October 02, 2003

Link and Comment

Actually, I'm too tired to comment. Which is to say, too brain-dead to give the following the attention they deserve. So I'll just briefly recommend these two items:

First, the Momosphere by Laura at Apt 11D. In the past week or so, Laura has posted several entries on motherhood and work and the time crunch and other related issues. Scroll to Taking Time Off, Kid-Free Europe, Time and Space, Nannyhood and Apple Pie, and Women with kids with brains. Laura notes that she is "throwing around the idea of writing a piece for a mainstream journal on the politics of motherhood." I really hope she follows through on this idea; I would love to read more.

Second, Timothy Burke's On Ellipses and Theses and Archives is a must-read for anyone who cares about, and who cares to think about, the practice of history. I know some critics contend that bloggers tend to exaggerate the significance of the blogosphere, and I'm willing to entertain the possibility that those critics are right. Still, I honestly don't think it's blogger bias that leads me to state that Burke's essay is more interesting and thought-provoking than anything I've encountered of late in a professional historical journal. Burke's piece is a followup to a comment he made at Ralph Luker's Welcome to My World, in response to Luker's treatment of Christine Heyrman's Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt.

By the way, neither Laura nor Tim have comments enabled at their blogs. I sometimes wish that they did (though can certainly understand why they might prefer not to).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 2, 2003 08:30 PM

Laura should have her own sydicated column somewhere. The NYTimes could fire MoDo and give Laura the inches.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 2, 2003 10:56 PM

Thanks very much for the Burke link. It feeds into some stuff I've been mulling over and hope to blog about when I have time and energy. (It's well after midnight and I'm still at the office, waiting for the next onslaught of words to edit. At times like this the academic life begins to glow softly in retrospect...)

Posted by: language hat at October 3, 2003 12:47 AM

IA: I couldn't agree with you more about Tim Burke's "On Ellipses and Theses and Archives." I've suggested to Rick Shenkman that he feature it on HNN and recommended it to the Chronicle of Higher Education's A&LDaily.

Posted by: Ralph E. Luker at October 3, 2003 05:37 PM

I thought Tim's piece was very good, but I was taken aback by the following:

"I firmly believe that the “linguistic turn” and postmodern theory have left us technically more proficient as historians even if we utterly reject (as I largely do) the intellectual premises or outlook of most postmodernist thought. The range of evidentiary material that historians have learned to look for and think about has widened a thousandfold in the past two decades. The skill that we bring to reading any single document has been massively enriched by the guild’s professional encounters with literary criticism and anthropology. We now have disciplined, substantial strategies for recognizing that a single sentence in a document can contain within it many meanings and even many authors."

I hope he was either kidding or using it as a rhetorical device.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 4, 2003 02:23 AM

Kidding about what, Robert?

I mean that passage quite literally.

I'll give you an example, also drawn from my own experience. One of the colonial administrators in Rhodesia who interests me sometimes sent in extremely long reports that his superiors mostly ignored. His writing was highly atypical compared to almost all his peers in these longer missives. Typically the longer messages were reports about "indabas" (councils) of a number of the indigenous chiefs in his area, which he convened. (Chiefs in most of colonial Africa were appointed by colonial governments, and served as intermediaries acting on behalf of the colonial state.)

One of the notable things about the political traditions of the societies in the area I work is the indirection and evasiveness of their typical discussions of political matters. There were strong inhibitions against directly addressing controversies or conflicts, and problems were often attributed only indirectly to human agency. This carried over into the colonial era.

What is striking then is that the rhetoric of the colonial administrator I am describing over time begins to resemble the local African way of discussing political and social questions: the administrator starts to sound more and more as if he is a chief among chiefs, not a British official above and outside the people he rules.

At that point, I feel comfortable suggesting that what you see in his reports is a composite product of his conversations with chiefs, that in some very real sense, they are speaking through him, that his words contain a multitude.

I think that's broadly typical. Some time ago, we'd assume that when a single author wrote down the words and thoughts and actions of others around him, that everything we read is the product of that author's singular mind and will. But I think if you look more carefully at how things actually get written, how documents are actually created, that all documents, texts and so on are a pastiche of sorts, that most authors integrate reported speech, subtle observations, postures and so on that the author himself or herself is barely consciously aware of.

In some ways, contemporary neurobiology and psychology actually help us to extend this insight from literary criticism even further: one thing historians still don't have (mostly) is a good theory of mind that would let us talk about the actual mental processes involved in writing and creating documents, about the ways that we "hear" in our minds what others say and "see" what others do and how the heterogenous terrain of memory is explored in the act of writing.

I'll give you some other categorial examples:

1) An interview is clearly a co-authored document: the question asked by one participant becomes a part of the answers given, and vice-versa.

2) A text which is heavily edited by someone is effectively authored by two people. Distinguishing between the two can be very difficult depending on how explicit the editor has been.

3) The decision to actually archive or save a document or text is a "hidden voice" within it: we often forget that archives are like archaeological sites; what we find in archaeology is basically either things that people abandoned in a hurry or things that they threw out. We don't generally find artifacts preserved perfectly in a state of use--that's why Pompeii is so amazing. The same is sort of true for archives: every document there is there because either someone decided to save it (while discarding other things) or because there was a systematic process of filing or saving classes of material. That's a "voice" that has to be read within everything you see.

4) The imagined audience for a document is a voice of sorts: many documents are part of invisible dialogues, where what is said incorporates and anticipates what will be said or thought by an audience.

Etc. There's nothing mystical about these observations, but they do mean that every single document can be legitimately read as containing many meanings and even multiple "authors". Which in turn actually opens up even further the range of possible disagreement between historians about what the archives says to us.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at October 4, 2003 11:42 AM


I do not disagree with what you said (admitting that I know absolutely nothing about the substance of 19th-20th century African history).

What I was reacting to was your assertion in the bit I quoted, that these tools of analysis are late 20th century innovations. They are not. The analysis of texts dates back to the Renaissance, if not further:




Whether we acknowledge it or not we are all embeded in history. We are all parts of a tradition. We have all learned from our teachers, and they from theirs. The most brilliant among us will create something new, but even then it will not be unrecognizable to the past, and the future will know that we lived and worked at a certain time and place and in a certain tradition.

I think that this assertion can be demonstrated in all humanistic pursuits. Think of the history of painting. How revolutionary were the impressionists? Look at the works of Turner and Goya from the first half of the 19th century.

I had a conversation with my 16 year old son a couple of days ago about some bit of pop culture (I cannot remember what). He was astounded to learn that not only was it not new but that it predated his existence. The same is true of young scholars in our time. I think it is an idea that some of the post-modernists have propagated to the detriment of scholarship in general.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 4, 2003 04:24 PM

Oh, I see, Robert. I agree with you that there is a very deep exegetical tradition in the West. But I would argue that historians have both relearned some of the best technical insights of that humanistic tradition after a positivistic interruption and that postmodernist thought has introduced some new technical insights and approaches that extend that exegetical tradition considerably.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at October 6, 2003 04:07 PM

I am from Missouri.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 6, 2003 09:29 PM