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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Rewriting History in the Media Commons

writing of history Late last night I picked up Certeau's masterwork, The Writing of History (1975, en 1988), the tract where he set forth the rules for a new style of writing history.

I was in for the most exciting intellectual night of my graduate student life.

Certeau was writing from the Paris of the deconstructionists.  His text takes for granted the challenges to the perspective of the writer, and to the task of writing itself, being posed at that time by Barthes and Derrida.  He himself was a student of the Marxist polymath Henri Lefebvre, who argued that in the world of advanced capitalism, the city and all the material structures of everyday life were so rigidly constructed as to enforce patterns of consumption that it had become nearly impossible to interact, let alone to think or write, in any other form.  Intellectual Paris was electric with theories that challenged the basic forms of learning and writing in the West, pushing them past their traditions of institutionalizing psychic abuse, demanding revolutionary forms of them.

Among all of these authors, Certeau stood out as the most committed to the idea of History: to working out a means of looking at the past that would be of some real use to the present.  He was writing in the wake of May '68, in the role of a Jesuit turned Marxist, a man committed from several opposing directions to using learning on behalf of the liberation of the human soul from the strictures of institutional discipline. Certeau's task was to discern in the study of History a use for the purposes of overturning expertise and authority, for unlocking their hold on human consciousness.

The Writing of History is a call for History to investigate the origins of collective forms of thinking.  Certeau calls for History to escape from its original role in the 16th century, when it appeared as the tool of princes, an incipient political science attempting to teach the rulers better how to rule.  Setting aside questions of political strategy, historians will be able to open up questions about modern identity, modern myth-making, and new, modern forms of authority, like the expert.

Certeau's main concern is to point a new direction for his own field, religious history, reconstructing it as a study for the unquestioned principles, the unwritten religion of modern man.  He sets History up as an accomplice to Folklore, in its quest to ascertain shared structures of thinking that are taken for granted from the inside of the community. Expertise (and indeed the historian's expertise) are totems whose origins he wants History to decipher, in order to reveal them as fetishes to be unfixed. 

The vision of History's role in this was Revolution, and not the Revolution, was what transfixed me.  Relatively new to History as a discipline, I came to my field as a committed follower of the principles of liberation through reworking knowledge, which I'd found in Derrida and de Man.  I'd felt halfway suspicious from my first History seminars, even the ones taught by Berkeley heralds of the "cultural turn", when they turned immediately to questions of rule and polity rather than questions of culture and psychology.  In History the central problem of change over time constrains syllabi and writers still to acknowledge the actions of rulers, Parliaments, and authors; even those of us committed to deciphering the experience of the poor or arguing for the agency of unknown trneds like pornography have to acknowledge, constantly, how deeply structured and powerful the forces of authority are.  The historian's view of culture is tragic; culture is tragically riddled with the traces and abuses of authority. 

By highlighting the intimate relationship of History with power, Certeau fixed for me History's central role in rewriting the tools of understanding knowledge.  His call for a study of collective forms of thought is radical -- and gives a certain pure direction to my own work, constrained within the world of British Studies and a necessary focus on the means and results of rule.  But his call for unearthing the origins of expertise so as to overturn it is even more radical -- an extremely radical call for the historian's purpose.  What's more, it's prescient.

While Certeau's tools for unraveling power have to do with rewriting the focus of History, he's prophesying another, grander rewriting of expertise, one we're on the verge of seeing today.

Wikipedia is restructuring what it means to be an expert.   Experts on Wikipedia don't have to have degrees certified by any institutions; they do need discreet insight into a particular range of facts unknown to other people, and they need to be able to back up those facts with primary or reviewable secondary research.  As such, expertise on the New Commons is open to a wider range of experience, and thus a wider understanding of causality, than the discourse in any field to date. 

The Revolution in Expertise is different from a Revolution in Access.  Reading Wikipedia has an obvious fascination for culture hounds who want to know where every term comes from, and who knows who and how it all works; as Jerry Michalski keeps pointing out, we can look to Wikipedia redefining dinner table conversations between parents and children all over America.

But the true revolution is what happens when every skater, punk, redneck, and fundamentalist in America can tell each other what role popular music had on their own politics, and what sort of a sociology of American diversity comes out of that. 

The more tools we have where individual experts can press agency and causality out of their understanding, compare notes on the major causal factors, and redefine terms, the better for each of these parties to be heard -- the more they're going to be engaging each other on a high level, and the more they're going to be tempted to participate. 

That's going to mean a market for a fundamentally new set of tools -- not just the internet library where anyone can read anything, but a common flow-chart blackboard, where anyone can compare their notes on what's most fundamentally important in life with anyone.  Those are the deep questions, the reasons why we keep going to talk shows and Barbara Walters interviews with the Dalai Lama.  Now imagine we could take the causal assumptions, world view structures, and ideas about what's fundamentally important in life, and diagram and compare them.  Imagine doing that for the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and Osama bin Laden.  Imagine the crowd.  Imagine the billion points on which you could compare their thinking, the memes that would get discarded, and the memes that would survive.  Wouldn't you sort of like to be there to see? 

The tools are easy -- we have flowcharting material already, visual data comparisons galore.  But nobody's figured out how to package them away from their tools in management and marketing, into a world of common ideas.   

Further resources:

* A very good reading list of theory, which includes The Writing of History as well as a few of my other favorite books, by M. Sanchez Prado. 

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Blogger J said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:03 AM  
Blogger J said...

ps all the great ideas here about visualizing argument are, in fact, Jerry Michalski's. contact him ( to find out what tools exist and what they should look like. i'm just responsible for the history!

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was a pretty exciting day when I read de Certeau in graduate school in 1975 . . . history may be the tool of princes, or organized workers, or some high-rise housed cabal, but sometimes it can be the tool of the watchers--and as you say, of the listeners to popular music: see Colegrave and Sullivan's _Punk: The Definitive Record of a Revolution_. Happy New Year!

5:13 PM  
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