Constructing Narratives

Prompt 1: According to Barthes all texts contain a plurality of meanings, and he offers five codes/”voices”/perspectives that can be used to interpret a text. Do you think Barthes technique would be helpful in identifying plural meanings in a historical text?

Barthes’ dissection of “Sarrasine” is important, not so much for what he concludes about the story itself, but for the method he uses to analyze it. One of the essential takeaways from S/Z is the value in rereading texts, not simply consuming them.

As Barthes states, “Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us ‘throw away’ the story once it has been consumed (“devoured”), so that we can then move on to another story, buy another book, and which is tolerated only in certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors), rereading is here suggested at the outset, for it alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere), multiplies it in its variety and its plurality” (15-16).

All of that to say, historians should not be consumers of the texts they read. They should read and then reread to be able to discern the many voices and meanings that can be found in a historical text. Barthes’ technique is important because it reveals the depth to which one can analyze and break down a text, whether literary or historical.

Prompt 2: Barthes speaks of a “writerly” approach to writing, ie, one that champions a sort of creative work on the part of the reader. What is a “writerly” (á la his understanding of the term “writerly”) approach to doing history and how can the methods we’ve learned about assist with this “writerly history”?

Based on some readings we did last semester in our methods class, it seems as though the field of history has begun to embrace a similar appreciation for “writerly” history as literary critics did in the late twentieth century.

As Peter Novick traced in That Noble Dream, historians in the late nineteenth century sought an objective truth through a “scientific” approach, which didn’t leave much room for alternative interpretations. In addition, many American historians defined “American” history as white, male, and generally upper class. As the field of history developed, scholars began to understand the plurality of histories: female, African-American, American Indian, queer, etc. By the 1980s, scholars like Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginzburg were seeking to understand peasant culture in the Early Modern Period. Because they had some challenges in available source material, these historians were perhaps forced to be more comfortable with a plurality of understandings; for instance, by consistently using words like “perhaps” and “may have,” they revealed their relaxed view of historical truth compared with historians of the 1880s.

It seems like a “writerly” approach to doing history is one that embraces a plurality of understandings or interpretations of the same event, time, or place in history. Certainly historians must argue something in their work, but by embracing a freer writing style that is okay with uncertainties and questions, readers of writerly histories can examine the historical evidence themselves to draw their own conclusions. The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis is the best example of this type of history that I can think of.

Prompt 3: For this week’s blog post, what is your own favorite book, and why?  What is your favorite literary and/or scholarly passage?  Give us the passage and then break it down for us –the vocabulary, the literary devices, the form and the meaning.  If you don’t have a single all-time favorite, use one that is among your favorites or that you have really enjoyed.  This could be audio or written.

I was an English major in undergrad at a small liberal arts college in SC. The English department faculty at my school were all pretty old, and definitely old-school, so many of my literature classes were classic British Lit and early American literature. I don’t remember reading a novel for any of my classes that was written after 1930. With that said, a lot of literature that I now appreciate for its literary value is pretty old. One of my favorite books is Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Hardy was a pastoral writer of the late nineteenth century and his writings were greatly influenced by nature. I like this book because of his beautiful descriptions of nature and rural life in nineteenth century England.  It also has a pretty interesting plot (love story driven like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice) but written by a man featuring a strong and dynamic female protagonist. As far as 19th century Brit Lit goes, this is pretty good stuff!

One of my favorite passages comes from the middle of the book. Sorry it’s a little long!

Bathsheba went along the dark road, neither knowing nor caring about the direction or issue of her flight. The first time that she definitely noticed her position was when she reached a gate leading into a thicket over-hung by some large oak and beech trees. On looking into the place, it occurred to her that she had seen it by daylight on some previous occasion, and that what appeared like an impassable thicket was in reality a brake of fern now withering fast. She could think of nothing better to do with her palpitating self than to go in here and hide; and entering, she lighted on a spot sheltered from the damp fog by a reclining trunk, where she sank down upon a tangled couch of fronds and stems. She mechanically pulled some armfuls round her to keep off the breezes, and closed her eyes.

