On Universes.

So, I am about one-third of the way through the ouvre of Agatha Christie, and while I am noticing plot-recycling like never before (Evil Under the Sun is basically the same story as Death on the Nile, for instance) I am also coming to appreciate the ways in which Dame Christie created a world for her characters to live in.  I am also watching the Dr. Who cannon in my relaxation/ sitting-up-with-the-dog-who’s-eaten-chocolate-to-make-sure-he-doesn’t-die time and I am struck by the same thing.  The writers of the Whoniverse have it relatively easier, they have been building on their world since the 1960s, and also have all of time and space to fool around with.  So if they want to reference a previous doctor, they can just pick an alien and be done with it.

I think that what Christie does is slightly different, insofar as she was working alone, and was limited (if you can call it that) by England between WWI, and the 1970s (although that was naturally limited further by whenever she was writing).  I have noticed a few times that AC includes incidental asides that have exactly no bearing on the case – which is notable for her, most seemingly unrelated quips are brought in at the end of the novel by Poirot/Marple/Tommy+Tuppence as a key moment of deduction – like in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, when Julia Olivera references Miss Van Schulyer, or in Appointment with Death when Nadine Boynton references Poirot turning a blind eye in the Murder on the Orient Express.

At first I thought these little references were a bit too coy and cutesy, a reward for the ‘real’ readers.  And they might have been from AC’s point of view.  But I think that a lesson might be learnt from this style of writing.  One of my goals as an historian is to recreate the worlds in which people lived.  One of the most rewarding, and most difficult parts of writing my dissertation is imagining how 19th century Londoners, Dubliners, Corkonians, Mancuinians, Liverpudlians, Glasgwegians, New Yorkers, Cherokees and Choctaws would have experienced reports of the famine.  Were they shocked?  Did some people cry, upon reading reports of abject suffering?  Why did they donate so much money to famine relief?  At any rate, elegantly conveying through prose the world in which people lived, read, and reacted is a rewarding challenge for me, and reading AC recently has made me think anew about how I can employ prose to create that world for my readers.  Of course, I am even more limited than AC – I have to confine myself to the actual past, but as proponents of speculative history have reminded us, sometime when the sources aren’t there, we have to do our best to critically imagine the worlds we are studying.  I am working on the Dublin chapter, and having done much of the theoretical work on Irish nationalism and the famine, I am now trying to describe what it was like for Dubliners to read about the suffering and death of their own countrymen.  It is a whole bunch of fun to write.

The new (new) Sherlock Holmes

Masterpiece Theater has been airing episodes of a Sherlock Holmes miniseries set in the present.  As I was watching the first episode, I wondered whether this was a reaction to the wild success of the Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr. (soon to be with Stephen Fry, as Mycroft, if the message boards prove correct) and whether it also had something to do with there being another Afghan war on, giving Dr. Watson a plausible place in the future.  I am inclined to believe that the former is true, especially given similarities between the music and the Holmes-thought-process scenes in the movie and the miniseries.  Also, since Stephen Moffat wrote the series, Holmes occasionally slips into Dr. Who-dom.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but given that Benedict Cumberbatch is a skinny, eccentric white guy, and could plausibly play the Doctor, its a bit disconcerting to have these Whovian moments.

Updating a classic series is always difficult, and I think rarely successful.  The iterations of Alice and Wonderland movies/TV series, for instance, failed pretty miserably.  Although Alice wasn’t originally written for film, so perhaps the comparison isn’t fair.  Neverhteless, I still think that Christopher Lloyd’s white knight is one of the best translation of Wonderlandia to the screen.  Since I’m on this tangent, I do think that Tim Burton’s Alice’s final scene with her uncle discussing expanding into China is an interesting bit of imperial culture.  One might extrapolate that living in Wonderland, and being something rather exceptional in Wonderland led her to think imperially, but that last scene seemed more like an attempt to root the whole film in Britishness than it was any meaningful commentary on the impetus of empire.  Not that everything has to be meaningful commentary, but I think that if one brings up the empire, in a venue where it had no place being, some explanation is needed.

I have the opposite issue with Sherlock.  There is simply not enough empire, or really, other things that were common in the nineteenth century but seem unseemly now.  I have used the scene where Sherlock and Watson meet to teach with.  In this particular passage, Watson is recounting his time in the army: 

On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy’s country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires, with whom I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a pack-horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines. Worn with pain, and weak from the prolonged hardships which I had undergone, I was removed, with a great train of wounded sufferers, to the base hospital at Peshawar. Here I rallied, and had already improved so far as to be able to walk about the wards, and even to bask a little upon the veranda, when I was struck down by enteric fever, that curse of our Indian possessions.

