Sunday, July 10, 2011


Some contemporary disciplines, like history, have developed a horizontal split which is not quite between professional historians versus popular historians, but sort of related.  There are professional historians (mostly academic) who land on one side of this split and popular historians (often local) on the other.  I’m talking about those who think of the discipline in terms of content versus those who think of method, and particularly those who question method because it alters content.  This split plagues groups based on a specific field that is defined by subject matter, like the many historical societies.
The same is true of anthropology or certainly religion.  How you go at it determines what you find.  The simple awareness that there is more than one method tends to be outside the experience of many aficionados.  There is another pack of semi-outsiders who are after the monetary possibility of what information and value is generated by either or both levels.  These guys do not like change, because they bought low and intend to sell high.  Changes that do not work in favor of profit are discouraged.  In any case new results roil the water of what was once considered a nice backwater pool suitable for a gentleman to fly-fish.  Then there is the politics.
We need an example.  How about bordellos?  One of aforementioned gentleman traditional local historians, much admired by his fellow townspeople, is now proudly publishing a book about the last whorehouse in his small town.  My rude question to him was how he knew it was the last?  What, to his mind, qualified as a whorehouse?  What were the larger forces at work?  He quickly discovered obligations elsewhere.  What he had intended was simply a biography of a specific colorful woman and her presumed activity -- no agenda but the titillation.
If I had been even ruder than I was, I might have asked about the bordello’s actual paper trail, the madam’s business methods, the status and fates of her “girls,” and what the modern equivalent is since I doubt that pay-for-sex died out -- just morphed into a new form.  The point is that -- probably in part because of the age of the historian, whom I suspect sat through many an episode of “Gunsmoke” in his youth -- accepted a template of prostitution in the Old West that was heavily influenced by Miss Kitty.  (Irrelevant factoids:  in the 1980‘s an ex-priest in Montana ran a chain of porn bookstores called “Miss Kitty’s.”  Amanda Blake, the actress who played Miss Kitty, died of AIDS.)  That is, a sort of zesty adventure in the West with fancy costumes and pretty women.  Buckingham Books, a used book dealer in Spokane, nearly sank under the weight of the remaindered books on prostitution by one local author, which did include a LOT of authentic photos and research.  To what purpose was unclear.
Old West prostitution is not the subject of this post.  Rather the subject is the radical rethinking of many fields because of raised consciousness, partly from post-modern radical politics, partly because of the entry to the scene of minorities, and partly because of a whole new understanding of existence that arises from physics, biology and the study of human perception.  So many things that were considered a unity, like human identity, now stands revealed as a shifting construct: genetics playing against experience in the context of an environment always in process.  Do we look through the glass of economics, spirituality, human relationships, empires, or ecologies ?   Who is the authority now?  Must the authority come from an institution or is genetic and cultural participation enough?  Where is the line between actual and constructed?  IS there an actual?
Well, we just don’t know.  Ambiguity has us by the nape of the neck.  Some will react with increased tolerance and curiosity while others want the doors locked and the shades pulled.
Suppose one took on a traditional subject, say bordellos, and treated it in a post-modern way.  (Oh, the French have already done that?  Okay.  Just pretend you don’t know.)   If it were a gripping fiction tale (lots of action, suspense and detail) it would sweep through the nation.  So long as it continued to be labeled fiction.  But the author would not be taken very seriously.  What is often at stake in these ambiguities is the prestige of the author, the expert.  Somehow we have the idea that one of the tests of reality is that it is colorless, boring, or happened some other place -- like another country, another time (wartime), or maybe in outer space.  In the case of local enterprises, a problem may be a lack of -- well, I don’t want to call it sophistication but maybe a lack of awareness or too narrow a context.  Or maybe awareness that you’re talking about someone’s grandmother.  
In arguments about religion I find over and over that small town quasi-Christians think the only relevant aspect is God.  It is a nearly impossible task to get them to think of religion in any other way.  The new concepts of reality as interwoven, shifting, and cosmic do not exist for them.  Telling them there is no God is like telling them that they have no mother.  Inconceivable. (Pun intended.)  Many people like history because they think that the names of the heroes and the dates of the events are immutable.  It comes as a great surprise to them that John Adams thought that Independence Day should come on July 2 -- not the 4th.  They do not like the current fashion of mulling over whether Abraham Lincoln was a good man who acted idealistically, or a dubious melancholic who acted in his own interests.  And it remains a joke that Benjamin Franklin thought the national bird should be a turkey instead of a self-evident eagle.
I’m sensitive to these shifts of method because no field (except maybe sex) has been so redefined and reworked and revisioned as that of the indigenous people of the North American continent.  They themselves (however defined)  have been partly successful in wrenching control of the subject away from the historians, but the split between NA Angel and NA Demon remains.  It will not end until NA Ordinary Everyman is established and no one really wants that.  Yet.  Anymore than they want Ordinary Boring and Banal Bordello Madam who was someone’s great-grandmother.  Can nothing remain predictably and securely sacred?  It depends on who you are.

No comments: