Blogs > Cliopatria > Pipe Dreams

Feb 17, 2005 9:47 pm

Pipe Dreams

"Sometimes I wish I did US history.... such great material to work with, and all in English."

I must admit to laughing out loud when I read my colleague Jonathan Dresner's comment. How many, many times I have said this to my US and English history cohorts [specifically those who do the modern period ]. You don't have to waste 4-5 years of Arabic and Persian and Sindhi and Serayki [let's leave French and German aside], I say, you can just jump into the archive! How I would love to have that facility with my sources. Of course, my American cohorts doing Hali or Iqbal turn around and say the same thing to me because Urdu is my native tongue while they have to spend years in training.

Still, how I would love to do US cultural or social or intellectual history. To be able to engage with religion and society of 19th-20th century US would be incredible. Of course, such are the dreams of greener grass and happier climes.

But, it made me wonder. What are the professional pipe dreams of my esteemed colleagues and readers? What historical projects would you undertake if you had life enough and time? And current ones, no matter how long in gestation [throat cleared] do not count.

I'll go first. I would love to do a comparative project tracing apocalyptic messianism in the US and in South Asian religious expression during the modern era.
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Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

No, it still exists. There are still historians and the there are the Americanists. Even at Penn, the Americanists still take a semester of American Sign Language (or something) to avoid having to actually learn a foreign language.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/18/2005

ST's time travel writing is, indeed, abysmal; my interest there is more in the socioeconomic and cultural processes implicit in the Federation, and the role of technology in social progress.

Both SW and B5 suffer from an excess of "prophecy" and "destiny" but beyond that there are very interesting questions of economics, empires, leadership, human(oid) nature, and change over time.

I admit, however, that Dr. Who and its offshoots is a glaring gap in my knowledge of the field, which I look forward to rectifying.

Rob MacDougall - 2/18/2005

Great topics, Jonathan! Though I don't know why ST and SW and B5 get cited without disparaging editorial comment while timeline changing time-travel stuff (which ST certainly has its share of) is "goofy junk." There's an unbelievable Borgesian series called "Faction Paradox" by disgruntled former "Dr. Who" novelists, who-- oh. right. A discussion to have after tenure.

Until then, then. :)

Ed Schmitt - 2/18/2005

This sounds fascinating, Ralph. Don't give up on it!

Ralph E. Luker - 2/18/2005

There is a book to be done, which I'd like to have done, on Southern Catholic intellectuals in the 20th century. I did about three articles toward the book, but I'm pretty sure that I'll never get it done now.
The topic interests me because these writers are sort of triply outsiders in American society of their age. If it is individualistic, liberal, and progressive, they are communitarian, conservative/hierarchical, and have a view of history that is distinctly non-progressive.
The people I have in mind are writers of fiction and non-fiction: Flannery O'Connor, Alexander Percy and his nephew, Walker Percy, Katherine Anne Porter, Allen Tate, Garry Wills, and others.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/18/2005

It's hard for me to say. I found Americanists impossible to talk to in graduate school: no shared classes (hardly, anyway; this was before they restructured my program to include things like historiography seminars) or shared research presentations (they've changed that, too), and the relevant issues just seemed so different. It's not language elitism, so much as it is a different problem set.

The biggest difference, if I was looking for a way to be elitist about Americanists, that I see is the tendency for Americanists to avoid comparative discussions, to assume that the US is a pretty closed system and independent actor (on the foreign scene) and exceptional from historical processes in a way that is just very rare in Europeanists and Asianists. In my experience, of course, and with glaring exceptions here and there.....

Jonathan Dresner - 2/18/2005

Well, I wouldn't cite Buffology specifically, but there is a much greater interest in speculative fiction in Literary and philosophical circles than there used to be. So far historians have mostly stayed away, but there was a book that came out last year on theories of causation in detective fiction (as evidence of social thinking in mid-20c US, I think it was) which I need to read and see if it could serve as a model (and everyone is going to compare my work to that one anyway).

It's definitely a post-tenure project, because it's going to be very hard to convince the committees here to take it seriously, even if I can convince my historical community that it's worthwhile.

Manan Ahmed - 2/17/2005

I havent seen apocalyptichistorian but I will. As to elitism, I am fairly oblivious to all that, but I suspect it still goes on somewhere. My school, though, is a paragon of equality and virtue. No snobs here ;)

Manan Ahmed - 2/17/2005

Yes, the "theories of history" in speculative fiction are much more interesting than alternative histories. Do you feel that the recent spate of scholars writing essays on the Buffyverse or the Matrix, makes a project such as this one more tenable to the market?

Ralph E. Luker - 2/17/2005

My first thought when I read about your own heart's darling was to wonder whether you had looked at She's working on the American side of your dream project and we're meeting for coffee to talk about it in the next week or so. I'm sure that she'd be glad to hear anything from you about it.
The second thought I had when I read the comments of you and Jon was -- now, wait a minute, if they didn't have to immerse themselves in language study, they might have to give up the elitist presumptions that most non-Americanists carry around in their breastpockets. Maybe things have changed from the time I was in graduate school, but then it was that there were the Historians and, then, there were the Americanists. Somehow the British historians were exempted from the assumption of language-elitism. Don't mean to carp about this. Maybe it no longer exists around research universities.
And, the third thing, is that, if I had it to do over again, I'm not sure that I would have gone to graduate school -- in history or anything else. I don't have an alternative I'd love to have pursued; and I do love history. But, intellectually, my experience in theological school was superior to my experience in graduate school; and, for me, finding a community of historians who really wanted to communicate about history came much too late in life.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/17/2005

I want to write about the theories of history inherent in speculative fiction. Not just the polemical alternative history stuff and the goofy timeline-changing time travel junk, but the self-contained processes in milieux [is that right?] like Frank Herbert's Dune and Isaac Asimov's Robots and Foundation series'; Heinlein's future history series, Tolkien's Silmarillion and ST v. SW v. B5 (If you don't know, you probably don't want to know) are also issues I'd like to address.

I've also become interested in the Suzuki Violin Method, and the way in which Suzuki institutions propogate fundamentally Japanese culture across the world. I need to start by identifying the roots of Suzuki's method: he claims it's all him, basically, but there's clear antecedents and sources in his writings (and more deeply rooted cultural/social memes) which have now become fundamental to the practice. Then, of course, is the institutional study: how educational institutions enact and instill theory.....

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