Categories
Think Piece

Historicizing Ghosts: Reimagining Realities in Nineteenth Century Popular Bengali Fiction

by guest contributors Senjuti Jash and Shuvatri Dasgupta

ghostsIn South Asian historiography myths, local legends, chronicles, and folklores function as primary sources for the writing of “history,” or itihasa, as Romila Thapar has illustrated. Within the broad genre of fiction, historians have traditionally used social novels or short stories, and have overlooked popular fiction dealing with ghosts and spirits. Residing in an alternative society to that of the anthropocentric one, in fictionalized narratives and anecdotes, ghosts represented the “other” of the Bengali “self” during the nineteenth century. In this piece, we explore ghost stories as texts which can inform a bottom-up approach to histories of the nineteenth-century Bengali mind.

Why did the spectral community find popularity in the fictional realm of the Bengali mind during the nineteenth century? The primary reason behind this are the cholera, malaria, and plague epidemics which wreaked havoc in villages and cities, wiping out more than half of the population in Bengal during the early nineteenth century. From 1839 onwards, these epidemics spread from Bengal to other parts of India, as John Hays has shown. As the number of discarded and diseased corpses increased, ghosts found a place in the Bengali psyche facing the realities of death in their everyday worlds. In this scenario, the discourses of science and medicine produced a space at the intersections of “rationality” and “spirituality,” and engendered these accounts, which were transmitted both orally and in print.

The category of “ghost” remained fluid: in some stories they were seen, while in some their presence was only felt. In the fictional narratives, an environment of phantasm was created with omens like black cats, moonlight, and veiled silhouettes. The spaces of deserted houses and dilapidated bungalows acquired a metaphorical organic significance in these discourses. In a Bengali proverb from Comilla (Bangladesh), roughly translated as “ghosts inhabit a broken-down house,” the house signified the human body crumbling under various incurable ailments, which attracted ghosts to make the ailing human one of their own.

Local legends from Rangpur (Bangladesh) dating back to the nineteenth century described the habitats of different types of ghosts in various kinds of trees, namely Palmyra, Tamarind, and Madar. Ghosts also inhabited trees like Banyan, Sand Paper, Acacia, and Bengal Quince. The allocation of habitats in the spectral world mirrored anthropocentric normativities associated with gender roles. For example, the male Brahmin ghost, namely the Brahmadaitya, usually inhabited tall evergreen trees like Aegle Marmelos, Peepul, and Magnolia, maintaining his social superiority over others even after death. Female ghosts inhabited smaller shorter bushes and shrubs like the Streblus Asper and others. The Brahmadaitya’s habitat in comparison with the female ghosts’ habitats illustrated not only his primacy on the social ladder, but also the gender normativities permeating into the “other” world from the human world. 

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An early 20th century edition of the Grandmother’s Tales. Image courtesy of GoodReads.

In a famous anthology of tales compiled in the early twentieth century titled Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma’s Bag of Tales), the narrator was an old woman entertaining her grandchildren, with a barely-disguised didactic tone. These tales reflected an element of moral speculation attached to the gender roles of the ghosts. Female ghosts like the widowed Petni were portrayed as attracted to fish, given the nineteenth century Indian tradition of widows living an ascetic life with dietary regulations. The construction of this ghostly image functioned on two levels: the reflection of the past married life on the widowed “self” of the narrator, and the articulation of these suppressed desires through the representations of the “other” widowed ghost. This dual self-projection of the narrator served a greater purpose, as it participated in the ongoing discourse about the issues of sati and widow remarriage, contributing to larger debates about the rights and privileges of women in nineteenth-century Bengali society.

With the colonial government’s criminalization of sati and legalization of widow remarriage, as Lata Mani has shown in her seminal article “Contentious Traditions,” women became sites of conflict for redefining “tradition.” There was a clear colonial preoccupation with the state of women as a benchmark for appraising civilizational standards. For the colonial masters, the injustice and oppression meted out to Indian women in the form of sati became a corroboration of “British modernity” and a moral platform on which their “civilizing” endeavor could be justified. The “feminine” hence provided a space for renegotiating what was “Indian” and what was “Western.” The female ghosts were clearly no different. While Indian women gradually unified over shared demands for various rights, the ghostly women from the other world expressed their solidarities for these reforms through the figure of Petni indulging in fish.

In these fictionalized narratives, living women—especially the ones who were pregnant or had long lustrous hair—were portrayed as more susceptible to ghostly encounters. Also, medical conditions such as seizures, epilepsy, multiple personality disorders, and schizophrenia in women were diagnosed by the quacks as being possessed or inhabited by evil or unholy spirits. These women then were subjected to the autonomy of the exorcists. They were sexually exploited under the pretext of exorcism and were sometimes even forced to marry the exorcist as a favor in return. Since most of the oral tales were produced by female narrators, they served as a space to articulate and in turn resist the threats women faced from the community of exorcists and failed to overcome in the human worlds.

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An exorcist confronting a “possessed” woman. Illustration from Bhutude Kanda, by Rabidas Saharoy (1962). Illustrations by Maitreyee Mukhopadhyay and Debabrata Gosh.

The influence of colonial race theories was also clearly detectable in the world of horror fiction, as they emerged as a significant premise for British epistemic exercises. Significant segments of British and European intellectuals, even during the age of the Scottish Enlightenment, considered Indians to be closer to black Africans, or black Malays, than they were to white “Caucasians.” As Swarupa Gupta comments, there was “selective adaptation, internalisation and re-articulation” of the basic tenets of imperial race theory, interwoven with prevalent conceptions of Hindu caste hierarchy within the Indian milieu, after the Census of 1871 (Notions of Nationhood, 112-13). While ordinary ghosts, both male and female, were described as dark-skinned, the Brahmin male ghost was portrayed as fair-skinned, tall, exhibiting saint-like feet, and wearing sandalwood sandals. On one hand, widowed Petni was depicted as a very dark-skinned figure; on the other, the ghost of the Muslim man, known as Mamdo, was also depicted with similar adjectives. Additionally, he wore a skullcap and featured an unkempt beard. The image of the Islamic ghost succumbed to colonial stereotypes, resembled its human image and position in society.

