Lying down with the dogs

“Because the individual, narrowly restricted by his senses and power of concentration, never perceives more than a tiny patch of the vast tapestry of events, deeds, and words which form the destinies of a group, and because, moreover, he possesses an immediate awareness of only his own mental state, all knowledge of mankind, to whatever time it applies, will always derive a large part of its evidence from others. In this respect, the student of the present is scarcely any better off than the historian of the past” (Fudge, 16).

Like the other readings throughout this course, the reading for this week was thought provoking and added to my understanding of the ever-growing (and much broader than I was previous aware) field of history. Once more, I went through the increasingly familiar process of reading through new material, reflecting, and wondering why I had never considered these perspectives before. However, I feel as though the shock that came with that process at the beginning of the semester has now subsided, to be replaced by comprehension of how the new material fits into the dialogue that we’ve had in our discussions up to this point.

The discussion of agency is one that I was introduced to Sophomore Year of college, while studying the history of the African Diaspora. However, it wasn’t until taking Environmental History later that same year that I began to consider different types of agency, and the different actors that display it. In terms of the environment, these actors can include trees falling in the forest, diseases wiping out native populations, natural disasters that destroy the lowcountry coast, etc. Suffice to say that these actors cannot demonstrate the same type of agency that humans might—deliberating and deciding on a course of action or considering the consequences of those actions. Yet, these nonhuman actors have, in a variety of ways, transformed the course of history.

The most significant takeaway from the readings was the suggestion that actors do not always act individually and that agency does not require rational thought. As Chris Pearson described in his “Dogs, History, and Agency,” there are multiple kinds of agency, of which, the reason-based intentionality displayed by humans is only one (Pearson, 133). In order to allow nonhumans to become active actors in history, historians have to reconsider the qualifications and definition by which they determine and understand agency. In the case of the World War I, dogs provided services such as delivering messages, tracking down and identifying wounded soldiers, and providing emotional support. Though reason-based, human agents may have determined their role in the war, dogs reciprocated action. Without considering the actions of these dogs, much of the history of the Western Front during the First World War could be misunderstood, or even lost. However, by remolding traditional limitations and understandings of agency, the realm of actors with agency in the ongoing narrative of history is blown open.

These readings fit in perfectly with all of the previous readings that we have done for this course thus far, supplementing the theme of an ever-evolving discipline. Just as the field of history has transformed to accommodate new or missing information or practices, my understanding of the discipline has followed suit. If the most current efforts within history are to reconsider the role of nonhuman agents, I feel fully confident that the field can and will accommodate them. On a final note, I was very intrigued by the anecdote about Temple Grandin in Fudge’s “Milking Other Men’s Beasts.” Perhaps those most qualified to understand what role or thought processes that nonhuman entities posses are not those whom, traditionally, have been considered historians. This speaks to the recommendation by Smail in our previous readings that we must be willing to look outside of the discipline or outside of our definition of who is “qualified” to help piece together the historical narrative. I am becoming increasingly convinced that this is the best way to overcome many of the obstacles that the field faces.

Deep Thinking on Deep History

“By adding deep historical perspectives to the critical impulses of postcolonial historiography, perhaps we can decisively break free of the self-justifying myopia that is the hallmark of modern historical consciousness. As the “pre” and modern fall away, the potential for speaking new languages of past and present will flourish in their place” (Smail and Andrew, 737).

Prior to beginning the reading for this week, I had resigned myself to the fact that it would most likely be fairly dry and tough to muddle through. Much to my surprise, I was fully engaged when reading On Deep History and the Brain. Though there were intense sections of psychology and physiology that I did not fully comprehend, I came away from the book with a better sense of the field of history, its limitations, and its potential, as I have with most of the readings for this semester. Though Smail’s work offered numerous takeaways, I believe the one that struck me most was his explanation of why historians work the way they do and what opportunities are available if the discipline were to open itself up to other disciplines and knowledge, as well as new methods of doing history.

