Victorian Labour History: Experience, Identity and the Politics of Representation

Victorian Labour History: Experience, Identity and the Politics of Representation

Victorian Labour History: Experience, Identity and the Politics of Representation

Victorian Labour History: Experience, Identity and the Politics of Representation

Synopsis

In Victorian Labour History , John Host addresses liberal, Marxist and post modernist historiography on Victorian working people to question the special status of historical knowledge.The central focus of this study is a debate about mid-Victorian social stability, a condition conventionally equated with popular acceptance of the prevailing social order. Host does not join the debate but takes it as his object of analysis, deconstructing the notion of stability and the analyses that purport to explain it.Host examines an extensive range of archival material to illustrate the ambiguity of the historical field, the rhetorical strategies through which the illusion of its unity is created, and the ultimately fictive quality of historical narrative.

Excerpt

In Chapter 2, I argued that the social identities on which historians base their accounts of mid-Victorian consensus and stability are theoretical categories, the historicity of which is not adequately examined or acknowledged. Those categories, I suggested, operate as a priori foundations which naturalize and validate particular conceptions of the past, subserving a practice in which representation stands for explanation. I then considered some of the literature which historians have adduced to demonstrate the contemporary currency of the proposed identities, stressing the ambiguity of the literature itself—its capacity to sustain a range of meanings—and the manipulative processes through which it is transformed into evidence. My discussion embodied two kinds of criticism. One spoke to the narrative strategies employed in history writing and will be resumed in Chapter 4. the other addressed the works under review on their own terms, engaging with their explanatory categories on the ontological level to which they are raised and evaluating their treatment of ‘evidence’, content and context. With reference to a small autobiographical sample, I speculated that the social identities to which explanations of stability are articulated are not (and perhaps cannot be) convincingly illustrated. I also disputed the representative status of the autobiographers themselves, noting their apparent predisposition to take hierarchy for granted, to prize individual success, to disdain less competitive types, and to define themselves against the mass of ordinary workers. in short, I described attitudes which tell against the cohesive, integrated social visions of class and populist constructions.

My critique of the representative figure has prompted me to ask further questions. Was the respectable independence which purportedly underpinned the advent of conciliatory politics in the mid-Victorian period, and to which the sample group seems to have attained, accessible to the majority? Did the apparent acquiescence of certain individuals in the status quo signify that society had become generally more equitable, of merely that the individuals themselves had been able to improve their material condition? Did many workers fail to become ‘independent’ and, if so, can it be assumed that they regarded the system as just and equitable? Might their ‘acquiescence’ have

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