Weekly readings: new directions

I like Sensing the Past for its survey quality, and I’m glad I read bits of it a bit early. It helped provide context for names, like McLuhan, which popped up in classroom conversation.* Yay, interdisciplinary enrollment!

Discussion of aural geography was interesting, particularly in the urban context, with the attendant issues of class. I was reminded of an NPR story wherein the health of a rain forest could be assessed after listening to a thirty second recording. The parallels emphasize the biological nature of humans, and the ways in which the artificiality of the built environment is (at least on some axes) an artificial distinction.

Smith talks about the performative nature of sound, partially in opposition to other means of communication (42). I’m not entirely sure I buy that; at a minimum, I don’t think it’s uncomplicated. Yes, there is clearly a performance aspect to sound. But it’s different depending on context. The active, critical reception† of a musical performance is not like the approach to routine verbal communication. I feel like this is a good place to tie in Blue Jeans and the concept of the ordinary, though I think it becomes a bit more slippery when the ordinary behavior is divorced from a material object. (At least, a little more slippery in my brain.) Furthermore, I don’t buy that, say, writing is non-performative. The message is tailored for a specific audience; it may be a straightforward transmission of information or intentionally provocative; pseudonymity may further complicate the interaction between writer and audience, etc.

Similarly, I questioned assertions of the subjectivity of odor (71). How does one really assess the objectivity of sensory input across a population? Is that question better dealt with by neurologists or philosophers? Is it possible that perceptions of subjectivity are due to inadequacies of language, or is that the same thing in the end? Does a gender binary come into play? Vision is masculine, scent is feminine; the masculine is also spiritual, scientific, objective, whereas feminine is corporeal, emotional, and subjective…but does that give rise to a chicken-and-egg problem, in which gendered assumptions may drive perceptions, rather than the other way around?

Implications for an analysis and history of the quilt, and the design of the exhibit, are ambiguous. The objects are all of recent enough vintage that I don’t think we need to worry too much about drastically different sensory relationships at the time of their creation and use (which is not to downplay differences between eras, but a bunch of sensory milestones—the Protestant Reformation, the beginnings of the Enlightenment and the Modern—comfortably predate our period). Due to practical material constraints, we can’t use the objects to engage all the senses. But even if we can’t make explicit use of the full range of visitors’ senses, I still think it’s helpful to keep in mind the many ways in which humans do interact (with varying degrees of consciousness) with objects. If nothing else, Smith’s book highlights the importance of considering historical actors’ sensory interactions with these objects, and their environment in general. It will also give us a more nuanced understanding of the limitations of the object-in-a-case mode of exhibit, and hopefully we’ll be able to find ways to compensate.


* It also helped give me a sense of where I’d need to situate a potential project, which still seems interesting but less doable in the timeframe.

† Smith pings James H. Johnson to discuss the evolution of a new type of hearing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. I could not help wondering if Mary Gentle was pinging the same source in The Black Opera, shifted to her fun alternate Italy. (I’ll cosign all the problems raised in this review, but aspects of the book were sufficiently entertaining to distract from the objective failings and earn the “fun” designation.)

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Weekly readings: objects as agents

I enjoyed Dan Rose’s “Active Ingredients,” which was “fun” (as billed) but also meaty. I appreciated the engagement with text as part of an object: language which is intended to function as language, divorced from metaphor but still tied to a physical object (in this case a bottle of shampoo). I’m reminded a bit of David Levy’s examination of receipts in Scrolling Forward, all the social, linguistic, and technological processes implied in their existence.

Also amusing is the way in which Rose turns anthropological assumptions on their head, becoming at once anthropologist and informant. In The Lowell Experiment, Stanton wrote about the difficulty of anthropologists examining their own tribe, and Miller and Woodward specifically extoled the virtues of allowing informants to direct ethnographic inquiries in Blue Jeans. Rose’s meta methodological turn thus has the potential for illumination as well as some inherent pitfalls.

