If I say perfect, what comes to mind?
I recently finished reading Asa Briggs’ Victorian Things and as I got to the end of the book, I noticed I was seeing the word perfect more and more: telegraphy was perfect, so were the railways, so was the post office, so was the improved gas mantle. The Crystal Palace was particularly perfect. They were mostly technological things: no-one, for instance, though the crinoline was perfect or the antimacassar, or if they did, it didn’t come within Briggs’ ambit.
I think it is always worth noting that such judgments make perfect sense in their own context; they only look silly in hindsight. Our own evaluations of our tech will, I’m sure, look equally foolish in a century’s time.
And wasn’t the telegraphy system — once established and running reasonably smoothly in 19th century Britain — something of a perfect thing? You put a message in one end and it popped out the other, possibly hundreds of miles away. It does not affect the quality of the system that it has been superseded: taken as a thing entire, it still is a perfect thing.
Of course, regarding it as such means taking it out of context which is always problematic. It has been superseded, not once, but many times. However, approaching the original value judgment as flawed or even straight-up wrong is a bigger problem: that argues a position taken on the side of a progressivist narrative of human history. The position may be only implied — I’m not saying Briggs takes this position openly — but quoting the contemporary observer in such a way that the reader can only see the humor in it, implies such a position. It also implies a kind of ribnudging collusion between historian/author and reader: “Hehe, we know better, right? Hehehe.”
Sort of the historian equivalent of the Python “NudgeNudge” sketch. With less beer.
There are a lot of ideas in this post and I’m not up to sorting them all out right at this minute; I’m still recovering from the last desperate drive to get together a NEH grant at work. I haven’t been that closely involved in the process before and to all you grant-writers out there: I salute you.