Viewing the Past a Little Differently

A Favorite Subject of Mine: Our Past

I have had periods over the last 10 to 15 years when I stepped back from today’s politics or reading about the ins and out of human personality to get really, really interested in something about the past–something in both the “short” term past (our American history) or the long term past, not just our history–written about the times after the world had written languages and we had “records” and “documents” to consult–but about our pre-history, our civilization’s archaeology and paleontology.

Here is an example of some of the books about the past I purchased over the four year period just prior to us moving back into town (and when I got distracted and busy with some moving-related, renovation goings on):

Now I also purchased books on my hobbies and pastimes (fly fishing, painting, wildflowers, etc.), but what I wanted to go over more carefully was what in my reading had been about my interest in the lifestyles of human beings.

What I found in my reading habit–at least judged by what I was purchasing through Amazon.com–was that I was interested in what the differences were of human cultures in the past as well as today.  I was not interested in the more typical political/economic/”great man” histories of the past.  Yes, I had read about particular individuals (General Omar Bradley, for example), but I didn’t devote very much reading time to our historical past from that perspective.

What I also found out–and recently too–was that there is a school of historical thought that kind of parallels this aversion to “regular” histories on my part, and for a parallel reason: because this alternative view of the past focuses on histories “not of events such as battles or the actions of emperors and kings” but on total history, on “the outcome of longer-term political, social, economic and geographic structures.” That alternative view of the writing of history is the work of the 2oth century French historian Fernand Braudel (1902 – 1985) and mentioned here in a prologue to a review of the book about the 6 most important beverages of the world.

More Developmentally Anthropological than Historical

I think I can fairly summarize my reading about the past as being focused on ideas about how and why humanity’s variety of ways of living were created and maintained, how different collectives of human beings, different cultures, subcultures and groups found and processed the resources they had around themselves, what their collective view was of the world they inhabited and the physical and biological aspects of their environments they used.  I want to know how their belief systems developed, and what was allowed and shunned as appropriate within their families, their kin groups, their tribes, their nations and the species as a whole.  My interests were in the areas of how their minds developed cognitively, how their judgmental sense of what was “right” and “wrong” to do was maintained, and their practical crafts and their expressive arts functioned in their lives.  And finally, I wanted to know what their views were of the technologies they discovered as being used by outsiders to came in contact with.  In short, the anthropologist’s view of structures and functions of other cultures was the view I had developed in myself since the beginning of my college days in the 1960’s.

Like Braudel (and another younger academic, Immanuel Wallerstein, an aging but still living American sociologist), I see myself as more interested in what I will call folkways, social mores and cultural values–the cultural characteristics of different groupings of human beings than in simply holding the (what I see as) standard 19th century reader’s view of history (who-led-what-nation-to-do-what-to-other-nations).

Personally, I would much rather read about the religion of another culture or society, or that group’s music or its language development, than focus on how and what its larger national political embodiment did or tried to do to other nations.  I truly was more interested in what a society’s taste for beverages was–and how that taste was cultivated over the years–than which ruler did what to what other rulers over the historical past.

What really interests me is how groups of human beings lived their lives and kept their families together.   In short, the standard or traditional view of focusing on nations as the unit of analysis, and what the organizational bureaucracies did that held power in those nations, is, I think, a too narrowly focused feature of what I think of as a 19th century view of what histories were supposed to be about.  There are soooooooo many other characteristics of a culture or society or its subcultures that are more interesting to me.

Now I’m not saying that a narrow historical focus was or is an evil conspiracy or anything like that, but most “traditional” histories on the shelves of the libraries I’ve had anything to do with turn out to be written at the analysis level of nations and confederations of nations (and, specifically, the political or economic or international relations aspects of those nations), with an almost obligatory corollary emphasis on the elite “actors” of those nations–some small subset of the nation’s literate class that supplied the decision-makers of the power structure of the whole nation, those who controlled the political and economic / manufacturing structures of those nations.  It was and is the elites, and their specific leaders, who gobble up most of the attention of those traditional histories.  I found that usually uninteresting for my sense of the wide, wide scope of the landscape of humanity.

