And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth, I said;
For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” (1)
The last few days, I’ve been turning Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent post about the place of hope in the practice of history – or rather, his contention that the latter leads to a lack of the former – over in my mind.
Filed under: Found Historiography, Power At Play | Tags: canals, empire, highways, Railroads, transcontinental railroad, travel
Or, You Make a Better Road Than A Destination, America
It’s been a busy week for the appreciation of the promise and perils of transcontinental, or if you prefer, inter-oceanic, travel.
Allow me to explain…
Filed under: Found Historiography | Tags: Cotton, Global trade, Met, Silk, Textiles
Or, A Mini-Museum Review, In Three Parts
Or, I came, I marveled, I exited through the gift shop
I. The current Met Exhibit on early modern textile trading is FANTASTIC. If you’ve got the means and the opportunity, I heartily recommend getting out to “Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800.” And do it quickly! It closes January 5th. (And if you can’t get there, at least go to the website and look at some of this stuff). It’s a fascinating display of objects that are astounding enough on their own, but the way Amelia Peck and her colleagues have put them together really does something new. Put briefly, they’ve selected choice conversations in fabric to showcase early modern globalization through one of its driving forces, textile production and consumption.
II. But! There are quibbles. First the bigger picture: they’ve got a slideshow at the beginning that depicts trade routes – but only those transoceanic links frequented by Europeans. Now, the centuries-long development of deep-water European maritime trading was a crucial event, but those ventures never operated in a vacuum, even on the water. The Indian ocean was not a blank but for Portuguese ships; it had thriving networks of dhows connecting Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist worlds. Similarly, China’s traders had fleets of junks making connections to Southeast Asia and Japan that facilitated all kinds of exhange, even of European design ideas. However, the opening presentation leaves one to suppose that all transcultural transmission was the result of traveling Europeans, and announces the show’s narrative to be a simplistic story of East-West interaction (one where Europeans appear to have more agency, in many cases, than non-Europeans).
Luckily this is an interpretation that the items on display emphatically undermine, in myriad ways. So this is not a case of a deep misunderstanding on the part of the curators, but rather a matter of failing, in the introductory instance, to effectively communicate the more complex reality. Still, a more accurate set of maps would have gone a long way to setting things up.
Second, a more personally-interested beef: one of the last wall texts in the exhibit (pictured above) was so full of Nopes (and half-Nopes) about North America and Asian trade that I nearly quibbled myself out of the room. So don’t buy what this sign is selling you: the smuggling trade in Asian goods was extensive, and colonial Americans did indeed have access to “the real thing”; American “engagement with the Asian trade” had its booms and busts, but nonetheless continued throughout the nineteenth-century, not just for a short time; in the specific case of Indian cottons, geopolitics and simple political economy tamped down their consumption well before cotton agriculture or textile production got going in the U.S.; and so on, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Long story short, this wall text channels narratives and just-so stories that come from (way) older scholarship –– or, more generously, takes its cues from the history of fashion or artistic styles alone, and not the wider history.
III. But man, the works on display! Are amazing. Beautiful, incredibly well-preserved, and just gorgeous examples of wonderful art – I really can’t say that enough. The Met’s curators have very ably, and very intelligently, put these items into dialogue, and have thereby made a convincing argument about the need to see world trade, art, and the lived experience of globalization as all operating within the same frame.
I very much hope they do many more such exhibits in the future.
Image 1: “Sarasa with Small Rosettes,” 18th century, India, Cotton. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.57
Image 2: The vexing wall text. Courtesy(?) of the author.
Filed under: Found Historiography, Our Glorious National Heritage | Tags: Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton Mixtape, In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Or, thoughts on The Hamilton Mixtape by Lin-Manuel Miranda
I’ll be direct: Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius, as a musician, a writer, and possibly as an historian, too. Grand words, no? Admittedly, I tend toward hyperbole – but indulge me and watch the video above, and tell me if it doesn’t ring true.
How do you bring history to the masses who hunger for knowledge, and perhaps a sandwich, too? One denizen of my fair city has a solution: write up deli menus with Civil War-related historical facts. I found the following while brunching on bagel and coffee at my local lunch counter.
Everything you need to know about the Election of 1860:
…or lyceums (better than the scanty Wikipedia entry!)?:
And it’s not too soon to order flowers and remember the cultural work of Reconstruction and Redemption:
Historiography while you digest. I like it.
Image cite: im_alex, “Special BLT,” Flickr, CC License
Filed under: Found Historiography | Tags: Abraham Lincoln, book review, Found History, Vampires
Or, The Found History of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
[NB: updated to remove an egregiously incorrect Confederates in the Attic reference]
Vampires! Slavery! Spoiler Alert!
Or, A New Series
I’ve been toying with the idea of running a regular series here. Clearly, research tidbits — as fun as random quotes from antebellum newspapers are — do not for consistent updates make. But about what? I got to thinking about how I really enjoyed writing that Hacker History piece, and the (quite lively) discussion that followed (on FB, anyway).
Too, I want to find ways to make the relevance of historical work visible — and to think about the ways in which historical thinking shapes how we speak, write, and act in venues beyond the Journal of American History.
