Posted in 18th century America, 19th century America, immigrants, marginalization, military, religion

Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831

Coller, Ian. Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

In Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831, Ian Coller, whose historical research focuses on Europe and the Muslim world since the eighteenth century, offers a “historical triage” of European history with what he calls “an intentional act of seeing” (Coller 2). He does not focus on well-documented populations, such as Algerians and Moroccans; instead, Coller’s research concentrates on several hundred Arabs and their families who accompanied Napoleon’s soldiers to France in the early 1800s (Coller 42). By excavating neglected archives and reimagining a “lost” community through the “fragments, gaps, and silences” between historical documents, Coller unveils a community that was nearly erased from the historical record (Coller 5). Coller offers a new narrative of France that reveals how integral Arab France was to the birth of modern Europe.

Coller’s sources include secondary resources, such as books and journal articles, and a wealth of archival material that includes personal letters, petitions, poetry, and art. A number of engravings and prints are reproduced within the book, which he uses to support his assertions that Arab France was a common sight within France and that “cultural and racial conceptions of the Arab would be reconfigured, with disastrous consequences for Arab France” during the final years of the Restoration (Coller 163).

Coller’s project echoes Water Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” where in Thesis VI, Benjamin writes, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Coller attempts to translate the untranslatable in order to bring meaning to overlooked and/or misunderstood customs and gestures (Coller 73). But his argument was weakened by presenting too much evidence. For example, in the chapter “Cosmopolitanism and Confusion,” Coller discloses the works of Arab intellectuals in Paris, which he describes as “numerous, varied, and rich–a whole series of published books and pamphlets, in addition to unpublished sources in Arabic and French” (Coller 159). However, this treasure trove of resources contradicts the lack of evidence for which he seems to be arguing.

Posted in journal articles, writing history

The Great Cat Massacre, On the Lame, and The Refashioning of Martin Guerre

Darnton, Robert. “The Great Cat Massacre.” History Today 34 (1984): 7-15.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. “On the Lame.” The American Historical Review 93 (1988): 572–603.

Finlay, Robert. “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre.” The American Historical Review 93 (1988): 553-71.

This is a joint review that examines how anthropology, ethnohistory, and particular narrative techniques have greatly influenced the writing of history.

This week, we examined several articles in relation to these disciplines and techniques: Robert Darton’s “The Great Cat Massacre,” Robert Finlay’s “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,” and Natalie Zemon Davis’ “On the Lame.”  In this paper, I will clarify how Davis’ and Darnton’s works benefit from the methods of anthropology and ethnohistory, and the narrative techniques we reviewed.  Additionally, I will discuss how the disagreement over the history of Martin Guerre demonstrates the benefits and potential downsides of “thick description.”  Lastly, I will examine whether Davis has gone too far and how Davis’ and Darnton’s works help us consider her question, “where does reconstruction start and invention begin?”

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the disciplines of history and anthropology developed many parallels; however, historians focused more on charting the rise of nations while anthropologists traced the cultural and social evolution of mankind.[1] Beginning in the 1960s, anthropology became extremely influential in redirecting historians’ attention towards everyday life.  Two key areas need to be explored in order to understand the main tenets of the anthropological approach: first is the concept of “thick description” and the second is “controlled speculation.”

Clifford Geertz, a noted anthropologist, asserts that anthropology’s task is to explain cultures through “thick description,” which generates meaning for the reader as opposed to “thin description,” which provides only factual accounts without any interpretation. For Geertz, thin description does not provide a sufficient account of an aspect of a culture; it is, therefore, misleading.  According to Geertz, it is the responsibility of an ethnographer to not only offer facts, but to extract meaning from a culture in order to present an insider’s perspective (emic) rather than interpreting events solely from an outsider’s perspective (etic).  Geertz uses a wink as an example to illustrate the “many layers of meaning such a simple act may convey.”[2]

Without understanding the conceptual structures and imaginative universe within which our subjects lived, Geertz argues, it is impossible to reconstruct the possible meaning of a wink. The goal is to get beneath surface behavior to reach an emic (insiders’) understanding, “cast in terms of the interpretations to which the persons… subject their experience.”[3]

Darton applies this same approach in “The Great Cat Massacre” to help the reader “get the joke” of the massacre.[4]

Darton suggests in his article that “by getting the joke of the great cat massacre, it may be possible to ‘get’ a basic ingredient of artisanal culture under the Old Regime.”[5]  As Green and Troup point out, Darton offers detailed contextual analyses for the symbolic significance of cats in French culture, as well as the attributes of carnival which are understood to influence unconventional behavior and rules.  By highlighting the multiple meanings of cats in the culture, “Darton proposes that the cat massacre represented the revolt of apprentices against poor treatment by their masters. The workers found the massacre funny because it gave them a way to turn the tables on the bourgeois in the only way possible—on a symbolic level.”[6]

Many times, historians and others who study culture are stuck working with scraps of evidence that often are compiled by a dominant party.[7]  Researchers have learned to read these materials “against the grain,” or for silences and suppression, as a means to recover voices from the past.   In addition, when evidence is inadequate, researchers may add comparative materials to “infer crucial information that may be missing or obscured in the historical record of a particular situation’.”[8] This method is known as “controlled speculation.”[9]

In 1983, Natalie Zemon Davis successfully used this method to flesh out the lives of characters in The Return of Marin Guerre.

