projects that I hope will be published, and as a way to prompt me to write.

    With the second category, I write things related to the new project and hope that they will be elaborated when I come to write my book.

    Blogging also gets me to write – a form of procrastination which actually leads me back to what I should be doing. So, say I have a paper to write and ‘can’t’, then I’ll take one element of it and think about it in a blog post. That will then get me motivated to write the paper.

    The only problem might be that not all of these things are interesting to readers!

  3. Pingback: Legitimate speculations or improper fantasies: where do you draw the line? | The Trickster Prince

  4. Pingback: Kernels of Truth | Socks for the Boys!

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