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.