Monday, 7 December 2009

Milk and madeleines

I just finished watching the film, Milk, and it immediately took me back to a place I left long ago, stirring memories made somehow clearer with distance. Between the ages of eight and eighteen, between 1965 and 1976, I lived just off Castro Street in San Francisco, and processed my way through the local schools. I owned that street in a way only a child can, and could easily have been one of the teenagers in the historical shots with which the film begins. I was the hippy jam in the sandwich between an older working class San Francisco, and the Gay community.

I liked the film, but more than this it put me in mind of that neighbourhood before the Gay revolution – the storefront theatres that showed silent movies to the overwhelming smell of dope; the Castro Theatre (25 cents for a double bill and a floor sticky with someone else’s spilt coke), the Italian deli, the five and dime; the old fashioned candy store and the green and white street cars and electric buses – the smell of the ocean, wet wool, and fog.

But, as well as being a bullied hippy in the local schools (in retrospect my habit of riding a unicycle to school in a top hat, while wearing a peasant smock, was ill-advised), I was also part of a wider community. My mother and grandparents were Italian, and that meant I had some connections with the Irish, Filipino and Chicano communities, which with the Italians, were knitted together by unionism and the church, and which dominated the neighbourhood. My school friends were all confirmed, and to ignore St Patrick’s Day was to invite serious physical abuse. I never wore the local boy’s uniform of Ben Davis black jeans, a white shirt (a blue striped one for work), blue canvas jacket, and shiny black shoes, but I knew I should have done. I also went to James Lick Junior High School (Castro and 26th St.) – an institution designed to produce boys and girls able to work on the docks and in light manufacture, as electricians and carpenters, ship's pilots and engineers, and as secretaries and seamstresses. Carlos Santana is the school's only famous alumni.

Milk is a great story of the political liberation of the Gay community – all those kids running away from Minnesota and Kansas; small town Mississippi and rural Oklahoma. The rise of identity politics that it charts is a wonderful one that needs to be celebrated. But, the new community created in the process was located just in my neighbourhood; just in those few streets I thought were my own.

It is not my sense of loss, however, that strikes me now. I used to be angry that the ‘New York street games Olympics’ was first held at my school in San Francisco (the notion that there was an equally vibrant local kid’s culture was simply laughed at). Instead, Milk brought to mind that older working class, Irish, Italian, Filipino, and Chicano community that was destroyed in the process of creating this new politics of identity.

What is not reflected in Milk is the pre-existence of a wider working class politics, and union based socialism that had been at the heart of local San Francisco politics for sixty years (in hard-fought competition with big-money republicanism). Harry Bridges, the leader of the communist inspired San Francisco general strike and west coast dock workers action of 1934 was still living in the neighbourhood in the 1970s (I met him once and his daughter was a contemporary of mine at James Lick Junior High).

The killer, Dan White is used to represent all those traditions. And at some level, I cannot help but recognise in him the Catholic firemen and policemen, plumbers, painters and electricians (and managers of clean-room silicon chip manufacturing sites) that my schoolmates went on to become. But these were not illiberal bigots. They were inheritors of American socialism; of the dream of seeing working people able to care for their children; to see them educated and secure.

Harvey Milk was a Republican, a small business man, a libertarian; and identity politics is libertarian in its very marrow. The problem, for me, for the morality I learned on the streets of San Francisco, is that those identities and that politics don’t seem to leave a lot of room for working men and women, for children and old people, for all those individuals whose ‘identity’ isn’t quite special enough.

Towards the end of the film Milk is shown parroting the rightwing line of the decade – America, “love or leave it”. I left it in favour of the Western European welfare state, and I have not a single regret in having done so. But the film made me want to pay homage to and to mark the passing of a working class politics that once held sway in San Francisco. If it was in part socially conservative and intolerant of difference, it also cared for the weak, and sought to make simple labour and social contribution something that defined a life well spent.

Friday, 23 January 2009

A Review: The Diary of Edmund Harrold

This is a pre-print of a review commissioned for publication in the Economic History Review ©2009, Economic History Society.

