Monthly Archives: September 2014

“…in accordance with the traditions of cat lore:” An Untrained Historian’s View of Cultural Anthropology

I have long nursed a soft spot for ethnographies, which has led me to the false belief that I enjoy anthropology. As an undergrad, I took an introductory anthropology course. From what I recall, there was a lot of talk about early man and Lucy and cranium measurements, and that’s about it. I also remember learning a lot about how to flirt with the guy sitting next to you in class, and that somehow George Bush was responsible for all of the ills caused to mankind since homo sapiens sapiens started walking upright. Actually, I’m not even sure that homo sapiens sapiens were the first ones to start walking upright. That’s what I mean—anthropology sounded great in my head, but in practice was just an excuse to share coffee with cute dudes. What saved that class for me was that loved the ethnographies we read. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea’s Guests of the Sheik and Savages by Joe Kane read like novels and were the only books I didn’t gleefully sell-back from that class. Yet somehow I have maintained my delusion that I enjoy anthropology. I suppose it’s the same delusion that makes me believe I enjoy astronomy, when in reality I think the world would exist just fine without physics.

Knowing this, I happily set about our readings for this week. “Cultural anthropology,” I thought, “what fun! I love this stuff! The interdisciplinarity of history is what makes it so wonderful!” While I still believe that interdisciplinarity is one of the main aspects of the discipline that makes its study enjoyable, I don’t think cultural anthropology is for me. As I read through the first chapter of Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, I found myself entirely caught up with how similar the study of cultural anthropology is to the study of history. Both have a similar fundamental foundation, as seen when Geertz explains Clyde Kluckhohn’s twelve-parted definition of culture, as well as an interpretive view of its own disciplinary past. The two disciplines seemed complimentary, and I assumed that aspects of each could be easily used in either field. It was with this belief in mind that I set about reading Robert Darnton’s article about his book, The Great Cat Massacre.

I would be lying if I claimed that Darnton’s accounts of animal violence didn’t disturb me. They did. However, I appreciated the fact that many things can seem foreign in a culture that is not your own, and I anticipated his explanation and analysis of the “funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent.”[1] Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Perhaps it was because this article was just a brief summary of his larger work, but I felt that it was incomplete and failed to explain important points. In fact, I would have found his piece more satisfying had he not approached it from an anthropological standpoint. His explanation of the events surrounding the 1730s killing was clear, and he provided a strong context for the events that transpired. It was when he began making broad claims about the significance of these events to their participants, and the meaning of their actions, though, that I began to scrawl unhappy notes in the margin. He labors to explain that violence towards cats was common throughout Europe during this period, yet later uses the same acts of violence as a vehicle to explain how and why the journeymen printers behaved as they did. Wouldn’t this, then, make the meaning of their behavior common to all the rest of Europe as well? In establishing the historical credibility of their actions, doesn’t he rob himself of the ability to establish this as a culturally significant and singular act?

Darnton continued on to explain that “the text made the theme of sorcery explicit from the beginning,” and explored the implications that this theme had on the story.[2] He claims that the master printer viewed the situation seriously, while the journeymen saw it all as one big joke; the journeymen purposely and symbolically exerted their power over their master through their acts.[3] Yet, again I found myself asking how much meaning Darnton, as an analyst, had imposed on these actions, how much agency he gave to the journeymen and how much naivete he had imposed on the master. The only account of this story was composed years after the massacre. Darnton himself says that “He [Nicholas Contat, the author] selected details, ordered events, and framed the story in such a way as to bring out what was meaningful for him. But he derived his notions of meaning from his culture just as naturally as he drew in air from the atmosphere around him.”[4] From a historical standpoint, Contat’s narrative is an unreliable source. While any written account does necessarily include the author’s bias, Contat had liberal time to absorb the events, reflect upon them, gauge the society in which he was living and writing, and compose the events into a series that created whatever meaning he thought best. What if all of Darnton’s symbols and meaning were constructed years later by Contat?