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Petni catching fish in a river. Image from Embellished Memories website.

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s short story “Oshoriri” tells how a Bengali middle-class man from Calcutta mistook his low-caste dark-skinned Bihari servant in Ranchi for a “ghost.” The tale ends with a strong note on the social constructions of the aesthetic facade of a man in contradistinction to a ghost, and how this dichotomy was balanced on an understanding of Victorian notions of outward appearance. Hence, specific categories of low-caste ghosts were marginalized even in their death, as an expression of the powerful afterlife of the stringent specificities of “caste” and “religion” that even death could not transcend. Thus, the socioeconomic and political impact of colonial dominance was translated in the languages of the spectral world through the idioms of religious, social, and gender discrimination, and racial hierarchies.

Ghosts were not always scary or malicious. In some tales, like the Jola ar Sat Bhoot (The Muslim Weaver and Seven Ghosts), they emerged as benevolent figures helping poor peasants out of financial misery, while also representing the spirit of resistance against the oppressive British regime. However, the figure of the benevolent ghost was essentially limited to the sphere of rural narratives, since urban miseries appeared to be apparently incurable even by ghostly benevolence. In the urban narratives, the ghosts appeared more as a threat to the luxuries and comforts, such as electricity, enjoyed by the city dwellers. Socially constructed notions of hygiene associated with poverty, such as bodily stink and dirty fingernails, were regarded as threatening even to ghosts, let alone humans! The poor were outcast even in the domain of enjoying the privilege of ghostly attention in the fiction generated in elite and gentrified urban spaces.

Picking up the thread from where we began, these fictional tales hence remain an unexplored repository for the intellectual historian, portraying how the Bengali mind under colonial transitions revisualized worlds, relationships, normativities, and ideologies. These narratives, both orally transmitted in rural areas and through print in urban circles, generated alternative realities. On one hand, gender restrictions were subverted, on the other, racial hierarchies and rural-urban divisions were reiterated. Reflecting the transitions in a Bengali society caught in the middle of colonial ideologues and nationalist exceptionalisms, ghosts provided Bengalis the voice of hope, faith, and sustenance they needed at the turn of the century.

Shuvatri Dasgupta is a final-year master’s student at Presidency University. Her work revolves around locating the global in the local by analyzing the multilayered origins of cultural and political discourses—tracing their genealogies and contextualizing them in transregional frameworks.

Senjuti Jash is a postgraduate student in History at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her dissertation is about the global intellectual history of caste. She is interested in overcoming the barriers of time and space to discern the intricate webs of connectivities across polities, economies, and cultures in this global age.

Categories
book history

What Was a Reading Community?

by guest contributor Edmund G. C. King

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Howard Ignatius, “8:41 Notting Hill Gate”

It’s just after 10 am on a dingy December morning in London as I approach Canada Water underground station. The morning rush hour crowds have receded, leaving only their wet footprints on the platform leading into the station. The outside sheet of a copy of this morning’s Metro, the free London commuter newspaper, has been pulped and trodden into the pavement near the entrance. A single word of the front-page headline is still legible: “Aleppo.” Inside, I walk down the escalators and turn right, onto the westbound Jubilee Line platform. A train arrives almost immediately. I get into the first carriage and stand inside the doors facing away from the platform. To my left there are twelve people sitting, facing each other in two rows of six. Exactly half of them are reading. A woman scrolls through her Facebook newsfeed on an Android phone. A couple in their 30s read copies of The Metro. Opposite them, an older man is skimming an article in the personal finance section of a tabloid newspaper headlined “The Hell of Middle Age.” Two women sit opposite each other, each absorbed in a book. One is reading management theory. The other has a thick, tattered pop-psychology paperback with subsections headed in bold and diagrams illustrating interpersonal relationships. Next to them, a woman sits, headphones on, reading a Spanish novella. No one in the carriage acknowledges the existence of anyone else, not even the couple with their matching copies of The Metro. Each reading surface has become what Erving Goffman calls an “involvement shield,” a way of demarcating personal space and signalling social “non-accessibility” in a shared environment. Seats free up at Southwark. I take one, pull out my iPhone, put my headphones on, load up Spotify and a cached copy of a Jacobin article, and prepare to immerse myself in my own media cocoon.

For the past year, I have been Co-Investigator on an AHRC-funded project, “Reading Communities: Connecting the Past and the Present.” The purpose of the Reading Communities project was to reach out to contemporary reading groups in the United Kingdom and encourage them to engage with the historical accounts of reading in the Reading Experience Database. But the experience of working on a project like this has also changed my own academic practice as an historian of reading. I find myself paying more attention to the everyday scenes of reading unfolding around me than I might have done otherwise, looking for the elusive connections between reading practices and reading communities in the past and the present. Of course, a random collection of readers in a London tube carriage does not in itself constitute a “reading community.” We, in our Jubilee Line media cocoons, might all be using books and other forms of reading material in avoidant ways, as coping mechanisms to deal with the intensities and demands of occupying shared spaces in a large city. Some of us may even be consuming the very same text—this morning’s Metro—simultaneously. These acts of textual consumption form part of our social imaginary; they are props for performing our roles as commuters and as Londoners. But simultaneity and a shared habitus are not sufficient in themselves to bind us together into a specific reading community. For a reading community to exist, the act of reading must be in some basic way shared. Readers need to interact with each other or at least identify as members of the same reading collective. The basic building blocks of a community are, as DeNel Rehberg Sedo observes, a set of enduring and reciprocal social relationships. Reading communities are collectives where those relationships are mediated by the consumption of texts. But how can we define the social function of reading communities more precisely? What relationship do they have with other communities and social formations beyond the realm of text? What can examples taken from historically distant reading cultures tell us about the social uses of shared reading experiences?

In Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire, William A. Johnson interrogates ancient sources for what they can reveal about reading and writing practices in elite Roman communities. The scenes of reading preserved in ancient sources provide detailed glimpses into the place of shared reading and literary performance in daily life. In Epistle 27, Pliny describes the daily routine of Titus Vestricius Spurinna, a 78-year-old retired senator and consul:

The early morning he passes on his couch; at eight he calls for his slippers, and walks three miles, exercising mind and body together. On his return, if he has any friends in the house with him, he gets upon some entertaining and interesting topic of conversation; if by himself, some book is read to him, sometimes when visitors are there even, if agreeable to the company. Then he has a rest, and after that either takes up a book or resumes his conversation in preference to reading.

In the afternoon, after he has bathed, Spurinna has “some light and entertaining author read to him,” a ritual house guests are invited to share. At dinner, guests are entertained with another group reading, “the recital of some dramatic piece,” as a way of “seasoning” the “pleasures” of the evening “with study.” All of this, he writes, is carried on “with so much affability and politeness that none of his guests ever finds it tedious.” For Johnson, this reveals Pliny’s belief that shared literary consumption forms a necessary part of high-status Roman identity. “Reading in this society,” he writes, “is tightly bound up in the construction of … community.” It is the glue that binds together a range of communal practices—meals, exercise, literary conversation—into one unified whole, a social solvent that simultaneously acts as an elite marker. Shared reading experiences in this milieu are a means of fostering a sense of group belonging. They are ways of performing social identity, of easing participants into their roles as hosts and house guests, clients and patrons.

Another externality that impels the formation of ancient Roman reading communities is textual scarcity. To gain access to texts in the ancient world, readers needed social connections. Literary and intellectual culture in such a textual economy will necessarily be communal, as both readers and authors depend on social relationships in order to exchange and encounter reading material. As Johnson shows, the duties of authorship in ancient Rome extended into the spheres of production and distribution. Genteel authors like Galen retained the scribes and lectors who would copy and perform their works for a wider coterie of friends and followers. This culture of scarcity in turn imprinted itself onto reading practices. In the introduction to his treatise On Theriac to Piso, Galen describes visiting Piso at home and finding him in the midst of reading a medical treatise, an act of private reading that readily segues into an extended social performance for Galen’s benefit:

I once came to your house as is my custom and found you with many of your accustomed books lying around you. For you do especially love, after the conclusion of the public duties arising from your affairs, to spend your time with the old philosophers. But on this occasion you had acquired a book about this antidote [i.e., theriac] and were reading it with pleasure; and when I was standing next to you you immediately looked on me with the eyes of friendship and greeted me courteously and then took up the reading of the book again with me for audience. And I listened because the book was thoughtfully written … And as you read … a great sense of wonder came over me and I was very grateful for our good luck, when I saw you so enthusiastic about the art. For most men just want to derive the pleasure of listening from writings on medicine: but you not only listen with pleasure to what is said, but also learn from your native intelligence …

As Johnson notes, this passage is striking precisely because of its unfamiliarity, for what it says about the gulf that separates “Galen’s culture of reading” from “our own.” Specialised texts in the Roman world were so scarce—and hence so valuable—that it was axiomatic to readers like Piso and Galen that the “good luck” of mutual textual encounter should be maximised by an act of shared reading, not simply of a small extract, but of the entire work. The result is a precisely described scene of reading that baffles us with its strangeness.  What these anecdotes indicate is not only that, as Robert Darnton puts it, “reading has a history,” but that reading communities everywhere bear the unmistakable imprints of that history.

In early Victorian London, juvenile pickpockets reacted in their own way to the externalities of textual scarcity. As Henry Mayhew records, literate gang members would read their copies of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Calendar aloud in lodgings during the evenings to those in their networks who couldn’t read. These acts of shared reading not only fostered group identity, but enabled gang members to maximise their communal resources, to make literacy and textual possessions go further. The reading communities in early twentieth-century New Zealand that Susann Liebich has studied are similarly embedded in wider networks of friendship and group belonging. Sharing books and reading tips was, as she demonstrates, a means of “fostering connections,” a way for “readers to connect with each other and with a world beyond Timaru.” What each of these examples shows is that the social function of shared reading differs according to the needs and norms of the wider communities and cultures in which that reading community is embedded. At the same time, however, attending to these differences encourages us to consider what is distinctive about norms and practices within contemporary reading communities, helping us limn what Rob Koehler elsewhere on this blog identifies as “the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience” across time and space, within history and our own present moment.

Edmund G. C. King is a Research Fellow in English Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University, UK. He works on the Reading Experience Database and is currently researching British and Commonwealth reading practices during the First World War. He is co-editor (with Shafquat Towheed) of Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Categories
book history Intellectual history

Please Return to the Stenographic Department

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Press photograph of disembodied hands holding a heavily annotated script for The Lady Eve (Paramount, 1941) by  Hal McAlpin. From the Collection of Robert M. Rubin.

Like a literary manuscript in a publisher’s office, screenplays face rounds of revision and annotation in the motion picture studio.  In the photograph above, someone holds a draft script for The Lady Eve, marked up with notes in several hands. Screenwriter and director Preston Sturges initialed a note in ink to “test… [lead actress Barbara] Stanwyck’s scream,” which a typed stage direction notes should sound like a steam whistle.  Penciled notes in at least two other hands highlight facts to be checked, details about props and costumes, and mark stage directions that risk violating the Hays Code. This photograph  – taken by still photographer Hal McAlpin and marked up for print publication – highlights the role of print in the transformation of a fictional narrative to a motion picture.

The disembodied hands are almost certainly script supervisor Claire Behnke’s (1899-1985), and their presence symbolize the relationship not only between the film script and the script supervisor, but the whole of the Paramount Stenographic Department. During the pre-production and shooting phases of motion picture making, script supervisors, clerks, and typists – typically women but sometimes male secretaries to screenwriters and directors – coordinated the changes made daily to the ur-text of the Hollywood picture. As drafts circulated among the specialized departments within a studio, script clerks and typists in the Stenographic Department collated these changes and produced new drafts in multiple copies as the entire team worked toward the completion of a final master-scene shooting script.

