Stuff in Boston

There’s a post up at History@Work about the Boston Marathon bombing memorial. It’s written by Matthew Barlow, who’s very interested in space, which IMHO is a good perspective from which to approach such a subject. Memorial Mania came to mind, not simply because this memorial is exactly the sort of thing Doss would’ve included, but because observations about the intensely digital and personalized mediation of events arise in the case of this memorial.* The impact of, say, TV broadcasts has been hashed over for a few decades now; everybody recording, texting, and tweeting is a comparatively fresh phenomenon, and there is a real difference (albeit not a sea change) between 2010 and 2013.

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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.