Roger Chartier’s criticism of the piece much more thoroughly and eloquently explored the potential weaknesses of Darnton’s piece than I have been able to do. Although I do balk at claiming that Darnton’s restrictions are, in fact, weaknesses. Darnton clearly approaches a topic in history from the position of cultural anthropology, and does so very well. I suppose my concerns come from the fact that I support a more solidly historical approach to analysis. As Chartier says, “…it is indisputable that the most pressing question inherent in cultural history today…is that of the different ways in which groups or individuals make use of, interpret, and appropriate the intellectual motifs or cultural forms they share with others.”[5] Darnton boldly stepped outside the realm of traditional historical analysis to attempt to impose culturally-based meaning on the journeymen’s actions. However, I believe it would have been more appropriate to take Contat’s narrative and explore the meaning of his choices. By dissecting Contat’s story, we can learn much more about his mores and world view than we can of pseudo-fictional journeymen printers from the 1730s. If Darnton had endeavored to “…take the text as a text and to try to determine its intentions, its strategies, and the effects produced by his discourse,” I believe he would have produced a more meaningful piece.[6] It seems tenuous to claim symbolic meaning of a third-party act, yet that is what Darnton does.

In the end, though, the world does not work without physics—and I recognize that. I try to wrap my mind around the formulas and laws, and it sometimes works. Such is also my relationship with anthropology. I understand its utility, and I support its use by historians. Yet there is a part of it that I don’t quite completely understand. That’s the part of me that would have preferred Darnton to analyze Contat’s narrative as a text in and of itself, rather than using it as a vehicle to analyze the subjects represented therein. That’s the part of me that still believes that something of Darnton’s work itself employed “cat lore,” which, in the language of symbolism that I have created to surround my evening, is defined as a fickle, tenuous symbolism subject to intense interpretation. It makes me wonder how my readers, if anyone has gotten this far, will interpret my interpretation of these readings and ideas.


[1] Robert Darnton, “The Great Cat Massacre,” History Today, (August 1994): 7.

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Roger Chartier, “Text, Symbols, and Frenchness,” The Journal of Modern History, 57, no.4 (De., 1985): 688.

[6] Ibid., 194.


Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

How Marxism Made Me an Optimist

The theme of this weekend, for me at least, seems to be “willful disobedience.” So, while I fully understand that the purpose of this week’s readings was to teach me to put the historian E.P. Thompson’s writings within the framework of Marxist theory, I’m going to, instead, think and write about history itself. It may seem like an exhausted trend after the past few weeks, but it’s something I feel compelled to explore at least once more.

As a student, I’ve always thought that history is long—it has happened for thousands of years; it has existed in the same manner, more or less, for hundreds of centuries. However, our readings in Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line truly showed me that history as we practice it is young; indeed, the history that I have grown up knowing and doing is little older than a lifetime. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve known this, but until today it appears to have never quite sunk in. Certainly, I understood that history has changed over time; I understood that there had been a shift during the 19th century, and again during the mid-20th century. Tosh’s The Pursuit of History had taught me about Ranke and the formation of history as we know it. So why did Eley’s piece strike me so? After all, we only read the section about Marxist theory. Three things, I believe, are what truly made me feel so connected with this work.

First, Eley’s conscious choice of tone made me feel as if I were sitting in an office with my very educated advisor. While reading, Eley was talking with me, allowing me to absorb content about the history of history while also advising me, imparting learned-wisdom. Through his well-explained use of personal pronouns, the book became one large conversation between the two of us. My marginalia became responses to his content, and we passed a few hours in pleasant exchange. Some things I did not understand, some rhetoric made me cock my head to the side and wrinkle my forehead, but most of all I was happily coerced into meaningful thought. I sipped tea and digested historical theory. My time was well-spent. We, Eley and I, both had purpose for a few hours’ time.

Second, this reading provided proof to me that individuals can experience history as a thing. Not as a passion or a profession, but as a tangible, changeable thing. Eley began school learning in the early, Rankeian mode and was, he says, bored with it. It wasn’t until he stepped outside the academic classroom and began exploring the local Paperback Shop which received new monthly shipments of new theory works.[1] For Eley, this pseudo-education helped to lay the foundation of the traditional education he received during his graduate studies. During a very brief period, he went from being trained in what was becoming an outdated mode to practicing social and cultural history. What hope this gives to a new graduate student. While I certainly don’t expect to become a historian in the same right as Eley, his story inspires confidence. During the last greatest change, new historians not only survived but succeeded. They were as uncertain as I am, and yet were able to create a more broadly applicable and accessible history by maintaining a dialogue, and by being excited by the changes taking place around them. By becoming involved, by educating himself and by seeking information from others, Eley became a contributor to history and historiography.

