All posts tagged “historiography

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The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (1951-1953)

foundation-trilogy-by-isaac-asimovThis semester I’m teaching a class called “The Uses of History,” where students read works of literature that in some way are informed by specific historical events, and produce such texts themselves. (The secret of the class is that there aren’t any works of literature that aren’t informed by specific historical events. This secret generally becomes an open secret around week two or three, if all goes according to plan.)

When I teach this class, I find I think surprisingly often of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I first came across the Foundation Trilogy when I was, I think, in junior high or maybe high school, and I found it the same way I found most everything I read before I left home from college, by picking through my father’s inexhaustible book shelves. Most of those books came from a book distribution warehouse where my father worked summers as a college student. Unsold books were sent back to the warehouse and their covers were torn off so they couldn’t be resold. I’ve never really understood how the system was supposed to work, but I guess the basic idea was that it was easier and more economical to render the books unsellable than it was to ship them back to wherever they’d come from. So most of my father’s library consisted of coverless classic paperbacks, from Augustine to Xenophon. But I remember that the Asimov had a cover. My dad must have paid for that one.

When I think of The Foundation Trilogy, it’s usually because of the narrative and thematic significance of a single character, known as “the Mule.” In the novels, a great galactic empire comprising thousands of worlds and billions of people is slowly collapsing. A team of talented social scientists known as “psycho-historians,” led by a man named Hari Seldon, can see this end coming, and can mathematically predict that millennia of bedlam, ignorance, and despair will follow it. Through unfathomably sophisticated sociological calculations, they devise a plan – the Seldon Plan – which will limit this dark age to a mere handful of centuries, after which a fresh civilization – the Second Empire – will rise. Asimov’s is an Enlightened technocratic fantasy of the purest type. The Seldon Plan represents the idea that science and rationality can – will! must!– solve the problems of chaos and pain. The drama of the novels resides in the unfolding of the Seldon Plan, and the frequent threats to its success. The greatest of these threats is the appearance of the Mule.

The Mule doesn’t look like much. When we first meet him, he’s presented as a disfigured and simpering clown. But he has a slight mutation which enables him to subtly bend the mental processes of others, and this capability permits him to conquer worlds, amass a great deal of power, and build casinos. (OK, the “build casinos” part was a joke, but it should be noted that the Mule chooses Kalgan, a vacationer’s planet with a strong resemblance to Atlantic City, as his capital.) Now to be sure, a petty warlord taking over a few planets is generally no big deal; such contingencies are well within the capacious and complex calculations of the Seldon Plan. But the psycho-historians soon come to realize, to their horror, that the Plan has not factored in the kind of mutant disruption the Mule represents. His appearance was wholly unpredictable and unpredicted, and the entire Plan is thus at risk of unraveling.

We humans have a compulsive habit of trying to impose narrative coherence on sequences of historical events, but such rationalizations, as the historiographer Hayden White has argued with such eloquence, are untrustworthy at best, and dangerously seductive at worst. They are inevitably influenced by (or even determined by) underlying ideological or moral assumptions and values, and are engineered to reassure us that the progress of history is orderly and tends toward coherence. It’s common, for example, for people to say that the Allies defeated the Axis powers in World War II because in the end, good must triumph over evil. Or that the Roman Empire fell because its people became lazy, decadent, and complacent. Those are satisfying stories. But history isn’t a story. The Mule represents for me, and reminds me, that any narrativization of history (or rationalization, or Seldonization, if you like), is always imminently and immanently subject to a jolt of the unpredictable, irrational, or perverse. This is such an important reminder that the character of the Mule has become a rather important totem for me, despite the fact that I haven’t read these books since I was a kid.

Last month I decided to finally re-read the novels, and I’m glad to report that The Foundation Trilogy has held up wonderfully both as an entertainment and as a fertile ground for historiographical musings. I highly recommend it. Remember, though, that it is itself a story, not a history. Don’t let the fate Asimov assigns the Mule lead you into intellectual temptation. The good guys aren’t necessarily fated to win. The most intelligent and rational choices don’t always prevail. Against all reason, people are very frequently willing, even eager, to act against all reason. “The fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” Adorno and Horkheimer. My favorite Modernist catch-22. The better we get at rationalism, the better we get at madness.

