This blog attempts to explore two questions/topics that interest me and the points at which these questions intersect. Please be sure to read and think about this one and let me know what you think! Thanks!
For the past decade now, the majority of my time has been devoted to learning, writing, and teaching about the past with seriousness and rigor. This changes a person. As I go about by days–be it a day of teaching or a day of studying/writing/working at home or even while dinning at a restaurant or taking care of miscellaneous chores around town–I see layers of history just about every minute of every day. This has become an almost unconscious mode of living and breathing.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to see biology, math, or music, for example, everywhere, as I imagine those fully immersed in those humanistic inquiries most certainly experience.
Academic disciplines help us understand the world and as I have argued elsewhere, answer the all important question, “What does it mean to be human?”
Likewise, what do those without extensive training or personal interest see in day-to-day life?
For me, seeing history everywhere is multi-faceted. For one thing, as regular readers know, I define history and History in somewhat unusual ways and am unusually very multidisciplinary compared to the vast majority of most historians. In my case, then, seeing history everywhere also involves seeing the psychology, sociology, and rhetoric involved. In practice, in many ways, I’m more of a rhetorician than historian.
Seeing history everywhere means that I recognize that what many believe new and scary and worthy of “the sky is falling!, the sky is falling!” prophecies, is deeply rooted in culture. History repeats.
For example, look at this article: “This Artwork Is Probably The Most Accurate (And Scary) Portrayal Of Modern Life We’ve Ever Seen.” While the art work is powerful (albeit potentially insensitive to larger individuals, as mentioned here), it promotes historical illiteracy. For example, consider the image of zombie-like creates looking at their iPhone. While of course iPhones are still brand new historically, iPhones are not the first or last en masse human distraction and obsession
Seeing history everywhere means I take comfort in knowing and accepting that the physical surface of the earth and our cultural geography will look different in 50 years but that the same basic hopes and fears will drive society. The popular business and restaurants of today will, inevitably, be very different in five decades.
Seeing history everywhere means recognizing one’s larger place in the world and fully internalizing that so much of what divides us is deeply rooted in subjective, always-shifting cultural mores.
Seeing history everywhere does not mean that I go about my day rolling off trivia and details about who built what when and so on. I am not a history buff.
The psychologist, sociologist, and rhetorician in me really come into play when I think about voice, agency, and why people behave the way they do. In particularly, I am interested in: how do people have a “voice” (or agency) in day-to-day life? (“Voice” in particular has been on my mind because it is an important concept in the First Year Seminar classes I am teaching.) Because even those with seemingly little voice–culturally, politically, or socially–typically have ways of expressing themselves.
While some psychologist call such behaviors “counterproductive work behaviors,” historians sometimes look at actions–such as working slower or “accidentally” making too much food–as ways those neglected and wrongly-treated by society have agency. (See Robin D. G. Kelley’s Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class.)
(Pardon the ambiguous pronouns, but I don’t want my blog be anything like a restaurant review.) There is a restaurant that I love eating at. This place has really yummy, healthy food selections and is convenient to eat at regularly. They simply cannot make a basic order correctly and generally have less than ideal customer service. This is bothersome, of course, because food everywhere is expensive and we all like to be treated nicely and have orders made the way we order them.
But, and going back to seeing history everywhere, I recognize this is connected to problems that have been occurring for a long time, and I know that restaurants pay far, far too little to their employees. Minimum wage is not enough to live on anywhere in the United States, according to recent studies, and most jobs, only hire part time individuals who are compensated at a rate of $7.25 an hour. (See my post about tipping if you haven’t!)
So, “we” go to restaurants and expect friendly individuals who make our order correctly. But, “we” pay these individuals so little they are generally forced to live at or below poverty levels. These individuals tend to me minorities, socially or politically. They and their families have faced generations of oppression and racism in the United States, all the while with privileged people ignoring their privilege.
In essence, then, some people who work at low-paying jobs or jobs with fussy, picky customers–through no fault of their own in the vast majority if not all cases–can have a “voice” or agency by making “mistakes” on orders, have a “voice” by behaving in a way deemed rude. It is a way they can have an effect on other people. Society has essentially taught them to respond that way by not providing enough money to live on or true opportunities for education and by being so far from the pure, legitimate democracy claimed by popular rhetoric and taught through indoctrination to school children.
I am not saying that everyone who works at restaurants is rude or anything like that. Different people have voice in different ways depending on their experiences, hopes, and fears.
In other situations, people have a “voice” by slamming the door in your face, tailgating, speeding, smoking in no smoking areas, by engaging with hostility in social media conversations, by not doing assigned readings and papers, by driving large pickups that pollute our home, by…
Marginalized individuals have long found ways to have some kind of voice. For example, enslaved peoples worked slow, broke tools, poisoned enslavers, and ran away for brief periods, and kept quasi-independent identities in order to express voice and to resist the system. These actions are not demonized by historians or society today but celebrated as representing ways in which the enslaved resisted their position, had some control over their life, and even retained aspects of their culture prior to forced marches and the Middle Passage.
Seeing history everywhere means recognizing that the powerful suppress the less-powerful and the less-powerful use their power to make the powerful less-powerful, even though the powerful seldom realize because they so thoroughly “Other” their “the Other.” Acts of resistance–when examined with some perspective and gap of time and place–are always celebrated and the “complainers” are criticized for being blind to their perpetuation of oppression.
We all have a voice.
The question is not do we use our voice.
The question is how we are allowed to use it.