In Chapter 2, the author discussed why historians have held so tightly to written documents in the past, and why some are still reluctant to loosen the grip. This was particularly striking to me because, as we’ve discussed in class, we historians like having evidence. The more evidence available, the more factual or legitimate we deem the source or event. However, as often as I have spoken of or defended ample evidence, I had never realized how often the evidence I was referring to was written documents. On some subconscious level, I have always considered these documents or records to be the pinnacle of evidence in the field of history. Yet, as this book explained, limiting history to that which has been recorded results in a very short chronology. Initially, historians considered the civilizations or peoples that had written documents to be those that had a history. Certainly, this frame of study excludes not only those peoples who did not have written records, but also anything that occurred prior to written work. In the twentieth century, there was a shift toward a focus on social history, in which the cultures and societies that had been overlooked or not adequately historicized were included in the conversation. However, there still seems to be a gap between the Postlithic and Paleolithic, and much of that gap can be attributed to a lack of written evidence. Smail suggests that only by considering the work and knowledge of other disciplines and recognizing written documents as one form of trace, will historians be able to weave together a narrative that includes deep or prehistory.

Though the lessons from this week’s readings seem logical during reflection, most of the main points had never occurred to me before. As a fledgling historian, I have prided myself in being able to discuss how things came to be with other historians or people who might not have any historical background. However, when understanding of the past begins at an arbitrary date or “turning point” in the historical past, a large section of the narrative is lost. In order to fully grasp the way civilizations form, or why humans in different cultures act or structure themselves in certain ways, the deep history has to be considered. To achieve this deeper understanding, Smail suggests, “For this to succeed, historians will have to become more scientifically literate, and biologists and physiologists, many of whom have ceased to be historically minded, will have to learn to think again with history” (73). I agree that deep history cannot be understood without knowledge of other disciplines, but I wonder how exactly this knowledge will be gained. Will more classes in science or other disciplines be required to gain degrees in history? Or will previously existing curriculums in history be modified to include prehistory? I wonder what the impact of Smail’s assessment has been, and am interested to see what comes of this call for deeper understanding of deep history.

A Question of Gender

This week’s readings by Joan Scott (and the essays that reflect on her work) were truly compelling and I once more completed the readings with a new or complicated understanding of a concept that I already thought I had mastered. I have always considered “gender” as a term reflecting “sex roles”. According to Scott, this has not at all been uncommon in the history of the term’s usage. However, what “Gender as a Useful Category of Historical Analysis” suggests is that the term “gender” needs to be understood as “a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes,” and, “a primary way of signifying relationships of power” (Gender, 1067). When jotting down this definition initially, I don’t think I was really grasping what Scott was trying to convey, and so I took the first half of the sentence to reaffirm my belief that gender was based on sex roles and the differences that establish them. It wasn’t until I read the following paragraph of her “Unanswered Questions” that I reconsidered this assumption:

Gender is the study of the relationship between the normative and the psychic, the attempt at once to collectivize fantasy and use it for some political or social end, whether that end is nation-building or family structure. In the process, it is gender that produces meanings for sex and sexual difference, not sex that determines the meanings of gender…And if that is the case, then gender is a useful category of historical analysis because it requires us to historicize the ways that sex and sexual difference have been conceived (Questions, 1428).

Rather than being synonymous with “sex”, gender gives meaning to it. Much more than a simple concept, gender is a question—the question that prompts us to look into the ways in which the concept of sex has been created and understood. This analysis leads to a myriad of other questions, and these questions have prompted feminists and historians to keep attempting to find the answers. It is for this reason that, while my understanding of gender is much more complicated as a result of Joan Scott’s work, it is all the better for it. By continuing to interchange “gender” with “sex” and vice versa, I wouldn’t have considered the historical context within which these concepts arose and evolved (and continue to evolve). Similarly, I would have been content to continue forward with my use of the term, ignoring the processes that have constructed gender relationships and the economic and political relationships that arise from those relationships (again, it seems endlessly complicated). However, if there is one thing I am learning from this course, it is that nothing is quite as simple as we assume it to be. There are endless interpretations, connections, contexts, etc. that shape our understanding of events and concepts, and “gender” is just the latest of these concepts that our class will analyze and take apart.

