The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Decline: A Cultural History

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The starting point for this new research project is simple: what might a cultural history of decline look like? How might that history change how we understand debates around decline in contemporary British society?

In modern Britain ideas of decline are everywhere. Anxieties about the future and arguments over the past play out in the heated rhetoric of politicians, journalists, and the commentariat, and the careful assessments of historians, sociologists, economists, and others.

I am not interested in the question of whether or not the British economy or global position has ‘declined’ over the 19th and 20th centuries. Instead my focus is on the signs that both animate and shape ideas of decline take shape. What are we looking at when we register or recognise decline? What do we have to see in order to think that our bodies, society, culture, economy, and environment are deteriorating or in crisis? These signs, I argue, are always particular to a time and to a place. On this basis, a cultural history of decline might break apart the terms in which contemporary political debates are framed.

Decline ranges across a long period of time. It encompasses issues as diverse as homelessness, austerity, deindustrialization, and environmental changes. Faced with big questions, I tend to think small: my initial focus is a tiny pocket diary written by the young civil servant Gwen Wells in 1918. Gwen’s diary records her courtship and marriage, the minutiae of work and family life, and the tumultuous final months of the Great War. It also registers the experience of serious illness. In October Gwen became one of millions who fell ill during the influenza pandemic then devastating the world. In her faltering words and frail handwriting, Gwen allows us to explore the individual experience of a global catastrophe — to understand what it meant to inhabit a body in decline.

I do not want this project to be a cultural history cliche — a rarefied study of representations and discourses removed from vital questions about power and people. Understanding how decline is encountered and made visible historically, allows us to explore how ordinary men and women made sense of the world around them. At a time of ‘austerity’, teasing out the ways in which ideas of decline are historically contingent and change over time might challenge the foundational assumptions upon which increasingly vicious neoliberal politics are taking shape in Britain and beyond.

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