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Mar 18, 2004 11:45 pm

"What Historians, Artists, And Fashion Designers Have In Common" ...

It isn't my title and I owe Tyler Cowan at the Volokh Conspiracy a tip of the hat for the reference. It's Grant McCracken's title for a chapter in his book, Plenitude. McCracken is a cultural anthropologist, who teaches at McGill. He may be better known for his books, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities and, I kid you not, Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self.

Plenitude is out of print, but McCracken's put it on the net and Cowan's reference to it intrigued me enough to have a look. There I found a chapter or essay, "What Historians, Artists, and Fashion Designers Have in Common". It gave me an opportunity to have that alienating experience others must have when they know they are being studied as a group. Here's McCracken's opener about us:

Most historians like things tidy. Most poets couldn't care less. When the editors of a new volume of poetry couldn't find a" common link," that was fine.[Ftnt: Potts, Robert 1995, An adaptable gather: the revival of the Penguin Modern Poets series, Times Literary Supplement, No. 4814, July 7, 1995, p. 31.] Poets thrive on chaos. (It is, after all, where creativity comes from.) Historians are less keen. For them knowledge depends on order. They must sometimes start their work in a welter of possibilities, and, often, an archive of heaping confusion. But they must make the data march two by two (and three by five) towards order and understanding. Plenitude, to the extent it has invaded even the world of knowledge, is especially hard on them. They are tested by what one practitioner calls its"splintering, fragmentation, disarray, shapelessness, inaccessibility, incoherence, chaos, anarchy and meaninglessness." At the end of the day, they want ideas that are"overarching." Less and less frequently do they get them. [Ftnt: Morgan, Philip D. 1993. General Diversity and Unity in Early North America.editor Philip D. Morgan, 1-8. London: Routledge, p. 1.]
I can't say that I think McCracken is wrong about this. I do like things tidy and, if they're not, I suspect that I haven't really done my job as a historian – even though I know that history is, at best, an untidy business. And I experience plenitude all the time, especially writing for Cliopatria, where there are endless things that might be discussed. We pay lip service to that with brief mentions, all the while knowing that the brief mentions, even, ignore many other things that might be discussed and do little justice to the subjects we do mention. Anyway, historians, have a look at McCracken's essay: you are being studied as a sub-culture.

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Jonathan Dresner - 3/19/2004

I tell my students that historical scholarship comes in waves: there's the grand master narratives, sometimes imposed by a single scholar, more often, in modern scholarship, a consensus position (often visible in textbook writing). Then there's a cycle of complication: questioning the applicability of the master narrative to certain cases, and eventually finding new questions to ask and new theories and structures to work with. Then it's time to reconstruct a new, more intellectually sound, master narrative which integrates the new scholarship. Then it starts over again.

Of course, with the textbooks now in continuous production, it's a little harder to tell, now. But I still think that this is a valid process: individual scholarship making new discoveries and complicating things; "grand master" scholarship which reintegrates new understandings. OK, it's a little Hegelian, now that I think about it. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong (or that Hegel was wrong.)

Ralph E. Luker - 3/18/2004

Well, yes, David, but the very demands of linearity necessitate an ordered way of talking about disorder. I would like to have an example of what you are talking about when you say "making the apparently simple more complex." How is that not making things unnecessarily complicated? I do like your third sentence. It reminds me of the prophetic task (pardon the theological reference): to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

David Lion Salmanson - 3/18/2004

I think there are two schools of thought on this. I have always looked at my work as making the apparently simple more complex. Perhaps our job is to complicate the apparently simple and yet clarify the apparently chaotic?