I also look forward to discussing the second part of Scott’s initial definition of gender—“a primary was of signifying relationships of power”. I think her “Symptomatic Politics” provides an example of how power has been inextricably entwined with gender in both French and Islamic culture, resulting in problems that could not be solved, resulting in the banning of the Islamic headscarf.

Landscape of a Good Discipline

“Steedman is better described as a historian who understands the theoretical and philosophical implications of doing historical work. She pushes edgily on the boundaries of what historians think they do, but she manages to combine social and cultural history without turning the results into some risk-free and reassuring middle way…She makes the ‘cultural turn’ without waving goodbye to ‘the social’” (Eley, 180-81).

I genuinely enjoyed the readings for this week, which was particularly heartening after struggling a bit with Foucault last week. I read Landscape for a Good Woman before reading Eley, however, I think Steedman’s book did well to make its point in its own right, and the chapters from Eley described the context, or “landscape”, within which Steedman’s work came to exist. Carolyn Steedman is significant for a number of reasons, but I believe the most predominant of these reasons is that she exemplifies an ideal model of the combination of cultural and social history. Landscape, in a sense, represents the fruit that can be harvested from the crossroads of the two (typically competing) sub-disciplines.

By recounting and reconstruction her childhood and her mother’s childhood, Steedman simultaneously attempted to make sense of her own youth and challenged the conventional understanding of working-class life. Steedman’s mother and her household existed outside of legality and outside of the traditional “working class”, and Landscape reveals how her family and others like it have been marginalized. These challenges confronted the typical patriarchal head-of-household, as Steedman’s mother determined their class position (Steedman, 56). Additionally, her mother was not just an object of exchange, as women have typically been written off as over time, but rather the object and subject—her mother utilized her exchange value in an attempt to secure the life and future she believed were so wrongly kept from her (Steedman, 60). Her mother’s story also goes against the presumptions that all mothers want their children, and instead suggests that children can be both wanted and resented, as Steedman came to understand about herself as a child.

In each of the ways Steedman challenges or deconstructs the conventional ideas held about the working-class, children, and women, she seems to “ememplify the arguments…about the changes in the discipline between the 1960s and now” (Eley, 172). The subjects of her focus represent part of feminist history, which Eley suggests was, “unavoidably at the forefront of the cultural turn” (Eley, 171). Additionally, she uses personal voice, offers a history substantially different than the accounts previously “known”, and reintroduces the possibility of using biography in historical study. However, Steedman makes her arguments without turning her back on social history, rather, she suggests that individual narratives can reveal themes of a broader social world.

Steedman’s ability to utilize the merits of both social history and cultural history is promising. As we have discussed in several classes up to this point, we must confront the newest “turns” in the study of history as they come (and they will come), but in doing so we do not have to abandon the value of each previous phase of the discipline’s evolution. In the same way Landscape does not rob Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class of its entire significance, we do not have to assume that new phases rob the last of its significance. Rather, we can build upon our understanding by utilizing the advantages of each and being willing to meet each new phase with open, but analytical minds. Certainly, this ideal middle ground is not easy to find, and once it has been found, it is no doubt difficult to maintain footing through the ebb and flow of evolution and transition. However, it can be done and Carolyn Steedman provides an ideal to strive towards.

Deconstructing Deconstructionism

As anticipated, Foucault was a challenge this week. Perhaps this was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as I had read a little of Foucault’s work before this class and had already formulated somewhat of a confused bias, but in any case, I definitely found myself bogged down trying to make sense out of what appeared to me as a jumble of philosophy and words I did not know. Thank goodness for the “Key Foucauldian Concepts,” putting at least some of his ideas into common (or comprehendible to me) English.

