Mind the Gap


Saw some interesting graphs today, from Mother Jones. Courtesy of Boing Boing. One of the commenters said something about how all Americans need to see this stuff every year, and ask themselves why they're still letting this happen. Problem is, only the same small group of people like Mother Jones subscribers see the info every year. Somehow, the message has to get out a little farther. So, I'm doing my share and posting it here for the dozen people who might see it here who hadn't seen it already. Enjoy!


Storage and History

Normally, I don’t use the posts I write for THS on my own blogs. At some point, I will write a webpage/manual about research methods and primary sources, that will probably incorporate and expand on my primary source posts. But for the most part, I don’t recycle my material.

There are a couple of things I thought of, however, after sending the post on “Media and message” to Randall the other day. I might not have put them in the post even if I had thought of them earlier. THS isn’t the place to speculate too wildly, after all.

First of all, here’s the post:


Now. Taking up where I left off, with what this tremendous proliferation of information storage and transport capacity does to content...I think it will really help separate story from theory, and clarify the role of each in history.

Why do I say this? I’m looking at the little purple thumbdrive plugged into my USB port, blinking happily (it’s backing up). I can put all the writing I’m ever going to do on the topic of my dissertation, plus
all the research files, on this thing and carry it around in my pocket. But let’s get down to what that really is. Not only all the argument and narrative that ultimately becomes part of the dissertation or book, and the supporting evidence I choose to use. All of it. Ten thousand scanned pages or photos. Hundreds of pdfs of books (I’m using a lot of 19th century local histories, as well as newspapers, government documents, etc.), annotated. If I gave people access to it, they could trace my steps and look at what I found. They could examine the questions I asked, the sources I used, and follow my train of thought. Possibly more important, they could see the questions I didn’t ask, the sources I didn’t use, and where my train of thought may have taken questionable turns.

This type of full disclosure of the work process to outside scrutiny would be something new for many historians. It’s par for the course, if you’re a physical scientist. Your work needs to be replicable. But it would be new ground for historians, and it might not be a change all will welcome.

I think the ability to show our work might tend to make historical monographs more like scientific works -- but I’m not sure that’s the same as saying they’ll become more “objective.” Objectivity is a term a lot of
historians argue over, but I don’t think it’s really as central to what we do as people like Novick and Haskell suggest. I think it’s more of a convenient way into ideas they want to explore, but not the main point (which in both cases, I think has to do with professionalism and paradigms).

But in any case, I think there would be an opportunity to explore the elements that go into historical articles and monographs, and compare them with the elements of histories. If you have a particular historiographic point to make, you may need to make it more quickly and directly than before. And with more, and more widely sourced evidence. The terms and conditions of debate may change a whole lot.

On the other hand, we may find that histories don’t change that much. They’ll still be substantially made up of narratives. A story isn’t going to tell itself much faster, if it moves from print to digital media. If anything, the ability to branch and explore tangents or side-stories, or to circle around to backstories and detailed background and then rejoin the narrative, might actually lengthen the word-counts of our histories substantially, even if it doesn’t alter the narrative through-line. I think the ability to hypertext off into “bonus materials” is an exciting new development for historians, made possible by shifting to digital.

Some major changes will have to happen to the way archives “own” their materials, before researchers like me are able to publish all of our source documents, even to the web. But, setting aside issues of quality control, the movement seems to be inexorably toward making more info publicly available. I know several town historians and historical society people who are annoyed that their local history is available on Archive.org, because they’d like to sell them in the gift shop. I sympathize, but they’re swimming against the tide.

I’m looking forward to the research and writing process, as I put together this dissertation and book. It will be interesting to see, a year from now, what type of materials I’m able to put onto a companion website for the project. In the long run, I think these materials and supplementary sites could be as important as many of our histories. Especially if they invite readers to explore on their own, ask their own questions, and find their own answers.

