Mar. 13th, 2010

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I do know that “who would win, a viking or a samurai?” is an inane question. Any time I’ve actually used counterfactuals in my teaching, I’ve tried to raise subtler issues. That said, “who would win”’s very inanity makes it an easy, grabby, natural conversation starter. I’ve had several conversations since Wednesday about vikings and samurai–more, certainly, than I’ve had about Tuesday’s post on history and narrative. I’ve even been pointed to a hilarious TV show called Deadliest Warrior, which devoted an entire episode to the great viking vs. samurai debate! And the wide range of people with whom I’ve had these conversations–from a 3-year-old to a professor of Asian history–suggests to me that even silly questions can scale to accommodate multiple levels of historical knowledge.

One thing I don’t love about the “who would win” question is the way it tilts the playing field towards military history and the history of technology–worthy subjects, but hardly the only histories worth talking about. It seems like alternate history almost always ends up using the old school, Boy’s Own flavors of history–military, political, technological. I talked about this in the coda to Gernsblack, which was a stab at alternate cultural history (with a crazy technological deus ex machina, I admit). This is going to sound like total name dropping–insufferable to people who know who she is, pointless and nerdy to people who don’t–but I had a great conversation once with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich about whether you could write alternate social history, alternate gender history, alternate material culture history, and so on. I think I almost had her sold on the idea, but I also think she is very good at humoring people.

So here’s another demonstration question, not much more complicated than “who would win?”

When and where would you rather have lived: 18th-century France, 15th-century China, 8th-century Ghana, or 1st-century Rome? What would your life there have been like?

Obviously you can swap in other times and places if you like. As with “who would win,” the question is deceptively deep. As soon as you start discussing it, you’re talking about social history, material culture, and the history of everyday life. One of the first things anyone considering this had better ask is, “What would I be? Can I be born a noble or a queen, or do I have to be some kind of peasant or slave?” And whatever the answer, now you’re talking about class and hierarchy. You’re also thinking comparatively. Whose lot was tougher: the poorest tenth of the world’s population before the industrial revolution or the poorest tenth today?

For a follow-up question you could ask: “if we asked the same question to somebody living in 18th-century France, 15th-century China, etc., what do you think they would answer?” Many of us living in the 21st century would probably choose on the basis of material comfort, and so find most earlier eras wanting. But would that be a universal choice across time? What other criteria might other times and cultures use? Are we certain that the sum total of human happiness has never been higher than it is in 2010?

This question’s grabbiness comes from the second-person pronoun–it’s not “which is better,” it’s “would you rather”–which pulls you in to imagine yourself in history. This is a staple of history at play. Think of reenactors, roleplayers, historical romance readers. It’s also almost totally illegitimate in serious history, much more so than counterfactuals. Niall Ferguson can edit a collection of alternate histories and it merely burnishes his hunky teledon credentials. But don’t hold your breath for the anthology about, say, Patricia Limerick at the Alamo or Tony Grafton’s fantasy life as a Renaissance magus. I’m not saying I really want to read that anthology, but I have no problem with leveraging the roleplay instinct for history teaching and fun.

If you’re getting the idea that what I mean by “playful” historical thinking is known by many as “bad” historical thinking, go to the head of the class.

[Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]

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