TSoA: Myths and Knowing Your Audience

Chapter II of The Story of America is called “The Legendary Century,” and includes the delightful subheading, “Myths, Legends and Traditions.”  In this chapter (and the next about Columbus, and I’m sure many of the following chapters), Peattie didn’t draw a fine line between the different types of narratives; myth, legend, and tradition weave together so tightly that facts take on secondary importance.*  But I’m more taken by the way Peattie starts the chapter: “Little children, standing on the shores of Europe and looking toward the west, could make no guess at what lay beyond the water.”  Given that Peattie wrote this book for young readers, this is a pretty good opening.  She knows her audience: kids who have never been to Europe and probably never will be, but who know what it’s like look in some direction and wonder what’s out there.  She may be talking about strange adults from different places who spoke unintelligible languages, but in one sentence, she makes it a little less foreign.  More than that: she seizes on a fundamental human experience — wonder.  As the children of Europe wondered about the world, so did the Norsemen, Columbus, and the late-19th century adolescent reading The Story of America.  And us, too — we wonder.  What else is curiosity and the drive to know and understand?  I’m just spitballing here, but I think a particular sense of wonder might set history apart from other fields.  Part of the reason that someone buys a story of a boy growing up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (currently #2 at Powell’s) is the question, “What was that like?”  The past is strange, and that’s compelling, because there were people like you and me there and then.  We want to understand that different world, and — note the phrasing of the question, “what was that like” — we want that world related to us in terms that we can understand.  The job of the historian lies somewhere in that relationship: seizing on the human sense of wonder and cultivating it while also making the past more familiar and intelligible.

* For instance, Peattie devotes most of chapter two to the “well known” discoveries of the Northmen, who (Peattie says) ranged from Newfoundland to Martha’s Vinyard to Massachusetts, leaving skeletons in armor and bearing “little Snorre, the first child of European blood born in America.”  Peattie also notes the “traditions” of Chinese, “Buddhist,” and Welsh explorers and settlers.  All of this strikes me as…odd, given that (a) rarely do Norse adventures in America come up anymore and (b) I’m pretty sure the Welsh stories of white Indians were bogus, probably for racist reasons (the undiscovered civilized Welsh Indians justifying conquest/extermination of uncivilized real Indians…surely there’s a book on this?  A dissertation-in-waiting?).


The Story of America (as told in 1889)

Friends, I present to you…

A few years ago, I salvaged this book from a box that my grandparents were sending off to the dump.  It sat on the shelf until last night, when I pulled it down just for fun.  And what fun it is!  First of all, there’s the author, Elia Peattie, who has her very own Wikipedia page and digital archive put together by Dr. Susanne George Bloomfield.  And for good reason: Peattie wrote this 754 page tome when she was 27 years old.  She was also the first female reporter at the Chicago Tribune and did all sorts of other things that underscore the utter futility and worthlessness of my own life.  Amazing.

And there’s the text itself.  Meant as a history for “young people,” (know any young people willing to read 754 pages?  Thought not), The Story of America looks pretty strong on the story part — a cracking yarn, they might have said in 1889 when Peattie wrote the book (WHEN SHE WAS 27!).  I’m excited to read it, for a few reasons.  First, I think we historians might learn a little something from young Peattie and her focus on telling a good story; if I could write half of what she did in such a way that “young people” would want to read it, I’d be pretty pleased.  Second, I’m fascinated by the potential differences in Peattie’s pre-20th century reading of the past and the dominant narrative(s) of our day–more on that in a moment.  And third, there are some great images in here, all hand-drawn, of course.  I’ll be sharing those as I go along, too.

Just flipping through the table of contents, you get a sense of the different era in which Peattie wrote.  The American Revolution doesn’t wrap up until page 408–well after half-way through the book.  Which is to say: for Peattie and her readers, most of American history happened before the United States even came into being.  Which is still true, after all; even if you start with 1492, the pre-Revolutionary period is still longer than everything since (283 years to 234 years, by my count).  There is stuff in here that I doubt even some of my colonial Americanist colleagues would know about, like the association of Bacon’s Rebellion with the call “Hey, for St. Mary’s!” (I’ll let you know when I find out–that’s in chapter XXIV).  And I can’t wait to get Peattie’s take on Haymarket, which happened just three years before Peattie wrote The Story and which she very well may have seen or even reported about (probably not, but what the hell).