Finally, this optimism comes in the wake of three weeks of graduate school where I have learned that the state of history is currently in flux; that the field itself is changing, in more ways than we can count. The shift to digital history (recently explored in readings, blog musings, and class discussions) seems, at least in my small academic world, to be met with mixed feelings. There are those who have slight misgivings, those who are willfully disobedient and deny that change is taking place, and there are those who are embracing the shift and are excited to be a part of it. As our class discussion has evolved over the past few weeks, we have discussed the potential for incredible achievements and the potential for danger that our current digital shift involves. Yet, hearing about Eley’s experiences in the 1960s and 1970s again gives hope that we are in yet another natural, paradigm shift. As he explained of the shifts he experienced, “Methods improve, archives expand, subareas proliferate, bad interpretations are junked, and better interpretations mature.”[2] Just as this happened during the emergence of Marxist theory within history, and with the development of an interdisciplinary, social-science based approach to history in the 20th century, so too can this evolution of change happen with our current shift. The future of history is not so bleak as we, or at least I, have come to believe in the past few weeks. As in the past when “[historians have] been required to respond not just to the various transformations internal to the discipline, including the remarkable changes in the society of the profession, but also to the constant pressure of events in the wider social and political arenas,” so too will my fellow students and I respond to the changing climate of the history we have entered and will become a part of.

Perhaps it is the warm weight of the ginger-haired cat sitting on my lap tonight, or the accomplishment I felt after flipping through a book just to read its footnotes, or my excitement to get to class to talk about the Thompson essays that is giving me this sense of calm and purpose. Historians have met change before, historians will meet change ahead. The profession and field of history will persist, as it has. We cannot be like Eley’s early professors who “willfully closed their eyes to the changes occurring outside.”[3] And I know that we will not. The key is to remain in dialogue, to explore the interdisciplinarity of the field, to experiment with what can be thought, and to be willfully disobedient (while still respecting theory and methodology, of course…I’m not crazy). We must endeavor, we must explore, and we must drink tea—and we will flourish.



[1] Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 4.

[2] Ibid,. 6.

[3] Ibid., 2.



Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

“Expanding and Blurring:” What Becomes History in a Digital Age?

The first blog post I composed for History 5104 was just a few weeks ago, and it was an extremely stressful experience for me. Not only was I worried about whether or not I’d satisfactorily completed my assignment, I was filled with anxiety about publicly posting my thoughts. Should I be allowed to so openly voice my opinions on a topic when I’m still just a student? Is my voice important enough to be heard? What if, by some fluke, someone actually reads this stuff? Without realizing it, I was engaging in the practice of digital history. I was forcibly elbowing my way into a global discussion in a field that has, arguably, not experienced such massive change since the 19th century. To me, that was, and remains, terrifying. Instead of spending years focusing on a body of work, having it vetted by respected academics in my field, and then releasing it as historians have typically done, I was just letting my thoughts out there, like releasing balloons into the sky.

The field of history is changing…but what, then, is the historian’s role in this changing world? While Ranke codified and professionalized history in the 19th century, today we are facing a mass disbursement of information and a veritable cacophony of voices determining what history is. As Leslie Madsen-Brooks states, “…one important role for historians at this cultural and digital moment is helping people gain the skills to interpret an era’s documents, photographs, and material culture.”[1] That is exactly why I find myself writing this post. Four years after finishing my BA, I decided to leave an awesome position at a museum to return to school. While I loved and was good at my job, I wanted to be trained as a historian. I wanted to more fully understand the methodology of a historian, to be taught and trained, to become better, to become erudite enough to engage knowingly in a historical conversation no matter where it takes place—in a journal, on a conference panel, or on a blog. In coming to Virginia Tech, I am looking to my professors to do just what Madsen-Brooks claims is their role—to continue training laypeople to understand how to do history. In essence, one of the most basic roles of a historian needs to be that of a teacher, whether it is to the general public or to a class of graduate students.