In The Prosthetic Impulse, I found the intersection of masculinity, queerness, and disability in Serlin was an interesting topic, but I ended up wishing the perspective had been flipped to engage more directly with individuals’ relationship with their sexuality, disability, and prosthetic devices. (Our recent ethnography-heavy reading has me interested in personal narrative, I guess. And Erin has a very good point about the lack of women, in a survey of the topic that stretches into the twenty-first century.) My attention was caught by Lev Manovich’s discussions of experiments in which thinking about rotating an object took as much time as physical rotation (213). For all that our brains can become rewired, based on recurrent practice and changing circumstances, we are still very much meat and tied to the real world. The book made me think of Accelerando, particularly the third chapter, which explores the pitfalls of a prosthetic memory that can be separated from the owner. My SF reading, which isn’t particularly heavy on the transhumanism, is sufficient to make me giggle at Manovich’s question: “Is it possible that much twenty-century science fiction was not about the future but simply an accurate description of contemporary military research?” (215-6). “Not about the future,” sure, because fiction tends to be about the present (wittingly or not). But no, I am reasonably confident that a lot of twentieth-century SF is not reflective of what’s going on in Secret Government Labs. Cool stuff gets used and it’s tough to keep secrets at the intersection of cyber- and meatspace. (Insert your own Petraeusgate joke here.)

The implications for the crazy quilt are primarily those of prosthetic memory. The comparative lack of linguistic components make the quilt difficult to decode by anyone except the maker (and acquaintances who may have been given explanations of symbolic importance of various components). To a certain extent, the quilt is encrypted, intended for public consumption only to a limited degree. The significance of “L” and “1887” and the particular embroidered designs are something which can now only be the subject of speculation. Even more obscure is the reason why each scrap of fabric was chosen. Were they simply purchased as scrap bundles, intended for incorporation into a quilt or other project? Or were they individually cut from existing garments, imbued (for a select audience) with the memory of their earlier incarnation? The quilt has survived much longer than its creator, or other individuals who might have been able to shed light on these questions, and will likely persist well into the future. But as a memory prosthesis, it suffers from bit rot.

Weekly readings: objects as codes

In the discussion of blue jeans as post-semiotic (or post-semiotic with an asterisk), I was reminded of the exchange between soon-to-be-Chief-Justice Roberts and Senator Schumer during Roberts’s confirmation hearing:

It’s as if I asked you: What kind of movies do you like? Tell me two or three good movies. And you say, “I like movies with good acting. I like movies with good directing. I like movies with good cinematography.”

And I ask you, “No, give me an example of a good movie.” You don’t name one. I say, “Give me an example of a bad movie.”

You won’t name one. Then I ask you if you like Casablanca, and you respond by saying, “Lots of people like Casablanca.”

You tell me it’s widely settled that Casablanca is one of the great movies.

For that matter, Roberts’s answers—Doctor Zhivago and North by Northwest—fit pretty neatly into the post-semiotic bin, too. This is apropos of I’m not quite sure what…some sort of convergence between the linguistic and the material, a complication of exactly what is signified by signifiers. (I feel like there must be a body of work that puts its fingers on exactly the point I’m thinking around, but my exposure to meaty semiotics is pretty shallow.) Language is muddier than “Clothing as Language” allows, and maybe part of this is because we’re always talking about things, whether they’re physical objects like blue jeans or media like Casablanca.* Of course, if they’re “ordinary” things (in the affirmative sense of the word used by Miller and Woodward) then I suppose it follows that language is less specific because there are more implicit assumptions. (Anybody can quote—or misquote—Casablanca, and they all know what jeans look like. If you want to converse about, oh, Primer or S-curve corsets, there’s less likely to be a common frame of reference, and more explicit language required to communicate. So maybe post-semiotic is lack of infodumps?)

How does this relate to the quilt? The connection to blue jeans is tenuous; the mere fact that the quilt is constructed of what used to be apparel fabric has little implication for its use. The quilt wasn’t worn, wasn’t used to mediate social relationships and public interactions in the same way as a garment. But it was seen, it did play a role as a decorative object. More importantly, perhaps, is the period of its construction. Miller and Woodward point out that one’s relationship with blue jeans is not restricted to periods of wearing (or even ownership). The process of selection is vitally important to the psychological and wardrobe position of blue jeans; similarly, the process of quilt creation cannot be ignored. For a long time (I’m guessing at least five years) quilt production served as a marker of middle class respectability and femininity. For Margaret Heims, working on the quilt might have been the equivalent of slipping into blue jeans at the end of the day. Neither action necessarily denotes leisure, but does imply a familiar and comfortable routine, unremarkable but not at all impersonal.