Of course, one of the great temptations of a book like this is to say “Wow, wasn’t she stupid! We historians today know so much more.”  And this is true in some ways; in the first chapter, “Mastodons and Mystery,” Peattie writes that, “The monkey was here in what we call United States, and the camel and rhinoceros,” which seem to be tru-ish but not quite on the mark.  On the other hand, this seems like an opportunity to examine more closely my own beliefs about the past.  Would I be able to convince Peattie that she’s wrong and I’m right?  If not, I’m probably not worth two salts as a historian.  On a grander scale, this can serve as an experiment in postmodernism and the subjectivity of narratives.  Will I discover more or fewer truths while reading this book?

I’ll conclude by sharing with you Peattie’s preface.  We “professional historians” might not agree with all of Peattie’s goals, but some would serve us well:

The desire throughout, in the writing of this history, has been to record the heroic adventures and celebrate the picturesque incidents that make our history romantic and memorable. Such incidents as awaken patriotism and enthusiasm are those which are most worthy of preservation, and the influences they have upon the imaginative and generous minds of the young are incalculable. If some of the duller pages of the congressional debate and ineffectual law making have been neglected for these more brilliant chapters, it is not the young who will reproach us.

For the minds of the young select with unerring instinct those things which are of actual importance. They read with passionate tears of the martyrdom of the devoted; they are fired with heroism and lofty pride at the accomplishments of the heroic, and they condemn with bitter contempt the intrigues of the mean, and the cowardice of the time-serving. To arouse the noble impulse, and keep alive the love for patriotism, fidelity, bravery, and true holiness, has been the aim of the book.

It contains little that is new; but it has been sifted from the best histories, and the latest ones. It is, however, the first book to record the events of the last ten years, and these events it has tried to deal with impartially, unblinded by the conflict of parties, sects, or factions. If injustice has been done in any way, it has been unwitting. If it conveys, in understandable language, the most memorable occasions of our national history, condemning and praising where condemnation and praise are due, then it has accomplished all that it aimed to for its young readers.

Naomi Klein Shows What’s Right and Wrong about Environmental History

I self-identify as an environmental historian, so you might expect that I’d have something to say about Naomi Klein‘s article, “A Hole in the World” in The Nation (sidenote digression: You are a subscriber to The Nation, right?  Because if those folks aren’t out there doing the work, nobody will.  It’s the right thing to do and it’s cheap.  /sidenote digression).  As a matter of fact, I do have some things to say.  Namely, that the piece shows us what’s great about environmental history as well as what needs work in the field.

Klein’s thesis is in the article’s subtitle: “The BP disaster reveals the risk in imagining that we have complete command over nature.”  There are two arguments here, both of which feature prominently in environmental history.  First,  humans fool themselves if they think they completely understand the non-human natural world (note this phrase, which is a bit more precise than “nature”).  Oil spewing into the Gulf now is having and will have consequences that our feeble minds can not begin to grasp.  Second, the non-human natural world is powerful, defying human efforts to have “complete command” over it.  Beyond the obvious power of things like tornadoes and earthquakes, the non-human natural world limits/shapes/structures (we’ll return to this in a moment) in ways that we can not completely control: from the ways in which climate shapes human settlement to the bacteria that live inside us and make our lives possible.

What Klein does well is make the first theme relevant to contemporary events and regular people.  What’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico shows how little we actually know (about how much oil is in them thar oceanbeds, for instance).  Klein goes beyond observing that to explaining the political and economic forces that have revealed our ignorance.  BP’s hubris; the “political class eager to believe that nature had indeed been mastered” (Republicans, especially, but also Obama and other liberals); and (implicitly in the piece) an economic system predicated on continual growth fed by consumption of natural resources.  In short, Klein names names.  She assigns blame.  And environmental historians, in their attempts at “objectivity” (so as to be taken seriously be the academy) often don’t assign blame.

Klein runs into trouble with the second argument about the power of the non-human natural world.  She writes that one of the lessons we should take from this is “our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash.”  There’s a bit of a conceptual knot here.  On the one hand, the non-human natural world has power over humans: the geysers of oil, the collapsing ecosystems, etc. that will shape–“diminish,” as Klein puts it–human culture in the Gulf.  True.  But humans also have power over the non-human natural world: human beings started the mess in the Gulf, and “unleashed” those natural forces. In the final analysis, then, nature only has the power to bleed (Klein’s preferred metaphor) in reaction to human agency.  Humans have power; the non-human natural world has something less.