Even before coming to grad school, though, I could have engaged in this conversation as so many others do. As Robert S. Wolff discusses, Wikipedia and similar sources have allowed for an incredibly diversity of voices to engage in not only the discussion but the creating of history.[2] One could argue, then, that what is happening right now is exactly what historians have been trying to do over the last 60 years or so. Instead of looking back to try to find lost voices and marginalized histories, individuals are taking the initiatives to record their own history as it is happening, and to offer their thoughts on history—in a sense adding to the historiography of that topic. While the conversation can seem chaotic and undisciplined, isn’t this the kind of materials historians have been dying to find since New History came to life?

In addition to helping non-historians to acquire the critical and analytical skills needed to interpret and understand sources, historians can also provide a curated offering of historical materials for the general population. This already happens, of course, in museums and libraries and at universities across the world, but it’s also happening on the internet. Some of my favorite examples come, interestingly enough, from Michigan. For years I have been using the resources provided by Michigan State University at their Feeding America online exhibit for my research. This online exhibit provides not only transcriptions, but also scans of original materials and information concerning provenance. As Sherman Dorn pointed out in his essay, actual copies can be of far greater value to historians due to the potential presence of marginalia or annotations.[3] MSU offers even greater context for this exhibition, providing an introductory essay, a video tour, a collection of FAQ, and other items that provide context for the exhibition. Just today I found another wonderful online exhibition from the University of Michigan’s Clements Library concerning the history of sugar production and trade. These exhibitions make amazing resources available to anyone with just a few mouse clicks, but what makes them wonderful is that they don’t leave their user alone to muddle through alone. Instead, they give a bit of interpretation to guide their user, showing another critical way that historians can curate or mediate the dissemination of historical knowledge in our growing digital library.

It’s clear that the internet must now be considered a source for history, just as our books and journals have been in the past. The internet diminishes privilege of access to resources in an exciting way, while also allowing for potential abuse. With easier access there will certainly be more misinformed interpretations and more spreading of inaccuracies. However, this provides historians with the opportunity to proselytize. Instead of bemoaning the spread of falsehoods, historians—professional historians included—need to take this opportunity during a time of change to solidly re-root their profession and demonstrate how essential they are to daily life. History flows through the veins of every individual; every political, social, or cultural movement; and every community. The distance between history and those who compose it is being shortened, and the days of history being only found at academic presses are potentially ending—but that doesn’t mean that methodology and academic rigor need to be lost. Indeed, it provides historians with the opportunity to spread their knowledge and remind everyone of the inherent worth of the study of history.






[1] Leslie Madsen-Brooks, “’I Nevertheless Am a Historian’: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 2013),–writing-history-in-the-digital-age?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#4.1.

[2] Robert S. Wolff, “The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 2013),–writing-history-in-the-digital-age?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#4.1.

[3] Sherman Dorn, “Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past?,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 2013),–writing-history-in-the-digital-age?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#4.1.


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Storytelling and the Purpose of History

I don’t frequently get angry, but when I do it’s typically self-righteous anger. That’s exactly what I found myself filled with as I read the Cronon article, and I couldn’t get past it. As someone who has been involved in living history and interpretation, I know how easy it is to fall into the ease of simply storytelling. How easy it is for someone who is not a historian to fully believe that all history is is storytelling. But, at the end, I don’t want to just be a storyteller. I don’t want to be an actor regurgitating meaningless lines to make a visitor content in what they see. I actively sought a career in history as opposed to English because I wanted to be so much more than a storyteller. So, what is Cronon saying in his AHA presidential address, “Storytelling?”

I would argue that, as the reader of his story, my reaction is more important than what he has to say. Isn’t, at the end of the day, a story composed to elicit a reaction? As Cronon explores the narrative style of historians such as Michael Pollan and filmmakers such as John Sayles, he makes the note that Pollan is an extremely engaging storyteller who can carry his reader through a myriad of topics and content, and that Sayles is able to fill his films with “evocative moments.” As someone who has long been involved in public history, I feel there is a strong case for not just focusing on these “evocative moments” or author-led narratives. At least, I never resorted to them during the five years I interpreted or during the 12 years I was involved in some way with living history interpretation.

When I was interpreting 19th century domestic life, my intention was not to evoke emotion from my visitors. Rather, it was to create a connection with them, a bridge into history, so that they could feel ownership over history in some way. My connections were crafted through food—by comparing and contrasting the meals that I was preparing and how they related to meals prepared today. I tried my best to dismiss the shock-value of having flies in my kitchen, or having fresh meat from a recently butchered animal. Instead, I tried to use those facts as jumping off points for conversation that was personal to the visitor. I only ever relied on shocking moments of emotion when I was personally tired or disconnected from the interpretation. On those occasions, I certainly did my visitors a disservice.

