Long-Haired History

My department has a new website, with updated faculty photos. If you have known me for awhile, you might notice that my hair is a bit longer, now past my shoulders. By comparing photos of me as a faculty member, or even as a teenager, anyone can demonstrate that my hair is longer now than it has ever been in my life. That is a demonstrable fact about the past.

Of course, the length of my hair is not particularly interesting. As with most narratives (which is what histories present), the more intriguing issue is the explanation why. Why, at this point in my life, have I allowed my hair to grow? A friend who had not seen me for over a year commented on my hair last week, giving me the opportunity to create a narrative about my hair. My explanation was that I have not gotten my hair cut since becoming a full professor this past August. But, my own explanation is not necessarily complete. In fact, any of us tell stories, like our identifications, strategically. Perhaps (to create a narrative about my narrative), my response was a way to emphasize my recent promotion. The length of the hair was just the opportune time to insert that personal tidbit into the conversation, or perhaps that explanation was said in jest. Continue reading “Long-Haired History”

Immigration and Two Forms of Identification

Recognizing identifications as narrative constructs or fixed identities organizes the world in particular ways that inform the debate over the immigration order that Trump issued last Friday, shutting down admission of refugees for 120 days and banning citizens of 7 predominately Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days. Certainly, one aspect of the debate hinges on a person’s willingness to generalize an entire nationality as a threat, as some have asserted that everyone from those countries hates the United States, but these two models of identification also serve different functions in different settings.

Continue reading “Immigration and Two Forms of Identification”

Of Victims and Agents

I’m hardly the first to point out how curious the current coverage is of white communities in decline, dealing with poverty, alienation, and, in some cases, severe drug addiction, as opposed to the coverage of black communities that have long lived with many of the same problems. Continue reading “Of Victims and Agents”

The Narratives We Like

PlotmountainGun fights, political intrigue, and a race against time. Reading fiction is one activity that provides a little excitement. While I enjoy a range of authors and styles, my favorites are the pulp espionage and legal thrillers from authors like David Baldacci, John Grisham, and Steven Martini. The exciting plot keeps me highly engaged and turning the pages to see how the hero or (sometimes) heroine fight off or outwit the dangerous, enigmatic threat. Like many people, I appreciate a good narrative, and that desire for a manageable, linear plot is not limited to reading novels.

Reading in Hayden White’s Tropics of Discourse (yes, I also read some academic works during the summer) has prompted me to reflect on these preferences and their connection to my own writing. White argues that the construction of a historical narrative has important similarities to fiction writing, as the historian selects data from the range of sources she peruses and pieces them together into a narrative, choosing particular “modes of emplotment” (such as romance, comedy, or tragedy) that generally correspond to particular explanatory approaches in the field of history. Continue reading “The Narratives We Like”

Which “Tradition”?

I recently came across the following video (somewhat dated now in the US, since federal rulings have made this political issue a moot point), which offers a clever critique of appeals to “traditional marriage,” specifically regarding appeals used to justify heteronormative marriage laws. It works by drawing attention to the massive variety of all that fits into our collective past, history, or “tradition.”

From this video it is clear that there are always multiple pasts to draw from, and our choice of which elements we pick out and lift up as the real “tradition” — which we want to make normative for ourselves and others — is always motivated by our interests in the present and for the future.

In the classroom, when I point out that people pick and choose from their “traditions,” students often take that as if I were criticizing practitioners, or as if I were calling them hypocrites. Then I point out that although most of them are Americans, none of them wants to hang onto the 3/5ths rule in the constitution. The point? We’re all picking and choosing, all the time. Rather than refereeing which truth claims, or in this case which traditions, get to count as legitimate, I encourage my students to consider the issues at stake in these debates and the speakers involved. In doing this, we are able to see how different social groups construct contradictory, if not competing, historical narratives in very stragic ways to further their own social agendas. Cherry-picking historical traditions isn’t necessarily hypocrisy, but rather is just social group formation.

On the Systematic Use of Normative Vocabulary

41uV3awt-uL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_In History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People’s Republic of China, John Powers surveys a wide variety of histories of Tibet, written by Tibetan, Chinese, and western (i.e., American or European) authors. The story of the relations between China and Tibet — is Tibet an independent state or merely a small part of China’s empire? — can be told in many different ways, depending on the interests or agenda of the author spinning the narrative. Of particular interest to me is how Powers notes the normative vocabulary of the historians he surveys. The authors tend to systematically use normative nouns and adjectives — with positive and negative valuations attached to them — in their narratives. See the following two tables: Continue reading “On the Systematic Use of Normative Vocabulary”

The Golden Age

As a college professor I often hear faculty lament the students we have “these days”; there’s a nostalgic decline-and-fall narrative we tell, according to which we’re far removed from the golden age when students were prepared for college and could actually read and write upon arrival. If only we could return to the seventeenth century, when students came to college reading Latin and knowing their Seneca and Cicero!

However, when this narrative is shared (and, to be honest, I’ve told the tale myself), what I hear — what that narrative seems to implicitly suggest — is this: things were better back in the old days, before they let a lot of women and blacks and kids from the working class into college. Continue reading “The Golden Age”

Good vs. Evil Makes a Good Story

10346022996_3f96743f5f_oDarth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker, Sauron vs. Gandalf, Voldemort vs. Harry Potter. Stories are full of good and bad characters, sometimes complicated with the redemption of a character like Darth Vader, but what does it take to maintain such a stark division between good and evil?

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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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Look How Tall You Are!

Picture1The ease with which identity is presumed to be an inner trait projected outward is pretty easy to document, which makes critiquing it something less than a challenge. For example, I thought about writing a post on the new film “Inside Out” and the popular folk understanding of identity as being an internal quality only subsequently expressed outwardly, such that the social interaction is the effect of a prior and private sentiments.

But that just seemed too easy.

And, besides, the film seems kind’a fun. Continue reading “Look How Tall You Are!”