No History To Speak Of, No Place To Speak From

I often come across many authors and thinkers in my reading who argue writing their own history is an emancipatory practice. In other words, they believe that taking control of the narrative of their past is the first step in creating their own distinct identity, which allows for the development of a particular social and political philosophy.

I understand this argument. The violence of empires leaves us no other choice but to rip the pen from the hand of imperial historians and give it to the people who have been brutalized. Lions writing histories while telling the hunters to take a hike, and all that jazz. But for me, personally, I’ve never felt that way about my own personal history. In many ways, it terrifies me.

Why? Because, I suppose, I see writing down my own history as freezing the fluidity of who I am. Histories have a troubling tendency to become established tributaries to the present moment. Small streams to artificial lakes.

Who are we? We are the rapids in one time period coming to a rest. We are the foam of a particular waterfall easing back into the water. We are waves from someone else’s stone being skipped across the surface. We are change over time.

So, by hiding who our past selves are, by grounding ourselves in the present and in our future hopes, we don’t become the descendants of someone else, the sum at the end of a mysterious mathematician’s equation. We become the birthplace for a new era.

I am fully aware that this is a contradiction.

I’m a historian who feels more comfortable racing to the future than walking in the past. Is this just “white guilt”? Possibly. A good portion of my own collective history is one of being a direct descendant of colonists. Europeans, (some willing, many reluctant), were removed from one continent to work on another. I remember first reading about this history in graduate school. Historians like Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker challenged the older narratives I had been told. Many of my white ancestors had not come for “opportunity.” Instead, it was a longer history of forcing people out into the Atlantic World to create new profit for the newly emerging global capitalist system.

But, despite that, we were still colonists. We were the people who moved into areas, violently pushing others out of their homes and land.

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Growing up everyone, and I mean literally everyone, told people in my generation to get an education so we could transcend our socio-economic status.

We should be doctors, lawyers, educated elite people who didn’t have to work in the service industry, one of the last reliable ways of life in mountain towns and cornfield villages.

And some of us did just that. But the further we went with our education and the more we learned, the more we became alien to the very culture that produced us. Didn’t matter that Appalachia had produced its fair share of artists, thinkers, writers, teachers, and scientists (not to mention politically radical movements).

Ohio rural culture had swallowed the Kool-Aid. We were “hillbilly proud”! Our collective poverty not a social problem, but a feature that made us “more honest.” Apparently being on welfare, with poor health care, while white and with cows around you, made you some kind of “noble frontiersman.” Funny, since the same people who argued this thought being in the inner city, with darker skin, and the same socio-economic status, somehow made you a “social degenerate.” This was an attitude shared by both rural whites and many cultural elites. Better to be a “Son of the Earth.” It made you somehow more “honest and hardworking,” I guess.

Is it any wonder then that so many people from rural white communities end up feeling alienated from the very culture that produced them? When your entire education is predicated on the hope that you will “escape,” education and thoughtful expression cease to be the natural elements of that society, and instead become a rocket ship that is constantly struggling to break the gravitational pull of the past.

We create a situation that views a connection with the past as a failure, because conscious, educated understanding is supposed to leave that society once attained. It is the very foundation of the philosophy “get an education, and get out.”

Appalachians and small town Midwest denizens internalize this feeling, creating a popular cultural expression enslaved to the past, conservative in all respects.

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“Do you refer to Christian thought and belief as mythology in your classrooms?” I asked my friend Podge over coffee one day.

We had been having a conversation about one of the textbooks used in one of the introduction classes at Purdue. He was angry because the text had referred to Christian belief as “Christian mythology.” It was a swipe at the validity of religion, in his opinion.

I disagreed, but understood where he was coming from. It is hard to climb in the head of textbook authors, but anyone who knows anything about the scholarship around textbooks knows that they are as much historical documents as the documents we use to inform the textbooks in the first place.

Referring to Christian belief as “mythology” could be, and probably should be, read within the broader historical context of the so-called “Culture Wars” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, where cultural conservatives and social liberals duked it out for dominance in educational materials. In that context there was “scientific fact” and “cultural belief.” Science equaled “truth,” while cultural belief, that is mythology, was synonymous with “fantasy.”

Podge told me as much. “Wes, science with its belief in unending, continuous progress is as much a myth as any system of religious beliefs.”

I didn’t disagree, but I told him, I thought the real issue was with the scientific materialists corrupting the word “mythology.”

“Myths shouldn’t be synonymous with ‘fake,’” I said. “Myths are just cultural stories we, as societies, tell ourselves to organize our universe. It gives us meaning because it claims to know where we came from, and where we are going.”

It is why I personally do refer to Christian belief as “Christian mythology” in classrooms. But I do so while trying to make my students understand that mythology is not interchangeable with “lies.”

It is not an easy thing to accomplish. In order for people to fully understand that Christianity is as much a system of mythology as Greek religious thought, or Norse belief, they have to first understand that everything we think as humans is historically constituted. There is no system of thought that is either permanent or forever-true.

Sorry, Plato. There are no absolute forms. Just historically constructed variations of ideas dependent on a time period. What is true in one era is false in another. What is basic common sense in one era is utter gibberish in another.