So. From now on, every week I’m going to try and find an example of historical thinking, or historical practice, in some non-professional history realm and then chew on it for a while, but, like, with words. I think Tom Scheinfeldt’s term for this — Found History — describes what I’m after pretty well, so that’ll serve as the tag/title (until I find something better).(1)
In “The Big Idea,” Scalzi invites other sci-fi and fantasy authors to discuss “what makes their books tick — and what that meant for the writing process.” The most recent entry is by N.K. Jemisin, author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Rather unusually, Jeminis opens by discussing someone else’s book — specifically what she’s learned from Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
She starts by talking about Mann’s work because
… this is the kind of thing that really gets me going: hidden truths. History is written by the victors, after all — which means that beneath many historical “facts” lie counter-facts and conflicting events, illogical assumptions and unrealized motivations, all of which would shake us to our foundations if we ever found out the truth. Maybe. …This is what I decided to write an epic fantasy about.
Hidden truth isn’t really a new concept in fantasy, granted. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” (LotR) trilogy is basically the coda of a much longer symphony that most of its principals don’t know they’re playing. …
This kind of epic fantasy has always felt incomplete to me, somehow. Yeah, sure, there’s a certain mental comfort food in the idea of putting the world back to rights. But there’s always a part of me that wonders, which rights should it be put back to? Did the heroes make the best choice, or just the easiest one? Who gets to answer that question?
What Jemisin’s says about the motivation behind her work sounds a lot like the sorts of questions that motivate – and originate in – historical research, albeit with seriously higher stakes (usually finding out a “hidden” historical “truth” does not lead to a long walk to Mordor. Usually).
Specifically, the way she phrases the consequences of answering these questions (“shake us to our foundations”) sounds a lot like one of the most powerful, and common, uses of contemporary historiography: undermining legitimacy.
I like Jemisin’s formulation a lot. Since beginning grad school, I’ve frequently had moments where I encounter an argument that suddenly calls into question something I hadn’t even thought to wonder about, a “hidden truth” abruptly revealed in a seminar or book conclusion. (3)
As in Jemisin’s book, these mostly have the effect of simultaneously delegitimizing an institution (or worldview), usually by just noting it’s recent provenance, and constructing something else in its place. Sort of like an ideological dynastic cycle, with all the terrible (or awesome) consequences that can have.
Let me give you a few examples:
Surprise! The idea of being loyal to a nation-state — one nation, under God, indivisible, etc etc — is quite recent (three centuries, at most, rather less in most places). See: These United States vs. The United States, postbellum shift in usage of. Also, France.
Surprise! The Founding Fathers (et al.) were, in large part, making it up as they went along (though they too argued by appealing to past fathers of liberty). Worse, they trended more than a little to the conspiracy-nut side of the spectrum. See: anything they ever wrote. (No, seriously.)
Or, at an even more basic level: Surprise! All the things you thought were totally natural about human life, especially social and cultural life, have, at one time or another, not been the norm for a significant number of people — whole civilizations, even. See: marriage, sex, money, religion, etc. Even this idea of “the natural” is a rather new one that had a great deal of trouble establishing itself, too.
Now, none of these will be earth shattering to anyone with a passing familiarity with contemporary history, or even to scholarship in general. Nor is it to say that everything is relative.
Rather, it’s to throw into relief what “real-life” hidden truths look like — as Clifford Geertz and others have put it, “it’s turtles all the way down.” Turtles may be silly, but jenga-stacks of turtles are important.
Knowing the “hidden truth” means above all understanding the contingency of it all — while still recognizing that contingent events and structures (WWI, democratic politics) nonetheless have real power.
This is where I think I may part ways with Jemisin; I think she’s more interested playing more with the consequences of revelation of particular truths (and more power to her!), whereas a lot of what historians do is take the same “facts” and sift them through different filters — so, often it’s the filter (imposed or unearthed by the historian), rather than the “truth” itself that we’re trying to argue for, or explain the consequences of.
Big reveals, by themselves, have substantially less power in our world, at least without the proper engine (ideological, material, institutional, etc) to drive them forward, or a proper hook to give them purchase. “Hidden truths” have a lot of inertia to overcome, partly because they are inescapably filtered. But I think Jemisin’s historiography has given her access to a very rich narrative seam to mine, indeed.
Image cite: Stuck in Customs, “The Zen Peace In Your Mind,” Flickr, CC License
Found History explores public and digital history in all its forms. It pays special mind to the myriad ways non-professionals do history, sometimes without even knowing it. By taking seriously the work of amateurs and professionals alike, as well as new trends in digital history and digital humanities, Found History aims to foster a broader understanding of what history is and who should be called an historian.
Incidentally, I highly recommend Scalzi’s blog, Whatever. As part of my recent renewed interest in sci-fi writing, I’ve been reading it in tandem with another blog by an author — Charles Stross’s aptly-named Charlie’s Diary — and thoroughly enjoying both.
I’ve been a huge fan of Stross’s Laundry Series for a while now (thanks little sis!), but I haven’t read any of Scalzi fiction except for his most recent novella, The God Engines, which I liked quite a bit. But even aside from sci-fi work, both Stross and Scalzi have smart, smart, smart things to say about writing, being an author, and commercial publishing.
Blogs by smart people who can write well, and who aren’t crazy: I’m a fan.
(3). Which is nice, because that’s actually why I showed up. It wasn’t just for the gentlemanly penury and occasional free lunch.