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.