Cowboys and vampires

Warren’s “Buffalo Bill Meets Dracula” is among this week’s articles. Gothic art imitates life, Victorian context abounds, etc. Familiar with the “Dracula is about sex” refrain, I was interested to read the “Dracula is about race” interpretation…though more than once it did cross my mind that Dracula is “about a guy who lives forever by drinking other people’s blood.”

Advertisements

Weekly readings: finding a home for difficult pasts

Historical leapfrog is among the themes of this week’s readings. Writing history—whether it’s academic scholarship, family stories, interpretation or preservation of historic sites—involves making choices. You can’t keep everything when crafting a narrative.

Architectural censorship, as explored in an exhibition by Rem Koolhaas and Shohei Shigematsu, is not merely a matter of aesthetics, but a means to displace undesirable populations in increasingly gentrified urban landscapes. It can also function, particularly in the context of interpreted sites, as a means of erasing particular eras and populations.

Because of the focus upon a particular time period, many Lowell stories go untold. The labor narrative of the Yankee mill girls is ignored in favor of the labor narrative of later nineteenth-century immigrants; more recent immigrant communities sit uncertainly and uncelebrated in a narrative of ongoing progress and assimilation; contemporary issues of globalization, and potentially uncomfortable discussions about visitors’ participation, are referenced obliquely, if at all.

The title of the book edited by James Oliver and Lois E. Horton is Slavery and Public History: race is often too painful and complicated a discussion to have, so talking about slavery can be a more palatable surrogate. Or not so palatable, given the conflicted and conflicting reactions of African Americans, attempts to frame the Confederacy as benignly racist states righters, and institutional unease about legal, financial, and public relations backlash. It’s hard enough to talk about slavery as an actual historical subject*; trying to talk around race by talking about slavery makes for a rather muddled conversation.

You can’t keep everything. You can’t talk about everything. But when there are obvious and persistent gaps in the things you choose to keep and talk about, then there’s a problem.


* Melish’s discussion of academics’ disagreement about the significance of the slave trade in John Brown’s life is a good example.

Means and ends

Yesterday I read Nash’s “For Whom Will the Bell Toll?” and was, naturally, cheering for the upstart historians and their supporters in the media and community. Hooray for rabble-rousing! Down with the problematic historical interpretations of big institutions!

This is, of course, the opposite reaction I had to Linenthal’s recounting of the Enola Gay controversy, in which upstart historians and their supporters in the media and community derailed the historical interpretation of a big institution.

The observation amused me, and serves as a valuable reminder. Process does matter; it is something to consider and critique. But it’s not the only factor that influences my reaction to controversy.

It’s not just that I think Chicago Style is more readable

In “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country,” Terry Cook references Brien Brothman’s assertion that the marginalization of archival sources, and archivists, in historical writing manifests in the use of footnotes and endnotes.

I can appreciate the metaphor, shunting the archival material into the ghetto of the book, creating intellectual and visual distance between it and the substance of the historian’s argument. But I think its value is mostly as metaphor.*

I’d become rather comfortable, in an organic and non-reflexive way, with the concept of history as a humanistic discipline, more than a social science; this has recently been followed up by encounters with explicitly humanistic works and Gaddis’s historian-as-natural-scientist musings. Plus, I’ve always found APA in-line citation clunky. So on grounds fuzzily philosophical and aesthetic, an anti-footnote argument rubs me the wrong way.

More practically, I think it’s a flawed argument. Notes are often more substantial than mere citations. It’s true that a page-long discussion of a scholarly dispute, if included in a note, falls outside the main text and is easier for the reader to ignore. But a well-structured book needs to limit tangents—otherwise, the author risks derailing the main arguments. In this respect, foot- and endnotes aren’t the marginalization of important information; they’re space for the inclusion of material that is interesting, situates the author in current scholarship, provides context for the sources: in short, material that may be important, but not necessarily directly relevant to the main argument.

Discussing archival issues in front- and back-matter is also potentially useful. (Not too terribly useful, admittedly, if the discussion is little more than namechecking helpful archivists. But my point is about positioning, not content.) What better place to explore issues pertinent across many of your sources?

Notes and front- and back-matter are, IMHO, exactly the right place to discuss archival sources and issues. The questions of why authors do not take advantage of these spaces to examine matters that can significantly impact their work, and how they might be encouraged to do so, are, I think, separate issues.


* That is, unless the goal is to reframe all historical writing as explicitly about archives, or reimagine the structure of books. There’s a happy medium between those radical responses and a self-conscious, nuanced consideration of how archival sources impact one’s argument.

As opposed to “rather than”: I tend to find such distinctions more valuable as adjectives than pigeonholes, and I’m generally a fan of saying “it’s a continuum” as a way of talking about subjects that have often been reduced to artificial binaries.

It’s also a point of Brothman’s, but perhaps not the only one; I’ve not read his piece, just Cook’s summary.

