At the end of my trip to “Disneyland for Scholars,” I met up with Notorious Ph.D, Girl Scholar for an excellent lunch in Little India, where I learned all of the fascinating details about her research interests that she’s dying to share with the rest of you. (Trust me–it’s really smart stuff, very innovative, and the product of lots and lots of original archival research. Aren’t you all jealous?) You can’t know what her book is about specifically, but she’s asking for help in choosing an image for the cover, so go over and share your two cents.
Then, I spent the weekend in Orange County with Rad Readr and his family: Mrs. Readr, Mini-Rad, Marxist Deluxe, and their rescued greyhound Marcus. (The Readrs are old friends from back when Rad and I were on our first jobs. And yes, we ran on the beach twice, two mornings in a row–what fun it is to run at sea level since I train at 4,875 feet elevation!) The Readr family took me to an exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, “Of Rage and Redemption: the Art of Oswaldo Guayasamín” (1919-1999), an Ecuadorean artist whose works were filled with images of suffering human bodies in an effort to express the violence of colonialism:
Non-academic in style and subject matter, Guayasamín established his signature style of indigenismo which is especially recognized for its dramatic representation of the human figure. Defined in powerfully exaggerated proportions and forms, Guayasamín figures are charged with a range of emotions—from human dignity to grief, loss and anguish. Guayasamin said about his art, “My painting is to hurt, to scratch and hit inside people’s hearts. To show what Man does against Man.”
(Rad is originally from Ecuador and has a print signed by Guayasamín, whom he was introduced to once by a family member.) This exhibition was really fascinating to view in light of the “Territorial Crossings” conference I attended last week, which was broadly conceived as a conversation about broad comparative frameworks for the history of the colonial Americas, in which we were asked to consider “[w]hat kinds of questions are made possible only by thinking across territories, and what subjects of analysis best suit comparative or more broadly contextualized scholarship?” It seemed to me that the (obvious, perhaps) price of broad comparative histories is the loss of detail about the people who worked, suffered, and died–and the Guayasamín exhibition served as a reminder of this finer-grained side of the story of colonialism.
Rad and I both went to graduate school in the 1990s–he in English, I in history–and we had some long talks about the changes we’ve observed in our fields over the past fifteen years or so. The interdisciplinarity between literature and history departments encouraged by the 1980s and 1990s cultural theory we were trained in has had profound effects in both of our disciplines. Rad’s work is very historical–his first book was reviewed in the Journal of American History, for example, and he’s off to the American Antiquarian Society this summer to immerse himself in a wide swath the non-English language print culture of the early U.S. Republic for his second book–and he thinks that the empiricism of history has been good for the study of literature. (In his words, “there’s less of an emphasis of people just trying to show how smart they are,” and more emphasis on evidence.) While my work on gender has been very much based on analyses of language (in archival as well as published sources), I have sounded the alarm on the rush of historians who appear to be abandoning the archives to focus on “print culture,” because of all of the (non-white, non-male, non-English speaking) people who weren’t writers. (And I hold the perhaps unfashionable notion that historians should try to uncover something of the reality of people’s lives as they lived them, rather than just “representations” of them.)
Rad and I also talked about how sadly ironic it was that in a decade in which disciplines and even whole universities are encouraging their students and faculty to be more “international”–to collaborate withscholars outside of the U.S., and to build transnational intellectual frames for their research–that fewer and fewer U.S. American graduate students have any foreign languages. (We have both seen several graduate students switch their fields of study because they didn’t want to achieve competency in another language!) I understand that this may be part of the rush to get people in and out of graduate school faster–but isn’t urging transnationalism while effectively insisting that all comparative or transnational research and collaboration be conducted in English a shockingly imperial maneuver?
I remember being lectured by a real blowhard in my graduate program when I expressed shock and dismay that one could substitute a B.S. computer course for one of the two required foreign languages in my Ph.D. program. “Well, Historiann, that’s a very noble and idealistic view, but I’m a 20th century U.S. historian, and absolutely all of my sources are in English.” I’m not saying that I had any insight into the “transnational” turn, but even in 1991 that sounded like an incredibly foolish and blinkered view of his field. Call me an old fogey–again– but it seems to me that having a Ph.D. should indicate a certain level of erudition, one that must necessarily be enriched by the study of at least two other languages, no matter what your research is in. (Hey, U.S. historians–have you ever wondered why the rest of your colleagues roll their eyes at you when you talk about transnationalism? Well, now you know.)