Friday, October 31, 2008

Near History

By Chris Moses

“Because until recently women haven’t done anything important.”

These words hit me like a cudgel swung from behind. They were wielded by a highly intelligent seventeen year-old woman amidst a discussion of college application essays—she spoke in response to the day’s reading, the opening pages from Joan Didion’s “Where I was from.”

I hadn’t chosen to teach Didion’s essay as an example of feminist history. I selected it for the way it talked about photographs, snapshots of Didion’s ancestors. I imagined comparing pictures and personal statements, how each captured and communicated self-expression.

We were having a great discussion but the students struggled a bit with interpreting how the piece used language as much as content to tell its story.

So I stepped back and tried to take stock of the essay as a whole. Didion describes generations of her family from early America through the present—often scurrilous, glamorous only in their own eccentricity, these forbearers appear through a wry portrayal of individual drama played out on the contradictory stage of American history. Indians get killed, time marches on with each push westward and big ideas and grand narratives get trammeled by the dust kicked up along the way.

Does this sound like the past you learned about in high school, I asked. Could I assign this essay as an overview of US history?

After some curious murmuring the students emerged with an easy consensus: no. It didn’t explain the important stuff—no famous people. Politics and progress arose nowhere—this America had neither modest beginning nor glamorous end. It was just a story about some random women.

I pushed back—of course it’s not everything, certainly we must know about the wars and Presidents and so forth. But doesn’t this at least have some place in history? A focus on women’s lives—why does it seem so strange?

“Because until recently women haven’t done anything important.”

The words came forth not as an act of resignation but rather as a testimonial of self-defense. This student knew her history, she was smart, she had just taken an honors-level course in US history. Who was I to tell her she hadn’t gotten it right?

In the struggle to engage and challenge without garnering further offense, I pulled back from specifics and queried—well, what do women do? Has it changed over time—is that history?

Certainly the female students in this group expected to be successful. They understood equality as a default position even if real life could often prove contradictory.

So if today women—if they, sitting then and there—had importance and deserved recognition, how could we prove this?

I pointed to the realm of high politics. Lets count positions of authority, I said—how many women sit on the Supreme Court? Serve in the Senate? Hold Cabinet positions?

If governing power and prestige equate to the amount of history-making done by female actors, then a few moments of multiplication produce a very somber balance sheet for future historians giving millennium-turning women their due.

The equally well accomplished male students marked the conversation most with their silence. They were uncertain what to say; most comfortably they acknowledged—this isn’t something we’ve ever really thought about.

To highlight the privilege of male-as-normal, I wondered aloud—how do we set things apart as everyday or extraordinary; what makes the life of a woman or a man seem ‘regular’? And then—what virtues and accomplishments make something or someone exceptional, worthy of inclusion in the historical record?

Without practice their refrains struck a single harmony: a woman became historical when she acted like a man, when she got a ‘real job’ or tried to vote. A man stood apart when he lived as an exemplar of strength or courage, a selfless wielder of brute force who left emotions to everyone but him.

To overcome made people real; even gender had to be an accomplishment.

As excited as the next person to inspire ambition and determination, still I had to ask—what makes these situations from which people must escape? Why and how have they faced such adversity? Can it be, I asked—does accomplishment always win out over defeat, or does history-making leave a human detritus, a concentration of failure left behind in order to avoid giving the future a bitter taste?

As class wound to a close, I reflected that just as we need to think creatively about college essays and self-expression, so too about history.

Without fail solutions are sought without ever inquiring after the problem—a perennial desire to resolve life’s quandaries with a clear moral on par with the conclusion of an analytical argument or mathematical proof—whether it be a trip to the soup kitchen or the abolition of slavery.

Rather than dwell on starkly small numbers or the imagined limits of adolescent women- and manhood, change the equation, or chuck the math altogether—even if that risks departing from the certainty-inspiring equal sign that shapes so many peoples’ first-order thoughts about politics and history.

One student pointed the way with a tremendously astute observation about Didion’s title. How can you say you were from somewhere—if you’re once from a place, aren’t you always from there? How do you leave? Where did you go?

Here I think we came as close as ever to seeing what feminism could lend to history, to life and to our understanding of it. As Simone de Beauvior famously wrote—that she became a woman rather than having been born one—still there remains a powerful need to question this process rather than simply learning that it happens. As students become enveloped by sexuality, such reflection interacts powerfully with their ability to understand the world beyond themselves.

Importance arises from nowhere other than where we search for it. To leave sex and gender to women as a matter of recent emergence—just now gaining inclusion into the real stuff of history—this perversely narrows our ability to search for a sense of past, to understand the reality of the present, and to imagine the possibility of the future.

Just like this there have got to be better questions and more meaningful answers—because we’re the ones who will ask them and live within the bounds of their answers.


At November 2, 2008 at 5:55 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

In his fantastic techno-alarmist essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid”” Nicholas Carr cites playwright Richard Hoffman’s model of our (Westerner’s) cultural and subjective withering:
I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.” (
The Hoffman ideal, as I will call it, represents a cogent defense of the New Critical model (and rationale) for studying the humanities whereby one becomes an individual of artistic and/or philosophical integrity by assimilating and then personally reconfiguring (again, through art or philosophy) the elements of “the tradition,” the Western canon, the great works, etc. The bad news is that the individual cannot emerge without undergoing the hardships of scholarship (which involves, unfortunately, hierarchies of taste and authoritarian models of apprenticeship), though the good news is, the more one learns, the more of the world one includes. As Hoffman suggests, we must become subjectively immense in order to swallow the great cathedrals of western knowledge and culture.
Today’s (even gifted) students suffer from living/learning in an era that all but condones the collapse of the Hoffman ideal while simultaneously foisting a massive technological apparatus upon students and teachers alike that all but precludes the kind of silence in which “deep subjectivities” are made.—The postmoderns may dismiss the notion of depth when it comes to describing education and personhood but I believe it is pointless to try to learn or teach without them.—These students do not build cathedrals of the west inside themselves—rather, their sense of self is flattened out, cluttered, and fixated on material and professional symbols of prosperity. Charging them with situating their own narrative within the larger (potential master) narratives of civilization is therefore more than a little difficult.
(But there is an upside to this peculiar historical contingency. The Cathedrals of the West now comprise a counter-narrative—a rebellious narrative, perhaps. In fact, any narrative that pesters the past in detail could now be seen as iconoclastic. The world busily re-creates itself with devout amnesia. Capitalism, after all, profits from novelty and fantasy, but perhaps our present economic disasters, based on ruinous economic paradigms that show a thorough disdain for history, may awaken a new curiosity among the young and discontent. Which may leave room for Hoffman’s Cathedrals)
The student who claimed that, “until recently women haven’t done anything important” has, or had, no idea what she meant by “recent.” This is not a knock against her. The world she lives in was simply whispering those words into her ear—and she in turn was only channeling them and reporting to you on the dispatches from her muse.
Turning to all those difficult hours of the past that came before “recently” in fact risks destroying the ideological lens that allows someone to covet the success of just those dominating masculine figures (those noticed by history for their efforts, whether women or men), whose bootprints maraud through high-school history books and People’s bland annals of the prosperous and beautiful. Looking closely at the past, as Hoffman recognized, means nothing short of changing one’s life.
I find the recent appropriation of traditional Feminist language by the McCain/Palin campaign particularly relevant here. The densely formulated critiques originally advanced by Second-wave feminists, which Palin recently appropriated in order to shoo away critics of her incuriosity and foreign policy incompetence embodies the maddening allergy to history in society at large that contemporary political and add campaigns manipulate all too easily. What initially amounted to a nuanced critique of masculine oppression (which was itself born out of a rich and convincing model of the West) becomes a set of up-for-grabs signifiers available to anyone in the self-promotion business, even if she happens to condone most of those masculine hierarchies that originally provoked the Second-wave message.
In short, encounters with history, or any version of history that pursues marginal narratives and modest lives as relevant subject matter is deeply threatening to students who are conditioned not to look backward for their ideas of what it means to be important, happy, successful. And the teacher’s job is to point to every moment before “recently,” to paint the names of seas and nations of historical particularity where once there were only dragons. And the best students will then want to travel to those places for their own sense of discovery—even though they have been discovered many, many times before.



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