Book historians and bibliographers know well the analogous journey from manuscript to print.  In the early modern period, bookmen like Aldus Manutius collaborated with editors, type designers, and compositors with specialized skills to transform the manuscript texts of authors living and dead into stable and faithful printed texts in multiple copies for wide distribution. This often required substantive correction of the original manuscript and proofs of the printed text, often to a living author’s great surprise and dismay. The role of editors, illustrators, and type designers have evolved since the introduction of industrialized printing technologies in the mid-nineteenth century, but the importance of their relationship to the writers they work with and more generally to the production of printed works of scholarship, fiction, and poetry, has not diminished.  And as Leah Price and Pamela Thurschwell have pointed out in a co-edited collection of essays, Literary Secretaries/Secretarial Culture, typists have played an important role in the creation and consumption of literary (and non-literary) texts, too.

Like literary manuscripts, draft film scripts are complex artifacts of the process of correction and collation, but the end product is arguably much more complex. The motion picture relied not only on actors and directors, but specialist technicians who worked with sets, props, cameras, lighting, and sound equipment to craft a coherent, continuous narrative. Histories of film and screenwriting have thus focused on the way the text and format of the script evolved to coordinate this effort. Scholars Janet Staiger, Marc Norman, Tom Stempel, and Steven Price have described the evolution of the screenplay from the silent to the sound era, with a special focus on the development of the scenario, continuity, and master-scene scripts and the kinds of information contained therein. But in doing so, they’ve neglected the roles of the stenographic departments and the technological specialists employed by film studios and their relationships to the scripts they produced.

Three drafts of The Lady Eve survive today in independent curator Robert M. Rubin’s collection of scripts and other artifacts of the film production. Two date from October of 1940; the third, and earliest, contains a combination of material from an early draft dated December 1 and 2, 1938 with later revisions dated September 23, 30, and October 4, 1940. Revisions for Sequences A and B of the film accompany this script in a separate stapled packet dated August 26, 1940. Citing materials in the Preston Sturges Papers at UCLA and the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, Turner Classic Movies notes that Sturges was forced to draft- and re-draft the play between 1939 and 1940 after criticisms from producer Albert Lewin, and after the Motion Picture Academy determined that “‘the definite suggestion of a sex affair between your two leads’ which lacked ‘compensating moral values.’” While the 1938-1940 draft in the Rubin collection is not the earliest surviving screenplay for the film (UCLA holds two earlier drafts), it’s an important record of the evolution of the text.

A bibliographical analysis of these drafts and others by Sturges shows how the Stenographic Department worked.  At the top left corner of nearly each leaf of text (which appears on rectos only), the typist’s initials trace each sheet back to man or woman who typed it.  For example, the initials “is” throughout Sequence A probably refer to Isabelle Sullivan, Sturges’ script supervisor for Sullivan’s Travels, which opened in 1942. The initials JA, EVG (probably Sturges’ personal secretary Edwin Gillette), LRR, and others appear on the pages in later sequences. At the top right corner, a system of hyphenated letters and numbers ordered the typed leaves within each sequence, and the script as a whole, respectively. The hyphenated number shows the leaf order within the Sequence, while numbers in parentheses below track the leaf count through the entire script. Dates were also typed at the bottom left to track the revision history of each leaf of the script across multiple drafts. The image below shows this system at work. In a draft of Sturges’ The Great Moment under it’s early title, Triumph Over Pain, leaves 6-8 in Sequence D (leaves 47-50 in the screenplay), are dated April 9, 1942, showing that two leaves of text were cut from a previous draft. Other pages in the same sequence are numbered 13a and 13b, indicating the addition of text, and dates show that these revisions were typed on April 13, four days after the D-6-7-8 revisions.

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Revised draft script of The Great Moment under it’s original title, Triumph Over Pain. From the Robert M. Rubin Collection.

Typists and secretaries in the Stenographic Department were thus responsible for collating previous drafts and tracking changes throughout the development of the screenplay as document, and they relied and expanded upon centuries-old bibliographical systems to do so. Including their initials on each page recalls the use of press figures in English hand-press printing. The use of letters to distinguish one sequence of the film from the next also recalls the use of signatures in hand-press printing. Sturges omitted the letter J when numbering sequences, just as hand-press printers did when organizing a sequence of text. What’s more important, however, is that typographical evidence shows that drafts (or, proofs) of The Lady Eve screenplay were circulated in sections or small numbers. Just as a hand-press printer would issue a proof of a printed text for correction by an editor, a member of the stenographic department would type a limited number of copies of an individual sequence for distribution to the screenwriters, producers, and other crew for review. How do we know? The 1938-1940 draft of The Lady Eve is comprised of sheets printed in three different media. Portions of Sequence A initialled “is” are top-copy typescript, while most of the remaining sequences were produced on a mimeograph machine.  The August 26, 1940 draft of Sequences A and B are carbon copy typescripts.

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Above: Scripts in three different media. Clockwise from top left: The Lady Eve (typescript, top copy), Sullivan’s Travels (typescript, carbon copy) and The Lady Eve (mimeographed copy).

Unlike early printers, specialists in the Stenographic Department of a Hollywood studio had a range of technologies to choose from to most efficiently produce the requisite number of copies of a text at any given stage of the editorial process.  A top-copy typescript functions much like a manuscript; the typewriter produces a unique copy of the text for distribution to just one person. Carbon paper was used to create up to five copies, for circulating the same text to a small number of people. If more than five copies were needed, or if a text had been stabilized to the point that it would be reproduced again and again for incorporation into subsequent drafts, a mimeograph stencil created a master copy of the text; one stencil could produce up to 1000 copies and, like standing type in a print shop, printed over and over again.

