Streamlining History

I'm sitting in class--any class--and a topic or text is introduced. Usually a text. This text will eventually become the spring-board for the day's discussion. It happens in this way: judgment is passed of the author or of the text. The judgment is the judgment of partially informed grad students who are reacting to the text from within their own personal ethos (as Wayne Booth would say), which is very normal.

At some point, and sometimes I can see it happen and sometimes not, that judgment gets attached to the text itself or, more likely, to the author's motivations. Which is unfair, if understandable. I don't like it, but I don't get hot under the collar until the author's motivations (which are, remember, actually a constructed judgment) are extrapolated to form a theory of effect and causation. A perfectly legitimate judgment has been formalized into a completely imaginary construction of a historical event or person.

From the deconstructionalist point of view, this is all okay. Language is subjective anyway so why shouldn't we develop imaginary theories based on imaginary motivations that are linked to our own personal judgments? No problem at all, so long as you don't confuse the three things. Which is what ends up happening. The class' theoretical construction (based on theoretical motivations based on personal judgment) does not mean that we have gotten any closer to understanding what Harriet Beecher Stowe or the Purtians or Noah Webster or the colonial revivialists were really like. The discussion we are having is not about them, it is about us. This is a modern discussion by modern people who are using historical personages to further their modern opinions and modernized ideologies.

It's basically an effort to avoid deconstructionalism. Frankly, finding boxes within boxes can get a bit dull after awhile; most academics don't like to go too far down that path. Which is fine with me. But they want to have it both ways: the ability to deconstruct a historical personage as if language is a non-definite, exploitable (for the business of creating theories) entity as well as the desire to have said deconstruction taken as something close to reality. Which it isn't. If you accept reality. If you don't, your position here won't make any difference anyway.

Which doesn't mean that authors don't intend things. Stowe did intend to improve women's position in the home by improving the image of the house and housework. She says so. But it doesn't then derive that Stowe's intent is the same of our judgment of that intent. Or that any kind of linear cause and effect can be derived from our judgment of that intent with any degree of success.

When it comes down to it, it's this tiresome business of streamlining everything, creating literal, one-way effects from author to ideology to long-term consequences of that ideology. Which seems sloppy to me, oddly enough. I am, rather naively, unendingly surprised at the academic world's ability to dissociate itself from what it is doing. I've sat in several classes where the students and teachers have criticized (mocked) groups or political parties or people (or high school teachers) who believe in "original intent," a reality at the back of all the facts and texts and deconstructions: oh, they are sooooo gullible, hee hee hee. And I've looked around the class and thought, "You've paid $700 to sit in a hot, dusty room with 15 other people forcing texts and historical personages into steamlined, linear, motivation-to-ideology-to-theory-to-causation one-size-fits-all realities, and you think other people are gullible?" At least, I know I'm crazy.

But it makes me tired.

I have, consequently, taken refuge in reader-response theory, not because I think it doesn't contain its own amounts of silliness but because, within the academic world, it's the only legitimate defense available to this deconstructionalism-without-deconstructionalism approach. If I say, "Texts don't have that much influence," I'll be dismissed as reactionary and gullible. If I say, "Ah, yes, but as a reader deciphers a text, the text undergoes a process of filtering, unconscious association and communal application which is further influenced by the reader's character and experience" (which is pure Holland, by the way), I have stumbled on an accidental truth (it's all very religious, which is even more tiresome, since I already have a religion). The only difference then lies in my personal belief that the reader's experience does in fact matter more than the social implications of the text. Which is a fairly big difference. I believe the reader is more pro-actively invested in taking what he/she wants out of the text than in being influenced by that text. Which means, if I'm right, that you can't blame the connection of women with the home all on Stowe (or writers like her), you have to accept that maybe people actually want to believe that particular idea and that the "want" stems from something other than cultural influence. Which in my program is like trying to argue in favor of extraterrestrial lifeforms or the worthwhileness of television. You just don't go there. (Or argue for the meritoriousness of Christianity--you REALLY don't go there. We're talking Grinch, ten-foot pole territory.)

Which means I spend a lot of time writing papers where I try not to go there. The result is papers that don't really say anything since I'm not going to say all that garbage about texts being tied to ideologies because, reader-response or not, I think it's pure fantasy, and I refuse to make up pure fantasies about dead people and then pretend that that's not what I'm going. Which is why I prefer to write fiction. It's just more fair.

CATEGORY: HISTORY & TEACHING

1 comment:

  1. Maybe you should slide into a museum program once you finish off your masters. Since museum programs focus on material culture -- here's an artifact, where did it come from? what was it used for? why was it made? what kind of people would have wanted it? why did it survive? -- I think it helps focus its practitioners attention on reality. There's also a strong emphasis on museum education that you might enjoy.

    There's also a practitioners craft to museum studies that grounds it in reality -- the whole conservation side of it. Maybe you should apply to Cooperstown next! or Winterthur.

    Really good historians spend a lot of time collecting data before drawing conclusions. But that's not much fun and a typical graduate program wouldn't retain many students if it told them they had to spend 5 years compiling data from barely-legible documents before anything they said would be taken seriously.

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