“There are many roads to the great good we seek”

[Written partly offline on the bus between Oxford and Cambridge, 18/04/2012]

Over the last year, in the world of actual academia I seem to have written more about research methods than about the results of actual research, including two papers about blogging. I’m not sure what’s scarier, the fact that there is, eighteen years after my first introduction to the Internet, still a market for printed work about it,1 or that running a blog makes me a viable contributor to that literature. Nonetheless, there are two, one loosely based on the paper I gave in Siena now forthcoming in Literature Compass, and another piece with a more complicated genesis still under review.2 That genesis is interesting, in fact, as far as new media publishing goes (still, some might say, not very far): if accepted, it will be part of a ‘born-digital’ volume whose review process has up till now been done on the open web, at a site named for its prospective title, Writing History in the Digital Age. Here, various contributors, invited or responding to a CFP, were invited to post essays on more-or-less agreed topics (mine being blogging) and then several readers selected by the editors, as well as anyone else who wanted to, weighed in with comments. Feeling as if it was part of my role as a contributor, I actually read all of it, which is when this post became the stub that it’s taken me many months to fill out, but never mind that now; there’s some very interesting stuff in the volume and if you’re on this kind of new media humanities wavelength I do advise you to browse. Let me just finish talking about me first though, and then about one of those ‘nothing is ever new’ moments one sometimes gets that one of the essays there gave me.3

(Ultimately everyone is deriving from Chuck Berry anyway, right?)

My first go at a contribution for this volume was decidedly second-rate; I wasn’t sure that the editors knew what they wanted from me, and I wasn’t sure there was anything much of rigour or weight to be said about blogging as a historiographical enterprise anyway. Then I got asked to do the Literature Compass piece, which made me write at least a bit more seriously, and reading the other essays contributed to this volume generally forced me to buck my ideas up. Firstly, they introduced me to a welter of scholarship on digital humanities I had somehow managed to ignore, and secondly they showed me a number of contributions that were saying genuinely insightful things about the way we work and can work with these new tools in the æther. I decided I actually wanted in on this thing and therefore rewrote with a much better grounding in that scholarship and also an actual argument, and you can at time of writing see that version here; it’s kind of my current definitive statement on academic blogging in history, in as much as I don’t know what would have to happen for me to change my mind, well, apart from blog posts and readership figures officially counting towards academic promotion. (Tl;dr: they never will while peer review is still how we govern entry into the Academy.) What then happened was that the editors had more good stuff than would fit between the covers they were allowed to pitch for by their prospective press, and so winnowed thoroughly. What I had written crossed the tail-end of another contributor’s essay and so we were asked to make our two 5,000-word pieces, which disagreed over crucial issues, into one co-authored 4,000-word one. This request, you can imagine, I met with a certain amount of offline vituperation, as I felt I’d said what I wanted to say, and I might well have ignored it had not the other contributor, a gentleman or at least a scholar called Alex Sayf Cummings,4 who also hath a blog, got in touch and asked what I thought. Putting aside my spleen, I came up with a suggested best-of structure, he refined it, I built it out of the parts of what we’d written then we both refined, deleted, joined up and generally edited till we had something we were both happy with. It shouldn’t really have worked but I think it’s a better essay than mine alone was, and it at least doesn’t do him any disservice, I hope. (It’s here, at the moment, if you’re interested.) It’s been a weird way to work, and I don’t know if I’m ever likely to meet my now-co-author, but if it does come out I shall be quite pleased with it.

Alex Sayf Cummings faculty mugshot

Have you seen this man?

So that’s all been interesting, but it’s very far from being the only interesting thing in the volume, so do have a look. I was, however, especially struck by this bit from “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Notecards” by Ansley T. Erickson:

It makes sense that historians would think about categories, as we encounter them in many ways in our work. As new graduate students, we learn to identify ourselves by sub-field – “I do history of gender,” or “I’m an Americanist.” And we are trained implicitly and explicitly to organize information and causal explanations into categories of analysis – race, class, gender, sexuality, politics, space, etc – when in fact these categories are never so neat and separate, whether in an individual’s life or in a historical moment. Then we research in archives that establish and reify their own categories – legal records divided by plaintiff or defendant, institutions that keep their records with an eye to confirming their power or reinforcing their independence. To make sense of a sometimes overwhelming volume of fact, all of which needs to be analyzed relationally, we rely on categories that we create as we work – like my database keywords.

