Archive for the ‘intellectual history’ Category

Usable Pasts

June 21, 2013

Much of history—emphasis on story and, yes, too often it does still belong to a him—is not about what actually happened, but what it is useful to tell ourselves happened. Here is an exemplary and well-told NYT story about the collapse of a “usable past” which had held in place in postwar Italy for decades. What held it in place was the degree to which it served the myth that, during WWII, most of Italy—its institutions and its mostly heroic individuals—resisted the worst encroachments of the Nazis.

Once you start seeing much of official/national/textbook history as driven at least in part by this search for a usable past—think: World War Two was fought to save the Jews; Rosa Parks was just a tired black woman looking for a place to sit down; Reagan ended the Cold War—it can function in the manner of a key to unlock what’s most fascinating about the unknowable past: the role it plays in our present.

Image below: the bed of Procrustes. Should the legs of the bed’s proposed occupant prove too long, they would be rudely shortened in order to fit the fixed dimensions.


beards, armpits, eyebrows

September 12, 2006


Highly recommended New Yorker article. I’d create a category for it called “the social-anthropology of everyday life” but then that seems a tad long-winded.


‘On January 30, 1937, a letter to the New Statesman and Nation announced that Darwin, Marx, and Freud had a successor—or, more accurately, successors. “Mass-Observation develops out of anthropology, psychology, and the sciences which study man,” the letter read, “but it plans to work with a mass of observers.” The movement already had fifty volunteers, and it aspired to have five thousand, ready to study such aspects of contemporary life as:

Behaviour of people at war memorials.
Shouts and gestures of motorists.
The aspidistra cult.
Anthropology of football pools.
Bathroom behaviour.
Beards, armpits, eyebrows.
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.
Funerals and undertakers.
Female taboos about eating.
The private lives of midwives.

New Yorker article

Link to the author of the article’s blog with more information and links on Mass-Observation (and further down a great slideshow of Walker Evans’ photos) and a nod to the humble toilings of your very own didactique. First we take Manhattan…


sontag on sontag

September 11, 2006


31 December, On Keeping a Journal. Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts — like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.

NYT magazine

truly, a great read

September 9, 2006

marx.giftake the time for this one, though it won’t require overmuch. vintage tony judt, and for those of you who’ve been following along, this time perhaps offering a slightly more balanced appraisal of the foibles of the left. (can i say “our” left? we all are on the same side here, n’est-ce pas?) deeply informed intellectual history, superbly written – agile, lively, considered, all of that. a fair bit to say too about that old question of “where are we today?”