Typists were not simply taking dictation, or printing up a screenwriter’s handwritten notes on a text.  They were skilled technicians who operated a variety of complex mechanical systems for producing texts, much in the same way that sound engineers operated a range of specialized equipment on the set.  An in-depth knowledge of machinery and supplies, in addition to graphic standards and the distribution requirements of the printed document, were required to produce an acceptable script. (Even with the advent of modern word processing technologies, many of us struggle with setting tabs and margins; imagine doing this on a typewriter in a room full of click-clacking machines with carbon and onion skin paper.)  It is also clear that members of the Stenographic Department worked closely with screenwriters and directors, though as yet I haven’t been able to nail down the copy editing skills required of someone working with screenplays rather than printed publications or personal communications.

Unfortunately, secretarial manuals and narrative accounts of Hollywood studios document not only the technical skills of female typists and secretaries, but also the extent to which they faced sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Manuals often prioritized social skills for female typists, underplaying their specialized technical and linguistic prowess. Scripts, however, show the extent to which they engaged with the texts they produced. Tracking changes across multiple drafts and collaborating with individuals across departments within the studio required a deep knowledge not only of a film narrative and its development over time, but also of the work done by so many other specialists. Like the editors in a publishing house, or compositors in an early modern print shop, typists in the 20th century Hollywood studio were deeply engaged in rigorous, technical, creative, and mentally stimulating work.

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On the set of Sullivan’s Travels, script supervisor Nesta Charles or Isabelle Sullivan sits below screenwriter/director Preston Sturges. Images courtesy of the wonderful Script Supervisor Tumblr.

 

 

 

Categories
Think Piece

Ideas of Attachment: What the “Postcritical Turn” Means for the History of Ideas

by contributing editor Daniel London

In the early 1990s literary scholar and queer activist Eve Sedgwick broke rank and attacked what Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that dominated her discipline. Her early critique of Critique as ontologically rigid, morally cruel, and politically ineffective is now being taken up by a growing number of humanities practitioners, mostly within English departments. How can historians of ideas learn from, and contribute to, this nascent movement towards a “post-critical” sensibility? A fruitful way to begin is to analyze this movement’s most cogent and comprehensive manifesto thus far: English Professor Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015.

While the methodologies of Critique might encompass a wide range of particular practices, from Foucauldian genealogy to Freudian analysis to Marxist materialism, Felski believes that the purported radicalism and rigor of these practices derives from a singular premise: that the meaning of a text is not based on its empirical form or content, but the “intentions” of those broader social contexts which produced it. The relevant contexts here might be macro structures as revealed by “standing back” from the text (as Marxists or other structuralists might do) or they might be the hidden motivations of the texts’ producers as unveiled by “digging deeper” into the text (as Freudians and gender theorists have long practiced). In either case, the text – whether it be a novel, a painting, or a statistic – is not assumed to speak for itself.

Felski makes short work of the notion that this approach is inherently progressive: climate change deniers and the FBI are both self-identified experts at uncovering “the truth” behind seemingly translucent prose. She also mirrors Sedgwick in questioning the political efficacy of Critique’s pose of absolute resistance, a pose that derives from its more general skepticism of any positive “text” whether it be novels or social legislation. To quote Sedgwick at length and with pleasure,

Reparative motives, once they become explicit, are inadmissible in paranoid theory both because they are about pleasure (“merely aesthetic”) and because they are frankly ameliorative (“merely reformist”).’ What makes pleasure and amelioration so “mere”? Only the exclusiveness of paranoia’s faith in demystifying exposure: only its cruel and contemptuous assumption that the one thing lacking for global revolution, explosion of gender roles, or whatever, is people’s (that is, other people’s) having the painful effects of their oppression, poverty, or deludedness sufficiently exacerbated to make the pain conscious (as if otherwise it wouldn’t have been) and intolerable (as if intolerable situations were famous for generating excellent solutions).

Equally debilitating, however, are the limitations of Critique as a means of understanding texts in the first place. Much of these limitations, argues Felski, derives from its incapacity to identify how different texts, even those purportedly produced within the same “context”, could take such different forms and spark such different reactions among readers.  If all Victorian novels are unredeemably tainted with the patriarchal/racist/bourgeois sins of its context, why is it that we continually focus our readings around some texts– say, the works of Sherlock Homes – instead of others, such as his innumerable hack imitators and predecessors? Why do some texts seem to attract, surprise, and summon something from us in ways that others do not? Why are some texts adopted and appropriated across time and space, while others remain trapped as antiquarian prisoners of their birth?  The drive to contextualize, writes Felski, often cannot explain such differences in the operation, reception, and transmission of particular texts. As Bruno Latour  has cynically noted, practitioners of critique are perfectly realist in their appreciation of things they inherently enjoy – movies, exercising, fishing, etc. Only when discussing texts they do not like do they move beyond the text in question to a (much more articulate) talk of the hidden inputs and outputs that purportedly give it significance.

What is to be done? Felski does not recommend a return to discussing texts as self-sufficient units of analysis, as formalists and new aesthetics have recommended. Nor does she advocate a more gracious form of “surface” or “reparative” reading, however therapeutic. Rather, her stab at a solution proceeds from a redefinition of texts as co-producers of social reality, rather than as entirely reflective or autonomous from it. In language explicitly borrowing from Actor-Network Theory, Felski argues that the discrete characteristics of a text can, under certain circumstances, actively generate certain qualities – identification, empathy, inspiration – among readers. Felski urges literary scholars to attend to these circumstances, to trace the social interconnections, attachments, and productions that emerge through the interaction of readers and texts. Under this paradigm, writes Felski, “interpretation becomes a coproduction between actors that brings new things to light rather than an endless rumination on a text’s hidden meanings or representational failures.”