Craig Horner, ed, The diary of Edmund Harrold, wigmaker of Manchester 1712-15 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. Pp. xxxvii + 178. 3 figs. 1 map. ISBN 9780754661726. Hbk. £55)

Reading a diary always feels slightly transgressive; as if you are looking through the front window of a private home on to a domestic scene beyond. Historians have used the intimate nature of these sources to construct a broad narrative of a changing interiority, of the evolution of a modern ‘self’; and to chart the texture and quality of interpersonal relations. And yet, as any dedicated voyeur knows, most domestic scenes observed through a distant window make for very dull viewing. In a similar way diaries are frequently repetitious and frustrating. The events of most lives are made up of petty conflicts, self-serving worries, and banal jealousies. The diary of Edmund Harrold is no exception. A somewhat maudlin and self-pitying drunk, Edmund Harrold made a poor living as a wig maker in early eighteenth-century Manchester – a manufacturer of perhaps the most useless item imaginable, in a world newly committed to making useful things. This particular diary is not very illuminating about the nature of early industrialization, or the economics of innovation. It tells us remarkably little about the social life of Harrold’s all important contemporary generation of Mancunians, and while it does provide a comprehensive account of pretty much everything Harrold read, even this seems to consist almost entirely of the most conventional of religious writings. Nevertheless, this is an important diary, and this edition, scrupulously transcribed, footnoted, and introduced, is a welcome addition to our modern public understanding of the long dead and very private interior world of one early eighteenth-century Mancunian.

The detail many readers will assume sets this diary apart and gives it heightened scholarly interest is Harrold’s record of his sexual relations with both his second and third wives. And it is true that sexual activity is rarely recorded in even the most revealing of diaries, but it is also remarkably unhelpful. Harrold regularly records that he ‘did wife’ or ‘did wife new fashion’. Since he was also father to nine children, however, these bald statements simply repeat the obvious. Of much greater historical significance is Harrold’s record of his courtship of his third wife Ann Horrocks. The inclusion of a record of night visiting, when combined with the birth of his eighth child, John, six months after the wedding, provides new and individualized evidence that this particular style of courtship was accompanied by penetrative sexual activity. But, even more important are the small details of Edmund Harrold’s emotional engagement with his second wife, Sarah. His account of her decline over a period of some three weeks following the birth of their daughter, and her eventual death in Edmund’s arms is both evocative and moving. In combination with the details he gives of his arrangements for his newly orphaned infant child, also named Sarah, and his active and to modern sensibilities, hasty, search for a new wife, the diary makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the pressures felt by a middle aged, down-at-heel member of the middling sort. These separate elements of the diary help to reveal how emotional engagement, affect and hard calculation might co-exist in a single early modern breast.

The diary also helps to give texture to our story of the evolution of ‘self writing’. It seems to partake equally of the seventeenth century tradition of religious self-examination, and a more ‘modern’ secular concern with personal emotional response. Admixt between these covers are endless self-flagellating explorations of Harrold’s religious laxity; a compelling, unself-conscious story of his relations with two wives; and a detailed and essentially secular narrative of the crash and dodgems journey of a chronic alcoholic.

As an edited edition of an eighteenth-century manuscript, this volume is also exemplary. The introduction is clear and informative, and the academic apparatus is extensive (if occasionally slightly too extensive). Four appendixes are also included. The first reproduces a lecture based on the diary given by J.E. Bailey in 1884; the second, a series of copied abstracts from Charles Povey’s Meditation of a divine soul (1703); the third, a comprehensive and very useful list of all works mentioned by Harrold; and the fourth, a hand list of comparable published diaries. The volume concludes with a good, but not exhaustive index. It is perhaps unfortunate that this work has been published as a hard copy edition, rather than online, and in a form where the occasional glancing reference could be more easily located, but Craig Horner should nevertheless be congratulated for an excellent piece of scholarship.

For the inveterate voyeur, dedicated to wandering the shelves in search of an uncurtained window revealing a meaningful scene beyond, this volume provides a few excellent vantage points. It is perhaps not particularly revealing about the changing nature of economic behavior in the early industrial revolution, but it does reveal a single man, caught in a web of culture, of friends and wives, and alcohol.


Thursday, 1 January 2009

Lives in the Infinite Archive

A contribution to the opening panel for the annual conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-century Studies, in Oxford, January 2009. The conference theme is 'Lives'.