Spiegal’s “The Task of the Historian” was by far my favorite reading of the week. She was able to break down the concept of deconstructionism and describe the “linguistic turn” in ways that were completely understandable and compelling. For instance, she highlighted a link between the post-Holocaust second generation and post-modern consciousness that helped explain why the linguistic turn occurred when it did. To the second generation following the Holocaust, the actual word “Holocaust” did not seem to have the capacity to represent all that the event entailed (mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, etc.), and therefore people began to question the “ability of words to convey reality” (7). Put in these terms, the rise of post-structural thought seems almost logical–how can we rely on words if they cannot properly articulate what something means? Spiegal’s use of this example highlighted once more the importance of placing events and intellectual turns into context (and also brought up the Holocaust in a much more applicable and appropriate way than I did last class). Additionally, she pointed to reasons why the linguistic turn, though heavily criticized, might yet have some value and place within the study of history. She pointed to the benefits of applying post-structuralism in the study of diasporas, which provides an alternate and more effective unit of study than that of the “nation-state” (12). I think her attempt to find a place within the study of history for the merits of a receding line of thought underscores the fact that, though our discipline is ever-evolving, we need not systematically embrace and then dispose of every theory or line of thought that comes our way. Rather, we can apply the valuable aspects of each to the discipline in the hopes of becoming more analytical and more knowledgeable historians.

One aspect of the readings that I found particularly intriguing but am not entirely sure I understand is the concept of “Enlightenment” as it is found in Foucault’s critique of Kant. According to Foucault, Kant describes the Enlightenment being characterized by a “way out” or, the process that “releases us from a state of immaturity,” in which we escape someone else’s authority (What is Enlightenment). Does this mean that, as a society and as individuals, the Enlightenment represented a modification in the way we (human individuals) perceive authority and the ability to reason? Or perhaps the greater point is that, in order to understand the Enlightenment, we must understand the societal and individual context in which it occurred? Additionally, the concept of the Enlightenment (this time as a period of history) is brought up briefly in Spiegal’s article, where she states, “…The emergence of poststructuralism under the sign of the linguistic turn bespoke the end of the confident, optimistic era of European Enlightenment with its faith in the continual progress of human history under the aegis of scientific learning and methods and, not least among them, scientific history” (“The Task of the Historian”, 8). Is this “Enlightenment” the same that Foucault and Kant are referring to? I find myself empathizing with the historians that so objected and feared the linguistic turn—it appeared to be uprooting everything they “knew” about their discipline (a feeling many of us in class have experienced once or twice since the beginning of the term).

I am anxiously anticipating class discussion this week. I am hoping to gain a little more insight into what Foucault was all about, as well as insight into the numerous terms and names of theories that littered the pages of the readings for this week.

Getting Cultured

The readings for this week have been especially useful to me by defining (or, giving a variety of definitions) for culture and cultural history. I say this because I am pretty sure after finishing the readings that I never really had a specific idea of what cultural history actually was. I have been lumping this particular subdiscipline of history with social history—culture can be found in society, and in fact is often the concept upon which society is built, right? So when I thought of film or literature or art, I thought these pieces of history were reflections of society. And in a way that remains true, however, it is not enough to just acknowledge these things as a part of society, they have to be examined in their own right. Roger Chartier recounts Robert Darnton’s citicism of French cultural history in his article, ”Texts, Symbols, and Frenchness”, stating, “Culture cannot be considered as a ‘level’ of some social entity resembling a three-story house because all interpersonal relationships are of cultural nature, even those we qualify as ‘economic’ or ‘social’” (683). Once I reoriented my thoughts about cultural history, I was able to better understand the role of the cultural historian and the angle they took when approaching the studies of history and culture.

The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong…To regard such forms as ‘saying something of something,’ and saying it to somebody, is at least to open up the possibility of an analysis which attends to their substance rather than to reductive formulas professing to account for them (Geertz, 452-53).