This matter of categories connects to at least two fields of scholarship. Scholars of the history of knowledge like Peter Burke have examined the organizational schemes embodied in curricula, in libraries, in encyclopedias, and have shown us how these structures and taxonomies represent particular ways of seeing the world. Burke then shows that such schemes reify or naturalize those ways of seeing, helping to reproduce the view of the world from which they came. They also make some kinds of information more, or less, accessible.

Think, for example, of the encyclopedia. We are accustomed to its A to Z organization of topics, but this structure in fact represented a break away from previous reference formats that grouped subjects under a structure of classical disciplines. The alphabetized encyclopedia came about at a point when the previous disciplinary categories were no longer so stable as to be able to contain growing knowledge, and a new, more horizontal or less hierarchical model took their place, a model that allowed readers access to information by topic, outside of the hierarchies of a discipline. Burke points us to the importance of how we categorize information, where these categories come from, and how categorizations affect our access to and experience of information.

And there’s more here. Now, call me an old hippy if you will, but isn’t that quite like this?

Since Aristotle, man has organized his knowledge vertically in separate and unrelated groups — Science, Religion, Sex, Relaxation, Work etc. The main emphasis in his language, his system of storing knowledge, has been on the identification of objects rather than on the relationships between objects. He is now forced to use his tools of reasoning separately and for one situation at a time. Had man been able to see past this hypnotic way of thinking, to distrust it (as did Einstein), and to resystematize his knowledge so that it would all be related horizontally, he would now enjoy the perfect sanity which comes from being able to deal with his life in its entirety.

Now this latter perpetrates the Great Greek Myth and so on, but bear in mind the context: it’s a liner note from the first album by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, a Texas band with a chequered and short history who have some claim to the title of the USA’s first psychedelic band. It is, ineluctably, from 1967. But its relevance to re-envisioning the humanities might not be as surprising as it seems, given that this was a band whose lyrics were written by a would-be poet and whose signature acid manifesto, ‘Step Inside This House’, is actually a Coleridge filk, even if also that it is a general depressing tendency of listening to late sixties and early seventies rock that almost none of the social and political issues it’s about have ameliorated. But I’m figuring, all the same, that this is a reference point that isn’t going to make it into the academic literature any time soon, more’s the pity. Because it’s as the title says, in the words offered to the Roman Emperor Theodosius Valentinian II [edit: oops] by the senator Symmachus when the emperor proposed to close the last pagan temples, there are many roads to the great good we seek, and sometimes they seem to meet up.5 Still not convinced? First extract written by one Ansley Erickson; the Elevators’ singer, one Roky Erickson. I’m telling you man: once you look at it the right way it’s all connected

1. I’d have thought it was all said in Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: a Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/, but apparently technology develops!

2. It will hopefully be Jonathan Jarrett, “Views, Comments and Statistics: Gauging and Engaging the Audience of Medievalist Blogging” in Literature Compass (Oxford forthcoming).

3. For which I might now cite Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge MA 2006), about which I had no idea before getting involved in this.

4 He may well be a gentleman! But not having met him, I don’t want to presume; it’s not, after all, a title I feel I own either.

5. You’ll notice that this seems to more of a periphrasis than a translation, the version that the IMSB link gives (“One road alone does not suffice to so great a Mystery!”) being closer to canon. I’m not sure where I got this translation from; I’ve had it in my head since doing undergraduate work on paganism and Christianity in my second year, but I obviously didn’t find room for it in either of the pieces of coursework I did then because it’s not there. It seems likely to me that I’ve borrowed it either from Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven 1981), Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the mediterranean world from the second century AD to the conversion of Constantine (London 1986, 2nd edn. 2006) or Jocelyn Hillgarth (transl.), Christianity and Paganism, 350-750. The conversion of Western Europe (Philadelphia 1986), the first and last of which I remember fondly but not with enough clarity to be sure…

11 responses to ““There are many roads to the great good we seek”

  1. Quicksilver Messenger Service!

  2. Pingback: Heavenfield Round-up 5: Signs of Power and Piety « Heavenfield

  3. highlyeccentric

    He may well be a gentleman! But not having met him, I don’t want to presume; it’s not, after all, a title I feel I own either.

    Well, we all know it’s the scholar part that counts, anyway…

  4. highlyeccentric

    Sorry, right, don’t let me give you the impression that you count…

  5. Pingback: New masters, and other things not yet announced | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. Pingback: Name in Lights VII, maybe Print XII | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  7. Pingback: Name in Lights VI | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  8. Pingback: Heavenfield Round-up 5: Signs of Power and Piety - Geatland Saga

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