Personally I am more interested in how the other 99 percent of a culture or sub grouping of a culture lived their lives, how they entertained themselves, what their social structures were, how they interacted with one another, and they valued and worshiped.  Essentially, I came to be more interested in not how a group developed and maintained its political and economic control mechanisms (its governmental mechanisms), but in how they practiced the learned and unlearned but culturally inherited aspects of their lives.

One of the most course-changing (literally) reading experiences of my life was early on in my college education, when I discovered the books of anthropologist Edward T. Hall whose writing was having a major impact on academic social sciences in the late, late 1950’s and the 1960’s:  The Silent Language (1959), and The Hidden Dimension (1966).

He earned a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1942 at Columbia University, then one of the most important centers in  anthropological study. . . .  After the War, Hall returned to Columbia University for post-doctoral study in cultural anthropology (somewhat of a career shift from his previous specialty in archaeology), where he participated in a seminar with Abram Kardiner, Clyde Kluckhohn, Ruth Benedict, and others on the relationship of psychiatry and anthropology (Hall, 1992). Hall investigated the U.S. government’s post-World War II administration of the Pacific island of Truk (Hall, 1950). Then, while teaching at the University of Denver, Hall conducted a race relations study in Denver for the mayor’s office. After teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, with Erich Fromm, a Freudian psychoanalyst, Hall joined the [US] Foreign Service Institute as a professor of anthropology in 1951. . . . Hall’s graduate training in anthropology at Columbia University and his work as an applied anthropologist in the Foreign Service Institute brought him in contact with scholars who influenced his conceptualization of intercultural communication. Hall identified four major influences on his work: (1) cultural anthropology, (2) linguistics, (3) ethology, the study of animal behavior, and (4) Freudian psychoanalytic theory.

Everett Rogers, et al.  “Edward T. Hall and The History of Interculturcal Communication: The United States and Japan.”  Keio Communication Review, No. 24, 2002.

(ASIDE: Read the Rogers piece above to have reinforced for you why the late 1950’s political fiction, The Ugly American, was such a popular best seller and damned by American politicians:

At the time that Lederer and Burdick (1958) wrote their highly critical book, The Ugly American, the U.S. ambassadors to France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia did not know the national language of the country in which they were posted. In contrast, 90 percent of all Russian diplomatic staff, including officials, secretaries, and chauffeurs, spoke the language of their country of assignment.

I’d also have you read the 2009 review of the book in the N Y Times, and consider our national dip shit, Trump, heading for Davos, Switzerland to “represent” our interests there.)

From Hall I began to see that the truly determining features of a culture and a society were not just their country’s current political and international policies, but how and why they acted the way they did.  Hall, through his work with our government’s Foreign Service personnel, thought we needed to understand how people of different cultural backgrounds thought and how they therefore viewed the world:

The role of the anthropologist in preparing people for service overseas is to open their eyes and sensitize them to the subtle  qualities of behavior–tone of voice, gestures, space and time relationships–that so often build up feelings of frustration and hostility in other people with a different culture. Whether we are going to live in a particular foreign country or travel in many,  we need a frame of reference that will enable us to observe and learn the significance of differences in manners. Progress is being made in this anthropological study, but it is also showing us how little is known about human behavior.

Edward T. Hall, Jr. The Anthropology of Manners“, Scientific American, 9: 25-30, 1955.

What I sensed from my reading of Hall was that we, culturally, were generally too lazy, too  cognitively blind, to think in nonstandard ways about the world around us, how others lead their lives, and finally how that informs how we lead our lives..

An Example of a Different Approach to the Past that I Enjoy

Let me give you two examples of books about our past in this country that really rang true to me in the sense that Hall would have loved them too:

David Hackett Fisher.  Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.   1989.  Oxford Univ Press.

Colin Woodard.  American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.  2011. Viking Press.