The above quote from Clifford Geertz’s chapter on Balinese Cockfights in The Interpretation of Cultures is concise enough for me to grasp the overall concept of the role of an anthropologist without diluting the complexity and difficulty of the role. Cultural anthropologists take part in what Geertz coined, “thick description”, which goes beyond an assessment of human behavior to study the context within and around which this behavior develops and occurs. This study assesses both the tangible material culture that Tosh outlines in Chapter 9 of The Pursuit of History, and the often-intangible symbols and rituals that are significant to certain individuals or groups. This is the point at which cultural and social history divide; those focused on “social” study subjects that fit into a broader, dynamic social narrative, while those focused on “culture” are more interested in “contextualizing”, and not as much attention is paid to change over time (Tosh, 270). The merits of both groups seem obvious, and taken together could provide a much broader and “thicker” understanding of historical events and people.

From a historian’s standpoint, I can see the benefits of cultural history, but I can also see what appears to be a glaring detriment—the lack of primary sources. For instance, Robert Darnton makes great use of thick description by discussing the cultural underpinnings of “The Great Cat Massacre” and how symbols and rituals were very much at the center of the story. However, much of Chartier’s critique of this work was that it made use of ONE source, and makes connections to symbols or rituals that might not be entirely valid or realistic (Chartier, 690). More than anything, the lack of sources is most bothersome to me, and creates a substantial obstacle for historians of any sort to overcome.

Despite its shortcomings, cultural anthropology is imperative to a greater understanding of history. Cultural historians offer a glimpse at the events and individuals of the past from the inside, which is invaluable. Tosh states, “It serves as a strong reminder that history is not just about trends and structures that can be observed from the outside, but also demands an informed respect for the culture of people in the past and a readiness to see the world through their eyes” (267). I appreciate this reminder, as my perspective has always been from the outside, and I am eager to see the extent to which cultural history can hone and expand the discipline (now that I am able to distinguish it from other subdisciplines). 

Subject to Change…

“But however rarefied the atmosphere that historians breathe, they are, like everyone else, affected by the assumptions and values of their own society. It is more illuminating to see historical interpretation as moulded by social rather than individual experience. And because social values change, it follows that historical interpretation is subject to constant revision” (Tosh, 189).

The readings for this week emphasized the importance of analyzing social history in order to gain a greater understanding of how things came to be. Wielded properly, social history can be a tool by which a more complete, multifaceted narrative of the context and causations of the past and how each has contributed to the future we now live in. Taken even further, the argument for the importance of social history opens the door to arguments for the intermingling of many disciplines. In opening up the discipline of history to the tools and suggestions offered by other disciplines, couldn’t we expect to gain a better understanding of history—not just the stories of the actors and events but the socioeconomic, political, and environmental factors that contributed to or conceived the narratives that we wish to reconstruct and tell?

Geoff Eley, deeply influenced by Karl Marx and his introduction of social history to the historical profession, speaks to this connection between history and the larger public and academic world outside of its boundaries. He states: “The boundaries between history’s professional precincts and the wider realms of the public are far more porous than most academic historians might allow. Once we admit that porousness, we relativize our understanding of the professional historian’s influence” (Eley, 6). This perspective was no doubt partially formed by his Marxist persuasion. In reference to the Marxist appeal, Eley stated, “For anyone seeking to fashion a general understanding of how societies hold together or change, it offered a powerful combination of standpoints—a theory of societal development permitting the periodizing of history, a model of social determinations proceeding upward from material life, and a theory of social change based on class struggles and their effects” (Eley, 16).

E.P. Thompson, who claimed to write in “Marxist Tradition”, took the idea of social history one step (or a series of steps) further (Thompson, xi). Considered the innovator of “history from below”, Thompson introduced the aspect of “agency” to historic discourse in his The Making of the English Working Class. This piece of scholarship traces the rise of the working class in England during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In doing so, Thompson effectively traced the socioeconomic and political context within which the working class arose, wielded power, and attempted revolution. The work serves as case study in discussing how events and groups and relationships in history came to be through a multidimensional, multidisciplinary lens.

