Found Historiography

The Bloody Great Emancipator

Or, The Found History of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

[NB: updated to remove an egregiously incorrect Confederates in the Attic reference]

Vampires! Slavery! Spoiler Alert!

All part of the second installment of “Found History,” a review of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010). (1)

Continue reading “The Bloody Great Emancipator”

Found Historiography

A Hundred Thousand Hidden Histories

Or, A New Series

I’ve been toying with the idea of running a regular series here. Clearly, research tidbits — as fun as random quotes from antebellum newspapers are — do not for consistent updates make. But about what? I got to thinking about how I really enjoyed writing that Hacker History piece, and the (quite lively) discussion that followed (on FB, anyway).

Too, I want to find ways to make the relevance of historical work visible — and to think about the ways in which historical thinking shapes how we speak, write, and act in venues beyond the Journal of American History.

So. From now on, every week I’m going to try and find an example of historical thinking, or historical practice, in some non-professional history realm and then chew on it for a while, but, like, with words. I think Tom Scheinfeldt’s term for this — Found History — describes what I’m after pretty well, so that’ll serve as the tag/title (until I find something better).(1)

And as a inaugural post for this series, I’m going to cadge from (yet another) blogger’s regular feature: John Scalzi’s The Big Idea.” (2)

In “The Big Idea,” Scalzi invites other sci-fi and fantasy authors to discuss “what makes their books tick — and what that meant for the writing process.” The most recent entry is by N.K. Jemisin, author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Rather unusually, Jeminis opens by discussing someone else’s book — specifically what she’s learned from Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

She starts by talking about Mann’s work because

… this is the kind of thing that really gets me going: hidden truths. History is written by the victors, after all — which means that beneath many historical “facts” lie counter-facts and conflicting events, illogical assumptions and unrealized motivations, all of which would shake us to our foundations if we ever found out the truth. Maybe. …This is what I decided to write an epic fantasy about.

Hidden truth isn’t really a new concept in fantasy, granted. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” (LotR) trilogy is basically the coda of a much longer symphony that most of its principals don’t know they’re playing. …

This kind of epic fantasy has always felt incomplete to me, somehow. Yeah, sure, there’s a certain mental comfort food in the idea of putting the world back to rights. But there’s always a part of me that wonders, which rights should it be put back to? Did the heroes make the best choice, or just the easiest one? Who gets to answer that question?

What Jemisin’s says about the motivation behind her work sounds a lot like the sorts of questions that motivate – and originate in – historical research, albeit with seriously higher stakes (usually finding out a “hidden” historical “truth” does not lead to a long walk to Mordor. Usually).

Specifically, the way she phrases the consequences of answering these questions (“shake us to our foundations”) sounds a lot like one of the most powerful, and common, uses of contemporary historiography: undermining legitimacy.

I like Jemisin’s formulation a lot. Since beginning grad school, I’ve frequently had moments where I encounter an argument that suddenly calls into question something I hadn’t even thought to wonder about, a “hidden truth” abruptly revealed in a seminar or book conclusion. (3)

As in Jemisin’s book, these mostly have the effect of simultaneously delegitimizing an institution (or worldview), usually by just noting it’s recent provenance, and constructing something else in its place. Sort of like an ideological dynastic cycle, with all the terrible (or awesome) consequences that can have.

Let me give you a few examples:

Surprise! The idea of being loyal to a nation-state — one nation, under God, indivisible, etc etc — is quite recent (three centuries, at most, rather less in most places). See: These United States vs. The United States, postbellum shift in usage of. Also, France.

Surprise! The Founding Fathers (et al.) were, in large part, making it up as they went along (though they too argued by appealing to past fathers of liberty). Worse, they trended more than a little to the conspiracy-nut side of the spectrum. See: anything they ever wrote. (No, seriously.)

Or, at an even more basic level: Surprise! All the things you thought were totally natural about human life, especially social and cultural life, have, at one time or another, not been the norm for a significant number of people — whole civilizations, even. See: marriage, sex, money, religion, etc. Even this idea of “the natural” is a rather new one that had a great deal of trouble establishing itself, too.

Now, none of these will be earth shattering to anyone with a passing familiarity with contemporary history, or even to scholarship in general. Nor is it to say that everything is relative.

Rather, it’s to throw into relief what “real-life” hidden truths look like — as Clifford Geertz and others have put it, “it’s turtles all the way down.” Turtles may be silly, but jenga-stacks of turtles are important.

Knowing the “hidden truth” means above all understanding the contingency of it all — while still recognizing that contingent events and structures (WWI, democratic politics) nonetheless have real power.

This is where I think I may part ways with Jemisin; I think she’s more interested playing more with the consequences of revelation of particular truths (and more power to her!), whereas a lot of what historians do is take the same “facts” and sift them through different filters — so, often it’s the filter (imposed or unearthed by the historian), rather than the “truth” itself that we’re trying to argue for, or explain the consequences of.

Big reveals, by themselves, have substantially less power in our world, at least without the proper engine (ideological, material, institutional, etc) to drive them forward, or a proper hook to give them purchase. “Hidden truths” have a lot of inertia to overcome, partly because they are inescapably filtered. But I think Jemisin’s historiography has given her access to a very rich narrative seam to mine, indeed.


Image cite: Stuck in Customs, “The Zen Peace In Your Mind,” Flickr, CC License

(1). In fact, the mission statement for Scheinfeldt’s blog gets at what I’m aiming to do here pretty well, though I’m a bit less interested in digital history as an object of analysis:

Found History explores public and digital history in all its forms. It pays special mind to the myriad ways non-professionals do history, sometimes without even knowing it. By taking seriously the work of amateurs and professionals alike, as well as new trends in digital history and digital humanities, Found History aims to foster a broader understanding of what history is and who should be called an historian.