[W]hen I could not find my individual man or woman … then I did my best through other sources from the period and place to discover the world they would have seen and the reactions they might have had. What I offer you here is in part my invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past.[10]

Like Darton, Davis selectively embellished the available evidence in order to provide the reader the means to gain contextual cultural knowledge, and with it, an emic perspective.  Just as Darton highlighted the multiple meanings of cats in the culture, Davis embedded the story of Martin Guerre in “the values and habits of sixteenth-century village life and law.”[11]  She explains that “literary and narrative structure are part of the ‘data’ upon which [she wants] to do ‘vulgar reasoning’ to get at a sixteenth-century argument.”[12]

Part of narrative structure is emplotment.  All historians emplot their narratives in particular ways, which may help them to provide further explanation.  As Green and Troup explain, “the sources do not tell historians when to begin their narrative, or when to end it.”[13]   According to Green’s and Troup’s table of emplotment combinations, both Darton’s and Davis’s texts seem to align with satirical emplotment because both employ contextualist arguments and exhibit a liberal ideological implication.

The disagreement over the history of Martin Guerre, as seen in the Finlay and Davis articles, demonstrates the benefits and potential downsides of “thick description.”  The traditional version of the story of Martin Guerre derives from accounts of the sixteenth century, specifically Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras who was the rapporteur at the trial.[14]  In 1983, Davis published a detailed exploration of the case in her book The Return of Martin Guerre, but reached very different conclusions than Coras did.  Davis argued that Bertrande, the wife, was complicit in the fraud because she needed a husband and she was treated well by Arnaud du Tilh, the imposter.  Finlay criticized Davis’ conclusions in his article “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,” accusing her of interpreting the historical account through a modern lens.  Davis responded to Finlay’s arguments in her article “On the Lame,” which appeared in the same issue of The American Historical Review in June 1988.

As discussed earlier, Davis employed methods of “thick description” and “controlled speculation” to tease out meaning from the original evidence to provide the reader with an emic perspective.  Finlay points out that “Davis adds substantially to establishing the historical context within which the story should be understood.”[15]  This is exactly the type of context Geertz wanted “thick description” to offer.  But Finlay also asserts that “Davis fails to show that her view of women in peasant society is relevant to the case she is examining.”[16]  In Finlay’s opinion, “thick description” benefitted Davis’ narrative by providing meaningful historical context, but it did not help her defend her overall argument, which was counter to Coras’ original assessment.  Davis’ main complaint against Finlay’s criticisms is that he seems to want only factual evidence (“thin description”).  She writes, “Robert Finlay sees things in clean, simple lines; he wants absolute truth, established with no ambiguity by literal and explicit words; he makes moral judgments in terms of sharp rights and wrongs.”[17] Davis may be correct in her assessments of the evidence, but it is not clear what she could have done differently to sufficiently convince someone like Finlay.

I don’t think that Davis went too far.  Even if her arguments did not convince Finlay, she presented readers with a new way to consider the evidence.  Take, for example, Ian Coller’s Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831, which offers a “historical triage” of European history with what he calls “an intentional act of seeing.”[18]  In this book, Coller does not focus on well-documented populations, such as Algerians and Moroccans; instead, his research concentrates on several hundred Arabs and their families who accompanied Napoleon’s soldiers to France in the early 1800s.   By excavating neglected archives and reimagining a “lost” community through the “fragments, gaps, and silences” between historical documents, Coller unveils a community that was nearly erased from the historical record.[19]  Coller offers a new narrative of France that reveals how integral Arab France was to the birth of modern Europe.  I mention this book because, as Green and Troup point out, many historians face the task of excavating meaning when documentation is lacking.  And while I agree that Davis’ and Darton’s works help to offer new perspectives to the issues they argue, Coller goes a step further by giving voice to an entire population of people whose documentation was nearly completely erased.  Historians such as Davis, Darton, and Coller must use their imaginations as well as the evidence at hand to generate narratives for historians to consider.  This is not to say that historians should fabricate facts, but all interpretation requires some imagination. Davis asks, “Where does reconstruction start and invention begin?”  I believe that the answer points to such a fine line that in many cases, the distinction may be difficult to distinguish.

[1] Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, “Athropology and Ethnohistorians,” in The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory (New York: NYU Press, 1999), 172.

