There is a familiar narrative – or perhaps a set of related narratives – about why particular social identities’ “representation” in the canon or on a syllabus mattered during the 1980s. The common theme of that narrative situates the university as a proxy battleground for a fragmented Left political movement that had been unable to achieve broader social transformations toward economic and political equality.
The canon debates of the 1980s rested upon some crucial, largely unarticulated assumptions about the value of certain kinds of texts – assumptions so interwoven into the fabric of intellectual and cultural life at the time as to be practically invisible to those who designed, criticized, and/or defended Stanford’s Western Culture reading list. In this post, rather than exploring some of the substantive arguments of that debate, I want to look at one of those unstated assumptions about substance itself: the assumption that the proper material medium for any work worth studying was the printed word — more specifically, the codex, the book.
As John Guillory has argued, Stanford’s Western Culture syllabus was an instantiation of the university’s gatekeeping activity in determining what knowledge – what level of conversance with which texts — would comprise an education. In Guillory’s reading, the university “regulates, because it makes possible, access to this inheritable treasure. Individual works are taken up into this system (preserved, disseminated, taught) and confront their receptors first as canonical, as cultural capital.” In considering the mechanics of this process of preservation, distribution, and instruction, it is important to recognize how those gatekeeping activities of the university both depended on and drove the parallel gatekeeping activity of the publishing industry in determining what cultural expressions, old or recent, Western or “Other,” would be rendered into accessible and durable material form – what texts would be published in / as books. Continue reading
Well, we are wrapping up another year at the USIH blog.
As a genre of writing, blogging tends to the stylistically informal and the seemingly ephemeral. Of course we all know by now that the internet is forever, and every error is immediate to Google. But every base hit is immediate to Google too, and we have had a few of those this year – and maybe even a few home runs. Still, the exigencies of blogging — and, yes, there are exigencies; “informal” is not a synonym for “easy” – mean that whatever is at the top of the queue won’t stay there for very long. The conversation will shift from day to day, week to week, blogger to blogger, commenter to commenter. As academic discourse goes, it’s a fairly fast-moving current – even if we do sometimes get caught up in the occasional recursive eddy.
In any case, with our rotating roster of regular bloggers and our open door for guest authors, a year of blogging at USIH amounts to a lot – a lot of writing, a lot of thinking out loud, a lot of thinking things through and hashing things out together (most often courteously, like good little well-behaved, decorous and dignified historians – but sometimes not so much), a lot of work, and often a lot of fun. We’ve had some great posts and some rip-roaring discussions, some meditative essays, a few sharp arguments, and so many thoughtful and encouraging and helpful conversations.
So tonight, as 2014 winds down to its close, I wanted to invite our readers – or at least those of you who are not out at some fabulous shindig to ring in the New Year, but are instead chilling (or trying to stay warm!) at home – to revisit our work here at the blog over this past year. Continue reading
Ridley Scott cannot be accused of presenting Exodus: Gods and Kings as merely a 21st-century update of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film The Ten Commandments. But I really wish he had given that a try. Sure, on occasion, in this or that sequence, Scott’s film does display some sense of the spectacular, the passionate, the dreadful, the grand. So this film has epic moments, but it lacks any sense of a sweeping epic vision – or even an epic visual design. This film is disappointingly monochromatic and monocultural – lots of dirt, and lots of dudes.
A more thorough review – and some spoilers – after the jump.
[Note to readers: the following is a guest post by Audra J. Wolfe (@ColdWarScience), a writer, editor, and historian based in Philadelphia. Her research centers on the role of science in the Cold War, whether in the form of weapons or cultural diplomacy. Her first book, Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America,was published in 2012, and was recently awarded the Forum for the History of Science in America’s Philip Pauly Prize.]
A Reading List for the Social Sciences in the Cold War
By Audra J. Wolfe
A piece by sociologist Orlando Patterson published earlier this week, “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant,” predictably sparked discussions on Twitter about the role of sociologists in public policy. The resulting exchanges about whether, and to what extent, sociologists have ever influenced U.S. policy inspired me to pull together an informal bibliography of works on the social sciences during the Cold War—the one period in U.S. history when sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, linguists, and scholars of mass communication consistently commanded respect in state and federal policymaking circles.