* So ubiquitous that Ford Prefect got along perfectly well without ever watching it, even though he later regretted it. Until I was well into my twenties, I never actually got around to watching It’s a Wonderful Life, precisely because of its ubiquity during the ever-expanding Christmas season. I still haven’t watched Miracle on 64th Street, but Connie Willis’s “Miracle” remains perfectly explicable.

Weekly readings: objects as commodities

These readings sat down and had a conversation with prior readings. Or perhaps not a conversation: as McCracken points out, language, codes, and communication are not entirely synonymous.

I found a lot to like in Grant McCracken’s “Clothing as Language.” Generally speaking, I approve of reflexivity, and if the “language of clothing” has become a rote phrase, then it deserves to be rigorously examined before being utilized in scholarship. I think it is good to avoid too much reliance upon metaphors and similes: they can be powerful means of expressing concepts, but can easily become crutches. Metaphor as a means to study contrasts as well as comparisons (68) seems like a fruitful approach. (If there is meaning in what the girl was given and ate in the dark, then isn’t there also meaning in what she didn’t eat?)

There were also some problematic bits, minimally requiring expansion (and maybe that’s there; we only read one chapter). One valuable point (69) was the way in which clothing is “read” differently by different groups; McCracken cites age groups and classes, and Stallybrass notes a specific example of the class-based meaning assigned to clothing in the example of Fergus O’Connor’s fustian (193-4). But I can’t help thinking that this particular point is a bit of a double-edged sword when wielded in support of the differences between clothing and language. Language isn’t read the same; encoded meanings shift wildly depending on context, time period, age, class, race, etc., etc. Nor am I convinced that language—spoken or written—is invariably read as closely as McCracken describes (65). A host of other cues (body language, tone, capitalization, letter shape, paragraph structure) impact the way in which we process words. I wonder if McCracken’s privileging text unreasonably.

Peter Stallybrass’s discussion of gender in “Marx’s Coat” resonated with aspects of The Age of Homespun. Ulrich devoted much space (particularly chapter three) to the question of movables: the textiles and furniture that were women’s material inheritance. Stallybrass (198) presents the actual practice of pawning as a woman’s domestic duty, part of the management of household funds or (quoting Ellen Ross) “a stage of meal production.” Did this, perhaps, influence the impulse to assign pawnbrokers family monikers? (195) Women were not, in that case, operating quite so far in the public sphere.

Regarding the crazy quilt, gender is an issue I am thinking about, as is class. I don’t know who created the quilt or its full history. I am cobbling together an imagined (but hopefully plausible) history, in which it was made by the donor’s mother in a middle class household, passed on to a daughter who was professionally unconventionally and married into a higher tax bracket, and then given to a university rather than another family member. The interplay of gender with public and private spheres is part of that story, as is the means by which such relationships are expressed. A woman who listed no employment on the 1900 census had become the proprietor of a boarding house in 1910. It is unlikely that the type of work she performed changed very much (caring for four children, a husband, a niece, and two boarders in 1900, versus a household consisting of her sister, two daughters, and three lodgers in 1910, probably still necessitated a lot of cleaning and cooking) but the language used to describe that work changed significantly.

Conversations and marginalia

By happy coincidence, this week’s readings for Material Culture and Methods lined up nicely. Chunks of Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History focused upon times, places, and classes Perrot examined in Fashioning the Bourgeoisie. Some of the points Scott raised in her fifth chapter about the significance of space (e.g. the manner in which tailors’ assertion of their professional identity hinged upon performing work in workshops, not the home) is as readily applicable to discussions of material culture as gender or labor.