The readings for the week provided a convincing argument in favor of the benefits of utilizing social theory, analyzing social history, and a multidisciplinary lens. Additionally, they inadvertently resulted in my ceased heel-dragging, and perhaps a (hesitant) step forward. In recent classes we have discussed the discipline of history entering the Digital Age and the potential benefits and detriments associated with that transition. Having reflected on this week’s readings, I can see an added benefit of this transition—greater access to a multitude of other disciplines and perspectives, each of which might have a role in how the past has occurred and a new lens through which we as historians might view it. As Tosh suggested, historians, too, are affected by the conditions of their own society. Currently, the conditions of our society include a move toward the digital realm, and who am I to ignore it?

“Guide on the Side”: Historians’ Role in the Digital Sphere

Leaving seminar on Tuesday, my mind began wandering, trying to figure out what would happen to the traditional, “credible” historian as more and more voices joined the wicked web of the digital world. I was having difficulty organizing my thoughts and answering the questions I kept coming to, however, the readings for this week addressed many of these questions and even some I hadn’t yet gotten to.

Chapter 9 of Weinberger’s Too Big To Know first spoke to my deluge of thoughts and questions. Starting on page 183, he recommended five ways in which we (historians and network users) can get the most out of the new Network of Knowledge: 1. Open up access, 2. Provide hooks for intelligence (metadata), 3. Link everything, 4. Leave no institutional knowledge behind, and 5. Teach everyone how to best use the Net (Weinberger, 183-85). As soon as I read these suggestions, I immediately thought back to my primary concern—if access us opened to everyone, what becomes of those who have made a profession and life out of becoming experts in their fields, publishing credible works, and managing and preserving the discipline they love?

As if on cue, Writing History in a Digital Age targeted and provided answers, or at least recommendations to address my worries (and the worries held by many historians. The book serves as a beta-test of sorts—seeking to demonstrate to historians a different approach to publishing. This approach focused on three fundamental elements: the book was born digital, benefitted from peer review, and is open-access (Nawrotzki, Dougherty, 2-3). Through the creation of this book, the Editors hoped to exemplify how digital publishing could improve upon traditional publishing, as well as keep pace with the shift to a networked knowledge world. I immediately wrote down the questions: “Does this type of open-access, open-review, digital book only work because it was a collaboration of essays?” “Would it work if there was only one author—or rather, is it suggesting the time of solo authors has passed?” I grew increasingly unsettled, as this suggestion seemed to contradict everything I believe about scholarly publishing. Sure, scholars publish collaborative works, but most often, they focus their efforts of researching a topic they consider important and establishing their argument for why in a monograph. In fact, these efforts are often imperative to being hired and/or gaining tenure. So how can this book suggest that the next stage of publishing is a collaborative, digital state? It wasn’t the prospect of “digital” that most concerned me—though I prefer hardcover books that allow you to leaf through the pages, I recognize the convenience of the digital world and have no problem accepting the publishing of books via this medium. However, it was the collaborative, open-review and open-access proposal that I found most disturbing. Academic historians write to share their ideas and get/maintain their professions—with the shift from traditional publishing, could new forms of publishing even “count” in the eyes of the committees that hire and grant tenure (Nawrotzki, Dougherty, 10)? And beyond that, historians provide the expertise and credibility that is trusted. If anyone can publish anything online, and historians are no longer publishing traditional scholarship, what will be the determining factor for what is credible or true?

Thankfully, several of the authors addressed these concerns. The editors recommended a “hybrid” academic press that possesses an open-access policy—something along the lines of the University of Michigan library-press partnership. The hope is that hiring and tenure committees would still recognize these hybrids as sufficient peer-review journals, while at the same time, historians would be able to adopt the methods of the digital age. In “I Nevertheless Am A Historian”, Leslie Madsen-Brooks recommends a “sage on the stage” role for historians that would encourage more thoughtful participation in historiography (Madsen-Brooks, 60). Stephen Tanaka, in his “Pasts in a Digital Age”, suggests that historians have an opportunity to make their expertise “available and relevant to an audience that, whatever its assumptions, possesses a deep, abiding investment in the importance of the past” (Tanaka, 71). Finally, and perhaps most poignant (for myself, personally), was the recommendation given by Alex Jennings and Jonathan Jarrett in “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging and the Academy”:

We have to give up being authorities, controlling our discourse, seeing ourselves as experts who possess bodies of knowledge over which we have mastery. Instead we have to start thinking of what we do as participating in a conversation, and [sic] ongoing process of knowledge formation. What if we thought of academics as curators, people who keep things up to date, clean, host, point, and aggregate knowledge rather than just those who are responsible for producing new knowledge (252)?