(2). John Scalzi, “The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin,” Whatever, 26 Feb 2010.

Incidentally, I highly recommend Scalzi’s blog, Whatever. As part of my recent renewed interest in sci-fi writing, I’ve been reading it in tandem with another blog by an author — Charles Stross’s aptly-named Charlie’s Diary — and thoroughly enjoying both.

I’ve been a huge fan of Stross’s Laundry Series for a while now (thanks little sis!), but I haven’t read any of Scalzi fiction except for his most recent novella, The God Engines, which I liked quite a bit. But even aside from sci-fi work, both Stross and Scalzi have smart, smart, smart things to say about writing, being an author, and commercial publishing.

Blogs by smart people who can write well, and who aren’t crazy: I’m a fan.

(3). Which is nice, because that’s actually why I showed up. It wasn’t just for the gentlemanly penury and occasional free lunch.

Found Historiography, History and Historians

Hacker History*

Or, Found Historiography


What should I read to learn more about history?

That’s a question that all historians wrestle with — certainly one that I revisit anew every time I find I need to orient myself when the research trail leads to unfamiliar temporal territory. It’s also one that successful hacker-entrepreneur Paul Graham has pondered; it appears in the middle of his personal website. Graham’s answer, while intended to guide the enthusiastic amateur, hits quite close to how the pros do it:

The way to do it is piecemeal. You could just sit down and try reading Roberts’s History of the World cover to cover, but you’d probably lose interest. I think it’s a better plan to read books about specific topics, even if you don’t understand everything the first time through.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is basically how History Grad School Works, iteration one. For the full training regimen, the one that all the folks with extra letters after their names have done, you just rinse and repeat, staying in the same topical territory, until what was once unfamiliar now seems like family, complete with creepy uncle and dotty aunts.

I bring up Graham’s answer, not just because it gives away guild secrets for free, but because it suggests that the worlds of hacking and history are closer than they might appear. Now, as I may have mentioned before, my interest in this kind of comparison is long-standing, and possibly the result of unhealthy reading habits; but I think other areas of Graham’s writing lend credence to this idea if we consider both fields as realms of practice (and lest you think that Graham is an outlier as a hacker, note that the guy publishes with O’Reilly).

Look, for example, Graham’s advice on generating ideas for startups:

It would be closer to the truth to say the main value of your initial idea is that, in the process of discovering it’s broken, you’ll come up with your real idea.

The initial idea is just a starting point– not a blueprint, but a question.

Again, this comes remarkably close to how a historian — and perhaps any scholar — works. In fact, the whole apparatus of scholarly production, for all its faults, is set up to follow this procedure, albeit in a more formal way: ideas go from seminar papers to conference presentations to journal articles to books to reviews and back into seminars, sloughing off old accumulations through further refinement of questions.

So what I think Graham’s advice reveals is a similarity in approach, which I, along with C. Wright Mills, would characterize as craftsmanship. ‘Doing history’ is like ‘doing programming’ — an intellectual affair, one with few “material” results perhaps, but one that only becomes realized through iterative production, through a working and shaping of material, often collaboratively. It isn’t a science, it isn’t quite an art, but has aspects of both, and is deeply intertwined with a particular philosophical approach to work. It’s not quite Zen and the Art of Bibliographic Maintenance, but not too far off, either.

I think Graham’s (and Mills’s and Pirsig’s) thinking on how this work gets done represents a strong challenge to both C.P. Snow’s much-celebrated concept of “Two Cultures”, which represents the humanities and science as having had a major failure to communicate, as well as Matthew Crawford’s argument against white-collar work, especially scholarly — he was formerly a philosopher — as necessarily alienating.

If intellectual work is a craft (for meanings of “craft” that are continuous across fields) I think then we should rethink how bright the line separating each of these dualities — manual vs. intellectual, science vs. humanist, etc — really is. And at the very least, I think working as if one’s work is a “craft” is a far more productive way to approach labor, on both ends of the spectrum, not least because it makes incorporating new insights easier.

Of course, I may be drawing far too much out of Graham’s essays. It may be that programming, hacking, and computer science in general, is unique it how closely the mind set mirrors the methodology of the lesser humanist disciplines. Or perhaps that the mythos of hacker culture — however the work may actually be in real life — draws strongly from the mythos of university life, and that provides the (fictional) bridge.

Or maybe any sufficiently advanced technological pursuit is indistinguishable from history.

*Not to be confused with History Hacker — Bre Pettis’s show does look pretty awesome, though it doesn’t appear to have made it past the pilot stage.

1. Okay, “middle” is a bit strong. It’s in his RAQ (“Rarely Asked Questions”) file. But still! And a h/t to Marginal Revolution for pointing me to Graham’s website.

2. Partly as a result of a youth spent immersed in William Gibson et al., programmers are the folks I think of when I hear “knowledge worker” or “symbolic analyst”– not Richard Florida’s “creative class” of boho architects, nor the conspiracy-busting whiz-geezer of Dan Brown novel fame, nor the caricatured Foucauldians that nostalgic neoconservatives have in mind when pining tenderly for a time when untrammeled free markets and long hours of manual labor saved Real Men from self-alienation.

3. Mainly through hand-wringing and head waggling.

Image cite: bdu, “eniac,” Flickr, CC License