I snagged Haverford’s copy of Scott. There’s a handwritten note on the pocket: “copiously underlined (1st 95 pp) pre 3/15/95.” The description is accurate. I’ve been encountering a lot of library books with underlines and notes—That Noble Dream had more than its fair share, and Silencing the Past is not unmarred—and I’m wondering if it’s just chance, or that I’m paying more attention, or that it’s more likely in denser texts. The note implies that Gender and the Politics of History was in circulation when it was defaced, but perhaps some of the other scrawls happened before the books made their way into their respective collections. I’d prefer to think that they came in as second-hand replacements. (This is not to say that my record with library books is pristine. A clumsy dog and a cooler half full of melted ice were unkind to Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, and just the other week I bought Homemade Love from the public library after The Daughter decided, for the first time in a long while, that tearing pages would be fun, and of course targeted the one library book within reach. But still, I try to do no intentional harm.)

I confess I find the Scott marginalia amusing; it reveals the anonymous writer’s disagreement, lack of comprehension, or simple snarkiness, and feels so very much like the work of an undergraduate (specifically, a smart undergraduate who’s been informed of his or her intelligence on numerous occasions; one whose high school education inexplicably lacked meaty theoretical tomes; and who might have absorbed just a bit more misogyny than he or she expected/realized). It also reinforces that I’m better on the archives side of things than the library, I think, because while I see a defaced book I also see a delightful and unique object.

“But the operations of meaning remain remarkably unproblematic in their usages and as a result, “language” loses its theoretical interest and its analytic force.” (54) The entire section is bears a question mark and the legend “B.S. or what?” “Operations of meaning” is circled; the “and” is crossed out and the subsequent “a” capitalized.

“My purpose in this essay” (55) gets an “about time” note, and the entire paragraph is deemed worthy of both a question mark and star, as well as a designation of “BS vocab.” (The essay, “On Language, Gender, and Working-Class History,” begins on page 53, and the first line is “This essay is an attempt to address a problem that seems to me increasingly evident and stubbornly resistant to easy solution.” Scott is not shy about metadiscourse; one wonders if an impatient undergraduate wished for fewer signposts, or felt that they were inadequate to the task.)

“The theoretical claim of “Rethinking Chartism” (one I agree with) is that the backgrounds, interests and structural positions of members of the movement cannot explain its emergence or decline.” (56) This gets a “huh?”

“Hence class is not a thing whose existence pre-determines or is reflected in class consciousness…” (56) Wins “the fuck?”

“Stedman Jones stops short of opening up a reconceptualization of Chartist history because he treats “language” simply as a vehicle for communicating ideas rather than as a system of meaning or a process of signification.” (59) “? WHAT THE HELL ?”

“Still, it seems worthwhile to suggest with the material he offers what a somewhat different conceptual approach to “languages of class” might have offered.” (61) Our little concern troll snarks “like she has a lot of free time on her hands?”

“…some examples of gender coding in Western culture since the Enlightenment.” (63) Earns the helpful suggestion “Grab a brain Joan!”

Weekly readings: toward a history of fashion

Fashioning the Bourgeoisie prompted me to examine some of my own theoretical assumptions about studying fashion. By default, I think of fashion in terms of gender and class, so initially I found Perrot a bit jarring. My notes for the first twenty or thirty pages are questions about why Perrot just left a quote equating fashion with undesired feminized traits sitting unexamined, why he talked about the sexualization of the female body but not the male, why women were not portrayed as actors. But then it dawned on me that I was looking at the issue differently. Perrot was not simply discounting the agency of women, he was discounting the agency of men as well.

Objects, and larger societal trends, are the actors in his story.* Despite this being a Material Culture seminar, despite object analysis, despite semiotics discussions, I still found Perrot’s approach a little disconcerting. As social history, it’s a very bloodless book…but it’s not a social history, and my preconceptions that fashion=social=women when it comes to historical subjects probably a) reveals something problematic about the way in which historical inquiry is shaped and b) reveals something problematic about limitations in my personal approach.

When researching the crazy quilt, I found it quite easy to revert to the “Who is this woman?” approach, in the hopes that it would reveal other women. And it has, and that’s useful, and I need to dig backward farther, but that’s not the whole story, or the only story. I also need to bring the object back to the foreground, I think. My initial secondary research was about general quilting trends. It was great background material, but I may be making a mistake thinking of it in terms of “background.” True, nothing I’ve read speaks to this quilt specifically. But Perrot’s book is an example of how to examine objects in such a way that generalization doesn’t matter, in fact becomes a feature rather than a bug.