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I have used this bit as an introductory lesson to analyzing texts.  Giving them a piece of fiction is always something of a risk, but it is useful to point out that things that are not strictly “true” can serve as primary sources, and windows into a time.  But the point about this piece also is how much the empire pervaded British life in the 1880s.  In the recent iteration of Sherlock, by virtue of the time shift, that empire is all but invisible.  I think that it was an important part of the original stories, from the Orientalist bigotry in the Adventure of the Creeping Man to the notion that too much interest in the east affects mania in The Specked Band, the imperialism and anxiety about imperialism of Doyle’s time pervaded the original stories.  I am not sure what could fit into the slightly uncomfortable place of nineteenth-century imperial bigotry, but by removing that valence from Holmes, and by also making him a recovering smoker instead of a cocaine addict, the creators of Sherlock smoothed the character out a bit.  That he comes across as Whovian, rather than a loose cannon takes something away from the Holmes that many readers know and love.  For what it’s worth, the authors seem to try to counteract this smoothness both by suggesting that Holmes is gay and by having both supporting characters and Holmes himself refer to the detective as a ‘high functioning sociopath,’ but it comes across more like a cocktail party quip than something threatening.  Maybe subsequent episodes will develop the darker side of Holmes – I certainly hope so – and if not, the series is certainly enjoyable, but it lacks a certain something.

Philosophies of teaching

One of the components of my applications is a teaching philosophy.  I have been struggling with this thing for awhile now, and its not that I don’t have ideas about teaching, or examples about ways in which I’ve implemented those ideas, but it is hard to both write about teaching eloquently and to limit myself to two single-spaced pages.  I think that critical thinking is important – but what is critical thinking?  I think that good writing is important – but what does good writing consist of?  I want to get students to love history as much as I do – but how do I explain that, let alone teach it?

I had been toying with including somethings in my TP, but have decided that it are a bit too ‘out there’ for a professional document.  The core issue is the similarity between historical work and the work of detectives in detective fiction.  I suppose a similar comparison might be made to scientists and the scientific method, but the romance of a detective novel is more compelling for me than the sterility of a lab.  In Death on the Nile, Poirot is having a conversation with Colonel Race, a sporadically recurring character in the Agatha Christie universe.  Race remarks “It often seems to me that’s all detective work is, wiping out your false starts and beginning again.”  Poirot counters “Yes, it is very true, that. And it is just what some people will not do. They conceive a certain theory, and everything has to fit into that theory. If one little fact will not fit it, they throw it aside. But it is always the facts that will not fit in that are significant.” I think that this is one of the best accidental descriptions of the historical profession that I have come across.  We live in a world of constant revisions in the face of new archives or theories, and the best historians re-work and re-think their arguments until they are the best means of explaining all of the probable facts.  However, I think that it might be a little bit of a faux pas to quote Dame Agatha in my teaching philosophy.

The Mechanic is the Teaching

Brenda Brathwaite designs games.  She has worked on a lot of games, and won a bunch of awards, and should be generally lauded, but I am particularly interested in a set of six non-digital games that she has created, which seem like they would be an innovative and powerful tool for teaching history at a range of levels.

Her Mechanic is the Message series “captures and expresses difficult experiences through the medium of a game” – and the difficult experiences that Brathwaite has chosen to capture happen to be historical ones, and many of them are problems that have come about as a consequence of European imperialism and Atlantic systems.  In her talk at the Art History of Games Symposium , Brathwaite said that her first impulse to create these games came when her daughter came home from school after studying slavery and noted that once upon a time a lot of people from Africa took cruises to America.  Being a game designer, Brathwaite’s educational impulse came not in the form of books or movies or a stern talking to, but in the form of what might look and feel like a board game, but which is actually an “interactive installation” which is “capable of a higher form of communication, one which actively engages the participant and makes them a part of the experience rather than a passive observer.”  The games in the series are

  • The New World (on the Atlantic slave trade)
  • Síochán leat (on Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland)
  • Train (on concentration camps)
  • Mexican Kitchen Workers (on illegal immigration and exploitation of illegal immigrants)
  • Cité Soleil (on Haiti)
  • One Falls for Each of Us (on the Trail of Tears)

As someone at the early stages of her teaching career, and who is currently writing a ‘teaching philosophy,’ I have been thinking a bit about how to teach traumatic events in a way that both conveys their gravity and doesn’t reduce crises to numbers.  I recently ran into this problem when I was TAing for a class that asked students to look at the Slave Trade Database.  Although the students were initially blown away by the scope of the project, and although the scope of the slave trade registered with them, they felt like the STD did a bad job of conveying the humanity and tragedy of Atlantic slavery.  They wanted stories.  The teacher and I didn’t want to reduce the slave trade to a collection of narratives, because scale is incredibly important.  I have run into the same problem trying to teach the Irish famine.  I can give statistics about the number of deaths, evictions and emigrees and  I can talk about what percentage of Ireland’s staple crop was lost between 1845 and 1852.  I can also show what are now standard images from the Illustrated London News and read passages from Asenath Nicholson.  One approach gives the scale, the other gives the ‘human interest’ and neither satisfies my expectations.

