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Posts Tagged 'city and school in late antique athens and alexandria'

Embracing paleostructuralism

It is late afternoon on Wednesday, and I have somehow managed to accomplish everything I needed to accomplish by this time. On Friday, this seemed like a goal that was unattainable, so I am reasonably pleased.

Somebody mentioned to me this last Saturday, “I occasionally read your rants against post-structuralism.” It had not been explicitly discussed in class that Foucault and company actually constitute an “-ism”, so I’m sure I was a deer in the headlights for a second while I figured out what my friend meant. Flesh of My Flesh has been explicitly exposed to more theory than I have, so I’ve been hearing about the supposed difference between signifier and signified for some time, but again, that this movement had a name was new information for me. A couple of things clicked once I understood the label; this is the same friend who a few years ago overheard me saying that it made no sense to me to read modern ideas of sexual equality and identity into texts for which those ideas would be anachronistic, and consequently chided me for “not believing in gender theory,” adding, “Applying theory is not ‘reading something into’ anything. That’s just you having an ideological problem.”

For all I know, maybe he’s right. He’s in the English department, and maybe there’s a way these things actually make sense from the standpoint of literature. Maybe, too, this is the difference between a “scholar” and an “intellectual” — I do not give a fat, furry, flying rat’s hindquarters about theory. I have not entered an academic discipline because I am interested in the “isms” which seem to plague the humanities right now. (I am told that “thing theory” was rather well-represented at last week’s Byzantine Studies Association of North America conference, which makes me want to tear out my own teeth with a rusty screwdriver.) I have entered an academic discipline, because, funny and naïve and idealistic as it may sound, I am actually interested in, and even like, my subject of study.

What does that make me? A paleostructuralist? If so, then so be it. (“Paleostructuralist” sounds cooler and more dignified than “anti-post-structuralist” anyway.)

I still have more to write on Foucault in this space, but it’s going to have to wait a bit yet while I finish some other things. In the meantime, my most recent (and last) response paper for my “Introduction to the Professional Study of History” course starts to sketch out some of the thoughts that will show up there. Certain elements will be no surprise to those who visit here somewhat regularly, there are a couple of moments where it will be evident that I just got through watching all of Christopher Nolan’s movies in chronological order (which merits its own post), and the couple of somewhat coy suggestions that certain things should be discussed elsewhere will be developed in my final paper for this course.

The Safe Retreat into Omniscient Third-Person:

The Problem of Historicizing Oneself

Or

A Response to Kate Brown’s “A Place in Biography for Oneself”

(As Well as a Number of Other Bits and Pieces from the Fall 2009 H601 Course)

“Historians,” writes Kate Brown in her essay “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” “expose other people’s biographies, not their own.”[1] How can this be, however, when according to Marx, “[m]en make their own history” [2]? How, ultimately, may historians be their own agents of history while being true to their own profession? How might historians assume the first person voice in their own work, that is to say, our own work, or still more to the point, my own work – honestly?

To expand Marx’s quote, men make their own history, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.” Brown certainly did not choose her circumstances. She is from a small Midwestern town whose economic history could have stepped out of the pages of The Marx-Engels Reader; in her home town of Elgin, Illinois, as she tells it, the beginning of her life intersected with a narrative of Western expansion, labor strife, industry flight, economic redevelopment, and gentrification.[3] Her own retelling of the story gives significant credibility to Marx’s claim that “[t]he tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living”[4]:

From Elgin… I came to understand how closely one’s biography is linked to one’s place… I recognized the impulse to bulldoze and start over, to push on toward a brighter, cleaned-up destiny, which meant abandoning some places and people and losers of an unannounced contest.[5]

The past – that is to say, one’s history – and its relationship to location are a weight that one must learn to carry or learn to jettison. Perhaps this can be understood as an inversion of the opening line of Pat Conroy’s novel The Prince of Tides – rather than the wound being geography, the anchorage, the port of call, it is geography, and the confluence of circumstances that one encounters in that geography, that is the wound.

All well and good — but how real is this confluence of circumstances? How objectively may its existence be assumed? Per Benedict Anderson and his analysis of how seemingly disconnected events make up the front page of a newspaper, perhaps not much:

Why are these events so juxtaposed? What connects them to each other? Not sheer caprice. Yet obviously most of them happen independently, without the actors being aware of each other or of what the others are up to. The arbitrariness of their inclusion and juxtaposition… shows that the linkage between them is imagined.[6]

What, then, is the difference between one’s life and the front page of a newspaper? Do they both represent a constructed – that is to say, not objectively real – and affected way of arranging events? For the historian, how does that construction and that affectation influence how they read history, view history, and write history? How does understanding how one’s life interacts with one’s work impact either, for better or for worse?