Whether she slept or not that night Bathsheba was not clearly aware. But it was with a freshened existence and a cooler brain that, a long time afterwards, she became conscious of some interesting proceedings which were going on in the trees above her head and around.

A coarse-throated chatter was the first sound. It was a sparrow just waking.

Next: “Chee-weeze-weeze-weeze!” from another retreat. It was a finch.

Third: “Tink-tink-tink-tink-a-chink!” from the hedge. It was a robin.

“Chuck-chuck-chuck!” overhead. A squirrel.

Then, from the road, “With my ra-ta-ta, and my rum-tum-tum!”

It was a ploughboy. Presently he came opposite, and she believed from his voice that he was one of the boys on her own farm. He was followed by a shambling tramp of heavy feet, and looking through the ferns Bathsheba could just discern in the wan light of daybreak a team of her own horses. They stopped to drink at a pond on the other side of the way. She watched them flouncing into the pool, drinking, tossing up their heads, drinking again, the water dribbling from their lips in silver threads. There was another flounce, and they came out of the pond, and turned back again towards the farm.

She looked further around. Day was just dawning, and beside its cool air and colours her heated actions and resolves of the night stood out in lurid contrast. She perceived that in her lap, and clinging to her hair, were red and yellow leaves which had come down from the tree and settled silently upon her during her partial sleep. Bathsheba shook her dress to get rid of them, when multitudes of the same family lying round about her rose and fluttered away in the breeze thus created, “like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.”

There was an opening towards the east, and the glow from the as yet unrisen sun attracted her eyes thither. From her feet, and between the beautiful yellowing ferns with their feathery arms, the ground sloped downwards to a hollow, in which was a species of swamp, dotted with fungi. A morning mist hung over it now — a fulsome yet magnificent silvery veil, full of light from the sun, yet semi-opaque — the hedge behind it being in some measure hidden by its hazy luminousness. Up the sides of this depression grew sheaves of the common rush, and here and there a peculiar species of flag, the blades of which glistened in the emerging sun, like scythes. But the general aspect of the swamp was malignant. From its moist and poisonous coat seemed to be exhaled the essences of evil things in the earth, and in the waters under the earth. The fungi grew in all manner of positions from rotting leaves and tree stumps, some exhibiting to her listless gaze their clammy tops, others their oozing gills. Some were marked with great splotches, red as arterial blood, others were saffron yellow, and others tall and attenuated, with stems like macaroni. Some were leathery and of richest browns. The hollow seemed a nursery of pestilences small and great, in the immediate neighbourhood of comfort and health, and Bathsheba arose with a tremor at the thought of having passed the night on the brink of so dismal a place.

Even if you haven’t read this (or seen the movie that came out a couple of years ago), Bathsheba is clearly fleeing some sort of negative experience. (It’s complicated to summarize, but basically her new husband, Sergeant Troy, has just confessed to loving, and always having loved, another woman.) Bathsheba escapes and goes along a dark path, finding what appears to be an “impassible thicket” where she sits “upon a tangled couch of fronds and stems.” The tangled and twisted sprigs symbolize her mental state; she is confused and shocked.

Bathsheba settles down in the brush, and by dawn of the next day, she has become “freshened” and renewed. The cloud of confusion lifts away so that she can see things as they truly are. The morning dew washes away her character flaws, taking away her pride and vanity that have been plaguing her up to this point in the book. Rather than focusing only on the tragedy of her situation, Bathsheba begins to notice all of the sights and sounds around her.  Her senses are awakened; she hears the birds’ unique songs. She sees a ploughboy by the pond and watches the horses, “flouncing into the pool, drinking, tossing up their heads, drinking again, the water dribbling from their lips in silver threads.” Images and sounds of life and vitality surround Bathsheba now (compared to the frazzled twigs she slept on the night before).