I have already blogged about these two books back in 2014 here, but I want to restate here their importance as examples of my preference to view our pasts through an inspection of our culturally learned habits and values.

Woodard’s book appeared twenty years after Fisher’s important first effort on the same topic, and was actually an extension of and expansion beyond the four subcultures Fisher had himself written about, with Woodard tracing those cultures transplanted from the British Isles into what he identified as eleven, not four, regional cultures in the United States and Canada–Yankeedom, New Netherlands, the Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, New France, El Norte, the Left Coast, the Far West, and the First Nation:

And Woodard paid homage to the several other authors whose ideas preceded Woodard’s (I think) more fully explicated view of the regional subcultures of North America he himself noted in his Introduction to American Nations:

Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer detailed the origins and early evolution of four of these nations — the ones I call Yankeedom, the Midlands, Tidewater, and Greater Appalachia — in his 1989 classic Albion’s Seed, and added New France in Champlain’s Dream, published twenty years later.

Russell Shorto described the salient characteristics of New Netherland in The Island at the Center of the World in 2004.  Virginia senator Jim Webb’s Born Fighting (2005) is, in effect, a plea to his fellow Borderlanders for a national self-awakening, while Michael Lind of the New America Foundation has called on his fellow Texans to unseat autocratic Deep Southern rule in favor of the progressive Appalachian strain of the Hill Country.  Awareness of these American nations has been slowly gestating for the past several decades.  This book aims to see them finally delivered into the popular consciousness.

What impressed me about Woodard’s  American Nations was not only its emphasis on cultural mores and folkways (how the average person who lived in these different regions of North America used different ways of dealing with their lives and viewing the world around them) but also the different values and belief systems that attended who their ancestors where and from whence they came over to the new world.

And the book wasn’t about the elites, the typical focus of bad national histories; it was explaining the different resident cultural perspectives on life and how to live it (mores, lifestyles, values, beliefs).   the behavior of everyone, the whole subculture of that geographical region.  You, the reader, saw these regional differences traced from the British Isles to North America; the book laid out chronologically and geographically the transference process from the old country to the new country.

Genetic Profiles Match Too: 2017 Post Script

I just saw, days ago, Woodard posting an update on the validity of his book’s contents–there is now research in a domain of science that adds to the external validity of Woodard’s paradigm of his eleven specific regional cultural varieties:

Just a few months ago (Sept, 2017) Woodard noted on the web that a new study by geneticists–with no knowledge of Woodard’s book–laid out a picture of genetic evidence that corresponds with the American Nations picture of how our country was populated:

Woodard’s post about the confirming nature of the geneticists’ Feb 2017 article in Nature Communications is found here:

Colin Woodard,The 11 Nations of America, as told by DNA,” Sept 21, 2017, Medium (web site).

Woodard noted in his post that his book was based not on genetics evidence, but on the work of a cultural geographer, Wilbur Zelinkky.  Woodard said that  . . .

the American Nations paradigm is resolutely not about genetics or genealogy. Rather, it’s built on the late cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky’s Doctrine of First Effective Settlement, which argues that when a “new” society is settled, the cultural characteristics of the initial settlement group will have a lasting and outsized effect on the future trajectory of that society — even if their numbers were very small and those of later immigrants of different origins were very large. These lasting characteristics, which inform the dominant culture of entire regions of North America, are passed down culturally, not genetically, which explains why the Dutch-settled area around New York City still has obvious and distinct characteristics inherited from Golden Age Amsterdam, even though the portion of people there reporting Dutch ancestry to census takers is a vanishingly small 0.2 percent. Culture is learned, not inherited.

In fact, I place the ideas of cultural change–diffusion, adoption, and adaption–at the beginning of my interest much later in my academic career in the information sciences, where the process of technical innovation is a key part of the area’s knowledge base.  Ideas spread across a culture and from one culture to another in predictable ways with predictable rates; I learned early on that human traits and values and beliefs do too.  For that knowledge I thank Hall . . . and those who came after him.

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