This conceptual knot stems from an unreflective use of the concept of power.  Humans act; nature reacts; humans act again in response to that reaction; nature reacts to the reaction’s reaction, and so on.  Humans and the environment are two opposing players, separated and against each other.  This concept of power comes from a particular concept of human agency: the notion that people can and do act independently of the forces outside of them.  But if there’s one thing we see in the Gulf, it’s that humans do not act independently of the non-human natural forces outside of them; human imagination and activity are rooted in and shaped by our relationship to the environment around us.  Humans and the non-human natural world necessarily act together, even when they seem to be pulling in two very different directions.  There is no way to think about human action without thinking about the environments in which humans act.

This is complicated stuff, and I’m obviously still struggling with it.  But a couple of environmental historians have tackled this theoretical subject with some success.  My favorite is Linda Nash‘s short article, “The Agency of Nature or the Nature of Agency?” from the January 2005 issue of Environmental History.  Nash argues that environmental historians are uniquely positioned to “think about agency in altogether different terms” and,

put the human mind back in the world. Perhaps our narratives should emphasize that human intentions do not emerge in a vacuum, that ideas often cannot be clearly distinguished from actions, that so-called human agency cannot be separated from the environments in which that agency emerges.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.  Humans acting with and within the environment and vice-versa.  One might also consult William Cronon‘s “The Trouble with Wilderness” (you should read this.).  Cronon takes apart the idea that there is such a thing as a separate, untouched, pure nature (wilderness); in fact, it is impossible for us to live outside of nature.  Therefore, “if living in history means that we cannot help leaving marks on a fallen world, then the dilemma we face is to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave.”

Thinking about human action in these ways might help us better understand what’s going on the Gulf.  Today, as BP engineers struggle to plug the “hole in the world,” we can think of what they are doing as an action shaped by and shaping the environment, and the imaginations that dreamed it up as similarly shaped/shaping.  We can see the oil flowing into marshes as a result of humans actions coming out of and taking place within the environment.  And instead of an “embrace of the cautionary principle”–Klein’s solution, which is essentially human agency checked–we can embrace an understanding of human agency as rooted in, shaped by, and shaping, the environment.  That’s the sort of concept of human and non-human power that might lead to a long-lasting and livable relationship.

“So, tell me about how you became a Marxist.”

Such was the subject line of an e-mail I received from a dear friend of mine.  I’ve been sitting on the question for weeks, and just today sent a reply.  Below, you’ll find the e-mail I received and the e-mail I sent.  My friend’s e-mail is thought-provoking; my response is less so.  Still, it was an interesting exercise.

I just got done with a conversation with my minor adviser. She’s signed off on my minor and so finally, it’s done and all of that is good and well. But she had some serious reservations about elements of my argument which merited a phone call — and in the end I ended up defending the idea of progress, and that I would include discussions of things not so immediately compelling at the time because they ended up being so later. (My minor is early modern Europe by the way, Enlightenment stuff, so just ripe for this kind of debate.) I roughly describe my idea of progress as something that is not some external metaphysical force, but something internal which, despite being fragile, despite requiring certain historical contexts, and despite often being articulated for reasons that have nothing to do with their sentiments, gives an upper hand to good ideas over bad ones, over time. In my mind, the human creature is more or less using his brain, with some setbacks more or less, to figure out his world and society around him, and ultimately some things become clear that weren’t before (despite many many delays, setbacks, and reversals even), and solutions implemented; progress, roughly speaking. For why I think this works we’d go into utilitarianism, but we’ll stash that for now.

Now, my guess is you don’t share this view; at least, not of the ideas. But my guess is you do have the idea of progress, but, driven by something else. Or, that is my guess, but all I remember you commenting on is an approval of Carr in discussions (and yes, totally by the way; go Carr). But at some point My minor advisor took issue with a formulation of mine she found starkly Marxist, and admittedly in this particular instance it was (I find the differing agricultural/economic bases of France and England in the 17th century to be far and away the best explanation for their differing forms of government). But it occurred to me — in a lot of strange ways, I now have more in common with dyed in the wool Marxists than I do most other historians, because of this sticking suspicion I have that you can’t really do history well — or do the type of history I want to do — without an eye to the future and ultimately, without an argument about the way it ought to head and why it ought to head that way. This is why I switched to the twentieth century this year; I’m basically going to be as political as I am academic, and unfortunately I don’t feel I can therefore really write what I want to exclusively within academia, but an emphasis on recent, clearly political history will make that easier.