This is probably the more important symbolism of the passage. Bathsheba notices a swamp that she at first thinks is beautiful but then realizes its malignant qualities lurking beneath the surface. Blades of flag on the perimeter of the swamp stick into the air, glistening “in the emerging sun.” These blades are beautiful in the sunlight, but then Bathsheba becomes aware that “essences of evil things in the earth, and in the waters under the earth” come up from this swamp. The swamp symbolizes the character of her husband, Sergeant Troy. The blades of flag symbolize his pleasant outer appearance. (The use of the world “blade” is intentional. The reader is reminded of Troy’s sword that he uses to bewitch Bathsheba with earlier in the book, which is quite a memorable and strange scene).  While the blades of flag may be beautiful, Bathsheba realizes that the swamp is not as it seems. It is not until Bathsheba retreats into nature that it clears her mind and her situation becomes clear. Hardy thus uses a natural setting (i.e. a swamp) to educate his protagonist and even spark an important shift in the book’s plot.

After looking at the swamp for some time, “Bathsheba arose with a tremor at the thought of having passed the night on the brink of so dismal a place.”  Hardy ironically contrasts Bathsheba’s reactions to the swamp and to Sergeant Troy: Bathsheba notices the unpleasant and even dangerous aspects of the swamp while she earlier looked past the evil qualities apparent in her husband and foolishly married him. Hardy uses pastoral symbolism to reflect his characters’ traits in the natural setting and even uses nature as a force of change in this passage and throughout the novel.

Broken Men and Barthes

For this week’s blog post, what is your own favorite book, and why?  What is your favorite literary and/or scholarly passage?  Give us the passage and then break it down for us –the vocabulary, the literary devices, the form and the meaning.  If you don’t have a single all-time favorite, use one that is among your favorites or that you have really enjoyed.  This could be audio or written.

I’m a pretty big fan of A Song of Ice and Fire.  like in a very pretentious, very hipster kind of fan. Like I was a book reader before the HBO series Game of Thrones popularized the world of Westeros to a wide and vast audience. The price of this title is that I’m near constantly bitter with the direction of the show creators take with simplifying the nuances of a truly epic length fantasy novel series. The core feminist and anti-war themes of the series are reduced into an almost insulting level for the mainstream viewers. The complexities of feminism has been turned into an elementary sideshow of Daenerys Targaryen pointing her dragons at people and winning, no matter what; while the latter has been glorified into hyper-violence that visual media often depicts these days.  Of this latter theme I want to share a passage from the series’ fourth novel A Feast for Crows. It’s a monologue by a minor character by the name of Septon Meribald that was “adapted” by the show creators but perhaps represents the best mouthpiece for the author himself, George RR Martin, and his deep disdain and criticism of the act of war. In GRRM’s case as a baby boomer this was the Vietnam War which shaped the man to his very core.

“Ser? My lady?” said Podrick. “Is a broken man an outlaw?”

“More or less,” Brienne answered.

Septon Meribald disagreed. “More less than more. There are many sorts of outlaws, just as there are many sorts of birds. A sandpiper and a sea eagle both have wings, but they are not the same. The singers love to sing of good men forced to go outside the law to fight some wicked lord, but most outlaws are more like this ravening Hound than they are the lightning lord. They are evil men, driven by greed, soured by malice, despising the gods and caring only for themselves. Broken men are more deserving of our pity, though they may be just as dangerous. Almost all are common-born, simple folk who had never been more than a mile from the house where they were born until the day some lord came round to take them off to war. Poorly shod and poorly clad, they march away beneath his banners, ofttimes with no better arms than a sickle or a sharpened hoe, or a maul they made themselves by lashing a stone to a stick with strips of hide. Brothers march with brothers, sons with fathers, friends with friends. They’ve heard the songs and stories, so they go off with eager hearts, dreaming of the wonders they will see, of the wealth and glory they will win. War seems a fine adventure, the greatest most of them will ever know.

“Then they get a taste of battle.

“For some, that one taste is enough to break them. Others go on for years, until they lose count of all the battles they have fought in, but even a man who has survived a hundred fights can break in his hundred-and-first. Brothers watch their brothers die, fathers lose their sons, friends see their friends trying to hold their entrails in after they’ve been gutted by an axe.

“They see the lord who led them there cut down, and some other lord shouts that they are his now. They take a wound, and when that’s still half-healed they take another. There is never enough to eat, their shoes fall to pieces from the marching, their clothes are torn and rotting, and half of them are shitting in their breeches from drinking bad water.