As a scholar, I have been carefully trained to avoid using the first person in my work. “Don’t ever say things like ‘We can see the following…’ in your research,” I remember being told in one undergraduate course. “This is not a journey ‘we’re’ going on together. It’s a research paper.” My training in languages also tends to inform how I view texts – “Read what it says, not what you think it means,” my first Greek instructor repeatedly told our class. My research goal, therefore, is typically to state a clear, impersonal thesis and then get the hell out of the way of my own argument, simply letting the facts and the observations speak for themselves as much as possible. If I present it as something that “I” think, then I will have fundamentally devalued and undermined my argument – why should anybody care what I think?

Naturally, there is far more to it than a hope to rest comfortably on objectivity. Why should anybody care what I think, indeed. I’m a nobody, a college dropout from nowhere, a first generation college graduate at the age of 29, having taken eleven years to finish a four year degree (a B. Mus. at that, not a liberal arts degree), who then, even with good grades and test scores, still had to do three years of coursework as an unmatriculated student before there was any way to be competitive for graduate schools, all the while hearing from a chorus of professors, “I’m more than happy to write you a letter of recommendation, but I’m not sure you’re going to be able to get there from here.” Why should anybody care what I think? Good heavens, I will need to make sure I publish under a pseudonym just to be taken at all seriously. Better yet, I should somehow indicate on my C. V. that I simply sprang forth fully-grown from the head of Zeus with my PhD already in hand.

But there is still more to it than that, surely. I’ve been at Indiana University in one capacity or another since 2003, somewhat ironically making it the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. My family bounced around a lot for reasons best recounted elsewhere, and even now, they live, quite dispersed, in places I have never lived, in houses I never called home, in zip codes I never visited until they moved there. Brown can rely on her connection with the place of Elgin, Illinois as an anchor for where she is now, but I am literally from nowhere, in the sense that I have had to construct my notion of “home” from different raw materials than place and family, and I find it very difficult to relate to concepts of home that do center around place and family. If my family moved around for reasons having to do with the military or career development, than I might be able to legitimately claim – as a friend of mine, the son of a prominent Russian History scholar, does – to be a “citizen of the world,” to be from everywhere. Alas, I can claim nothing quite so romantic or interesting. Robert Frost once said that home is where, if you have to go there, they have to take you, but the places where that is even marginally true are places that have never actually been a part of my life. If Brown is correct that one’s biography is closely linked to place, than I truly am the Nowhere Man – so again, why should anybody care what I think?

But, of course, there is still more to it than that.

“In my quest to explore the human condition,” writes Brown, “I have hidden behind my subjects, using them as a scrim to project my own sentiments and feelings.”[7] There is an undeniable connection between who somebody is and what interests them; for her own part, Brown describes this connection by saying, “I believe that I was able to see stories that had not yet taken shape for other historians because of the sensitivities I acquired in my past.”[8] My advisor, Professor Edward Watts, is potentially an example; he is an academic raised in a family of academics. His parents are both academics, and his sister is an academic. What was the subject of his dissertation? Rhetorical education in Late Antique Alexandria and Athens. As I told him after I read the book, it is difficult to not see his work as having an aspect of meta-commentary on the academic life. He chuckled and said, “You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.”

Beyond that example, I saw with my own eyes how the personal connection between historian and subject might manifest with my colleagues during orientation and initial class meetings:

“Hi, I’m Roberto Arroyo, and I’m interested in Latin American history.”

“My name is Isaac Rosenbaum, and I do Holocaust history.”

“I’m Lakshmi Patel, and I’m studying the history of relations between India and Pakistan.”

The Late Antique Byzantinist whose last name is not “Ioannides” or “Sotiriou” is left at something of a disadvantage in such company. Yes, there is, in fact, a personal reason that connects me to my subject of inquiry, a personal reason that should not be too hard to surmise for the careful observer (but one that is best discussed in another setting), but a personal reason that is nonetheless internal, abstract, and conceptual rather than immediately and concretely constructed by place or family – that is to say, by the circumstances which I did not choose. I have personal stakes that led me to my areas of interest, but because they are of my own choosing I must be circumspect in how I speak in terms of “I”, “we”, and “our” if I am to be seen as having sufficient distance from my subject to be credible as a scholar. Edward Said and Dipesh Chakrabarty appear adamant that cultures and societies must define themselves, that to not allow such self-definition is cultural imperialism,[9] and yet this mandate of courtesy with respect to communal identity does not appear to extend to those who have embraced certain communities voluntarily.