Third person interpretation has always served me well, because it allows me to create an active conversation between the visitor, history, and me—as Cronon says, Carl Becker stated the role of a historian “…was to place the past in dialogue with the present.” It was through giving these visitors a sense of ownership over the history we discussed that they were truly able to connect, to truly understand, to become interested in doing further reading and research.

Is first person interpretation, then, bad? It does prompt us to ask how disparate narrative and historical truth can be, since the modern individual has only limited resources. Is “acting” in first person dishonest to the truth of history because it is giving voice and autonomy to thoughts that may have never existed? I can see its utility; I can see the attractiveness of edutainment and the wish to engage people with theatrics. However, I see them as being historically dishonest, because we won’t ever know what was felt, spoken, explored. By participating in historical storytelling we are robbing history of the story it actually has to tell—we’re putting words in its mouth that don’t belong there.

Cronon’s point that historians must seek a fresh and engaging way to relate the stories of history is valid—without engaging future generations and the populace in general, the field will die. “Remember to always be on guard against boredom,” Cronon says. Digital history in the form of social media, etc., has offered ways for historians to stay relevant. Yes, this is true. However, history shouldn’t be turned into shock-and-awe journalism or a movie in order to stay relevant. There are other ways. History cannot be navigated by following a leader such as an author—to do so is to undermine the critical thinking inherently necessary to the profession of historian.

It’s all very well to tell stories, but it is important, in my opinion, to note lose history in the story. When non-historians become involved in history, it is a swift and dangerous fall into drama and theatre that represents nothing more than anachronism and simply evokes emotion without content. There’s a lesson to be learned from storytelling, and a balance to be struck between remaining relevant and retaining professional integrity. It is possible. And, now that I have concluded my raving thoughts on Cronon’s storytelling, I’ll perhaps be able to continue my assignments for the week. Cronon told a story; he evoked an emotion; he based his narrative on accepted truth and documentation; he appropriately achieved his goal as a historian, right?


Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

On Compromised Sources and Knowing Nothing

As week two of grad school gets fully underway, I definitely shouldn’t be taking up time to write this. This is just for fun, though I’m not altogether sure when “fun” and “writing a blog post about history” became the same thing, or when “relaxing” involved doing the same thing I’m assigned to do for a class. Ah, well, things change. Isn’t that what history is all about?

During today’s Methods class, a classmate who works with modern history brought up that her primary resources are frequently documents that have been recently declassified. Many of these have been, at least in part, intentionally redacted by the government. As we were discussing how to use a document that has been blacked out in what seems like essential places, the thought struck me—isn’t all of history a redacted document?

My research interest lies in the 18th century, a time period from which adequate primary source materials still exist to complete meaningful research. However, instead of dealing with purposefully blacked out spaces, I must contest with gaps in time and matter. Missing documents, items that no longer exists, artifacts that weren’t properly preserved and now no longer exist—these all constitute the blanks that exist on these modern, declassified documents.

Time period of focus notwithstanding, there are other cases of this. As you begin to explore more obscure or marginalized branches of history, the blackness becomes increasingly prevalent. Given the nature of the study of history, a great many people and opinions were obscured from the pages that have created our history. As John Howard commented in 2001, “…queer history was not always documented. Letters were burned, lives went unremarked.”[1] While this is not an intentional redacting of information, it results in essentially the same thing. What makes these gaps any less tangible than those blacked out lines my classmate faces? A perspective won’t be seen, a voice not heard, an opinion discredited because there isn’t concrete evidence to support its existence.

While historians attempt to compile a truthful account of something, what are the implications of these gaps? Does it necessarily mean that the historian needs to inject additional interpretation? Is there a situation where a historian can allow the eloquence of the absences to tell a unique story? Is there any way for historians to address the gaps and blacknesses they face, and still have a meaningful conversation, fully aware of the fact that they’re all working within a potentially compromised set of circumstances? As I sit here blinking, wide-eyed, trying to think about this, the Tootsie Pop owl comes to mind. And all I can conclude is hey, “the world may never know.”


[1] John Howard, introduction to Modern American Queer History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 10.

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