“If they want new boots or a warmer cloak or maybe a rusted iron halfhelm, they need to take them from a corpse, and before long they are stealing from the living too, from the smallfolk whose lands they’re fighting in, men very like the men they used to be. They slaughter their sheep and steal their chickens, and from there it’s just a short step to carrying off their daughters too. And one day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world…

“And the man breaks.

“He turns and runs, or crawls off afterward over the corpses of the slain, or steals away in the black of night, and he finds someplace to hide. All thought of home is gone by then, and kings and lords and gods mean less to him than a haunch of spoiled meat that will let him live another day, or a skin of bad wine that might drown his fear for a few hours. The broken man lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man. Lady Brienne is not wrong. In times like these, the traveler must beware of broken men, and fear them…but he should pity them as well.”

When Meribald was finished a profound silence fell upon their little band. Brienne could hear the wind rustling through a clump of pussywillows, and farther off the faint cry of a loon. She could hear Dog panting softly as he loped along beside the septon and his donkey, tongue lolling from his mouth. The quiet stretched and stretched, until finally she said, “How old were you when they marched you off to war?”

“Why, no older than your boy,” Meribald replied. “Too young for such, in truth, but my brothers were all going, and I would not be left behind. Willam said I could be his squire, though Will was no knight, only a potboy armed with a kitchen knife he’d stolen from the inn. He died upon the Stepstones, and never struck a blow. It was fever did for him, and for my brother Robin. Owen died from a mace that split his head apart, and his friend Jon Pox was hanged for rape.”

“The War of the Ninepenny Kings?” asked Hyle Hunt.

“So they called it, though I never saw a king, nor earned a penny. It was a war, though. That it was.”

With a bitter eloquence, GRRM weaves a character’s background with the series’ grandest anti-war message as well as a providing a meta narrative of GRRM’s views on his peers who were drafted into the US military during the Vietnam War. Of which, GRRM himself avoided by writing a short story for his application as a conscientious objector that metaphorically, but heavy-handedly linked the United States to an empire of world conquerors.

Even today, far removed from the Vietnam War. Merbald’s “broken men” speech with its careful use of layering, buildup, and most effectively the blunt one sentence breaks act as a powerful passage. It’s a rare time when the author imbuing themselves into an obvious stand-in character is both effective and enlightening to the reader.  War, whether for causes to find supposed weapons of mass destruction or to spread democracy through Liberal Intervention  always ends the same way. Men far removed their natural stations in life, killing one another until the become broken men. This process, no matter if its waged through Middle America farm boys or Syrian rebels always ends the same way. Broken men who escalate chaos in the region, the process feeds upon itself.

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According to Barthes all texts contain a plurality of meanings, and he offers five codes/”voices”/perspectives that can be used to interpret a text. Do you think Barthes technique would be helpful in identifying plural meanings in a historical text?

Yes of course, I very much believe the five codes have value in examining historical text. Everything written by human hands exemplifies, whether consciously or unconsciously, plurality  beyond its literal text. As Barthes himself states,

Or again: each code is is one of the forces that can take over the text (of which the text is the network), one of the voices out of which the text is woven (Barthes, 21).

Deconstructing text, as well as everything else, is incredibly important to understanding the greater context, the greater background of any one aspect to its greater whole. With this in mind, the semantic code is key to historical text because it allows one to understand the frameworks in which the text are placed in.

Barthes speaks of a “writerly” approach to writing, ie, one that champions a sort of creative work on the part of the reader. What is a “writerly”(á la his understanding of the term “writerly”) approach to doing history and how can the methods we’ve learned about assist with this “writerly history”?

A “writerly” approach to history would naturally stress in writing in the now.  A historian’s job is to examine the past and to bring it into the present to share with one’s peers in the present. By consequence each interpretation of the past is shaped by the current present, thus no one reading of history is necessarily wrong so long as the historian is using and citing legitimate material. This is historiography.

In the digital age, I believe historians can and should use the sheer potential of technology to help their individual interpretation. Visual mapping is intrinsically important in my mind, the historian that is able to map out their research and present it to the reader can have a powerful effect over them. Education is key in our world today and I believe a new generation of historians can have a weighty influence in this era, if they utilize the tools available to them.