And I was remembering tonight how once you said in seminar, that you believe that ultimately you have to have a base, a basic idea of what causes what so that you can organize information, and understand anything – and without that you are basically lost. Or at least I think that was the gist of what you said. That has stayed in my head a long time, and I think you are right — and I think therefore, a lot of historians are basically nowhere or, they do nothing of immediate import with their work, because since they are too laden down with postmodernism, they can’t believe they can extend it to anything past the end date on their subtitles. And that is intellectually consistent, but not something I am satisfied with anymore, although I certainly used to be. But so now, to why I am writing you in particular — I’ve always been curious, what is the story that got you to where you are? What informed your thinking then, how has it changed or not? What is your position on the questions I’ve raised here because, I’ve been turning this over in my head like crazy for a year now… I don’t think I am flirting with Marxism as such really, but am realizing I could use some intellectual exchange with someone who has also probably been accused of “teleology” his fair share of times, a criticism that I think has degraded into a straw-man cliche. And I was wondering what that has been like as well; have you ever felt lonely or isolated in your position, and what do you do in times like those?, and what steps do you take to ensure yourself you haven’t been mistaken or, conversely, that your evaluation of things has a value even against those that you much respect basically telling you are digging around in the intellectual dust heap of history?

Anyway, I know that is a lot all of a sudden out of the blue, but as I said, I need to get these questions out of my head and out to others. Because I need to have a clearer idea of what this process looks like, where I stand in the intellectual spectrum and in relations to others, and how to tweak that if I need to. Anyway, thanks for your time in reading this.

And my response:

Sorry to take so long getting back to you.  I’ve been mulling this about in my head for the last few weeks, and I’m afraid that any answer I provide to your excellent questions will be unsatisfactory.  That said, I’ll give it a shot.

How I became a Marxist:  It happened while I was an undergraduate–naturally.  I went into college a conservative evangelical Christian and came out co-chair of the Socialist Union.  Part of it was rebellion against my parents, of course; I’m a late-bloomer in that respect.  But mostly it was political: I was disgusted with Clinton’s half-assed and half-baked liberalism, particularly in regard to “free” trade, which was the hot issue while I was in college: sweat-shops, the WTO, etc. and so forth.  I was looking for something more radical: something that recognized how radically unjust the world is, and something that suggested a radical approach.  Marxism, as embodied by the Socialist Party, seemed like that thing.  And I’ll be honest: one of my favorite professors was the co-chair of the SP, and that played a role in my attraction to the party.  In short: a combination of personal attraction and political conviction led me to Marxism as a political philosophy.

Now, as for Marxism as an approach to history, that developed much more slowly and deliberately.  After college, I went to a town in the former East Germany, where I did some research on the economic history of an optics company that had been split into two after the war.  Anyway, I gave up on German history when I realized that I couldn’t see myself looking into a student’s eyes and being able to convince her that this was actually important to her.  This brought me back to the States and I started studying American history.   I was drawn to the work of William H. Sewell (UChicago), who’s written some fascinating stuff of structure and agency.  It was through his work, and weekly conversations over beer with fellow graduate students (we’d pick something to read–Marx, etc.–and talk about it) that I became more convinced of the importance of understanding the structures in which people act–particularly economic structures, which, more than anything else, determine what opportunities and choices a person has at her/his disposal.  And since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with the forces that structure peoples’ lives and the power that people have over their own lives and the structures in which those lives take place.

The problem, of course, is that Marxism can easily devolve into economic determinism, with the mode of production determining class structure and one’s class position determining one’s actions.  And that’s just the beginning of the critiques leveled against Marxism as an approach to history.  But it seems to me that most critiques are unsophisticated cheap shots at unsophisticated caricatures of Marxism.  And so I continue to develop the sophistication of my own idea of Marxism.

So here’s where I am now: from the macro level, looking at the past in terms of groups and peoples, economic forces are the prime mover of history.  By “economic forces” I mean modes of production, how those modes structure class configurations, and how classes interact with each other.  This doesn’t necessarily work at the level of the individual: obviously, people make choices for a variety of reasons, sometimes out of economic motivation, sometimes out of ideology, sometimes out of sexual drive (ala Freud), etc.  But a person does not have unlimited choices–our options are limited, and they are limited primarily by one’s economic position, which is a product of class, which is a product of the mode of production.  In short: be sensitive to the complexity and nuance that is the human individual, but understand the power of economic forces.  This would be that method of organizing information that you referred to in your e-mail, the concept that (I hope) keeps me from getting lost as a historian.