Of course, I also have the problem that I am not interested in my subject from a critical point of view; I find it anachronistic to explicitly read whatever my own political beliefs and values may be – and, for today’s purposes, we may broadly describe them as uncomfortably conservative as Russell Kirk defined the word, which according to contemporary definitions probably makes me liberal – into my historical subject, but per Elizabeth Blackmar as quoted by Ted Steinberg, we historians are not supposed to evade the question of politics.[10] According to Steinberg, the role of the historian in the present day is evidently to explore “the history of oppression,”[11] and this attitude is one I see largely borne out in my cohort. Nonetheless, the reality is that such a history is not the history of the Late Antique Eastern Roman Empire I have any desire to write. I have better things to do than study something with the express purpose of tearing it down. I fundamentally believe it is possible to be more productive and constructive – but do I only believe that because of my other beliefs in the first place? Is my choice of the word “constructive” itself telling, possibly signifying that I would rather buy into the social constructions that historians are supposed to deconstruct? The 3rd person voice of objectivity keeps me from having to mess with such potentially treacherous questions.

If men make their own history, but not under circumstances they choose for themselves, and history is supposed to be the history of oppression, then must a historian writing their own history engage in self-hatred by definition? Brown does not appear to write a piece of self-hatred, but it is clear that she is uncomfortable with the implications of her own essay – “My palms sweat as I write this… The intimacy of the first person takes down borders between author and subject, borders that are considered by many to be healthy in a profession situated between the social sciences and the humanities.”[12] Chakrabarty suggests one possible way out, explicitly referencing autobiography and history as two separate and distinct genres[13] – so not only is autobiography, the history of oneself, not history, but history isn’t a discipline anyway, it’s a genre. But here is the rub – if history is a genre somewhere “between” the social sciences and the humanities, and a historian writing their own history must find a methodologically honest way to not engage themselves at the level of self-hatred, which then in fact moves the work into a different genre altogether, then the historian can never actually engage in a real work of self-historicization that is not self-mutilatory.

At any rate, can we claim objectivity anyway by avoiding biographical detail or the first person? In a post-structuralist world where we must assume a fundamental disconnect between signifier and signified, does it really matter to begin with? Or is a research paper written in the omniscient third person much like Bruno Latour’s depiction of the laboratory[14] or Bonnie Smith’s history seminar and archive[15] – a socially constructed, that is to say false, space of knowledge-based privilege that can assert authority it does not actually have simply because a particular group of people have become convinced that it does?

I do not have answers to my own questions, posed at the outset of this musing. I am not certain where to go with them. My inclination is to say the various circumstances of my own life may appear as arbitrary as Anderson insists the front page of the newspaper actually is, but by virtue of the very fact that I in fact experience those circumstances in chronological order, I nonetheless perceive them as my own narrative. My inclination is to say that I cannot be forced to historicize my own life as a history of oppression any more than I can legally be required to self-incriminate in a court of law. My inclination is to say that nonetheless, I am better off keeping my arguments in the third person and keeping my “self” out of the voice of my own work, that regardless of what I think, we all know what a coffee table will feel like if we rap it with our knuckles, and that in saying that I am not privileging people who have hands or who do not have nerve damage. My inclination is to say that there must be a world outside of our own minds, and that there must be a way we can discuss it, even if our own minds tell us how we’re going to organize our perceptions of that world. Are these words and ideas too strong, too dangerous, too naïve, too uninformed? I do not know, but I do not know where else to start.

And perhaps that is why it is good I work in a period many people find irrelevant. It keeps me from becoming a danger to myself or to others.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. 2 ed. New York: Verso, 2006.

Blackmar, Elizabeth. “Contemplating the Force of Nature.” Radical Historians Newsletter no. 70 (1994).

Brown, Kate. “A Place in Biography for Oneself.” American Historical Review no. 114 (2009): 596-605.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?” Representations no. 37 (1992): 1-26.

Latour, Bruno. “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World.” In Science Observed: Perpsectives on the Social Study of Science, edited by Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay, 141-70. London: Sage, 1983.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 594-617. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Reprint, 2003.

Smith, Bonnie. “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research.” American Historical Review 100, no. 4 (1998): 1150-76.

Steinberg, Ted. “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History.” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002): 798-820.


[1] Kate Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” American Historical Review, no. 114 (2009), 603.

[2] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978), 595.

[3] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 600-3.

[4] Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” 595.

[5] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 604.

[6] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2 ed. (New York: Verso, 2006), 33.

