On Storytelling and Disengaging from Immediate Intuition

pierrebourdieu2This is part of a collection of posts of quotations from The Sociologist and the Historian, (first published in French in 2010 and in English in 2015), a short collection of transcripts from a series of late 1987/early 1988 radio interviews between Roger Chartier and the late social theorist, Pierre Bourdieu.

Here I am often tempted to tease my historian friends. They have a concern with writing, with good form, that is quite legitimate, but often they spare themselves the raw vulgarities of the concept, which are extremely important for the progress of the science. The concern for a good story can be very important because there is also a function of evocation, and one of the ways of constructing a scientific object is also to make it felt, make it seen, evoke it almost in the Michelet sense, though I do not care for this very much myself. Can you evoke a structure? That seems very strange, but it is one of the functions of the historian — as distinct from the sociologist, whose task it is, on the contrary, to disengage the immediate intuition; if he wants to explain and election night, he knows that the reader already knows too much about it; so he has to cut back, get down to the essential; while the historian, if he wants to talk about the Benedictine monks, can bring in the forest, etc. There is a function of fine style here. But sometimes, I believe, historians sacrifice too much to good form, and to that extent, do not carry through the break with initial experience, with aesthetic preferences, with the enjoyments associated with the object. (81)

Listen to the original radio broadcast, in French, here.
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On Anachronism

bourdieuThis is part of a collection of posts of quotations from The Sociologist and the Historian, (first published in French in 2010 and in English in 2015), a short collection of transcripts from a series of late 1987/early 1988 radio interviews between Roger Chartier and the late social theorist, Pierre Bourdieu.

I believe that one of the contributions of my work … has been to turn the scientific gaze onto science itself. For example, to take occupational classifications as the object of analysis instead of using them without hesitation or reflection. The paradox is that historians, for example … often show an extraordinary naivety in their use of categories. For example, it is impossible to conduct longitudinal statistical studies comparing the status of medical doctors from the eighteenth century through to our day — perhaps I’m inventing this example — without being clear that the notion of a ‘doctor’ is a historical construction that has constantly changed. It is the very categories with which the historic object is constructed that should be the object of a historical analysis.

The same pertains in relation to the terms with which we speak about reality. ‘Politics,’ for example, is completely a historically constituted notion, constituted very recently; the world of what I call the political field is practically an invention of the nineteenth century. You could discuss — I don’t want to go out on a limb, being faced here with a redoubtable historian — but I believe that all these notions, all the words and concepts that we employ to conceptualize history, are themselves historically constituted; and strangely, historians are actually the most apt to fall into anachronism since, whether to seem modern or to make their work more interesting, or out of negligence, they employ words that are currently used to speak of realities within which these words were not current, or else had a different meaning. I believe that this reflexivity is extremely important. (11-12)

Listen to the original radio broadcast, in French, here.
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How Old is That?

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The following is a brief excerpt from my own Introduction to the soon-to-be published collection of essays, Fabricating Origins, from the Working With Culture on the Edge book series.

Among the assorted knick-knacks that line my office’s shelves — ranging from such relics as photos of friends and family or gifts I’ve accumulated over the years to a selection of tattered romance novels shelved long ago among my books by mischievous students — is a nicely matted and framed “fossil” of Knightia, a long extinct genus of small boney North American freshwater fish, dating to more than 35 million years ago (or what scientists know as the Eocene epoch), and which was recovered from the well-known (to fossil hunters, at least) Green River Formation in southwestern Wyoming. I bought it one summer, heavy wooden frame and all, about ten years ago in a gift shop in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, at the same time that I purchased for my Department’s library a number of other artifacts, such as the stereotypical dancing Shiva statue and the Thai-styled bust of Buddha, complete with its intricately carved curls. I never anticipated writing about my framed piece of sedimentary rock, though I have often used it in classes to illustrate a point or two about discourses on origins; I now realize that this rock might have some uses outside of the classroom. Continue reading “How Old is That?”

Denaturalizing the Natural

dinoAs a little kid in the early 1960s, I guess I decided that the hooded sweaters I sometimes wore made me look like Dino the dinosaur — you know, from “The Flintstones”? I don’t think we had a specific name for them yet — at least we didn’t call them “hoodies,” as people do now. Instead, opting for brutal descriptivism (which sounds like a 1960s architectural movement), I’m guessing that we just uncreatively called them “hooded sweaters.” Continue reading “Denaturalizing the Natural”

An Apology for Etymology

Picture 5I was asked a question at a recent presentation I did up at the University of Chicago, concerning why the etymology of technical terms is a focus in an intro book that I wrote (and which I use in my own 100-level classes). Given my persistent critique of quests for origins it seems odd, or so the question might go, to focus on the origins of words, no?

etymology (n.)
late 14c., ethimolegia “facts of the origin and development of a word,” from Old French etimologie, ethimologie (14c., Modern French étymologie), from Latin etymologia, from Greek etymologia “analysis of a word to find its true origin”

Good point. Why do I talk about etymologies in that book? Continue reading “An Apology for Etymology”

Creating History

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This is the second of two posts from the Edge on what is currently happening in Baltimore…

History-making involves the creation of connections between events that generate meaning and order. It is really the same as any storytelling, where the creator of the (hi)story decides what characters, actions, and elements fit together to construct a meaningful narrative. These storytellers, whether historians, journalists, or novelists, have significant power to construct the narrative of events in ways that reinforce preferred ideologies, assumptions, and stereotypes. Continue reading “Creating History”

Fabricating Origins

Picture 17We used a typescript copy of my small, forthcoming edited volume, Fabricating Origins (due out this summer), in my upper-level seminar this semester, a course devoted to examining origins narratives — seeing those various sorts of “In the beginning” tales we so commonly tell as not being about the past their tellers claim to narrate but all about the present and future hopes of the tale’s narrator. The course started out with Barry Levinson’s endearing film “Avalon” (but one that opens the way to discussing hidden fractures in the life of any social group) and then a couple weeks later we watched Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (in which the notion of nostalgia is problematized so nicely) — both setting the tone for the course. Students kept notebooks in the class (something I learned from Jonathan Z. Smith and which I’ve incorporated into most of my upper-level seminars), and they handed them into me last week; it was interesting to see, from some of their notes, how effective the films were in framing the problem of the course. And then, eventually, we worked our way to the ten revised posts from this site, collected together in the above-named volume, complete with commentaries on each by a group of young scholars I’ve mostly met online through social media. And, like the movies, the volume seems to have worked well with students, to press home the point of the course.

And that point was…?

Don’t look in the distance, or the past, at whatever someone is gesturing toward; rather, keep your eyes on the one trying to direct, perhaps even to force, your gaze. Continue reading “Fabricating Origins”

Context Matters (Sometimes)

Picture 11So many articles have already been written on the awful events that transpired in Paris this past week — articles flying fast and furious around Facebook, including my own wall — that there didn’t seem much to be added by penning yet another post here at the Edge. Continue reading “Context Matters (Sometimes)”

Going to the Talkies?

movie-piano“Going to the movies over the winter break?” is a common enough question this time of year, but the curious thing is that if we asked:

“Going to the talkies over the winter break?”

Continue reading “Going to the Talkies?”