 

Man Walks Into A Room & Barthes

Favorite Literature

For this week’s blog post, what is your own favorite book, and why?  What is your favorite literary and/or scholarly passage?  Give us the passage and then break it down for us –the vocabulary, the literary devices, the form and the meaning.  If you don’t have a single all-time favorite, use one that is among your favorites or that you have really enjoyed.  This could be audio or written.

I love reading and cannot possibly select an all-time favorite. I have decided to pick a passage from Nicole Krauss’s 2002 debut novel Man Walks into A Room. Man is the story of a Columbia University professor named Samson Greene who remembers nothing after age 12 after he has a brain tumor removed to save his life. Much of the book is a journey into how we create a sense of self as well as a love story between Samson and his wife, Anna. My favorite passage in the book is on the final page (248):

We took a drive and stopped by a path on the side of the road. There was a No Trespassing sign, but we ignored it. The sound of a hunter’s gunshots broke the distance. We ducked into a silo—you could see the sky through the gaps in the tin roof, and there were birds up there. Everything, parts I couldn’t have imagined would care, ached for some physical remark of his love. His mouth was cold and tasted metallic, like the season itself, if that’s possible. To me he always seemed like that, autumnal. Painfully earnest, with an awkward swiftness to the way he moved, a physical remoteness like he was already receding. I don’t remember who kissed whom. It was one of those lucid days in which you can see your whole life like a promise before you.

I have reread this passage more times than I can recall, but it never gets old to me. It is so detailed, lucid, and descriptive. The analogies to describe his character, as autumnal, provide a definition which also raising questions. The writer acts as a narrator for the pair, since she is the only one who can remember, but she also reveals a raw innocence and desperation the reader might surmise is unique to just her. She showcases her own internal monologue and the profound yearning and joy she feels in this moment. The action unfolds sequentially, inviting the reader along, but once Anna becomes something more than mechanical, a person overtaken by the urgency of emotion, then the author shifts into an esoteric, abstract description which is beyond the bounds of time or linear thinking. Yet it remains, at least to me, an entirely relatable encounter with feelings of love and self-discovery.

Barthes

1. According to Barthes all texts contain a plurality of meanings, and he offers five codes/“voices”/perspectives that can be used to interpret a text. Do you think Barthes technique would be helpful in identifying plural meanings in a historical text?

I absolutely think Barthes’s technique offers useful modes for identifying multiple meanings in historical texts. To me, all research projects (certainly in the humanities and social sciences, although arguably in the “hard” sciences, too) begin as investigations which may be considered as explorations of truths. This is similar to how Barthes discusses the hermeneutic code. While I’m not sure all historical research has a proairetic code, I feel like the best research finds a structural point or turning point to engage the audience or reader.

I most appreciated Barthes discussion of how not everything needs to fall in a chronological narrative, describing a classic text as “tabular (and not linear)” and using codes which “establish permutable, reversible connections, outside the constraint of time” (30). I think this is a radical understanding (at least in a cultural and symbolic sense) of narrative, suggesting that a story or event might still make sense even if told out of (expected or customary) order, so to speak. To justify this, Barthes observes three codes. He notes how the semantic code helps to give textual clues which are layered upon by sentences, meanings inside and beyond the text, and from traditional or maybe yet-to-be discovered meanings of definitions and grammar. These are organized by the symbolic code which helps to further transgress a text or work. The cultural code seems especially useful to historians as we understand texts, information, and works based on our (shared) knowledge about the way the world is or operates.  I think all of these codes would allow historians to identify numerous meanings in a text, given that cultural interpretations, as Barthes alludes, are often considered to be inclusive of physical, physiological, medical, psychological, literary, and historical knowledge.

Almost all historical work fuses together a myriad of perspectives. In oral history, we literally have “voices” coming together, but all other forms of historical undertaking uncover and display numerous vantage points, too. Barthes describes this phenomenon when all five codes work together as creating “a kind of network, a topos through which the entire text passes (or, rather, in passing becomes text)” (20). In this way, Barthes helps us to understand that the meaning(s) of a historical text are not fully realized until the process of undertaking research itself is completed.