Perhaps there is something to the idea of taking on a curatorial role, but the description above seems like a passive, if not partially insubstantial part. It’s odd that this comment stood out and concerned me most, as, based on my Public History viewpoint this would be a seemingly ideal transition. And in ways, maybe there are aspects of this recommendation that could be adopted quite effectively. But I’m not ready to give up the image I have always had of the historian as the archaeologist of information. I recognize the necessity of transitioning into a new form that fits into the web of the digital age for fear of getting left behind. However, I am not so sure anyone has come up with the best channel through which to do so. And so I’m still attempting to grapple with the prospect of making the transition and the complete transformation of the way history is done.

Networks, Narratives, and the Future of History

“In a distracted world where even undergraduates at top universities are increasingly challenged to read the kinds of books we have traditionally written, and at a moment when there seems to be widespread public doubt about whether to continue supporting the study of the past…what is the future of history?” (Cronon, 5)

After completing the readings for this week, I found myself exhausted, mentally and emotionally—is that odd? Of course I would be mentally worn out…late nights and early mornings with seminars and work in between would spell exhaustion for even the most lighthearted or easygoing individual. But the emotional exhaustion I get from reading the deluge of words and concepts we have thrown our way every week is striking. I attribute this to two things: first, that most of the readings take us all on a rollercoaster ride from dire texts heeding us to change the track we are on, to thoughts of hope and suggestions for development; second, that I am completely invested in this field. And I rationalize this investment by thinking, “This is what the field needs—people who are invested. People who care this much.” And I do.

But I digress.

I took that familiar rollercoaster ride this week in the readings, specifically between the Weinberger and Cronon readings. The Weinberger reading was actually extremely compelling. It introduced ways of thinking about “information overlaod” that I had never considered. Specifically that the notion that the newest phase in our system of knowledge—networking—is changing, even uprooting the very foundation of knowledge. The concept that limitless access to knowledge could be a negative thing seemed contradictory—isn’t that what we as historians, not to mention humans, are always trying to do? The more we know, the more we can make sense of the world around us and how it came to be. At least, in theory. Weinberger does well to dash that assurance, stating:

Our new medium of knowledge is shredding our old optimism that we could all agree on facts and, having done so, could all agree on conclusions. Indeed, we have to wonder whether that old optimism was based on the limitations inherent in paper publishing: We thought we were building an unshaken house based on the foundation of facts simply because the clamorous disagreement had no public voice (41).

And with Chapters 1 through 4, Weinberger essentially shredded my optimism. What is the old saying—“we fear what we don’t understand”? Well, I don’t fully understand the capacity of this new medium of knowledge, and I think that’s Weinberger’s point. Because networking contains and shares limitless knowledge, there will be a limitless amount of “facts” and a limitless amount of “evidence” to disprove said facts. Without the filters traditionally used to determine what information was important, and what was a “fact”, the foundation upon which we have built the ideas and institutions of knowledge seems a little less solid than it used to.

