Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Assorted, uncategorized, adrift


"I fell in with some drifters
Cast upon a beachtown
Winn Dixie cold cuts and highway hand me downs
And I wound up fixing dinner
For them and Boston Jim
I well up with affection
Thinking back down the roads to then." (Joni Mitchell)

Getting ready for another long drive tomorrow, preceded by an outflow of cash that is guaranteed to feel like desanguination. House two weeks away. Odd class responses to recent readings. Manifest Destinies turned out to be a little on the controversial side, which I found surprising. It was primarily a legal history, which led to some negative comments about sources. My contention, I think, is that court cases, legal documents, policy reports--they are all legitimate primary sources. But I think people wanted to see sources from around these things--so as to gauge the public opinion behind the decisions. The sources may or may not exist--but I see the point of asking for them. Also raised the question of whether using historic (primary) sources that reference another document (which may or may not be available, like a 19th century report that mentions a letter received) is appropriate, and how often can it be done? I had hoped for HR and JH to weigh in, but no such luck. HR did have some issues with factual weakness in the book, as well, but I'm not sure how we're supposed to be able to assess that without more extensive background.

We talked briefly about the school of "whiteness studies," (mentioned in an earlier post about Roediger) and to some degree I have the same response to that as I do to gender studies. There's no question that [socially constructed] gender, and [the creation of] race have a tremendous amount of influence on the world. But I have an issue with framing an entire history that way. In the case of race, I find the argument overly simplistic. As with Roediger, I can't find a history that chronicles Southern and Eastern European immigrant transformation to whiteness either provocative or exciting. A legal history of Mexican American conflict in NM in the 19th century is interesting without tying itself to "whiteness studies." And I find I can't quite articulate my problems with using gender as a category of analysis. Joan Scott goes to great lengths to provide reasons and templates for doing this using literary deconstruction, and it drives me crazy. Maybe my problem isn't with "gender" (except that it is, sort of) but is a problem with "category of analysis." I feel like my thoughts here are too many and too confused to be contained in this one paragraph, so moving on...

Odd responses to Rivers of Empire too. I was fascinated by the connection to Wittfogel, particularly since Worster readily admits to Wittfogel's failings. And Worster's case studies about the utopian communities in Colorado (ie. Greeley, which is Centennial, by the way), and about the Mormon land and water use in Utah were fascinating examples of hydraulic societies. But I think I was in the minority here. I do admit that Worster's description of the Central Valley was spot on, but when he calls it unpicturesque, disjointed, corporate--I have to admit my jaw dropped. From the old woman selling okra by the side of the road all the way to the pesticide billboard and the migrant workers, I saw... beauty. I saw people living outside a corporate, capitalist order against all odds. For me, it was a perfect picture of how humans live so messily in and outside an imposed structure. And through Worster's description, all of it shines in the golden sun on the golden hills and in the shimmering desert fields--but that is me the poet, the romantic.

And I didn't have enough to say today, about Crimes Against Nature. Feel like crap as a result. Wish we'd talked more about policy here. When we talk about nature as secular religion, I feel like it is a kind of dead end. Yes, clearly the nation (the western world, perhaps) sees something holy in nature, particularly in grand natural formations, regardless of whether they identify as religious individuals. We can easily take nature as a national religion in a country where we at least give lip service to religious freedom: Yosemite speaks equally to Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Wiccans, et al. I assume. I have a hard time finding something to grab on to here. The connection between historical and current policy is sort of interesting to me, though, and in particular, I was curious to find out how likely it might be that this particular work could be used as a defense for deregulation on federally-owned lands. It was a criticism of the book itself, and while I realize the policy changes are realities we face right now, I want to know how much of a responsibility an individual author needs to feel about his contribution to the potential problem.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Two Jobsites

Two interesting, but oppositional things going on down in the Amherst area this week:

I was looking up at the roof work being done on the Student Center on the UMass campus, and I saw a sight which is beautiful to OSHA eyes. On the right side, the leading edge of the building was entirely enclosed by safety rails, which were both properly secured and neatly nailed together. On the left side, there was a guy doing leading-edge work. He was wearing a hardhat, pants, a shirt, boots, and a safety harness. The harness was attached with a lanyard to a rope, and there was no slack. All the guys on and around the building were wearing hardhats, and guys in basket-lifts were properly tied-off. I thought, well, I guess that makes sense since this is such a high-profile job.

The next day, I was in Montague Turners Falls. On Montague City Road, in yet another high profile location (a new commercial building being erected next to the grocery store) I saw the exact opposite. These guys were sheathing the hipped roof on this new building, and ... NO ONE was wearing a hard hat. Everyone was in sneakers. One guy was wearing shorts and two had no shirt (it was about 48 F). There was no toeboard at the bottom of the roof to keep things from sliding down (on about a 4/12 pitch, which isn't really steep, but things still slide off!). Worst of all, no one was tied off to anything. There were no safety harnesses, ropes, lanyards, or anything resembling fall protection. I have a hard time believing that the OSHA requirements for safety in commercial settings apply in Amherst but not Turners Falls. I think if I'd gone over with a camera in hand, everyone would have been off that roof in seconds--which would have been funny, come to think of it!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Love to eat dem mousies

At my mom's house, which is located among some conserved beaver ponds, Abby and Zoey Katz were wandering around, stalking various critters. Abby caught a baby shrew, which expired, and Zoey killed an unidentified rodent of considerable cuteness. Neither of them was hungry (of course), and so we had to throw them into the woods. Hopefully some hungry critter will find them and eat them up.