[7] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 603.

[8] Ibid., 605.

[9] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994; reprint, 2003). Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?,” Representations, no. 37 (1992).

[10] Elizabeth Blackmar, “Contemplating the Force of Nature,” Radical Historians Newsletter, no. 70 (1994)., 4. Quoted in Ted Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002), 804.

[11] Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” 802.

[12] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 603.

[13] Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?”, 8.

[14] Bruno Latour, “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World,” in Science Observed: Perpsectives on the Social Study of Science, ed. Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay (London: Sage, 1983). Accessed online at http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Latour_GiveMeALab.html on 9 November 2009.

[15] Bonnie Smith, “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research,” American Historical Review 100, no. 4 (1998).

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Week 5 of grad school and all is well

The last couple of times I had a hiatus in blogging, it was because things weren’t altogether well for me.

This time, to be honest, I’ve got nothing to complain about. Things are going really well.

I’m going to repeat that, just for emphasis and the sheer joy of being able to say that truthfully and unreservedly, perhaps for the first time since moving out here over six years ago:

Things are going really well.

The last several weeks have been something of a whirlwind; after getting back from Greece I had two papers to finish, a godson’s wedding to hold crowns for, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it — er, wait. That is to say, two days after the wedding, Orientation Week started, during which I had to take a Latin and a Greek diagnostic exam; then the semester started for real, and it was off to the races.

Im photographing them being photographed. Theres something kind of uncomfortable meta about this, dont you think?

I'm photographing Matthew and Erin being photographed. There's something kind of uncomfortably "meta" about this, don't you think?

Matthew and Erin’s wedding was wonderful; we were in South Bend for the three days leading up to it to help out with various things, and it was a joy to be part of it at every step. Fr. George Konstantopoulos at St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Church in South Bend served with Fr. Peter, and this was a lucky match for everybody — Fr. George has decades of experience and knows all of the little things that often get left out in the simplified versions of services that are often done these days. For example, I was a lot busier as the koumvaros at this wedding than I was for another one at All Saints last year — at that wedding, I just stood there. Here, I did the crown exchange and the ring exchange — and let me tell you, I was sweating it during the ring exchange. Oh, I thought. These rings are very small, and my fingers are very big. And all three sets of hands are shaking. If I drop them it will be very bad. Now I remember why I don’t do brain surgery. Fr. George also had the gravity and authority (to say nothing of the beard) that comes from many years of doing this, and it complemented well Fr. Peter’s still-youthful energy (he’s 35, I guess it’s not inappropriate to say that, right?).

The next morning, the newly-crowned Mr. and Mrs. Wells met us at St. Andrew’s for Divine Liturgy, and Fr. George gave them a big ol’ head pat during the announcements — “Matthew and Erin from Bloomington were married here yesterday,” he said, “and this morning they were here for Divine Liturgy. To me, that is an example of what living life as an Orthodox Christian is all about.” His meaning could hardly be plainer had he hoisted a neon sign saying, Please take being here as seriously as they do.

I need a calculator to adequately express in mathematical terms how much shorter than me you are, Megan...

"I need a calculator to adequately express in mathematical terms how much shorter than me you are, Megan..."

Before driving home, we headed to Chicago to see our friend Tessa Studebaker, an old singing colleague of mine from Seattle whom we hadn’t seen since before we moved to Indiana. When I met her ten and a half years ago, she worked at Barnes and Noble for the discount and was still in high school; now she’s in her upper twenties, is a college graduate, took a job in France for a while, moved back, and is possibly getting serious about somebody. It’s incredible to think that the last ten years have gone by so quickly that all of that could have happened, but there we are. It’s even more incredible that the majority of that ten years has been spent here in Bloomington — it means I’ve spent more time here than I spent in Seattle after dropping out of college the first time. It means that the address I’ve had the longest in my entire life (four years) has been here. It means that by the time I’m done with my PhD, I’ll have spent probably over ten years at a place I thought maybe I’d spend three years at the very most.

But enough with the existential pondering for the moment. I guess seeing old friends has a way of bringing that out of me.

Orientation was more or less a non-event; I’ve been here for six years, I know where the library is, my e-mail account hasn’t changed in all of that time, so there wasn’t really any particular novelty for which I required context. That said, a couple of things stick out for me — one, Ed Watts, the Director of Graduate Studies for the History department here (who also happens to be my PhD advisor), strongly impressed on everybody to find a schedule for working, a rhythm of grad school life, that gets the job done and can be adhered to, and then to stick to it. Coming from a situation where I was trying to fit being a half-time (or more like three-quarter time) student in around having a fulltime 8-5 job, that advice really resonated with me; I’ve done my best to take that to heart, and I think it’s served me well thus far.