Thankfully, the Cronon article swept in and saved the day. Pointing to additional issues caused by the Digital Age, such as the loss of the ability or desire of students to research or read offline, Cronon asserts that the future of history is in a desperate state. However, he also offers a substantial suggestion to alleviate the issue: storytelling. Cronon suggests a return to the basics to which anyone can relate. His point draws (though inadvertently) from the Tosh Chapter 5 and the different forms of historical writing, emphasizing the importance of the narrative. Tosh states, “…[H]istory without narrative is a non-starter. It is narrative that gives shape and direction to what would otherwise be a formless, incoherent mess…” (258). Cronon takes this thought a step further, affirming that, “From these most basic stories about the past flow myriad others. They are part of the common heritage of humanity, which is why we share their telling with everyone else who narrates the past. That is what makes them so powerful and why it is so crucial that historians never tire of telling them…”(19). With this suggestion, I think Cronon incites hope for the future of history. It is imperative to go back to basics, especially in a day and age when the quantity and access to information is inexhaustible, and when “professional boredom” and “overloads of overloads” have become the norm (Cronon, 6; Weinberger, 9).

Thanks to Cronon, I finished the readings this week on a high note. However, I am still a little uncertain about how to return to the rudimentary from the matrix of knowledge. How can we get free of the wicked world-wide-web in order to tell the stories that really matter? How can we convince others to do the same?

…I suppose I could just Google it.

The Dynamism of History

“Apart from their intrinsic interest, what lies behind our concern with these instances of historical process is the much bigger question of how we got from ‘then’ to ‘now’…There may be a gulf between ‘us’ and ‘them’, but that gulf is actually composed of processes of growth, decay and change which it is the business of historians to uncover (Tosh, 12).”

Much like our readings for this week, the study and definition of history varies greatly from text to text. However, what the readings, as well as all other texts, artifacts, and other components of history have in common is that each plays a part in piecing together the ongoing and dynamic narrative that is history. Each of the readings touched on this theme in various ways.

Iggers, in his Historiography in the Twentieth Century—though dense and dry in delivery—was concerned with the changes that have occurred in the thinking and practice of historians over time. He argued that during the 20th century, reorientations of thought led to a more social-scientific approach to researching and analyzing history, as apposed to the narrative, event-oriented history that was previously employed. Ergo, history became a “practice”, more intentional and professionalized (pp. 3-4). By giving examples of the theories and arguments that prompted this change, Iggers demonstrates the dynamism of the approach to studying history.

By contrast, in his “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” Novak offers a case study of the perception of the “American State” as it has been interpreted and has changed over time. He maintains that the “American present is at odds with representations of the American past” because, historically, America has been portrayed as having had a weak state. However, recent attempts made to connect the modern, powerful American state to its previous model has left researchers floundering—how did American get to “here” from “there”? Novak’s example suggests the dynamism of both a country over time as well as how the understanding of an entity changes over time.

Ward’s somewhat satirical textbook excerpts not only added a bit of pitying humor to the workload, but also provided an excellent example of the dynamism of how history has been taught. By likening textbook articles on Columbus and Witchcraft as they were written and rewritten over the course of nearly two centuries, Ward illustrates changes in the proposed causations and accounts of the events through time, as new discoveries or explanations arose. For instance, the causations given for the existence of witchcraft in the colonies were: 1823: physical illness, 1855: theological reasoning/contract with the devil, 1866: delusion/the barrenness of life, 1936: superstition, 1982: socioeconomic issues (64-69). This provides but one example of how history was reinterpreted and retaught and time passed.

Finally, in The Pursuit of History, Tosh gives a name to the dynamism of both history as a discipline and the way it is understood and taught—process (11). He points to process as the third fundamental aspect of historical awareness, understood more simply as, “change over time” (19). This concept, when applied, provides an explanation for why it is so difficult to accurately define “history”, and why historians are forever changing their methods to understand, teach, and write it. Process is the parallel between the events, people, progressions, digressions, which comprise history.

The largest take-away I got from this week’s readings was the paradox of the dynamism of history: “just as nothing has remained the same in the past, so too our world is the product of history” (Tosh, 12). Though understanding history as ever-changing has aided in the evolution of the discipline and “righting” some of the “wrongs” that have been recorded in scholarship, historians cannot ignore the continuities that remain or have contributed to how things exist, modern-day. This concept has greatly complicated the way I look at history from any perspective, and challenges me to be fully aware of the dynamism of history in future readings, studies, and writings.