2. Barthes speaks of a “writerly” approach to writing, ie, one that champions a sort of creative work on the part of the reader. What is a “writerly”(á la his understanding of the term “writerly”) approach to doing history and how can the methods we’ve learned about assist with this “writerly history”?

A “writerly” approach to doing history requires active engagement—likely from historians and the public writ large—in creating texts. Writerly history treats history as something which is living, and not a thing (5) in the past; history needs to be co-produced by a historian to become real or complete.

Three methods we’ve learned about can assist with writerly history in a few important ways. Topic modeling might help the writerly historian envision relationships between people or issues, allowing us as historians to create new narratives or atypical narratives from what usually make sense to us. I also think crowd-sourcing might be especially useful for overcoming traditional barriers to participation and making history into a more inclusive, active process with various kinds of writerly historians in place (recognizing that this might invite ownership concerns, as well). Next, Samara Freemark’s talk highlighted the ways that radio diaries and podcasts can help writerly historians ensure they “tell the right story and give life to it by the material” produced. Implicitly, and more directly in the duration of her talk, Freemark acknowledges the variety of kinds of stories and approaches to stories which can be told. Importantly, this reveals that meanings are not imposed upon historians, but something to be discovered on a journey of grappling with historical texts, interviews, or other information.

Barthes and Ishmael

Do you think Barthes technique would be helpful in identifying plural meanings in a historical text?

Short answer, yes. I can make a case for at least three of the codes: HER, ACT, and REF.

Long answer–I’ll break it down code by code.

HER (hermeneutic code): this code pertains to any unanswered questions or loose ends presented by the text. To me, the HER code brings to mind detective work which is more or less what historians do–through our writing, we present evidence to support a version of the truth (a.k.a., an argument).

Elements of the HER code, such as unanswered questions, also create space for other historians to enter into the same discussion. This is what we do with secondary sources in our historiography. For example, I’m reading a book by Sandra Barney about medical reform in Appalachia from 1880-1930 that focuses on the roles of women and gender in this reform. Although this book shares the same topic as my thesis, I’m approaching it differently by focusing on the persecution of folk healers. So my thesis aims to tie up a loose end presented by Barney’s work.

ACT (proairetic code): the ACT code implies future action, or what I would call “suspense.” Historians don’t necessarily use suspense as a writing tactic, but we do present an argument that we spend the rest of the time supporting. It’s a stretch, but our thesis statement sets up our paper’s future action. We present a claim to our readers that implies what our argument is and leaves them to find out how we will support it.

REF (cultural code): this code has the strongest significance for historians. Our work not only consistently and purposefully points to larger bodies of knowledge, but also directly contributes to them. We also examine the elements of the cultural code in our work. For example, my thesis examines a particular shift in a scientific body of knowledge, from the atmospheric theory of disease to biomedicine and germ theory–and specifically how that shift played a role in Prohibition Era reform in Appalachia.

What is your own favorite book, and why?  What is your favorite literary and/or scholarly passage?  Give us the passage and then break it down for us –the vocabulary, the literary devices, the form and the meaning.

My favorite book is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It is the only assigned book from high school that I actually enjoyed. Ishmael follows an unnamed narrator’s philosophical journey with his teacher/mentor, a giant gorilla named (you guessed it) Ishmael. Ishmael and the narrator tackle the major problems with the human race by tracing the truth behind biblical myths back to the Agricultural Revolution. I won’t ruin the purpose of the book, but it’s enlightening and a wonderful read.

Here’s my favorite passage. Ishmael speaks first (his dialogue is typically longer), then the narrator.

“The Takers will never give up their tyranny over the world, no matter how bad things got. How did they get to be this way?”

I goggled at him.

“They got to be this way because they’ve always believed that what they were doing was right–and therefore to be done at any cost whatever. They’ve always believed that, like the gods, they know what is right to do and what is wrong to do, and what they’re doing is right. Do you see how they’ve demonstrated what I’m saying?”

“Not offhand.”