[2] Ibid., 177.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert Darnton, “The Great Cat Massacre,” History Today 34, no. (1984): 9.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Green and Troup, “Athropology and Ethnohistorians,” in The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, 178.

[7] Ibid., 179.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Natalie Zemon Davis, “On the Lame,” The American Historical Review 93, no. (1988): 573.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Green and Troup, “The Question of Narrative,” in The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, 208.

[14] Robert Finlay, “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,” The American Historical Review 93, no. (1988): 554.

[15] Ibid., 557.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Natalie Zemon Davis, “On the Lame,” 574.

[18] Ian Coller, Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 2.

[19] Ibid., 5.

Posted in 20th century America, assimilation, death, journal articles, Korean War, military, Native Americans, racism

Burying Sergeant Rice: Racial Justice and Native American Rights in the Truman Era

Kotlowski, Dean J. “Burying Sergeant Rice: Racial Justice and Native American Rights in the Truman Era.” Journal of American Studies 38, no. 2 (2004): 199-225.

In 1951, Sergeant First Class John Raymond Rice, an eleven-year veteran of the United States Army who had been killed in the Korean War, was refused burial in Sioux City, Iowa’s Memorial Park cemetery, because he was not white. The insult enraged many Americans, including President Harry S. Truman, who soon arranged for the soldier’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Kotlowski recounts the history of this event and notes three larger themes. First is the character of Truman, a President whose historical reputation has fluctuated over the years. Second, this event revelas how mid-twentieth-century liberals approached the issue of race. Kotlowski points out that Native Americans were often lumped together with African Americans’ fight for equality, whose leaders advocated integration into white society during the 1950s. Native Americans fought a different fight. And third, veterans and minorities were rightfully outraged when the Cold War mantra was for national unity. But again, Native Americans did not want to assimilate. They wanted to maintain their special rights, privileges, and institutions.

The Rice burial unfolded within the context of an evolving federal policy toward Native Americans. Kotlowski illuminated the postwar climate and federal programs meant to integrate disparate communities. He shed light on Truman’s affinity for Native Americans and also his disinterest in preserving them. Kotlowski also painted an intimate portrait of Rice, his community, and the bias against Native Americans, even in death.

Truman’s gesture was not politically motivated but generated out of moral outrage concerning racial prejudice against a soldier. (214) Kotlowski recounted a particularly vicious attack in 1946 against Isaac Woodard, a recently discharged African American sergeant, who had his eyes gouged out by a sheriff in South Carolina. Truman cited the Woodard attack when defending his decision to desegregate the armed services. (214) Many Americans applauded Truman’s gesture. Yet, it was interesting that non-assimilated Native Americans did not respond with the same enthusiasm. The government, including the President, continued to believe that Native Americans should not retain their unique, federally protected status.

Posted in 20th century America, commemoration, imperialism, journal articles, memorials, military, Vietnam War, WWII

War, Memory, and the Public Mediation of Affect: The National World War II Memorial and American Imperialism

Doss, Erika. “War, Memory, and the Public Mediation of Affect: The National World War II Memorial and American Imperialism.” Memory Studies 1, no. 2 (2008): 227-50.

Doss asserts that war memorials are flourishing around the country, especially those dedicated to the memory of WWII. In this article, she examines why people feel such a need to say thank you to those who fought over sixty years ago. Doss claims that “memorials embody a ‘cultural turn’ toward public feeling, toward affective modes of knowledge and comprehension.” (229) People want to experience history.

Importantly, Doss compares Alison Landsberg’s notion of “prosthetic memory” to Joan Scott’s understanding of experience. Landsberg claims that new forms of public cultural memory and mass technology enable anyone to personally experience the past, no matter how remote or distant or traumatic. Whereas, Scott contends that “discourses of experience are both illuminating and highly problematic.” (229) The people who have an experience understand it as authentic. But we must realize that these people are subjects who are constituted through experience. Memorials help to fabricate public subjectivity. Memorials are, to paraphrase Ann Cvektovich, “a public ‘archive of feelings’ which is encoded in their material forms, narrative content and ‘practices that surround their production and reception.’” (229) Doss points out that these affective experiences do not foreclose possibilites of social or personal transformation, but we need to understand “how and why (and which) feelings shape historical moments, concepts of citizenship, and understandings of self and national identity.” She argues that we need to understand how they work to mobilize and maintain contemporary American war memory.

WWII was always celebrated as the Great War and memorialization began almost immediately. Doss details many projects over the years, but focuses primarily on the WWII memorial on the National Mall. She discusses the many contributors and the design, noting its imperialist qualities. Doss contends that “the National World War II Memorial is not simply to say ‘thank you’ to the ‘greatest generation’, but to dramatically reconfi gure contemporary understandings of national purpose and identity. Its privileged location in America’s capital city helps promote its cause.” (240) Surprisingly, Doss shows that not everyone supported the building of this memorial. Some veterans thought that it ruined the Mall. (242) Other veterans felt like they were trying to erase the “dangerous memory” of the Vietnam War.