Lowell and Othering (or not)

Upon reading the first chapter’s meditations upon anthropology, and the difficulty in turning analytical tools upon non-exotics belonging to one’s own tribe (howsoever that may be defined), I began to wonder if that’s part of the reason I find it more comfortable dealing with those who are safely dead. I am socially conditioned* for tact—at any rate, I am socially conditioned to consider it a good thing, and tactlessness (in myself or others) registers as a failure or outright rudeness—and so I can appreciate the desire to simply not talk about certain things, like the private lives of colleagues. I can see the virtue in such decisions, even as I appreciate the problematic aspects.

But if the people one studies are safely dead, they can hardly take offense at what one says about them. Aspects of a living colleague’s private life, perhaps relevant to understanding something about his or her professional endeavors, are things that one might hope said colleague would reveal, putting the cards on the table as it were, so potential biases, blind spots, and interesting perspectives might be more efficiently assessed. (Never mind, for the moment, the problem of honest self-assessment, where fuzzy and subjective are the best possible outcomes.) But if they’re dead—safely dead, beyond living memory dead—then you’re almost performing a service, doing the psychoanalysis they would perhaps do, alive and subscribing to current theories of What Is Important™ about private lives. And even if you remove the aspirational public service aspect, you’re still beyond the statute of limitations for tact.


* In my case, I think it’s a triangulation of the expectations of “good girls” (meek, polite, deferential, confrontation-averse), perceived and actual ineffectiveness in combative situations (that not liking to work without a net thing), and a weird sort of class consciousness (informed most strongly, I think, by working class Liverpudlians via a subset of grandparents, all of whom added a distinct English/Welsh/expat flavor to my upbringing).

Which is, admittedly, a somewhat odd thing to write on a blog that can be read by anyone in the world.

Weekly readings: preservation and national memory

The permanence of objects is a common theme in this week’s readings. Glassberg, primarily concerned with issues historiographical and professional, notes the central importance of stuff (everything from war memorials to archives). In a violation of sociological semantics, Mires describes how Independence Hall transmits a zombified collective memory after the death of the participants. Doss discusses how (shades of Hurley) local ordinances drove the creation of public art, professionalizing public artists in the 1980s and spurring the creation of memorials; this was not merely a case wherein the existence of objects affected the creation of memory, but the creation of the objects themselves was especially conscious and non-spontaneous. In “The Conundrum of Ephemerality,” Crane* points out how museums interfere with the normal process of memory (e.g. forgetting). The writing of history (academic or otherwise) depends upon those artifacts, regardless of the context of their original creation; thus they both enable and distort the process of remembering. While the objects may be permanent, the significance assigned to them can change, adding a further layer of complication to teasing out what went on in the mind of past actors (to say nothing of those in the future, a presumed audience for consciously-created memory transmission devices).


* Voiced in my head by Angela Bassett, circa 1995.

“History” versus…whatever else you call it

I really enjoyed Gaddis’s The Landscape of History; it spoke to a number of issues I’d never properly articulated.* My general approval of that book informs my reaction to early bits in Memorial Mania, as well as The Presence of the Past.

Rosenzweig and Thelen were doing social science, no question: it was all about data, collecting it in a systematic manner. Analyzing the dataset was necessarily squishy, and there was certainly art (or at least craft) to the interview process, but the goal of compiling all the qualitative data was to boil it down into quantitative results. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I still really like the way they went about it, and I think it is worthwhile to undertake such studies in the future…but it is a very different thing from the sort of history Gaddis discusses, and his book provides fodder for an alternate (or additional) reading of the rise of public history in the 1970s. Left-leaning, socially-conscious practitioners who wanted to make a difference, in a contracting academic job market…in a Cold War environment where the impact of Science and Math (especially the hard stuff) were privileged, and the temptation to retrofit fields abounded…. It doesn’t contradict the somewhat celebratory (if self-reflexive) narrative I’ve encountered several times this semester, but it does complicate it.

When Rosenzweig and Thelen eschewed the word “history” in favor of alternatives (if not synonyms) like “the past,” they uncovered their respondents’ active engagement. Doss puts it more bluntly, citing the postmodernists’ “perception of history’s repugnance” as a reason for the boom in “memory studies.” It makes me a little uneasy. I am very used to the idea that one criticizes things, even (or especially) if they are worthwhile. Renaming a thing can be useful, can describe it more precisely…or it can be outright Orwellian. Catering to one’s audience can also be a very useful thing…unless it turns into pandering. And so the repackaging that seemed like a shrewd tactic in The Presence of the Past now reads more like an indicator of a troubling trend. “History” as a discipline is subject to trends, some works are crap or evil…but it’s been around a while, and IMHO the word itself is important, in part because of all the concepts that have accreted over the years. It’s weighted, nuanced, complicated…appropriately so. This is not to say that “memory” and “the past” are devoid of nuance; they’re just different. I like using them “in addition to” (or even “in opposition to”); but using them “instead of,” quietly shunting “history” aside because it’s somehow too hard, is a different situation entirely.