“They’ve demonstrated it by forcing everyone in the world to do what they do, to live the way they live. Everyone had to be forced to live like the Takers, because the Takers had the one right way.”

“Yes, I can see that….”

[really long, irrelevant-to-this-blog section about being able to choose between agriculture and hunter-gatherer lifestyle]

“…It’s going to be hard as hell for them to give it up, because what they’re doing is right, and they have to go on doing it even if it means destroying the world and mankind with it.”

“Yes, that’s the way it seems.”

“Giving it up would mean . . . what?”

“Giving it up would mean . . . It would mean that all along they’d been wrong. It would mean they’d never known how to rule the world. It would mean . . . relinquishing their pretensions to godhood.”

“It would mean spitting out the fruit of that tree and giving the rule of the world back to the gods.”

“Yes.”

There are LOADS of literary devices in this passage. The most notable is the biblical reference to the fall of Adam. This is a clear cultural code (REF), where Ishmael is referring to a large body of knowledge–Christianity and its book. There’s a vague reference to the story of Abel and Cain that the two characters explore further in the next chapter.

Ishmael and the narrator use biblical tales to examine human error and the destruction that results from civilization. This places humankind’s current predicaments in a much longer history that directly ties modern industrialization to the Agricultural Revolution (REF).

There are several connotations at work as well, the most obvious being the use of Takers to describe agriculturalists. Hunter-gatherers (some of whom practiced agriculture, which Ishmael acknowledges) are referred to as Leavers. This presents a clear dichotomy between “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples. Takers are presented negatively as greedy destruction machines that need to control and claim everything in their conquest of the world. Leavers are discussed in gentler, nobler terms as their more sustainable lifestyle is meant to appeal to the reader (SYM).

 

Roland Barthes’s S/Z

Hey everybody,

S/Z is a complex and theoretically demanding text. I’m personally glad we’re reading it — Barthes’s contribution to critical theory and semiotics has been important to me as a scholar. Active participation in narrative construction pervades so much of later-twentieth-century and contemporary theories of reading.

Julie, Heather and I are going to do our best to help us work through it on Thursday. I think it will be interesting to square his semiotics, narratology, and codification of textual analysis with the methods we’ve been exposed to.

With this in mind, here are some questions we’d like to add to the mix:

  1. According to Barthes all texts contain a plurality of meanings, and he offers five codes/”voices”/perspectives that can be used to interpret a text. Do you think Barthes technique would be helpful in identifying plural meanings in a historical text?
  2. Barthes speaks of a “writerly” approach to writing, ie, one that champions a sort of creative work on the part of the reader. What is a “writerly”(á la his understanding of the term “writerly”) approach to doing history and how can the methods we’ve learned about assist with this “writerly history”?

By the way, has anybody read Sarrasine? 😉

— Team Barthes (Emma, Julie, Heather)

Week 7 Barthes

This week we turn to narrative and the practice of writing more directly.  Barthes, a semiotician, offers a structuralist analysis of a Balzac short story.  In a visit to Virginia Tech a couple years ago, Ira Glass said that S/Z was the most transformative book he read in his own education (as a semiotics major) in thinking about writing and narrative.

For this week’s blog post, what is your own favorite book, and why?  What is your favorite literary and/or scholarly passage?  Give us the passage and then break it down for us –the vocabulary, the literary devices, the form and the meaning.  If you don’t have a single all-time favorite, use one that is among your favorites or that you have really enjoyed.  This could be audio or written.

REMINDER ABOUT COURSE UPDATES: Because of the extra week on the map visualization project, the podcast Script Outline is now due March 9th, the Draft Script now due March 16th, and the Script Comments come back shortly thereafter.  We will read and discuss Szarkowski March 16th.

Week 6 Wrap-Up

This was a busy week, with two very different uses of digital technology.

Jamie Donati’s work ultimately illustrates the ongoing transformation of traditional disciplines like archaeology, which expanded to survey archaeology and now employs remote sensing to help make sense of historical landscapes.  Donati didn’t mention, but even in pit archaeology researchers now often take 3-D scans of an excavation in lieu of a detailed artist’s drawing/sketch of features discovered in a pit.