Felski does not explicitly spell out the broader consequences of such a methodology on the politics and mores of the academy. Nonetheless, her call for scholars to pay greater attention to what texts can enable or allow in their readers seems to echo a political vision that , in the words of Jeff Prunchnik, “places a higher priority on strategies for seizing on the constrained possibilities present within existing systems of social power than on critique as traditionally understood”. Her agenda also offers, I believe, a partial solution to the spiritual and ethical malaise felt by many graduate students (including myself) deriving from Critique’s tendency to “burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation”, in the words of Lisa Ruddick’s must-read essay When Nothing is Cool. Critique is quite proficient at deconstructing and damning expressions of compassion or empathy based on the sins of those who have articulated them in the past. It is quite silent, however, as to why and how we come to generate, cherish and care for certain values and artistic expressions that are not entirely based on ego or interest. A hermeneutics of attachment, along the lines Felski advocates, seems to offer an intellectually responsible way of gaining such an understanding.

How novel, familiar, or challenging should all this sound to historians of ideas or intellectual historians more generally? We should begin by stressing the close kinship of these disciplines to that of literary studies. In both cases, their defining methodologies seems to me a) a close reading of individual texts (novels, philosophical treatises, pamphlets) and b) a spiraling out towards the relation of these texts toward a broader set of contexts (either intellectual “communities of discourse”, institutional structures, other ideas, social/cultural fields, etc). Both disciplines were equally vulnerable to criticism in the 1960s and 70s that their preferred texts and contexts were overly narrow as compared with the more open-ended fields of social and cultural history. And both fields responded by reframing the contexts of their texts to encompass yet broader arrays of texts and contexts, and in so doing reframe their own significance.

Protected by their discipline’s stubborn empiricism, I suspect that historians of ideas have remained, with some notable exceptions, generally uncontaminated by the more totalizing strains of Critique that Felski lambasts within English departments. I also suspect, with less certainty, that histories of ideas as narrative forms possess a thicker vocabulary for defining “context” and explaining the transmission of text-actor attachments over time than can be found in their critique-driven counterparts. Whether their methods are complementary to the Actor-Network Theories Felski vouches for is the subject of another essay. Nonetheless, I am certain that she and many other post-critical theorists can learn a lot from the rich (though often theoretically under-developed) work of intellectual historians. Recent Developments in Book History, and bibliography particular, are also complementary to Felski’s agenda.

robert-westbrook
Robert F. Westbrook, Joseph F. Cunningham Professor of History at the University of Rochester.

At the same time, I believe the topics historians of ideas pursue can become more aligned with the concerns of post-critical theorists.  This can be seen in the way such scholars attempt to study one topic of seemingly shared interest: the history of morality. In an excellent review essay in Modern Intellectual History, Robert Westbrook identifies several approaches intellectual historians have developed to chart the appearance and disappearances of ethical “oughts” over time. Such methods have generally taken either an “internalist” (tracking changes in the conceptual vocabulary of morality over time) or an “externalist” (examining how the ethical principles of a particular community both informed and were transformed by their own lived experiences) tact. I suspect that Felski would ask for a subtly different explanandum: why do some texts, and not others, summon different moral responses and allegiances from their audience? To answer this question would require examining such audiences and texts in a far more comparative manner than most have done so far.

“Why are we so hyperarticulate about our adversaries and so excruciatingly tongue-tied about our loves”? Felski asks at the beginning of her work. I don’t believe the humanities can unilaterally prescribe what we should love today, but their practitioners  are awakening to the fact that one of the chief values of the humanities lies in asking how these loves have developed, died, and survived in the past and in our own time with self-consciousness, empathy, and rigor.   I believe Historians of Ideas can play a crucial role in this collective moral inquiry, and should take inspiration from the post-critical turn that their efforts will have a waiting audience in the academy – and likely beyond.  

Categories
book history Conferences In the Archives

An Intellectual History of Their Own?

by guest contributor John Pollack

‘Tis the season. Not that season—but rather, the curious period in the United States between the holidays of “Columbus Day” and “Thanksgiving” when, at least on occasion, the issues confronting America’s Native peoples receive a measure of public attention. Among this year’s brutal political battles has been the standoff at Standing Rock Reservation, where indigenous and non-indigenous peoples from the entire continent have gathered to support the Standing Rock Sioux’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the construction of which would threaten sacred lands. Although this conflict will not be a subject of discussion at every Thanksgiving table, at the very least the resistance at Standing Rock serves as a reminder of the very real environmental and political battles that continue to play out in “Indian Country.”

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Standing Rock Protestors. Image courtesy of The Lakota People’s Law Project.

On October 13, 2016, I attended a lecture given by Winona LaDuke to open the conference “Translating Across Time and Space,” organized by the American Philosophical Society and co-sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum. I was in an auditorium at the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, but Ms. LaDuke did not attend the conference in person. She spoke instead from an office at Standing Rock, where she is leading resistance to the pipeline. Ms. LaDuke’s remarks at a conference focused upon the study and revival of endangered Native languages were a reminder to me and other audience members that being a “Native American Intellectual” means being a political figure, a public voice speaking and writing in contexts of imperial expansion and ongoing legal, military, and economic conflicts over territory. We may date the creation of the term “intellectual” to the late 1890s, with Emile Zola’s public attack upon the French military for covering up the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus—but it is arguably the case that Native American public leaders, whatever labels we assign them, have been speaking truth to power since 1492.

Over the past year, a team at Amherst College, in conjunction with the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums; the Mukurtu project; and the Digital Public Library of America, has been planning a framework for a “Digital Atlas of Native American Intellectual Traditions.” This exciting initiative promises to develop a new set of lenses through which we may observe and connect the intellectual histories of America’s indigenous peoples, across time and across territories. All students of the “history of ideas” should welcome this extension of the boundaries of the field in new directions.  

From Collection(s) to Project

Collectors of books and documents can play surprising roles in shifting scholarly attention in new directions, and this project is a case in point. In 2013, Amherst College Library’s Archives and Special Collections acquired the Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection. Known now as the The Younghee Kim-Wait (AC 1982) Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection, after its collector and the donor whose gift enabled the purchase, the collection, Amherst suggests, is “one of the most comprehensive collections of books by Native American authors ever assembled by a private collector.” (I would add that this is really a collection of mainly Native North American authors.) Few of the titles in the Eisenberg Collection are unknown or unique exemplars—but their assembly by one collector into one collection motivated Mike Kelly, Kelcy Shepherd, and their Amherst colleagues to investigate how such a collection might help reshape discourses about Native Americans and their intellectual histories.