Even a decade ago, the history of the social sciences in the Cold War was a bit of a historiographical backwater, primarily produced either by practitioner-historians or New Left commentators with an axe to grind about the military-industrial complex. Since then, it’s become one of the most vibrant areas in the history of the science in the Cold War, to the point that some scholars (most notably David Engerman) have objected that the Cold War storyline has been overplayed. I’ve wondered the same thing myself, at least in regard to the “follow-the-money” approach, but just when I start to lose patience with the topic, another fantastic and innovative book rolls off the presses. Continue reading
Can an Imperial Stormtrooper be black? Can ancient Egyptians be white?
Hey, in the movies, anything is possible – though some things are perhaps more possible than others.
A filmmaker telling a story drawn from an entirely fictional imaginary can probably take all kinds of liberties with characters (not to mention settings, props, special effects, etc.) But a filmmaker telling a story drawn from an imaginary that is based (however loosely) upon a set of canonical texts has to be much more careful about violating the sensibilities and expectations of the audience.
So of course it’s easier for Ridley Scott to get away with a Biblical epic about the Exodus story featuring an all-white lead cast than it is for J.J. Abrams to get away with a 90-second Star Wars movie trailer depicting one black Stormtrooper. Continue reading
In lieu of an extended post, I’d like to call your attention to a few essays and articles touching upon themes and topics that may be of interest to our readers, from Ferguson, Missouri to the mechanisms if not the mindset(s) of the ruling class to the vintage pages of The New Republic. Continue reading
Recently I came across a brief but very rich historiographic essay by Vincent Harding, “Power From Our People: The Sources of the Modern Revival of Black History,” published in The Black Scholar (Jan/Feb. 1987). Harding’s essay was originally delivered as a lecture during a summer seminar for college instructors hosted by the African-American World Studies Program of the University of Iowa. I’ll be discussing the essay today in connection with my own research, and my colleague Robert Greene will have more to say tomorrow about how the essay connects to his research interests.
I found Harding’s essay in a search for scholarship that could speak to the significance of Ebony magazine in Black intellectual life. Specifically, I was looking for work that could shed some light on the role Ebony played in providing a forum for Afrocentric classicism or Afrocentric histories of Western civilization.
André Schiffrin memorial, Great Hall, Cooper Union, October 29, 2014
by Jesse Lemsich
An extraordinary event, which will be put up on the New Press website, where it will be worth watching. Random memories of this event:
I sat with Todd Gitlin, and I guess we had mutually decided to put aside our differences and resume being old friends. Todd laughed heartily when Bud Trillin described the Yale 1950s’ ideal of being “shoe” – that is, cool, with André the very reverse of that. I concluded from Todd’s reaction that the same term had been current at Harvard. He remembered “Jack Tar” and said that at one point he had thought of writing about the role of Isaac Sears in the NY Stamp Act riots. We got along fine, which I guess is one of the things that happen at memorial services. Continue reading
Note to readers: Kevin Schultz presented the essay below as part of the S-USIH 2014 Plenary Roundtable in Honor of the Annual Book Award Recipient and Honorable Mentions. The book prize committee selected Ajay K. Mehrotra’s Making the Modern American Fiscal State: Law, Politics, and the Rise of Progressive Taxation, 1877-1929 as this year’s winner and singled out for honorable mention Raúl Coronado’s A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture. In the essay below, Schultz discusses the field of entrants from which these two books were chosen.
State of the Field
by Kevin Schultz
In 2012, David Hollinger penned an article for Modern Intellectual History entitled “What is our ‘Canon’? How American Intellectual Historians Debate the Core of their Field.” In the article, he described the process of soliciting opinions from faculty around the country on how the canon of American intellectual history has changed over the past thirty years, how he and his co-editor Charlie Capper debated requests for new entries. The article is a fun read, in part because it’s clear how much Hollinger and Capper have already thought about nearly everything you can think of that they should add, but also because they draw some summaries about our field, the most revealing of which, to me anyway, is that over the past thirty or so years, American intellectual historians have increasingly focused on political ideas and social theory at the expense of philosophy and literary culture. Hollinger cautions us against what he sees as an increasing focus on ideas-in-action because it risks, and I quote, “cutting off inquiries that are of great value to the profession and to the public that we ultimately serve, especially at a time when the studies carried out under the sign of ‘cultural history’ usually attend to only the most general of philosophical ideas and the most popular of literary works.”
I had this article in mind as I embarked on the process of reading this year’s entries for the Society’s Award for Best Book in American Intellectual History. I wanted to see if that thesis bore out. Continue reading