Remote sensing and geophysics have a wide array of mainstream uses and historians are only just now learning about their uses in our research.

Our discussion with Samara Freemark drove the idea of digital technology enabling robust investigation and emphasized narrative.  For her, digital technology was less fetishized, less of a challenge, and seemed in many ways to fit into traditional practices of analog audio production (eg phrases like “good tape” from recorded interviews).  However, in our pre-interview she also asked about historians’ content management systems and how to keep track of all of the materials that historians amass on a large project like a book.  To that end, I think this essay by Ansley Erickson (who visited in the fall) could be helpful to any of us.

Samara also made mention of the Hero’s Journey, an idea explicated by Joseph Campbell, which is a useful one for thinking about narrative and putting individual agency at the center of a project.

Map assignment

For your second map, you should feel free to develop any new derived data or visualization you want.  There are several calculations you could do.  You could create a “Margin of Victory” column by taking the Victor’s number of votes, subtracting the second candidate’s number of votes, then dividing by the total number of votes in the district. You could explore the “IF” function to do this and use a typical chloropleth visualization for it.

If you wanted to go one step further in the visualization, you could create a new column that concatenated the party of the victor (or its first letter) with the margin of victory, so you could say a district was R12 or D7, then assign a reddish or bluish color to that margin of victory.  When you visualize the map, (right click on the shapefile>>Properties>>Symbology, then there is a menu that comes up; I recommend you choose quantities, rather than the categories we used in the first visualization).  Other data to consider visualizing would be overall votes in a district, popularity (votes) for a third-party candidate.  These are just suggestions, not assignments — let your heart sing in the midst of the cartography.  You have many choices in the process of visualizing and you should reflect on each specific choice you make, whether it helps you communicate something more powerfully or with greater simplicity and less clutter.

Freemark Resources

Tomorrow we will be joined by Samara Freemark, one of the producers for In the Dark, and formerly of Radio Diaries.  Here are some examples of her work before In the Dark.

Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair

The Two Lives of Asa Carter

The Gospel Ranger

Samara has also asked about historians’ content management systems — when you have hundreds or thousands of documents on a project, how do you keep them straight and accessible?

Thursday, February 23rd

Tomorrow we will have two visitors via Skype.  The first is Jamie Donati, the archaeologist who does remote sensing.  We read two of his articles two weeks ago and will have him for the first hour.  The second is Samara Freemark, one of the producers of the In the Dark podcast.  She will join us 4-5pm.

Because of our guests, we will reschedule the Szarkowski discussion for another week (to be set in the 5 o’clock hour).

ADVICE: Don’t delay on your map visualizations.

Social media review

I realized that I forgot to do a write-up of my experience running the public history social media accounts last week! Oh no!

I really wasn’t worried about controlling the twitter and facebook accounts. I’m very comfortable with social media and think I understand the different tones required for different websites pretty well. Before the week started I had even noted a couple articles that I wanted to share. And we had some great guest speakers lined up to come to campus so those are basically freebie posts.

But then disaster struck in the form of bronchitis at the end of the week. I never got to my required 15 tweets. I think I made it to 12. So what I learned from that is to tweet as much as you can while you’re feeling well so that when you get really sick you can literally sleep on it without guilt. Plan for emergencies by tweeting a ton early in the week.

There is a very different feeling tweeting from an ~official~ account than just tweeting from your own. I had to double check on a few occasions that I was on the right account. It’s also funny because there are certain corporate or institutional social media accounts that I love like the Denny’s tumblr or the Waterstones twitter. I never like to think of the actual people writing and posting their content. I like to imagine that an actual sentient Denny’s restaurant is blogging. So I had to break my own illusions about that as I became VT Public History.

But this did lead to my favorite tweet. Since I had transformed into the mouthpiece of the program I was excited to interact with other institutional twitter accounts. (Because we always love it when Wendy’s @replies Taco Bell or something.) So on Valentine’s Day I retweeted that the Virginia Tech English department account was tweeting out poems about all different forms of love. In return they sent us this Emily Brontë poem for “platonic love.” And I really felt like I had made a friend for the program as a whole. I definitely wish I had made more of an effort to interact with different accounts.