Wednesday 22 May 2013

Stuff and Dead People

In recent years I find myself using the terms Stuff and Dead People in talks and titles more and more.  And as a historian I find myself conceptualising my work as being about Stuff inherited from Dead People.  Both expressions just sound right.  But it occurs to me that while I have a relatively clear sense of what I am intending to convey when I use these terms, their meanings might not be entirely apparent to others.  For this reason I thought I would have a stab at providing a couple of definitions, and a brief explanation of why I find these terms so useful

In my usage Stuff encompasses all the different varieties of artefact that can be used in practising history.  The term is in some respects an attempt avoid saying that our object of study is text or image, the manmade landscape or a piece of furniture, or indeed even data in its broadest form.  Instead, the use of Stuff is intended to signify that my practise as a historian actively seeks to make use of all of these things.  In terms of an epistemology, it is an attempt to distance myself from the categories of knowing that I (we) have inherited.  Stuff denies the taxonomies of knowing that define a museum object as being different to a pamphlet; a hedgerow different to a  teapot.  In part this usage reflects a profound disillusion with the narrow practise of textual comparison that lies at the heart of the Rankean tradition of historical analysis; but it is also a recognition that new technologies allow us to encompass new types of evidence in new ways.  When all Stuff is data it can be interrogated across boundaries that seemed natural and unbreachable just a few decades ago (between a hedgerow and a teapot). And while data itself is also a form of Stuff, and the transition from varieties of stuff to data is itself a process of creating a new taxonomy, there remains a rather wonderful transition involved.  There is an opportunity to rethink the meanings of Stuff, and without a new vocabulary it is all that much more difficult to do so.

In other words, Stuff is a simple rejection of post-enlightenment categorisation.

In some respects Dead People serves a similar function.  The use of Dead People avoids the traps of both identity and social modelling; while at the same time giving some shape to the object of historical study (human culture in the past).  Ironically some Dead People are still alive.  Henry Kissinger is apparently still breathing, but is nevertheless a figure of substantial historical analysis.  In my view he is undeniably Dead People.  At the same time, because cultural history seems to take longer to turn journalism in to books, Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson may be dead, but they are not yet Dead People.

The term Dead People implies a refusal to describe the people of past as men or women, workers or citizens, artists or authors.  And in doing so, like Stuff, is used to signal that I do not find the traditional categories and boundaries that comprise social science very helpful.

Stuff we inherit from Dead People is my object of study as a historian. 

One could convey these ideas using other words.  The results might be a bit long winded, but could certainly point up my intention.  At the same time, the use of these terms serve a slightly wider function.  They form an attempt to de-centre the language of historical and social science authority that underpins the professional claims of academic historians as a whole.  By refusing to use the categories and languages of authority we inherited, I am self-consciously rejecting the systems that underpin the professional academic practise of history. 

It is perhaps a ridiculous comparison, but I like to think of the use of these terms as akin to the transition in thinking brought about by the evolution of labelling in quantum theory between the proposal of the eight-fold-way in the 1950s and the November Revolution of 1974.  Like most people of my generation and education, I was raised in an Einsteinian universe in which unusual phenomenon were described in the most secure of scientific jargon - we believed in the physics because it was expressed in the language of authority.  But in the 1970s, in particular, a whole new language of strangeness and charm was broadcast to a popular audience.  As a teenager schooled in an older tradition, this challenged me to rethink.  By using everyday words to describe complex phenomena I was forced to interrogate what I believed more closely than I would otherwise have done.  I don't understand quantum, but suspect I understand Einsteinian physics better as a result!   I use the terms Stuff and Dead People in the hope that their use will challenge listeners to question the labels and phenomena they think I am talking about.