“The past,” John Lewis Gaddis wrote in The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, “is something we can never have.” As a moment shifts from present to past it becomes completely inaccessible to us. We cannot relive the moment. Nor can we recreate it as it was. We can only represent it. Where we stand, the lenses we view it through, and the moment from which we ‘paint’ it all exert an influence on the final product.
Maps are a fine example of this. The image above is a detail of the Catalan Atlas. Commissioned by a European ruler, it was intended to extend the usable knowledge of landmasses and peoples beyond the narrow maps of the day. Drawn in 1375, it lacks the precise measurements and topography of one of our modern maps, but surely you can see the familiar outline of the north African coast. It also highlights the extreme wealth of Mansa Musa, ruler of Mali, and makes note of his trek to Mecca and his pilgrimage’s impact on the region (his trading and philanthropy flooded the market with gold, devaluing the precious metal and creating economic turmoil in Egypt). The end result is an image of the past that is both literal and abstract.
This largely represents what most professional historians try to do– take data from the past, knowledge of that world, and apply new lens (or questions) to them to create this particular generalization. But it fails to catch the messiness of what Benedetto Croce called “living history.” Carl Becker called it “the ideal series of events that we affirm and hold in memory, since it is so intimately associated with what we are doing and with what we hope to do.” In essence, it is the sort of history people encounter in the world around them.
Rather than thinking of history as a landscape painting or a map, I think of it as a river. Like water, our memories of the past are fluid and ever changing. Zoom in to observe the the fine details over a long enough period of time and you’ll see how the river wore down a mighty boulder. Stand back further and you’ll see how the river cut new routes in the landscape, altered local flora and fauna, or was forced into a new direction by some act of nature or man.This tension between the particular and the general, the literal and the abstract, the local and the global lies at the heart of all human expression. As with the landscape or map, the outcomes and patterns remain dependent on both place and time. But the river is dynamic! Time flows on, forever forward, so slowly that we barely recognize it, yet so powerfully that our landscape is constantly transformed. We find ourselves grappling not only with the particular and the general, but with both the past and the future as well. A river guide may be a less sexy analogy than a painter or cartographer, but you’d definitely rather have the $100 a day river guide leading you down a class five rapid than the world’s greatest map-maker or artist. And this sort of gritty, practical history is what I practice.
To that end, friends and colleagues have pushed me for sometime to start a blog. And frankly, my own position on the duty academics owe society to serve as public intellectuals more or less demands it. Some people are generally interested in my thoughts and writings– and I am humbled by their support. Others probably just want me to stop cluttering up their social media feeds with my brain dumps. I’m so sorry for interrupting your jealousy inducing voyeurism with all my talk of black people, gay rights, feminism, and contemporary politics. I’ll try to stick to impossibly pretty pictures of my travels and the food I eat from now on.
More seriously, I’ve resisted developing a space for my writing, for a multitude of reasons. Primarily, I’ve just been really busy. Moving cross-country (twice), jumping back and forth between publishing and higher education, and carving out a niche for myself as a leader in digital learning has been pretty time consuming. Though things really haven’t slowed down, I feel compelled to dive in.
After all, time and tide wait for no man.
So here I am. My interests don’t lend themselves to a static timeline, so neither will my blog. When something big happens that intersects with my interests and knowledge, I’ll try to add historical context and thought to the conversation. As pieces of my research begin to make sense to me I’ll leave them here for people to look at and mull over. When I fall down a rabbit hole, chasing some odd-end that I stumbled across I’ll show you the strange, messy work that goes into my basic knowledge development. And when my ego gets the best of me, I’ll post my oh-so-important thoughts, philosophies, and advice here.
Welcome to my little corner of the internet.