Back to the games.  Brathwaite’s games seem like they might be able to unite problems of scale and narrative in a form that people don’t expect to be educational, and which might consequently open up doors for learning.  It is possible that these games (I feel like I should call them art installations, but she calls them games, and that is how they are conceived, but I need to de-couple the idea of games a la FAO Schwarz from game as a concept) will never be widely available.  The one she talks about in the link above, One Falls for Each of Us consists of over 20,000 wooden pieces, and is currently more of an art piece than a commercial entity.  However, were they every to become widely available, I would buy them and use them in classroom situations.  I worry that the connotation of ‘game’ might cause students to take issues less seriously, but if these games force them to conceptualize slavery, Indian removal, immigration, the Holocaust, and Haiti in a new way – or at all – well, that seems like a good thing.

The idea of making students feel complicit in historical systems, another way of reminding them of historical baggage that we all carry around, seems radical, but I also think it would be very powerful.

In her talk at AHGS, Brathwaite has some really interesting things to say about what we are and are not comfortable with.  I remember the first time I saw Puerto Rico The Game being appalled that you got ‘slave’ tokens every turn, which helped you to accomplish tasks.  I do not remember being appalled the first time I played, say Civ.  She is an incredibly smart woman, and has some great things to say about our conception of history.  So, also, read her stuff.

A History of the World in 100 Objects – or – Colonialism still at work

Parthenon Frieze.  Courtesy of the British Museum

The BBC has been running a programme called ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects‘ since the beginning of this year.  From Monday to Friday for 100 days Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum delivers a 15-20 minute podcast on “how we humans over two million years have shaped our world and been shaped by it.”
He tells this story “exclusively through the things that humans have made, all sorts of things, carefully designed, and then, either admired and preserved or used, broken and thrown away.”
He talks about “just 100 objects, from different parts on our journey.  From a cooking pot, to a golden galleon.  From a stoneage tool to a credit card. And in each program [he’s] going to be talking about one object, from the British Museum’s Collection” (Emphasis mine)

 When I first started listening to this podcast, I was impressed by how varied the objects were, both in terms of use and in terms of provenance.  The first object is a stone chopping tool from Tanzania, and subsequent objects include Chinese coins from the 8th century B.C.E. , a maize god from the Mayan empire, an early writing tablet from Mesopotamia and an entrance plaque from ancient Iran.  Of the first 85 objects, only 14 are European in origin, which suggests an attempt by the podcast makers to focus on the actual centers of historical power, not popular views of the importance of the west.  Especially in a time of Islamophobia in the US, and to a lesser degree in the UK, it is refreshing to see so many examples of the “history of the world” drawn from the middle east.  Last week’s podcasts were devoted to the interaction of religions in the seventeenth century, and those that dealt with Suni and Shia Islam and Hinduism emphasized religious tolerance, while those that discussed Christianity emphasized bloody conflict.  So, all in all, this podcast is doing a quite good job of de-centering Europe in the imagination of westerners.

However, as much as the overall project is an admirable one, the fact that all of the objects are drawn from the collections of the British Museum, and are consequently artifacts of colonialism seems to undermine that project.  Supporters of the British Museum – and particularly of the BM’s insistence that the Elgin Parthenon Marbles belong in London, and not in the Acropolis Museum in Greece – say that the BM can better house and protect artifacts than could local museums in Iraq, Iran, North America, Peru, China, Nigeria, or anywhere else (this is explicated in the ‘What is the British Museum’s Position?’ section of the Parthenon Marbles website).  Further, supporters argue, by centralizing these artifacts, the BM is actually doing these places of origin a favour, by exposing their history and culture to tens of thousands of visitors each day, people who might otherwise know nothing about Imperial China or Mughal India etc.   By framing the podcast as “a history of the world” through the collections of the British museum, its makers continue a tradition which suggests that Britons, and in particular Britons associated with institutions of higher learning (the BM, the BL … ) are the natural curators of world history.  As much as the ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ works to privilege non-western narratives, its very context and impetus reinforce colonial naratives about the central importance of the west.  The official mind of imperialism may be long dead, but its ghost seems to be haunting the British Museum.

I don’t want to suggest that this podcast, and associated programmes for school children and museum visitors isn’t a step in the right direction.  However, Friday’s podcast closed with a preview of next week, which is all about the enlightenment and the world.  The teaser line promised an investigation of the”eighteenth-century enlightenment’s desire to know, to map and to control the wider world.”  It seems to me that the ‘History of the World’ project abley continues that desire to know, to map and to control the wider world.