Such an approach has limited application to the exhibit project. No matter how deeply we delve into the context of the objects’ use and creation, an exhibit still fundamentally showcases the specific stuff on display. But I think it’s still a useful exercise to divorce some of my research from the specific. More broadly, I think shifting focus over the course of the project—vacillating between general and specific, rather than simply progressing in one direction—is both practically and theoretically sound. Prown discussed the nonlinearity of object analysis. I like the approach both because human thought isn’t necessarily neat and will wend in unexpected directions, and also because it specifically undermines conceptions of linearity and progress, providing a useful bit of disruption and encouragement to reflect.


* In contrast, human actors abound in Ribeiro. Her nineteenth century is populated by individuals actively choosing their dress, setting wider trends or creating representations of them. The approach is top-down—Perrot diverges right from the title page—but the attention to human agency is the thing I find more notable than issues of class. Which is perhaps illogical, knowing the way less privileged classes (to say nothing of individuals) end up represented (or not) in sources and historical inquiry.

More on “Forecasting the Future of History Museums”

Curiosity rover self-portrait

Curiosity rover self-portrait (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)

Durel’s #1 is very mercenary (and yeah, the positive children’s museum and STEM examples serve as evidence that mercenary need not equal icky results) and I worry a bit about the overall message of needing a mission statement. It’s a very corporate thing, a step down the slippery slope of monetizing everything.

I’m uncomfortable with that in general, and worry especially in fields that impinge on academic and artistic. History’s more obviously useful than, say, close readings of seventeenth century poetry…but “useful” is not necessarily obvious, nor should it be the only gauge of value. I like the idea of, say, humanity spreading outside of the solar system, and if I wanted to rationalize such an expensive undertaking I guess I’d cite the environmental concerns expressed by characters in Cyteen and Babylon 5, because really, what is more “useful” than survival of the species? But honestly, when I see pictures of the surface of Mars I’m not thinking in terms of a foothold in an alternate (but rather unfriendly) biosphere. I’m thinking that we ought to go to Mars just because. I’m aware that “just because” is a slippery rationale, and can lead to courses of action that can be deemed deeply problematic (or worse).

But still. I want humans to go to Mars just because. I want to tell the stories of dead people just because. I want somebody to own every word Donne wrote just because.

Durel’s #1 ties into #8, the increasing “Business Thinking” of public history professionals. Given my general impulse to laud interdisciplinary efforts, it feels a tad hypocritical to automatically discount any possible benefits to learning from CEOs. (Yeah, “business” is a fake discipline that was invented in the nineteenth century, the bastard child of modern industrial society and a scramble for wealth and prestige. For all my side-eyeing of MBA programs, I can’t help noticing that Ranke was writing at about the same time.) But aren’t public historians also professionals (and often educators)? What does it say that Durel phrases this as a one-way flow of ideas?

Weekly readings: exhibiting things

I remain a fan of Yellis’s contention that the process of exhibit creation is something that is worthy of incorporation into an exhibit…somehow.* The fact that our other classwork (not just the deliverables of modest scope and word count) is potentially being mined for interesting content leaves me hopeful that some sort of supplementary material might be made available in the Drexel exhibit.

Serrell’s chapters contain the most directly useful information for developing captions for the quilt. It’s all about brevity, but also dynamism and a healthy dose of Prownian analysis: visitors are there, experiencing a thing (that is what museums are all about, after all; it’s what they do, at the price of lengthy textual arguments, that a monograph cannot) so it makes sense to talk about that thing.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I hadn’t really been thinking about the caption in this sense. (And, since the quilt is not “lacking visual interest,” as are some of the objects that concern Kirshenblatt-Gimblet, I hadn’t even thought about justifying the quilt’s inclusion in the exhibit, except to explain its former life as, and connection to, garments.) I’d considered the possibility of a descriptive label, a dry rendition of materials and dates and whatnot, but that seemed more appropriate to a context of art rather than history. I think this was partially driven by a desire to cut words, the assumption that visitors will be able to see the quilt for themselves and have their own emotional and sensory response. But now I am thinking of ways in which I can weave object description into that tiny block of text, and hopefully increase its impact.

