“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.

On passivity (or not)

In their Introduction to The Presence of the Past, Rosenzweig and Thelen talked about the phrase “popular historymaking”: “Many of us [conference attendees] liked its implication that Americans take an active role in using and understanding the past—that they’re not just passive consumers of histories constructed by others.” That observation sent my brain off on a little tangent about the construction of “active” versus “passive” as it relates to consumerism.

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Weekly readings: the public trust

Linenthal chronicles the trainwreck that was the Enola Gay exhibit. Lacking scripts (to say nothing of the physicality of the exhibit as variously planned and ultimately executed) it’s challenging to form an independent opinion about any of the drafts. Instead, we are left to form opinions about the players; and in this account the exhibit opponents made for an unpleasant concoction of right wingers, anti-intellectuals, hawks, racists, and liars, whereas the people working on the exhibit were…just the people working on the exhibit, not particularly heroic or flawless, caught flatfooted by an organized media campaign.

Rosenzweig and Thelen document Americans’ actual relationship with history and their efforts at historymaking. Survey respondents had a relatively high degree of trust in museum exhibits and a willingness to interact with the material…suggesting that people in general would’ve been perfectly capable of viewing a complex and challenging presentation of Enola Gay material without their heads exploding. Growing distrust of celebratory national narratives might have contributed to the popularity of such an exhibit (and compounded its danger to its critics), as might the use of intimate artifacts and the personalization of the Enola Gay’s crew.

Yellis charts another path: creating exhibits that may be unconventional or uncomfortable, but talk about the process of creation. The public might not always find the sausage-making appealing, and the knowledge might shake trust in museums as objective presenters of historical facts, but such an approach might spur useful conversation that Rosenzweig and Thelen suggest Americans crave.


I found Appendix 1 a strong addition to The Presence of the Past.* In a work that reports the results of a survey, it’s important to see how the survey was conducted. I’m not in a position to evaluate the methodology (though it seems reasonable, to my untutored eye), but people with the relevant expertise in statistics, survey techniques, etc., could (and, given the longevity and stature of the book, presumably have done).

It’s especially important to include such information when working on the squishy end of the social sciences. Quantifying qualitative experiences and finding patterns in reams of transcripts has a subjective component; any enumeration of the procedures followed backstage serves as a reminder that there is, in fact, method. In a survey like this, the plural of anecdote is data. An explanation of how and why decisions were made—focusing on the Oglala Sioux as representative of the American Indian perspective, or abandoning plans to pursue an Asian American sample—provided insight not only into the results obtained, but the authors’ goals. They did not have the resources to do everything, but could explain the choices they made and outline the potential value (and cost) of the road not taken. The mention of 1994 events (e.g. Schindler’s List and Prop 187) which may have had some impact on the results was welcome, not simply because it provided additional transparency but because it (properly) rooted the survey in a specific moment in time.

I did enjoy the fact that the survey as performance/moment/artifact illustrated some of the themes discussed. The construction of the survey was unusually collaborative, with the interviewers offering feedback, taking an active role in the survey’s development and given a certain amount of freedom to stray from their script. This lead to more personalized interactions, precisely the sort of thing that most engaged the emotions and interest of popular historymakers.

* Always Read The Appendices is one of the Things I Learned From Dune, subsequently reinforced by The Lord of the Rings.

Artifacts and raw materials: a few thoughts on our changing relationship with photographs

Discussing their 1994 telephone survey, Rosenzweig and Thelen count “taking photographs to preserve memories” among a number of other “past-related ‘activities'” interviewees engaged in. That certainly seems a reasonable way to categorize photography…but I wonder if the meaning has changed somewhat.

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