Post-colonial rhizomes

One of the things that interests me about that rhizome idea that Heidi from Wales mentioned yesterday, is that it’s not really a theory. It’s a metaphor, for a counter-argument to traditional ideas of colonial hegemony. The traditional view is envisioned as a "tap-root," but as Bill Ashcroft says, this is an illusion caused by the way that "structures of power characterize themselves in terms of unities, hierarchies, binaries and centers." (Post-Colonial Transformation, 50) So the rhizome image suggests that at each of these nodes, there's an interaction. An agent of the empire, for example, is negotiating with locals. The imperial agent may have his own ideas about the empire's project. He may be completely on board, a little ambivalent, a closet rebel, or an opportunist looking out for his own interests. Likewise, the locals may be for or against the imperial project, or anything in between. The point of the metaphor is, the thing only looks like a "tap-root" from far away, or if you're not looking carefully. Or, if you're believing the propaganda.

This is interesting, and may be useful in what I'm doing. The thing that caught my attention right now, however, is how people use these organic metaphors: lawns of grass or stands of bamboo versus trees with tap-roots that suck up all of the water and nutrients, and crowd out other growth. There are all kinds of ways you can get creative with the biology and extend these metaphors for quite a distance.

But...Does this function as a theory of social interaction? Do we let the metaphors lead us into theorizing, or take the place of theorizing? How does that conceptualization process actually work? Is that consistent with some type of scientific method? And if so,
what type of scientific method? It doesn’t seem to me that it’s the way most historians would be comfortable working. It puts the theory just a little too much at the center.
But maybe that’s just me. It's still an interesting idea...

Thoughts while driving

I drove home this evening under a clear, cold sky. A sliver of crescent moon was chasing the sunset toward a western hill, to my left. The unlit lunar sphere, above the bowl-shaped crescent, was dimly visible by reflected earthlight. I should have stopped and taken a picture, but I wanted to get home. As I drove on, I had these thoughts about the day…

So I went to this job talk today. And this woman (Heidi Scott from Wales) presented the work she’s been doing. She’s from Cambridge (the one in England), and it was very well grounded in theory. Not only in historiography, but in anthropology and literary theory. She mentioned not only Foucault, but Deleuze and Gauttari (the rhizome theory), which was entirely appropriate for what she was talking about, but it got me thinking…

One of the things that I might try to say in a job talk (or at least, would have ready to say, in answer to a “well what about Foucault” type of question), is that while I appreciate theory, I think it’s part of my mission to talk about history in plain English. If I’m going to be teaching undergrads and writing for the general public, then I need to be able to render high theoretical concepts in language that people familiar with college level (which was once high-school level) English can understand. Because, let’s face it, the number of people who are going to be able and willing to decode neologisms and jargon borrowed from the French, is vanishingly small.

I do think that it’s part of the mission of people who want to teach undergraduates and write histories for the general public, to translate the best historical ideas available into plain language. Just as it’s the mission of people like Michio Kaku and Brian Greene to translate quantum physics and superstring theory into plain language and suitable metaphor. And I think this is really important.

I don’t think historical writing for the general public has to be empty of theory. I think the public likes a good, idea-driven (even
thesis-driven) story. If the idea is important, relevant, compelling. Books like this can sell well, and more to the point, they play an important role in our culture. Without them, the game goes by default to people peddling simplistic, pandering propaganda (you know who I’m talking about).

I need to be able to express this idea-rich, smart, analytically complex view of history in plain language. If I do it well, it will make sense to regular people. Certain academics may object, who are accustomed to hearing these ideas expressed in a certain type of vocabulary. But they think what Hemingway did in
The Old Man and the Sea was easy and trivial, too.

Anyone who is even a little prone to talking to themselves should try this. Get a digital recorder. Turn the music off, on your drive home, and start talking about the day. What about that job talk you listened to? What about the sections you led? The class you attended? The book you read? After a while, ideas start to flow really easily. Some of them will turn out to be good ones.

Don’t forget to transcribe them someplace, so you can find them when you need them.