We also saw some evidence of deer, and there are a couple kinds of ducks floating around the ponds. I haven't seen the turkeys or the grouse around these parts yet, but I have seen both along the freeway, presumably trying to get killed.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sewell and theory

William Sewell’s article on the shift from social to cultural history would have been a much more useful text to include alongside Thompson, et al., last week, because (while it is a commentary on the domination of cultural history in the field in recent years) it also provides a much clearer picture of what social history is, and isn’t. Part of this clarity comes from Sewell’s placement of social history and cultural history in a sort of opposition—and also comes from Sewell’s distinctions between history/historians and the various fields and practitioners of social science.

Causing me further consternation is the question (in my mind) about where history is going. My understanding of history has been of an interdisciplinary, multi-theory (or theory-less), interpretive field; certainly a field without objective truth, regardless of the level of rigor applied to historical inquiries. However, I suddenly find mine to be a minority position—and I’m surprised. It’s not that the people around me (classmates and some professionals) would take such a hard line stance about objectivity, but what they’re saying, and what they’re writing, is in favor of a far more positivist viewpoint. They are skeptical about interpretation, find repellent the use of memory as historical document, and call incessantly for admission upon admission of bias, or uncertainty.

Added to this is Sewell’s implication that historians borrow theory from the social sciences, and twist, bend or amalgamate when the theory doesn’t quite fit… and that historians ought to be talking about, and developing theory from within. Sewell also discussed his wariness about the shift to cultural history and the large abandonment of social history, and what problems this causes. If social history borrows the language and methods of the sciences and the social sciences (quantitative data, for example, or creating theory based on events or social trajectories), then cultural history focuses too much on the individual circumstance to the exclusion of generalizable trends.

I never thought that Marshall Sahlins could be placed in opposition to, say, Natalie Zemon Davis, but apparently I’ve been missing great rifts between fields. Possibly I have not been careful enough about discovering what individual historians are doing when they write. I should know, I suppose, whether GA's writing is more oriented towards the social sciences or the humanities, at the very least (I suspect the latter, but I’m inclined to think it weaves back and forth over the boundary I used to ignore).

Some of this, I think, is due to the particular structure of the Core at the U of C, where I believe the emphasis was on the crossover of sociological thought, historical anthropology, intellectual history, literature, and the evolution of scientific thought. I realize this seems at once obvious and overreaching. Yes, the fields are connected—and no, they’re not. The social sciences do attempt to find social theory—something approaching a scientific theory that may be applied to many circumstances and with roughly the same results. Yet the historian’s approach is more complex and messy (despite, at the U of C, being a segment of the Social Sciences Division).

And then in the intervening (almost) ten years, I’ve had the chance to see just that many more ambiguities. Is the positivist thinking I’m seeing here, or the new-new social/cultural history Sewell calls for—are these the histories of the future? Probably to my disadvantage I am unwilling to discount any method, theory, or non-theory as the “wrong” way to do history. I’m sure I’m supposed to come down on a side—and if I do, will I then be hopelessly out-of-date?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Social history

The conversation we had at breaktime in Public History suggests to me that the discussion we had in Intro/History, regarding social history, was somehow unsatisfying, inconclusive. It was. There's no inherent problem in not resolving the argument, but when everyone leaves confused and adrift, maybe it wasn't the most productive discussion.

The question which we discussed most was: is social history a European construct, and something that does not exist for Americanists--and if it is a European mode of study, does it still exist, in what forms, and how useful is it? I can only give you my particular take on the discussion, and given the comments on my last paper, I am undoubtedly completely misguided. So, like LeVar Burton, I will say, "but don't take my word for it..."

HR had put the question out about Americanists, and my feeling was this: if you are starting with data "from below," (ie. bread riots or labor strikes, or working class insults, or whatever) and your goal is to project the data into a larger and longer social, political or economic trend which says something broad, then you are doing social history, whether or not you choose to call it that. Americanists call themselves political, labor, economic, consumer, environmental, whatever historians but often shun the social history label.

Problem being, there are Americanists calling themselves social historians, and the argument HR makes is that they're doing cultural history instead (let's not get into that can of worms!). The Europeanists (E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, a bunch of German historians whose names I can't recall) appear to be working from a Marxian framework regarding capitalism (and possibly even Marxist, if you're talking about Thompson), but unlike some in the class, I did not think that a labor/proletariat oriented Marxian framework was necessary for doing social history. However, I am leaning towards the idea that some framework (of your choosing) is necessary for creating true social history, and the presence of a framework indicates to me that you (the historian) have an agenda that is at least mildly political.

This is not to say that an historian can be without agenda or bias; far from it. I am not (Not Not Not) a positivist... As DG put it to me earlier, "I thought [Peter] Novick had put all that to rest [in That Noble Dream]" and clearly, well, he hasn't. (I remember now, it was Armistead Maupin who wrote (in Brian Hawkins's voice) that his generation would be succeeded by a generation of Calvinists. And so... a generation of groundbreaking postmodernism has been succeeded by the New Positivism.) But I guess my implication about frameworks is that cultural historians write using data "from below," but not generally demographic/quantitative data, but cultural artifacts (art, literature, journals, letters, buildings, music, etc.) in order to draw conclusions in a more specific way, and to prove a point but not to make large political statements or form economic trajectories.

But as I said, the discussion left many adrift, including me. I was hoping to hear from the experts on the matter, and forgive me, but I didn't really. So--I've tried to clarify it for myself as written above. If you think I am way off base, please tell me, and tell me why!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Diego Rivera rip-off!

Yes, here it is, the painting I rushed for Art Hop. I suspect I will be making some changes before I varnish (needs another layer or two, and Shane's air gun needs a hose!), but no time to work on it at present: