History Repeating

A few days ago, cooper left a comment on my post Why We Study History, in which she said:

… it would seem if we truly used history correctly we would not repeat it so often….

Since then, I’ve been carrying that thought around in my head, considering different ways that I might respond. This is not my response.

She’s absolutely right, of course; it’s impossible to study history over any time period longer than twenty seconds, without noticing cycles in human actions and reactions that seem to generate essentially the same social and cultural conditions. Clothing and hairstyles change, and dialogue and postures shift a little, but the broader results often seem about the same. Keeping my generalist hat on for a moment, let me just leave it at this: history repeating itself is as much a cliche as it is an actual historical condition; and as both of those things, it deserves a healthy dose of skeptical analysis.

And that is actually my main point, about all I could explore in this tiny post. When we talk of history repeating itself, we can’t stop there. We can’t really start there, either…. instead, I think we would need to latch on to some specific element of the cycles we’re trying to unravel, and, starting there, pull all sorts of interdisciplinary tricks to search for common threads and relationships among history, science, art, literature, economics, politics, and technology. It’s these things, along with the philosophical ideas that mold them and drive them forward, that define historical cycles. I can’t think of any theoretical reason why history has to repeat itself, or why history, as cooper stated, has to dictate anything … yet it would seem it has and still does, in cycles that are getting shorter and shorter and shorter….

They say the next big thing is here,
That the revolution’s near.
But to me it seems quite clear
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.
The newspapers shout:
A new style is growing.
But it doesn’t know
If it’s coming or going.
There is fashion, there is fad.
Some is good, some is bad.
And the joke is rather sad,
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.



Why We Study History

From one of the texts I am using for my Exploring Place: History class — A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community by Robert R. Archibald — comes as clear an explanation of why we study history as I’ve ever come across:

[Memory] is an ongoing process through which we create usable narratives that explain the world in which we live, stories that inevitably connect us to each other, history that builds community. The community we create is founded in shared remembrance and grounded in place, especially those places that are conducive to the casual associations necessary for emergence of shared memory…. Places, memories, and stories are inextricably connected, and we cannot create a real community without these elements.

So there is a point to history, for history is a process of facilitating conversations in which we consider what we have done well, what we have done poorly, and how we can do better, conversations that are a prelude to action…. As we face the past, we are also facing the future. — pp. 24-25

Come to think of it, these are some of the reasons why we write (and write blogs!) too.

Exploring Places

I returned to school a few years ago, and am working on my degree in historical studies. My next class starts in about three weeks, and I’m talking a short vacation before diving back in … so I’m stepping away from the computer and from blogging to spend a little time with my family and to try to wrap up a few projects. An article I came across some time ago — Life Trumps Blogging — is always a good reminder about keeping a balanced perspective.

The upcoming class is called Exploring Place: History, and I’m very much looking forward to it. Here’s an excerpt from the course description:

Thinking of place as a community in a geographical location or physical environment, this interdisciplinary course seeks to offer an opportunity for a place-based approach to history. Explore the local history of the place you live (or some other place of interest), whether you define that place as a neighborhood, a whole village or town or city, a geographical region, or a watershed. Research, for example, a particular topic or period of local history by engaging with historical scholarship, consulting local archives and historical societies and/or interviewing community members who have witnessed local history.

It’s one of the classes that has an independent study component, and classes like that are always my favorite. This one’s so much right up my alley that I couldn’t be more excited for it to get started. I’ll also be considering ways to incorporate elements of the experience into this blog; I’ve never actually done that before, so I guess I’ll be making that up as I go along. Should be a fun time, don’t you think?

A Non-Linear Coincidence

For my Science and Technology in Western Culture class, I’m reading Society and Technological Change by Rudi Volti. One of the assignments for the current module was to read Volti’s chapter on the development of printing technologies. Volti has a short discussion in this chapter on the psychological effects of printing; that is, on psychological changes that might have occurred as print technology improved and publishing began to flourish.

Volti briefly writes about Marshall McLuhan, and about some of McLuhan’s ideas on the fundamental social changes that occurred in conjunction with the expansion of print publishing and other media. Says Volti:

Some fascinating possibilities … have been suggested by Marshall McLuhan, for whom media such as print and television had consequences that far outweigh the overt messages they carry. Printed books fundamentally changed civilization not because of the information they transmitted; the greatest consequence of printing lay in the different modes of thought and perception that it fostered. In McLuhan’s analysis, each medium engenders a distinctive way of looking at the world; as his famous aphorism has it, “the medium is the message.” The reading of the printed word makes readers think in sequence, just as a sentence is sequentially read from left to right. – pg. 190

I’ve haven’t read much McLuhan, so I don’t really know how well this represents his views. But this is perhaps what Tim Lacy is asking about, in his post What is Linear Thinking? It would seem reasonable that McLuhan – or at least Volti in his interpretation of McLuhan – is highlighting a significant change in the technology of thought that came about in conjunction with the increased availability of the printed word. While I think there’s much to be said for this dramatic change in thought processes, I’m not convinced that linear thinking of this type adequately encompasses what happens in our minds when we read.

Obviously, we tend to read sequentially, at least in the sense that we typically read both books and other materials from beginning to end, and, further, we expect some logical relationship between the ideas presented at the beginning and those presented at the end. So the activity of reading does strike me as a linear process. However, reading and learning from what we read are two different things entirely. For sure, I can read something from the first page to the last page, absorbing what I read in the sequential order the author provides – but that isn’t necessarily how I learn from it. If the reading offers me anything at all, then the linear process combines with other mental processes where I make associations, form concepts, supplement prior knowledge, absorb and relate details to others I’m already aware of, and (hopefully!) emerge from the reading with either a more solid understanding of something I already know or at least a beginning understanding of something entirely new. Reading – at least reading to learn – is a much more iterative and hierarchical process than it is a sequential process. If this might be described as “non-linear thinking” (and I suppose it might), I would think that non-linear thinking is not the same as illogical thinking – since illogical thinking suggests an inability to build on prior knowledge when attempting to learn something new (or to think about anything else, for that matter).

Continuing the quotation above, Volti goes on to say:

Reading also produces an egocentric view of the world, for the reader’s involvement with the printed word is solitary and private. – pg. 190

This was actually the part that made me suspicious of the “linear thinking” statements about reading. While it is undoubtedly true that reading is a solitary and private activity, I don’t think that adequately describes the personal, cultural, or social significance of reading (or of writing, for that matter). As Benedict Anderson describes so well in Imagined Communities (I swear, I’ll be referring to that book for the rest of my life), one of the true revolutions that occurred through the explosion of printing was a new awareness among human beings of the simultaneous existence of other human beings. At minimum, my reading of a book implies an awareness of one other person – the book’s author – and in all likelihood embraces some sense that other people have read – have experienced – the book in ways similar to mine. If I spun that theory out to one other logical conclusion, I might even say that the reason so many people write, and so many more want to write, is that the sense of existing in a world simultaneously with other people has become an endemic part of the way modern men and women perceive (the significance of?) their existence.

Blogging as an Imagined Community

In early 2006, I completed a class on American Intellectual History, where the first book I read was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. The course – an independent study course where I worked directly with a mentor to define its content and purpose – was intended to help me understand intellectual history and the different ways it can be approached. Anderson’s book describes the emergence of the idea of a nation as a imagined construct, and his book covers an incredible amount of intellectual territory.

As I was reading the book, I made several notes at the time about blogging as an imagined community, and have since discovered that at least a few others have considered that idea also. One notable essay along these lines is Imagining the Blogosphere: An Introduction to the Imagined Community of Instant Publishing (pdf) by Graham Lampa – which does a fine job of describing blogging in terms of Anderson’s thesis.

There were a few finer points in Anderson’s book, however, that I found compelling to consider with respect to blogging, all potentially worth exploring from the perspective of intellectual history. Anderson anchors much of his thesis around the impact of the emergence of print publishing, and the spread of newly published material to masses of people as a result of the logic of market capitalism. Anderson goes on to relate this to new conceptions about time, describing how the conceptual experience of time changed to one where we can grasp the idea that there is a distinct past and present, and more importantly that there are people engaging in actions (and there are events taking place) outside our (approximately) immediate perceptual awareness. Anderson states, as an example:

An American will never meet, or even know the names of [most] of his fellow Americans. He has no idea what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity. – pg. 26

Anderson goes on to explain this by describing the experience of reading a newspaper, in which all the news stories are connected first by coincidence of time, and second by their immediate obsolescence:

The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing … creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (“imagining”) of the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only on this day, not that…. The significance of this mass ceremony … is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned? At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbors, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life. – pg. 35

If you find these ideas difficult – as I did at first – try to imagine not having an awareness of this simultaneous activity. That is, try to imagine how differently you would look at the world, if you didn’t have an awareness of a distinct past and present, and of human beings engaged in simultaneous activity. While you won’t really achieve that state of mind, you might begin to grasp what sort of intellectual revolution occurred in human thought for the shift toward this awareness to take hold.

As Anderson also describes, this intellectual revolution occurred within a historical context where existing social and political power structures began to crumble. Blogging is often described as democratizing, in the sense that it moves some control over information from traditional institutions to anybody who has enough interest, and takes enough time, to post their thoughts on a web site. While there are certainly questions to be raised about the efficacy or value of the information on a typical blog site, the fact that blogs even exist – and that they are written and managed by individuals often working on their own – has implications for human intellectual development that, I think, have yet to be considered. Their potential influence is dramatic; the potential of that influence to effect political, cultural, and social change is also dramatic. And if Anderson’s thesis is true, or even mostly true, then they even have the potential – at least partly because of their immediacy and the speed with which information now travels – to permanently alter some elements of the way human beings think.