A very short addition on thematics

Why should we get so exercised by the idea of themes and patterns which is integral to the vision of information recovery in the Haass/O’Sullivan paper? Is it not the case that political historians implicitly and/or explicitly depend on themes to makes sense of the complexity of historical evidence? The answer is yes and no and the difference between yes and no is vital.

Yes, themes in political history can be discerned in Northern Ireland’s past. No, thematic history is an entirely different conception and risks the official imposition of ideological beliefs on to the public record.

The distinction between clarification of political history and thematics as we find it in Haass/O’Sullivan lies here: the pursuit of ‘truth’ in thematics relates ‘facts’ to the assumed pattern in the political ‘text’. Historical facts, on the other hand, are established in relation to other historical facts or their contextualisation. It is other-referenced and not self-referential. Its truth is to be found in how events ‘stand in relation’ to other events, not how events are composed by an ideological theme. Clarification of political history begins, then, with (the evidence of) what actually occurred and only out of this evidence can one really talk about themes.

A thematised history, we fear, will become either an ideological conceit or a historical bed of Procrustes. In the Haass/O’Sullivan paper thematics, we also fear, will serve to reinforce ethno-nationalist divisions and perpetuate historic grievances. In other words, it will achieve the opposite of its intention. Moreover, we think that it indulges the narratives which drove the conflict in the first place. At best it contributes to obfuscation and at worst does not reduce the scope for ‘permissable lies’. In his recent review of George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls, David Aaronovitch argues that lies and obfuscation are the real enemy for Orwell. ‘Without them, something may be done. With them, nothing good can happen’.

As Arkiv has already pointed out, there is much in to commend in the section on the past in Haass/O’Sullivan, but its promotion of thematics is a profound shortcoming.


David Aaronvitch ‘The reluctant patriot: how George Orwell reconciled himself with England’ http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/12/reluctant-patriot