* E.g. anxieties about methodological choices, most specifically my reluctance to commit. I rather like what my former co-worker said about postmodernism: it’s a useful tool for generating questions, even if it’s less satisfactory at answering them. I had a little “Yes!” moment when he said that, and reading Gaddis was kind of like a rolling version of that conversation.

I suppose in a Gaddis-approved shuffle, the public historians (rather than trying to convince the other historians that they were doing history, too—emphasis on “doing”) would take their balls and databases and go hang out with the social scientists, the rest of the historians (rather than trying to argue their discipline’s rigor and relevance) would go hang out with the physicists, and I suppose the postmodernists would sit in a corner and critique everybody. And they’d all pretty much do what they’ve been doing; they just might change the departmental codes for their classes or their tables in the cafeteria.

I am sometimes accused of not liking movies for this reason. Not just the specific movie I’m talking about, but movies in general. Oddly enough, those friends don’t accuse me of not liking, say, the U.S., or Western democracies in general. I guess they’re just less touchy about criticism of politicians than screenwriters.

Breaking out Aristotle

Geoffrey Yeo, drawing on Aristotle in “Concept of Record (1),” delivers another reminder that exploring the discipline of philosophy might be fruitful.

“…it is increasingly recognized that in digital environments records cannot be seen merely as a subset of documents.” I was pondering why a document couldn’t be a subset of records. From a practical perspective, that would encompass cases where, say, some sort of snapshot of information in a database was created.

I need to ponder more, but perhaps one reason is related to the framing of copies as representations of records. I certainly think that’s a good way to think of them, and it makes it possible to both acknowledge their usefulness and concede their limitations (e.g. lossiness*)…but I would argue that they are, themselves, records. They are born of a particular context, they have their own provenance, they get their own metadata. No doubt their primary importance, in any practical sense, is as copies, but they do have an independent existence.

Having just read the article, as of this writing, I am still digesting. I think my adders are adders, not blow-apart-an-argument misunderstandings. Again, I need to ponder.


* Which I don’t believe is a word, but should be. It’s quite cromulent in its truthiness.

Sometimes good enough is, in fact, good enough

Fool’s Gold is an incredibly vexing book, in large part because I agree with the thesis that libraries (particularly academic and research libraries) are important, and their functionality not replaced by the web. But many of Herring’s arguments fall somewhere on the continuum between straw men and logical fallacies, and the tone (I hate to make tone arguments, but it just can’t be ignored) is completely over the top. It’s okay for the poster or an article, but is not effective at book length.

Continue reading

Making sense of philosophy in the specialist age

Scrolling Forward was one of our books in Archives a couple weeks ago. My reaction was generally positive, and I have a bunch of little starred notes in my notebook.* A chunk of class was more annoyed, particularly near the end. Chapter 10 is explicitly existential in nature, with much Becker and Loy and a dash of art history.

And here I encounter a bit of a personal conundrum. I’m unfamiliar with Becker and Loy. I know of Kierkegaard, but that’s about it. I never studied philosophy, formally or otherwise, so I feel myself unqualified to judge its deployment in the text. I feel more comfortable with other parts of the book: though I don’t count myself an expert§ in, say, nineteenth century industrialized society or twentieth century information technology or all corners of the web…I’m on more solid ground. I know the shape of things, I can independently think of points that support or counter statements Levy makes; I feel like I can, potentially, offer opinions that go beyond “blue is a nice color.”

It is, perhaps, a problem of specialization: if a field is so deep, how can an outsider usefully participate or evaluate? It’s also an issue of trust and authority. It’s a reasonable assumption that Levy’s read the authors he cited. But is he sufficiently expert in a field outside his obvious academic and professional experience? Making connections is a scholarly value-add. Interdisciplinary study is, IMHO, a good thing, and the trade off for breadth of vision is, necessarily, depth. So how do you peer review Specials?** In a book that is steeped in anxiety, this is one of mine.


* Starred notes are my thoughts, upon which I mean to follow up in either a blog post or paper. Brackets are my asides. Handwritten, mostly legible. Notebook illustrations—in ink and yellow crayon, thusfar—are by The Daughter and make me smile.

Employing vague shorthand because a) we don’t take class minutes, b) it wouldn’t be appropriate to reproduce them if we did and c) vague shorthand is perfectly adequate for my purposes.

I’m not proud of this. Nor am I especially broken up or insecure about it. So many books, so little time and all that.

§ More of a selectively well-informed generalist, perhaps.

** In several of Cherryh’s novels, Specials are a legally protected class of people with a specific set of skills, generally held to be unduplicable; Cyteen is about attempts at duplication.