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May 27, 2005

Micro-history and Commodity History ...

Arthur Krystal's review of Roger Ekirch, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, for the New Yorker could renew discussion of micro-history and commodity history at Cliopatria. At Chapati Mystery, Sepoy links to an remarkable number of such histories. One could add to his list the work of Mark Smith at the University of South Carolina on the histories of the senses: Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 2001); and Hearing History: A Reader (University of Georgia Press, 2004). Smith tells us"I'm knee-deep in the ‘field' of sensory history -- a vibrant area of historical inquiry dedicated to examining the roles played by olfaction, hearing, touch, and taste (as well as vision) in shaping the past. My concern is to help restore the full sensory texture of history and examine what the senses in addition to seeing might be able to tell us about historical experience and causation."

I suppose that we should distinguish commodity histories (bookshelves, bread, cheese, chocolate, cocaine, cod, coffee, corn, cotton, hemp, heroine, pencils, potato, salt, screws, spice, sugar, tobacco, vanilla, and, most recently, barbed wire) from other forms of micro-history, whether of the body and its functions (breast, fart, hair, hip, masturbation, penis, sensation, smiling, etc.), numbers (zero, e and pi), or mundane experience (dust, light, night, sound, etc.). As Krystal suggests, much of the existing literature is largely defined by the western experience; and, as Sepoy points out, there is reason to be skeptical about the importance of some of these subjects. But that is often a function of the skill of the historian and others offer a remarkable range of potential insight. The slave trade, after all, is a commodity history; and both it and male/female bonding have complicated relationships with other commodity histories. I imagine that the Cliopatriarchs have a range of attitudes about these micro-histories, but both Tim Burke and Jonathan Reynolds have published commodity history. Tim's pointed out that he finds research in commodity history an especially effective assignment for his students.

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Ralph E. Luker - 5/27/2005

I agree with most of what you're saying, Caleb, though I didn't articulate it in the post. I did see the necessity of distinguishing commodity histories from the other forms. But Smith, himself, says that he's interested in a range of sensory histories, not only the aural. As you say, I think it remains to be seen whether their potential will effectively challenge the way we go about doing history.

Caleb McDaniel - 5/27/2005

I'm not sure I would classify Smith's work with the microhistories that Sepoy and Krystal catalogue, if only because Smith seems to be making a fundamentally methodological point about the way we look at sources, and the fact that it's automatic for us to talk about the way we look at sources, instead of the way we listen to them. If Smith were advocating a "history of the ear," perhaps he would fit in the same kind of camp as histories of body parts, but he's calling for aural history. (For that matter, I wonder whether the recent interest in the "history of the body" should be classed with histories of commodities. While I'm not very familiar with these works, I gather that they too are making a methodological point; they are not just interested in gazing (literally) at navels, which is what histories on cod and screws seem to be doing, at least to some extent.)

Perhaps I'm interested in rescuing the distinction between aural history and commodity microhistories because I found Smith's angle useful for looking at (there I go again ... listening to) reports by abolitionists of their holiday celebrations. Early on in my research about how abolitionists celebrated the Fourth of July and the First of August (the anniversary of British emancipation) I noticed the pervasive presence of comments about the way these celebrations sounded, or didn't sound. I think Smith's right that because we live in a far more visual culture than nineteenth-century Americans, we are inclined to gloss over these sonic tropes as thoughtless embellishment. We need at least to be sensitive to the way that sound may have structured experience more fundamentally for our forbears than it does for us.

That's not to say that I think calls for aural history are airtight. And because right now we have more manifestoes for it than examples of it, it is likely to strike us mainly as an exercise in microhistory--aural historians might seem to be just rushing through their sources and quoting every instance where sound is mentioned, the way a historian intent on the history of vanilla might zoom up so closely on that one object that its context is left largely out of focus. But I do think that there's something more to aural history, in the sense that it at least has pretensions to methodological revision (I don't know how to "auralize" the word revision), whereas these commodity microhistories don't seem to have some animating project that they are all trying to instantiate.

David Lion Salmanson - 5/27/2005

Krystal can't even get the Eurocentric part right. Cordoba (in Spain last time I checked) had a public lighting system well prior to the 1600s. Of course, it was part of Dar al Islam (the House of Islam)at the time.

Todays post is a nice coincidence with my teaching schedules. I get 17 papers of commodity history today from rum to steel and both coca and cocoa (the natural forms of two very different stimulants).

I've also got a copper paper coming. I can't believe it doesn't have a bigger literature - what good is electricity without copper wire at least until fiber optics comes along? Copper is tied to everything from the Bronze Age to the telegraph to the overthrow of the Allende regime.

And then there is uranium, but I'm working on that.