On election night, Wendy had a bunch of women over to the house to watch the returns. Several of them brought their daughters. Someone made cookies with Hillary Clinton’s campaign logo embossed in frosting on them. The scene in the living room was noisy and chaotic, and I went upstairs to read the last few chapters of The Foundation Trilogy in my room, thinking I’d come down around the time polls closed in the Midwest, to share the champagne and – I was really looking forward to this, more than I’d even admitted to myself – to watch those mothers be with their daughters and those daughters be with their mothers. Instead, the Mule. I’m only surprised that I was surprised.

 

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Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt (2010)

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Great movie to watch the same week you discuss Hayden White’s “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” with a room full of smart graduate students. (I know: I have the best job ever.)

A group of settlers are headed for Oregon territory in their covered wagons. We think we know this history, because we know its story, and we know the story largely through the movies. There will be challenges — broken axles, hostile Indians, typhoid, etc. — but the wagon will eventually come over a crest, and the sun will rise over the fertile valley awaiting the plough and cross.

Except in this story, the narrative literally takes a fork. The settlers’ hired guide, Stephen Meek, diverts the group from the “main stem” seeking a short cut. After several weeks, the settlers (and, crucially, we too) become unsure about the trajectory of their narrative. Are they headed toward the expected climax, or have they gotten into a story that is all middle, with no end at all? In their confusion and anxiety, they reject Meek, their professional guide, because the story he’s telling no longer conforms to their narrative expectations. Meek reminds me of Asimov’s Mule. He not only disrupts this particular story’s predicted arc, he calls into question the possibility of narrative closure in general.

Reichart has the great good sense to let her “story” stop rather than conclude; any ending, happy or sad or surprising or reassuring or anything else, would have wrecked this movie’s accomplishment. This is a radical gesture for a western, since the politics of the genre’s narrative conventions usually demand resolution. What we have here is something that approaches a non-narrative representation of a historical reality, and, following Hayden White, perhaps a representation that thus avoids moralizing as well.

The other interesting conversation to have about this movie concerns the roles of women and men; if I weren’t in such a historiographical frame of mind this week that’s probably what I would have led with.

Oh, and I’d like to say just one other thing and then I really have to quit, everyone said this was like a Terrence Malick movie. I think that’s really shallow. Reichart’s deliberateness is rooted in completely different motivations than Malick’s. And no one gets to own a penchant for golden hour light on calico.

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Black Mass, Scott Cooper (2015) & Spotlight, Tom McCarthy (2016)

635909929539022067311335242_11201558_ori imagesWhen Wendy’s out of town I’ll do double-features — when she’s around I feel too embarrassed to sit in front of the TV for four hours straight. Last night’s theme: “STAY AWAY FROM BOSTON!”

But seriously, I appreciated that both of these movies, each based on actual events, are as much (or in the case of Spotlight, more) about the process of uncovering and covering “the story” as they are about the stories themselves. They’re as much historiographical as they are historical, in that both movies acknowledge, even insist, that the “true story” is largely inaccessible, that the truth of exactly what happened is changeable and changing. The church and city officials who were able to convince themselves they were acting in the best interests of the church while abetting child abuse; the FBI agents who believed they were fighting crime by permitting crime; in both stories we see how easy it is for a person’s narrative of their own actions to go off the rails.

And in both cases, it’s Boston Globe journalists who feature as the heroes to bump those narratives back into line with the dictates of civil society. Hooray print journalists! Too bad you’re doomed.

Final note: I can’t fully recommend Black Mass, which features a good deal of unnecessary graphic violence. We get it, the guy’s a psychopath; there’s no need to lavish so much time and attention on closeups of him strangling people to death. More than once! A less tawdry director would have spent more time on the really very interesting and complicated relationships between the main characters and less on the gore.