 

Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection
Click to view Amherst’s Flickr gallery of images from the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection.

 

Working outward from this impressive body of material, their project will create a framework drawing together “Native-authored” materials held in widely scattered repositories. They seek a digital solution to one of the problems researchers working in digital environments regularly confront: the difficulty of connecting related items across institutions. The authors note:

Search and retrieval of individual items allows for only limited connections between related materials, erasing relevant context. Tools for visualizing and representing these networks can ultimately provide even greater access and understanding, challenging dominant interpretations that misrepresent Native American history and obscure or de-emphasize Native American intellectual traditions.

Digital projects, I would add, can often exacerbate rather than reduce this effect of disaggregation and de-contextualization. Working online, we can easily fail to comprehend a collection of documents or printed materials as a collection, in which the meaning of individual items may be shaped by the collection as a larger whole. Some online projects select out particular items, extracting and featuring them—much as an old-style museum might present an artifact in a display with a rudimentary label, disconnected from its cultural origins. Others provide digital results in an undifferentiated mass. The immediate benefit of finding new materials online can feel impressive, but the tools for interpreting what we access can feel strangely limited.

The Digital Atlas, the authors argue, will fill a void, the current “absence of a national digital network for Native-authored library and archival collections.” Here they invoke that recurring librarians’ dream—the search for the perfect search tool. This can take the form of “union” catalogs that gather information from many places into one data source and make them easily searchable; or of “federated” searching, the creation of tools that straddle multiple data platforms and present results for researchers in a single, coherent view; or of the “portal,” an organized launching point that gathers disparate research materials together. Still to be negotiated, I imagine, is how this “national digital platform” will connect with other such “national” platforms, including the Digital Public Library of America.

Searching protocols represent only one of the challenges; the work of classification itself must be subjected to scrutiny. One of the project’s partners is Mukurtu, an open source Content Management System (CMS) that has been designed to encourage the cooperative description of indigenous cultural materials using categories designed by Native peoples themselves. Mukurtu, which describes itself as “an open source community archive platform,” provides tools allowing repositories to rethink the ways in which materials by or about Native peoples are categorized, cataloged, and accessed.

This new methodology will make “Native knowledge” more visible in collections held by libraries, archives, and museums:

The project will develop methods for incorporating Native knowledge, greatly enriching public understanding of Native culture and history. It will identify approaches for enhancing metadata standards and vocabularies that currently exclude or marginalize Native names and concepts. We will share this work with the digital library community and with Native librarians, archivists, and museum curators.

The project will “include both tribal and non-Native collecting institutions, building relationships between the two.” This promise to create new partnerships between academic and institutional collections and Native communities is a welcome vision of sharing and exchange. A number of institutions are redefining what the “stewardship” of Native documents or artifacts means and reconsidering the thorny question of who “owns” the cultural productions of Native peoples. At the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, for example, the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research has embraced a community-based methodology that actively shares indigenous linguistic collections with Native peoples and invites Native researchers to take intellectual if not physical ownership of these collections, wherever they reside.

This proposal’s creators have, for now, chosen to avoid a discussion of what is, and what is not, “Native-authored.” Authorship and authority are always contested domains, and Native authorship has been a subject of debate since the eighteenth century. Like African American writers, Natives have had to work with or against non-Native editors, printers, publishers, and of course readers. I hope that the Digital Atlas will give us new tools for studying these tensions and new ways to chart the impacts of Native author-intellectuals over time, in printed books, in periodicals and newspapers, at public events, and in letters.

Mapping an “atlas”

Another argument behind the Digital Atlas is that Native writing must be understood in its relationship to place: to location, to land, to social memory, and to the environment. At the same time, the authors insist that we cannot adopt a static spatial view but instead must focus on mobility—that is, on the connections between authors, texts, and routes.

The proposal poses this question: “What tools, methodologies, and data would be required to visualize and represent the networks through which Native people and authors traveled and maintained/produced Native space?” Data “visualization,” the use of mapping software to show nodes of activity and networked connections, has become a standard tool in the field of digital humanities and a frequent complement to scholarship in fields including book history, medieval and renaissance studies, and American literary studies. Indeed, Martin Brückner has recently argued that literary studies is in the midst of a widespread “cartographic turn,” noting the pervasive language of cartography—the map as tool and the map as metaphor—throughout the field.  

Given the project’s focus upon geography, visualization, and mobility, though, I confess that I find the Atlas’s emphasis that it will be a “national” product disappointing, if understandable—with its suggestion of a continuing focus upon the old familiar geography of the nation-state. I suspect that the project’s authors are well aware of this tension. Scholars like Lisa Brooks (an advisor to the Digital Atlas) and others have pushed us to think about the many routes along which Natives and their words have circulated: through territories shaped by geographic features and personal connections; along riverine networks; and over trading and migration paths that long antedate and overlap the national, state, or territorial borderlines drawn by European surveyors and colonial agents. Will the Atlas help us follow the movements of ideas along non-national paths and across networks other than those circumscribed by nations? I hope so.

Intellectual traditions, Intellectual histories

With its focus on assembling and mapping intellectual traditions, the Atlas proposal also makes the implicit argument that it is time to move beyond the old debate about the influence of the “oral tradition” and the impact of “written culture” upon Native peoples.

As Brooks and others have persuasively argued, anthropologists in the nineteenth and early to mid twentieth centuries often ignored the ways in which Native peoples used various forms of writing, including European ones, for their own purposes (cultural, literary, and legal), preferring instead to search for presumably older oral traditions that were somehow isolated from and uncontaminated by writing. Historians of Native America now question the dichotomy between oral and written. We must be particularly cautious about identifying the former as essentially Native and the latter as essentially Western or European.