I noticed that a number of Serrell’s points (and to a lesser extent Parman, in her discussion of text and background colors) echoed web usability advice. I’m thinking primarily of Jakob Nielsen’s eyetracking studies, including points about big blocks of text, “above the fold” information, and reading patterns. I have internalized Nielsen as “generally good design advice,” so anything that agrees strikes me as a reasonable proposition.

I am curious about the methodology involved in Serrell’s recommendations. What sort of studies have museums performed? To what extent do they rely on the work in other fields? (I recall seeing some report many, many moons ago that the sunburst “o” in the Dole label resulted from customer eyetracking studies.) And what are the mission creep implications if museums start listening to marketers or website designers? Normally I’d be all for cross-training, benefitting from the expertise of folks in other fields—and the marketing dollars a Dole is willing to drop—but items #1 and #8 in Durel’s piece leave me somewhat (over?)sensitized to the corporatization of public history.


* On the archival front, Heather MacNeil makes a similar argument in favor of colophons, which I also think is a good idea but not necessarily straightforward in implementation.

I think this is a case where the ableist part of that assumption is not particularly problematic from the perspective of caption development, because fifty words is simply not enough to adequately describe any of these objects to a person who is visually impaired (and other senses will not be particularly relevant in the exhibit context). But it does raise the question of when it’s appropriate to provide additional accessibility options and what form they might take. Audio recordings of lengthy object descriptions, plus the text of the captions? A guide reading similar material from a script? Practical factors, like budget and available equipment and staff, obviously play a significant role in answering those sorts of questions.

Weekly readings: the social life of things

Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun concentrates upon female space, labor, and relationships. Przybysz’s “Quilts, Old Kitchens, and the Social Geography of Nineteenth Century Sanitary Fairs” follows suit, albeit in a manner more narrow and reliant upon literature (specifically Stowe). In Upton’s “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia” and Weyeneth’s “Architecture of Racial Segregation,” race is the all-important overlay.

But there is some sense in which stuff can mainly speak to class.* Class is a social construct, but even when a high degree of correlation is dictated, there are ways in which it feels like the class of the hands which made and used a thing is somehow closer to that thing than the race or gender identity of those hands. It’s complicated, obviously, because it’s not just the hands, it’s also the mind. (Thank you, unknown West African architects; I am quite fond of my front porch.) And everything is interconnected. Weyeneth’s discussion of segregated schools (14) reminded me of an article† that drew a straight line from desegregation to single sex schools: an inferior education was a small price to pay for keeping white girls away from scary black boys. So maybe, if I were to develop a hierarchy or linear process, placing stuff at the center—okay, I guess it’s radial, which seems moderately more palatable anyway—I’d put class as the next ring. Then race, sex, and a host of other aspects of personal identity and social roles: the things that shape the brain that controls the hands.‡

How does this affect my approach to the crazy quilt? I think the answer is “subtly.” I have been thinking of the quilt primarily in terms of gender: a thing created by a woman, in a woman’s space. I have not discounted the class issues, but have been thinking of the quilt primarily as fancywork: a decorative task that could be comfortably accomplished on a variety of budgets. Even if my finished products (the final paper and exhibit label) focus on gender (which is quite possible), I need to make sure my consideration of class is not an afterthought. The method of obtaining materials—purchasing scraps, repurposing clothing, investing time or upwards of $6 on pre-embroidered patches§—is fundamental to the creation of the quilt. Even if I can’t divine it with any degree of confidence, I can’t deprecate its importance.


* This is part of the reason I enjoyed reading Ames last week. It’s not that I am uninterested in race, gender, etc. But I guess I’m kind of Marxist at heart. (My heart is pretty good at avoiding inconvenient teleology when picking out stuff I like.)

† I can’t remember the citation at the moment, just that it was written by a female professor of history and/or law at Penn and posted online a few years ago.

‡ I have the sneaking suspicion that somebody—possibly more than one—has neatly articulated something I would read and go “Yes!” and quite possibly opened with the sort of “…nobody’s really talked about this…” line that recurred in the readings for object analysis methodology.

§ An option mentioned in Penny McMorris’s book. If my quilter took advantage of such products, my offhand statement that the quilt’s value was equal to labor, with materials an incidental consideration, would require serious revision. There are a lot of embroidered flowers on the quilt.