Doss ends by stating, “Framed by saying ‘thank you’ to the ‘greatest generation’, the National World War II Memorial is a blatant example of the manipulative dimensions of war memory.”

Posted in 20th century America, commemoration, journal articles, material culture, memorials, military, tourism, Vietnam War

Collective Remembering through the Materiality and Organization of War Memorials

Beckstead, Zachary, Gabriel Twose, Emily Levesque-Gottlieb, and Julia Rizzo. “Collective Remembering through the Materiality and Organization of War Memorials.” Journal of Material Culture 16, no. 2 (2011): 193-213.

In this article, the authors use the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located in Worcester, MA to explore how the various memorial ‘objects’ guide the way the memorial is experienced, understood, and related to. They question the socially mediated meanings inscribed or encoded in the war memorial to see how they relate to messages about the war. In particular, they examine how these material and symbolic objects evoke feelings as part of the meaning-making process.

Citing foundational memory scholars such as Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora, the authors make the case that social and individual memories meet through interacting with forms of objectified memory as can be found in memorials and monuments. War memorials, in particular, work to perpetuate remembrance through incorporating “hard, long-lasting materials such as concrete, brick and mortar.” (195) Traditionally, war memorials emphasize themes of ‘honor’, ‘sacrifice’, and ‘common good’, which offers some form of redemption and meaning for the loss of life. War memorials become sites of memory “where national and social myths are mapped and group and individual identities are created.” (196) Through pilgrimage and commemorative rituals, visitors imbue memorials with personal and social meaning.

Feelings play a large role in the meaning-making process. The authors show that even though each visitor has a personal reaction, that response is regulated through cultural quotes and symbols that are familiar to the visitor, for example, “freedom is not free.” In the case of the Vietnam War Memorial in Massachusetts, or any other memorial to the Vietnam War, society has not come to full agreement that the loss of life was worth the cost. (201) The authors then discuss the Vietnam Memorial Wall designed by Maya Lin and the public’s initial and later responses to it followed by a fuller discussion of how the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial works to make meaning.

The way the memorial is constructed enables individual identity to be subsumed within the larger socially mediated discourse, “overwhelming the perceiver, wstrengthening a culturally prescribed emotional response.” (206) The authors claim this memorial was designed to provoke a cathartic experience to allow healing. Monuments promote a particular narrative and social order, memorials offer a more therapeutic experience. (210)

Posted in gender studies, immigrants, law, marginalization, sexuality

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

Canaday, Margot. The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Margot Canaday is a legal and political historian at Princeton University whose teaching interests include gender and women’s history, the history of sexuality, and American political and legal history.  Her first book, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, won seven major awards from a diverse group of organizations, including the Organization of American Historians, the American Political Science Association, the Association of American Law Schools and the Lambda Literary Foundation.  The central argument of the book is that “homosexual identity and modern citizenship crystalized…in tandem with the rise of the federal bureaucracy.”[1] Canaday argues that both identities (citizen and homosexual) are not only configured through state bureaucracy, but that both identities have been formed against one another.

Canaday examines three key areas of government control (immigration, the military, and welfare) to demonstrate how federal enforcement of sexual norms developed simultaneously with the rise of American federal bureaucracy.  Two chapters are dedicated to each of these three arenas, providing a comprehensive analysis of the denial of citizenship to gay people through immigration, military, and welfare policies.[2]  These policies “established individuals who exhibited gender inversion or engaged in homoerotic behaviour as either outside of or degraded within citizenship.”[3]

The Bureau of Immigration, which was established in 1895, was one of the earliest federal agencies concerned with homosexuality, according to Canaday.[4]  Immigration officials “lumped together aliens who exhibited gender inversion, had anatomical defects, or engaged in sodomy as degenerates.  Degeneracy was a racial and economic construct that explained the ‘immorality of the poor.”[5]  This identification was used to deny or deport poor people, single women (no husband or provider), and people of color, who were believed to be “primitive” and therefore “especially inclined toward perversion.”[6]

Canaday researched a wide variety of primary government sources, including court case testimony and official correspondences, immigration records, Veterans Administration records, and Congressional records.  Secondary resources included medical journal articles and books.

The arguments in this book most closely relate to arguments presented in Impossible Subjects.   Ngai shows how immigration laws were used as a tool for exclusion through the development of the new status of “illegal alien” and how these laws produced racialized identities.  Canaday shows how immigration, military, and welfare policies co-produced identities of homosexual and citizen.  But Ngai does not include an analysis of gender in her discussion, whereas gender is central to Canaday’s argument.

[1] Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), 255.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 20n.3.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Ibid., 29.