In the European context too, the dichotomy has been questioned. Scholars including Roger Chartier and Fernando Bouza have pointed out the permeability of oral and written discourses within the European context and shown that these categories were both unstable and contested in the early modern period. Texts and images circulated through the social orders in complex ways, and oral, written, and visual forms maintained overlapping kinds of authority.

To be sure, European colonists, missionaries, and political leaders sought to create colonial regimes in which the written and the printed word would be dominant, even as orality continued to occupy an important place within their own cultures. Yet Native peoples in many regions, from Peru, to Mexico, to Northeastern North America often successfully retained their own highly developed cultures of oratory. And rather than classifying indigenous populations as peoples “without writing,” we have come to understand that the definitions of communication must be broadened to include the range of semiotic systems Native peoples used to share and exchange goods and information, and to preserve narratives and historical memory. Native peoples also adopted, adapted to, appropriated, or resisted European writing and print culture in a wide variety of ways.

But why, I wonder, will this be an atlas of intellectual traditions and not of intellectual histories? With this title, the project softens its potential impact upon the field known as intellectual history or the history of ideas. It seems to locate the project in an anthropological and not a historical mode. Native peoples, like peasants, workers, lower class women and other so-called “peoples without history” (to borrow Eric Wolf’s ironically charged phrase), are still too often relegated to the realm of tradition, and locked into a static past.

In 2003, Robert Warrior pointed out that the field of American Studies had only just begun to include the voices of Native American Studies scholars. We might now extend his point to encompass the field of the “history of ideas” or intellectual history. A search across the content of the Journal of the History of Ideas turns up not a single reference to Warrior or his work, and I am hard pressed to find a discussion in its pages of the “history of ideas” in Indian Country. Rather than assuming that the field’s concepts are too Euro-centric and have no bearing upon an equally complex but distinctly different realm of Native ideas and philosophies, I would prefer to work toward more common ground. We can expand the history of ideas to encompass Native American intellectual histories—while respecting Warrior’s call to maintain the “intellectual sovereignty” of Native America (Secrets 124).

I eagerly await the results of the Digital Atlas of Native American Intellectual Traditions. I look forward to studying its reimagined maps of American intellectual history, and to hearing more voices of the public intellectuals of Native America, past and present.

John H. Pollack is Library Specialist for Public Services at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Penn; he has published on colonial writings from New France and edited a volume of essays on Benjamin Franklin and colonial education. He is currently working on a monograph about the circulation of Native words in early European texts on the Americas.

Categories
What We're Reading

What We’re Reading: Nov. 14-19

We have a couple of announcements to make with this week’s links round-up. We’re proud to have two new contributing editors joining our team: Disha Karnad Jani and Eric Brandom. Full bios for Disha and Eric are available on our Masthead, along with information about the rest of our editorial team.

Please also take a look at the October issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, which is available to all via Project Muse.

Erin:

Zeynep Tufekci “Mark Zuckerberg is in Denial” (NY Times)

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Haymarket Books)

Rhon Manigault-Bryant, “An Open Letter to White Liberal Feminists,” (AAIHS)

Max Nelson, “The Intrusion Artist” (Public Books)
New York Cinephiles: A great series of the Bresson’s films just wrapped up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  The swanky new Metrograph has its own series of Bressons on from Nov.23 to Dec. 1. At Anthology Film Archives, an unrelated series of the films of Borges and Casares is on through Nov. 22.

I was disappointed not to attend “What’s Next? Exploring New Ways to Use Digital Early American Manuscripts,” an un-conference sponsored by the Colonial North America at Harvard Library Project.  Details here, or follow the conversation on Twitter, #WhatsNextHarvard.

Emily:

Max Weber, “Politics As a Vocation” (1919) is apposite reading in our times. So is the 1886 parliamentary debate over Gladstone’s first Irish Home Rule bill, which I taught this week.

James McDougall, No, this isn’t the 1930s—but yes, this is fascism (The Conversation)

Wendy Lesser, The Battles over Julia Ward Howe (NYRB)

Allison Miller, Contrary to Popular Belief: Recovering the Grassroots History of American Atheism (Perspectives)

Samuel Moyn, Freud’s Discontents (The Nation)

Andrea Rottmann, Gay Berlin? No, Queer Baden-Württemberg (Notches)

And not least, the BBC’s TV adaptation of Zadie Smith’s NW.

Daniel:

Martin Filler, “Building Dreams and Nightmares” (NYRB)

Richard Florida, “It’s Still about Class and Geography” (CitLab)

Judith Stein, “A Losing Coalition” (Jacobin)

Adolph Reed, “Splendors and Miseries of the Anti-Racist Left” (nonsite.org)

Michael J. Lewis, “The Genius of Winding Paths” (First Things)

Carolyn:

Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda” (Bulletin of the GHI)

Thorsten Benner, “Germany Can Protect the Liberal Order: Damage After Donald Trump’s Election” (Foreign Affairs)

James Cortada, “Were Farmers America’s First High Tech Information Workers?” (OUP Blog)

Finally, this week I have been enjoying some time with Tony Judt’s take on what has gone wrong with social democracy in the past thirty-six years in Ill Fares the Land, which I would recommend to anyone else still reeling from last week’s election.

Disha:

Toni Morrison, “Mourning for Whiteness” (New Yorker)

Geoff Manaugh, “Why Catholics Built Secret Astronomical Features into Churches to Help Save Souls” (Atlas Obscura)

Eric:

James Schmidt, “Images of the Enlightenment: The Lamp and the Sun” (Persistent Enlightenment)

Robyn Spencer, “‘Revolt at the Source’: Cedric Robinson’s Archive of Resistance” (AAIHS)

Sarah Phillips Castell, “Caribbean LIterature, Jewishness, and Global Holocaust Memory” (AAIHS)

John Lancaster, “Can We Escape from Time?” (NYRB)

Kyle Walker, “9 Great Novels about Anthropologists” (Public Books)

Joshua Cohen, “After Trump” (Boston Review)