Secondly, I observed this kind of thing while students were introducing themselves:

“Hi, I’m Jacob Goldstein, and I’m doing Jewish history with an emphasis on Holocaust education.”

“My name is Sankar Ramasubramanian, and I’m interested in modern Indian history.”

“I’m Ramon Santiago, and I do early modern Latin American history.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? It seems that who one is can’t help but inform their research interests, and the correlation there appears to be entirely natural and predictable. That said, the same correlation appears to be viewed with some amount of suspicion when it comes to Christians doing Christian history. I haven’t directly experienced that among my cohort yet, but I’ve seen it in other contexts, and something I’ve picked up on a bit is a certain point of view, perhaps almost subconsciously held, that can be expressed as, I’m interested in history because I want to prove that everybody has always been as petty, nasty, and not to be trusted as they are now. It’s a fundamental skepticism of humanity bordering on loathing (but ironically, I think its proponents would probably self-identify as humanists), and it seems to cross disciplinary and ideological lines. I’m not exactly sure what to make of it.

My Greek and Latin exams evidently went well enough; for each language, I had three passages, a dictionary, and an hour. In each case I got through more or less the first passage and the first third to the first half of the second. I don’t remember what the passages were, but they didn’t generate any particular concern. I was worried, when I next saw Watts, that he’d get a concerned look on his face and say, “We need to talk,” but that didn’t happen. He just said I did very well with the Greek, and while the Latin wasn’t as good, it was still pretty good. I figured the Latin would be the weaker of the two anyway.

Then it was time to actually start classes.

So, I’m taking three classes for real, sitting in on two, and then doing some individual reading with Watts for one credit. I’m taking third year Modern Greek, a mandatory “Welcome to the History Department” course called “Introduction to the Professional Study of History,” and then a course in Classical Studies where we’re reading Ancient Greek judicial oratory — Antiphon, Lysias, and Demosthenes, namely. Modern Greek I have to take for my funding (and I should be doing as much with it as I can, anyway), and then Watts wanted me to take some upper-level Classical Studies courses so I could have a chance to sharpen my Greek a bit. The one credit of individual reading we’re doing finds us reading St. Jerome’s Life of St. Hilarion, so I’m also getting some Latin in this semester. Since I’m ahead of the game a bit in terms of my coursework, Watts thought it was important to give my languages some extra time, and he’s right — it’s been a good thing.

(Watts and I have had a couple of simpatico moments with our iPhones — today, for example, we were reading Jerome and needed to look up a word. I pulled out my sketchy little pocket dictionary, and he said, “I’ll one-up you there.” With a gleam in the eye only recognizable by the fellow geek, he pulled out his iPhone and asked, “Do you know about the Latin Dictionary app?” I didn’t, but within two minutes I had it along with its companion Greek Lexicon by the same developer.)

I’m also sitting in on an undergraduate survey Watts is teaching on the Late Antique Roman Empire, as well as a seminar in Art History called Problems in Early Christian Art. The former is really useful background, and I’m doing it instead of taking Watts’ actual graduate seminar on the same material (since I’m actually at a point where it’s vital I take seminars from people other than him). The latter is a result of recognizing a) that my interests, the way I want to talk about them, are interdisciplinary, and b) given certain realities, I will be best served doing some of the interdisciplinary work on my own time. The course is basically dealing with Christian art up to Iconoclasm; the reading is actually highly useful stuff for me, and I’m learning a lot, with certain things I can already talk about being discussed in a very different context than that to which I’m accustomed.

Anyway, it’s a lot, but it’s not a back-breaker of a schedule by any means. Yes, it’s a good amount of work, but I’m finding it easier to manage now than I found it to manage less work while having to juggle a fulltime job. It means I’ve had less time for blogging, yes, but it’s been for a good reason. I think I’m at a point where I understand the rhythm well enough that I can post a bit again.

So, in brief, that’s where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. Coming up, there’s another wedding this weekend, that of a certain Daniel Maximus Greeson and Chelsea Coil, plus I’m also supposed to run a book review for these folks by 10 November. Plus there are any number of other things for me to talk about regarding what I’ve been reading and what I’m thinking about — it’s more “Where the heck do I begin?” than “What do I have to say?” Let me tell you, these are all problems I am thrilled to have.

I will close this post in the manner which I think I may start closing for the time being — that is, with a rundown of what I’ve recently finished reading and what I’m currently reading.

Recently finished:

Currently reading:


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