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Thinking on (Virtual) Paper

I have always tended to my 'active thinking' by writing - when I had a 'real' job my files were always among the fattest in the office because I wrote reams and reams of stuff, including daft messages to myself.  This had the advantage that tracing back through development of work was easy but does mean that somewhere recorded for posterity are some of my more inane comments.  I also do a lot of 'passive thinking' where I go off and do something else leaving my subconscious to mull over things, which is fine except when it wakes me up in the wee small hours to tell me the answer- which I then have to remember until such time as I can write it down (I am too lazy to switch on lights and scribble at 3 a.m.!).

This is an example of the former and constitutes today's study hour.  I'm not sure it exactly relates to what I'm meant to be thinking about, but it comes out of my reading and I wanted to explore/record it before I forget it again.

Appleby et al in Telling the Truth About History speak of a 'melting pot' revisionist approach to rewriting American history and note that an alternative would be a 'colourful patchwork quilt.'  I wonder if there are other possiblilities? Either a woven fabric or a child's kaleidoscope?

The melting pot (which inevtiably sends a certain 1960's (?) song through my brain) basically seems to suggest that if you take all the various perspectives - white/black, rich/poor, male/female etc. and melt them all down you emerge with a kind of homogeneous history.  This assumes that there is 'one overall history' - a western, post-Enlightenment view of time and a broad sense that 'later is better' (i.e. the idea that progress is always forward in time).  It is an attractive idea but one that is easy to critique - it assumes that the various constituents can all be melted and that they will form at worst an amalgum and preferrably an alloy (I always knew my scientific background was essential!) with, presumably, minimal dross or that it can readily be burned/skimmed off.  It also seems to assume that there is one single mould into which the resultant melt is poured and allowed to harden.  Of course, the advantage of this model is that if you decide the mould you have chosen is 'wrong' you can melt it all down again and pour it into a new mould - changing a castle into a rabbit or some such!  And presumably as more raw material comes along (new events, ideas etc) the whole thing needs periodic remelting and moulding (in a 'bigger' mould?) and each process will lose a small amount of what has gone before.  Whilst I have some sympathy with this image - and a sense that at some level there is an overarching and growing 'commodity' of 'history' I am not sure that trying to consolidate it into one neat block is necessarily helpful, if indeed possible.

The patchwork quilt is a very American image, and probably a feminine one at that.  What it is basically saying is that if you piece all the bits together as they stand, you emerge with something that is colourful and has a surprising beauty.  The individual colours and patterns are still discernible within the whole.  It is again an image that is appealing but limited.  My own experience of patchworking was of carefully selecting colours that would 'go' reasonably well together and then cutting prices to some pre-determined shape - hexagons or 'log cabin' rectangles being those I recall.  Eventually the quilt (or other item) reaches the size you desire and you add a border to contain the whole.  Piecing together histories isn't that neat - the colours/designs may not 'go', the pieces vary in shape and size, and the edges are far from tidy.  A 'good' patchwork needs to be created with some sense of structure/order - how are the pieces of history arranged in the patchwork to form a coherent and meaningful result?  Who decides what goes where and how it is trimmed to fit?  What are the boundaries.  In extremis, such a view could be taken to a level of total individualism where each person's history is distinct and simply laid alongside those of others - the sense of 'interconnectedness' is lost, with ideas/experiences simply set alongside each other.  In common with the melting pot there is a sense of a finite (if growing) body of history, the difference is that there is no attempt to synthesise a single view, other than the view that says it's a patchwork.

So is there an alternative?  I'm sure there are many, but the two that came to mind immediately were of a woven fabric and of a child's kaleidoscope.  Neither is perfect but each offers some thoughts on how to approach the polyvocality of history in a way that acknowledges boundaries and finitude without becoming either the single monochrome steel or jelly of the melting pot or the potentially individualistic patchwork.

The woven fabric (not the 'tapestry' of a 1970's (?) song) is a well established image and one which can be readily critiqued - what is chosen as the weft and warp, who decides etc. - but which seems to me to combine some of the better attributes of both the melting pot and patchwork quilt ideas.  Like the melting pot, it endeavours to take all the bits and combine them into one new thing.  As the strands are woven together the resulting fabric has texture and colour, some sort of design influenced by the weaver (think of checks, plaids, houndstooth etc) but the individual colours and strands can still be distinquished and, if desired, removed.  I like the old Islamic story of the Persian carpet-maker who makes a design and then makes a deliberate error because only Allah can create perfection; the craftsperson then labours to work the error into the whole so that only an expert can detect it ever existed.  Creating a historical fabric includes deliberate errors, concealed by powerful or influential writers, but that doesn't stop the overall exercise being worthwhile and helpful.  More likely is accidental errors or omissions that need to be repaired if the fabric is to be as good as possible.  Images of Asian carpet makers who only see the back of the carpet are now familiar; English weavers sat at the foot of a giagantic loom and could only see a small protion of what they were creating: both images remind me that the writer of history cannot see the whole 'big picture' but works on the part they can see to the best of their ability.

The kaliedoscope is an image/metphor I first encountered in looking at models/images of church (Kinnear?)  This way of looking at history is more like the patchwork model but does not need to be quite so tidy.  Although there are clear boundaries within which the chips of coloured glass may be rearranged, there are no rules on how they are arranged.  Further the chips are not just diffent colours but different sizes and shapes; as the child (or adult!) twists and turns the toy, the chips move to form different patterns.  This is a very postmodern image!  In extremis, of course, it means that any way of mixing and matching history is valid, and that may well not be true, since there are n! ways of combining n 'ideas', discounting orientation and other factors (just showing off a bit of maths there!).

What all of the images/models do is try to find a way of accommodating all (? some) different 'histories' within a framework that might be conceivable or workable.  Each has some strengths and weaknesses and I'm not sure that any is necessarily superior or inferior.  The 'melting pot' assumes that some homogeneous world history is possible, and instinctively at some 'high' or 'overall' level I feel this is valid.  The patchwork quilt reminds us that the homogenisation process loses the sharp relief and keen insights that are found by retaining cultrual, racial, gendered etc, distinctives but runs the risk of promoting a very individualised approach.  The woven fabric seems to combine the strengths of each of these - albeit with its own weaknesses - affirming the place of particular distinctives within an overall whole.  The kaliedesope shows how a less rigid 'shape' approach can be helpful but also adds a note of caution about simply combining things indifferent ways - they may be beautiful or attractive, but are they helpful?

Not sure this advances the understanding of anything, but has taken an hour to type and helps me to think a bit more about what I've been reading.

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