Historical concreteness

In graduate school we were carefully taught that history is the study of texts — the word inscribed by human hands — and that we need not concern ourselves with actual stuff. But now that I’ve travelled far afield for the first time in many years, I’m amazed at what is obvious in situ but not at all apparent on the page.

For instance, I had no idea that so much of what we think of as Greek culture actually happened in what is now Turkey. Troy is in Turkey. Ephesus, with its now-vanished Temple of Artemis, is in Turkey. Herodotus was born in Turkey, and much of his history took place there — unsurprisingly, since Turkey lies smack in the middle of Greece and Persia. Ionia is in Turkey, while Rhodes, Lesbos, and Samothrace hug its shore. Paul of Tarsus — St. Paul to Christians, who wrote and probably spoke in Greek — was from Turkey, and a bunch of his missionary work was in Turkey.

I’m sort of amazed that all of this had escaped my notice, because I’ve always been most interested in the historical construction of identity — how the branches of history are pruned or grafted to tell a particular backward-looking story. Obviously they whole Greek-Turkish thing became a touchy subject as time went on — I can’t say that either the Turks or the Greeks seemed all that thrilled about discussing the subject, and the Turkish ministry of tourism in particular seems to be a hive of total incompetence — but I can’t believe that I studied Greek Thought and Lit for a whole year without even bothering to ask where “Greece” was.

Another inescapable conclusion I reached on my Mediterranean cruise is that concrete — that stuff in between bricks and chunks of stone — is clearly one invention that was necessary for civilization to develop. Without concrete that would set underwater, no aqueducts. Without aqueducts, no plumbing. Without plumbing, it’s awfully hard for cities to grow beyond a certain point. In photos, it’s not all that apparent that the Parthenon is made out of solid chunks of marble but the Pantheon is made of brick with marble facings and Pompeii was largely constructed of brick with plaster on top — but when you walk around the various historical sites, it’s glaringly obvious.

The trip was a salutary reminder to get my head out of the books and the Internet once in a while, and just see the outside world. “Stuff” may not be history per se, but without it you’re left with a very thin and deceptive picture of the past.

Chicago Historical Society

The highlight of our customary holiday trip to Chicago this year, at least for me, was a short visit to the Chicago Historical Society. Their unfortunately fussy and badly organized website gives no sense of the essential mission of the place, which is a shame. The best exhibits are the humblest and least curated (and, sadly, worst-placed) ones, like the ledger from the garrison at Fort Dearborn or the maps of the stockyards. And they have dioramas! Who doesn’t love dioramas?

While we were standing there, quietly looking over a scale model of the original Fort Dearborn (made of twigs!), we were accosted by Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who wanted us to attend their debate. After recalling that each of their debates went on for more than 3 hours, we politely demurred.

It’s funny, because when I was training to be a historian I was rather sniffy about people who were into artifacts. In my view, which I didn’t change until very late in graduate school, artifacts were for anthropologists… history was about The Word and it was a great mistake to be taken in by the glamor of old things. I guess now that I don’t have to worry about such doctrinal points for a living, I can enjoy historical museums and the spirit of civic pride that motivates them.

Representing routine redux

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the lack of literary representations of repetitious routine — in other words, the inability of contemporary artists to say anything meaningful about work and its central place in our actual daily lives. This past weekend, Laura Miller published an excellent essay [registration required] in the New York Times on a similar topic. The major fictive work that came to both of our minds as a counterexample was Cryptonomicon, which I just re-read a few weeks ago.

I’ve always had two big questions about Cryptonomicon. First, whether anyone who isn’t already a Unix user (or at least very interested in computers) could possibly read it with comprehension and enjoyment; and second, whether writing about topics such as Van Eck phreaking and the construction of one-time pads is a specifically post-modern literary technique — or a jarring series of distractions from the classic narrative and emotional arc that a well-constructed novel is supposed to have. I really wish I could force some of my old grad school colleagues and wannabe-novelist friends to read it, so I could interrogate them about their reactions… but it would be inhumane to cram such a massive tome down their throats if they were basically unwilling, since book recommendation should be practiced only between fully consenting adults.

To the first question, I’m always comfortable following Barthes in acknowledging that every document puts up its own series of baffles and filters for the purpose of finding its own audience. Stephenson’s may be more extreme than most… but I wouldn’t even say that Unix is intrinsically a more divisive or less captivating topic than the Russian aristocracy or river-rafting trips on the Mississippi. Probably what’s most new is the unhurried lovingness with which Stephenson sifts through his “factive” interludes. He displays no authorial awareness whatsoever that his audience might want to skip these parts… and in fact, to skip all the descriptions of dental surgery, mining engineering, walks through Manila to collect GPS data, and the kinds of legal problems that might beset the founders of Silicon Valley startups — that would be to miss the entire point of the book. There is no sense in which there is a story without the digressions; and therefore I think we have to conclude that the treatment of technical subjects is a new formal technique, not simply an extension of the 19th century novelists’ investment of description with emotion. I mean, even Dickens didn’t really tell you what Scrooge did to make all that money, or precisely how to pick a pocket — he just sketched out what it might feel like to be a boy thief or an embittered miser. In contrast, Stephenson (modulo a few abrupt “and now we’re on a submarine… and now we’re in Australia” transitions) specifies each tool and method by which technê saved humankind’s bacon, and in the process erases the distinction between plot and description. It turns out there is even a word for the type of writer who find larger meanings by obsessively cataloging the minutiae of everyday life: Digressionist, which is also called Maximalism.

Even among Maximalists though, Stephenson is probably unusual in the extent to which he interjects factually-correct information into his novels. The Maximalist Máximo, David Foster Wallace, specializes in excruciatingly precise depictions of the experience of physical and psychic handicaps like drug dependency — but rarely of routinized paid labor. Another well-known Digressionist, Colson Whitehead, writes convincingly about work by dint of — not to put too fine a point on it — making shit up entirely. Neal Stephenson not only writes about extremely specific places and mindsets and designs, but he does so for an audience which is probably far more likely than any other to tell him that he done fucked up on some relatively trivial point. But by his stubborn Midwestern insistence on sticking close to the facts on the ground, I feel that ultimately Stephenson comes closer than any other artist to capturing the reality of a new subclass of those who not only love their work and are defined by it, but are increasingly dwelling within a habitus in which work is inseparable from play, adventure, or the larger meanings of a life.