But, this is hard to understand. Why? Because the system of thought we currently live under is a powerful ideology. That’s a byproduct of the hegemonic power of modernity.

“Science” is one way of understanding our place in the cosmos. It orders the world, is open to change, and spins off both beautiful and often terrifying human creations. But science is not the only way of understanding human existence. Furthermore, it only exists if a culture believes in conceptions of historic progress, materialist reality, and human ability to accurately measure and observe said reality. That supposed “truth” is actually a house of clouds shifting through time. It will not always be with us. It will eventually change to the point that the new system of thought that comes from it no longer resembles the previous. Science, as a system of belief, actually is fully capable of understanding this feature of its existence. Evolution, one of the major achievements in thought for science, demonstrates this aspect of our shared reality.

We continually change until we are no longer that thing we used to be.

“Mythology” (categorized as a previous society’s way of understanding) is another way we do this. Myths are the cultural stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our ancestors, and our future generations. It gives us meaning because it connects us with a collective past and common future.

Hercules slays the Hydra. Pandora opens a box. Nudists eat forbidden fruit. Prophets speak to gods. Gods visit wrath on people.

All of these communicate, a universe where humans are just a part of the cosmos. Often, they are not the most powerful in the story. They have choices, to be sure, but that choice is not radically free. Choices lead to new situations, which creates new conditions, which influences future states.

This is the basic principle of historic social change. We are the products of people and forces before us, not just our ancestors, but also large cosmological forces. We don’t pick our past, and we are only able to select a limited set of options for the future. Furthermore, simply because we choose and push for a certain social ordering, does not mean we will actually achieve it.

So, we walk about this world as modern actors with ancient understandings. We are a collage of various time periods.

Lincoln sits in a temple modeled off of Zeus.

Washington is remembered with an obelisk.

The so-called “canon wars” continue to rage in vital ways. Who we collectively deem as our legitimate authors for our civilization determines not only how we talk about ourselves, but it informs how we literally build the intellectual stage for our possible future actions.

It is why that argument of people writing their own histories is so important. Who we deem ourselves to be, and who argues that self-identity is the future’s beliefs, an eventual present’s truth, a probable past’s mythology.

Myths are powerful and they are important. Those stories matter.

But even as I understand this, I find it difficult to write about the past, present, and future of the culture that produced me. Much of what I’ve been told in my life says that in order to produce something worthwhile I should not focus on the factors that created me. Instead, I should look to another’s ideals. Not an archaeologist’s pick and shovel, but an astronaut’s star charts and rocket fuel.

Get out, don’t come back, escape and make a better life for yourself.

This is only complicated by the twin irrational argument that to do the very thing my education was supposed to do is to become arrogant, a know-it-all, an alien in one’s own home world.

What is my collective mythology, then? What orders the subset of the culture I come from?

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A few weekends ago my partner and I went home for a weekend visit. As we pulled off the highway I looked out the window at the valley farms, and changing landscape. Buildings I had known as a young person were beginning to decay and fall in on themselves. They were like collapsing black holes dotting the Ohio valley’s landscape, yet instead of gravity, history pulled them toward their destructive centers. Lack of funds and ability to keep up these 19th century homes and barns determined their fate. It was a perfect symbol for what I had been thinking about. History served as a point of destruction, violently pulling the past together until it was destroyed by its own weight. History did not radiate outward.

We drove past several older buildings and before pulling into my partner’s parent’s home, we saw a new barn being built by an Amish family. It was a sign that human civilization in this area would continue, but that it would look different from what we had known.

Perhaps that is just a common state of affairs for all people. But as we crossed the final stream to pull into our destination I thought about how that stream eventually led to the largest artificial lake in the area.

Back in 1937 the federal government had entered the area and drastically changed the landscape. Taking the various swamps and floodplains of the Ohio valley region, the New Deal organizations had flooded close to 3,000 acres of land creating “Seneca Lake.” It was one of the permanent features of my childhood. Every day to get to school involved a half an hour drive around that lake on a school bus.  

The New Deal, one of this nation’s most celebrated ventures into social democracy, had radically altered the landscape of our homes. If you ask most people, especially the tourists who come during the summers, the lake is one of the most beautiful features of the landscape. But we ignore this history, just like we ignore the radical coal miners who fought wars against corporate capital. We ignore this history and instead opt to believe that our area is essentially conservative. Bodies for the masses needed by reactionary movements. Such collective aspirations make people like me unreadable to their home culture. We are placed on starships and told to fly as fast as we can, and then are slightly scorned for doing so.

We drive around the floodplains of social democracy and grasp at what mythological figures we are. What mythological figures we could be. I suppose it will be determined by those who have the wherewithal to write about it.

 

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. There is a vast literature on sense of place and its link to our sense of history. For many, the entire practice of public history is grounded in place as means of preserving and saving community stories, developing tools to preserve and rebuild places in both educational and economically minded ways. Questions like what happened here, how did it happen, why did people come here, why do they stay, what grows here, and so forth are integral questions for historians that connect the particular and the local to the national and global as well as the structural and providing the grinding stone for the abstract theories that intellectuals use to try to explain things. Local history is essential to the success of the larger field of history, and academic historians ignore it at their own peril.

    Liked by 1 person

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