As historians, we’re called upon to not just describe what happened, but to explain why it happened.  And it seems clear to me that the past as it has unfolded is a product of economic forces more than anything else.

Is this “progress”?  If we mean evolution, then yes.  I don’t see how it could be otherwise; economic systems and social relations become more complex over time as they build on top of one another.  But I make no claims to this being a good or bad thing.  One of the problems with Marxism is that people use it to predict the future, to say that history must and will unfold inevitably to socialism and then communism.  That’s bullshit.  The Communist Manifesto ends with a call to action, not a call to wait and see what happens.

And that’s the key for me: that a Marxist approach ultimately recognizes the biggest forces at play and simultaneously calls us to action against that biggest force.  The equation goes something like this:

World = fucked-up injustice.
Economic forces -> World
fucked-up injustice = product of economic forces
And therefore:
Fixing fucked-up injustice = fixing economic forces

That is to say: once you’ve diagnosed the source of injustice, you know what to attack.  And my place as a historian, I guess, is helping make that diagnosis to the world’s condition as it has unfolded over time.

Have I been criticized?  Sure.  I’ve been rightly called out when I make unsophisticated arguments for economic motivation as the sole factor in history.  That’s why I remain open to refinement and even massive change in my understanding of the past; that’s also what keeps me from feeling too “isolated,” in the sense that when I put my ideas out there, I try to signal a willingness to adjust as necessary, and that keeps me in the dialogue, rather than cut off from the discussion.  Most of the times this works; if I’m dismissed out of hand by someone, that person doesn’t appreciate the point of academic exchange.

What bothers me is when people take digs at me for having an interpretation of the past that quite obviously has relevance for the present and the future.  These people fancy themselves as vacuum-sealed objective observers of the past; they argue that any history that points to the present and future must necessarily be skewed.  I argue that it’s impossible to write history without reference to the past or future, and that we’re fooling ourselves if we think our observations–and even more so our explanations–are free of our ideas about what the world is and should be.  Better to face it up front than to deceive yourself.

I hope this helps; I fear it has not.  But I’ve enjoyed it–you asked challenging questions and demanded that I take some serious looks at my approach to the past, and that’s always a good thing.  So thank you

Deconstructing Deconstructed Mind-F@#%s

In a recent blog post, Stanley Fish provides a highly readable, concise, and understandable summary of deconstruction by way of previewing a new book on the history of deconstruction in American thought.  The thrust is simple: Some Americans freaked about over French theory for no good reason.  In response to concerns that deconstruction means an end of the world, Fish writes:

All we lose (if we have been persuaded by the deconstructive critique, that is) is a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word, a last description that takes the accurate measure of everything. All that will have happened is that one account of what we know and how we know it — one epistemology — has been replaced by another, which means only that in the unlikely event you are asked “What’s your epistemology?” you’ll give a different answer than you would have given before. The world, and you, will go on pretty much in the same old way.

That last bit hits the nail on the head: despite all our mental-masturbation over deconstruction, the world goes on.

Except that it doesn’t for some people.  Some folks, once they get deconstruction into their melon, don’t seem to be able get it out.  The way they see, understand, and even operate in the world changes.  Their day-to-day language is littered–literally, junked-up–with “signifiers,” “discourse,” and “subjectivity.”  You can’t understand a damn thing they’re saying, because they keep moving about, careful never to take up a position for fear that it would commit them to an epistemology (didn’t I promise never to use that word? Damn).  In these cases, there can be only two conclusions: (1) the person is way smarter than I am, and I’m just too dumb and slow to keep up; or (2) the person has gone off the deep-end.  Depending on my mood, I’m often inclined to decide on option 2.

Which is sad, because, as Fish implies and Michael Berube better explains, there’s a lot to like and some excellent potential in postmodernism, deconstruction, and the rest of the French theory grab-bag.  One of these days I’ll muse on what happened to my love of theory.  But for today, I’ll appreciate Fish’s worthy attempt to explain why we all–and particularly the deconstructed mind-f@#%s–need to relax.