The theme of this conference seems the most secure possible. A life is a quantum of raw biology about which we can all agree. Its pus and blood, piss and sputum, its tragic arc from shitting infancy to incontinent old age, are the raw ingredients and very stuff of human consciousness.
And yet, our understanding of past lives – and our own - is essentially a product of a series of intellectual technologies. The biography, the portrait, the novel, the memoir, the biographical dictionary, the census, and tax record, as well as history writing in all its forms, make up a series of inherited technologies that structure our knowledge about lives. And these technologies are themselves underpinned by basic systems for organising information – of indexes and concordances, of the Dewey Decimal system, and that of the Library of Congress – forms of intellectual organisation that would have been as intelligible to Samuel Johnson and Casanova as they are to us. We are here at BSECS, because at some level, the eighteenth century invented much of this technology, and we think it is worth pursuing and perfecting.
My problem, and I think it is a wonderful problem, is that I believe the technological underpinnings of our world have shifted. As of the day before yesterday, pretty much every printed word produced in English in the eighteenth century can be electronically searched and found. By the day after tomorrow, the same will be true of the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Every journal article you write, and soon, every book, will be found using keyword and structured searching, online and with scant regard for where it appears on a library shelf. The distance between how the eighteenth century explored the universe, and how we perform the same task, has grown exponentially in just the last decade. We are confronted by what is already an ‘infinite archive’, whose very structures (what is a novel, vs what is a volume of history) have largely dissolved in the face of keyword searching.
And where, in the last ten years, print started – in EEBO and ECCO, the Times Online, and the Old Bailey Online – manuscripts are rapidly following. Many of the manuscript collections of eighteenth century American figures are now available on line, as are the papers of Hartlib, Newton and Darwin. Soon, 40 million words of everyday manuscripts from eighteenth-century London - hospital and workhouse records, parish and voting records - will be available online in a keyword searchable form. And of course, you can add to this all those representations of artefacts and images – tied perhaps less securely to our finding aids, but newly accessible in a new way, through museum websites and commercial image galleries.
In other words, what is being created is an entirely new and comprehensive library of the textual and artefactual leavings of the dead. And the question I find myself continually asking is what do we do with it?
To a large degree we can simply continue doing what we have been doing for two hundred years. The discipline of textual analysis and comparison – the heart of what most of us do - does not change just because we suddenly have the power to compare more and more diverse, texts. And yet, we are also suddenly able to do weird new things. To take just a single example, with just a little technical nous, you can trace a single phrase, or a set of ideas as expressed in a set of phrases, across 40 billion words of text – to chart the borrowings and adaptations, to test the roles of context and structure.
But as a historian, I believe this creation of an ‘infinite archive’ challenges us to look even further, at our basic object of study – the dead and their leavings. And for myself, I believe that ‘lives’, in the broadest possible sense, can form an organising principal that allows us to make new and better use of this new way of searching and ordering the past.
The textual archive of the eighteenth century – the tons of rotting paper and parchment that fill our record offices - was created for the most part as a coherent system for the management of information about money, and institutions, people, and places. It worked as a fragmented set of intellectual technologies that force us to think in the grooves of an eighteenth-century mind. Historians, for instance, constantly find themselves reproducing the perspectives of the archival clerk, newspaper editor, and politician. And they do so not because they want to, but because it is only by understanding the perspectives of those who created the archives, that those archives could up till now be effectively used.
But, quite suddenly it is possible to do something different. Imagine for a moment, the ability to extract every reference to an individual from the broader archive of the century. For almost every pauper and criminal, worker and dying child, you would find lines in an account book, payments made, a birth registered, a trial recorded – brief traces of quiet lives. For others, for the privileged and the prideful, the sheaves and reams of textual artefact would pile ever higher. But for both, you would find enough to begin the process of reconfiguring how we analyse the past.
Imagine for a moment that you are a historian of medicine, interested in the history of venereal disease. You could trace the evolution of institutional provision for the care of the pox through the hospital records, through lists of supplies, and architectural plans. You could create a coherent narrative of the evolution of care and institutions. But you could not effectively assess the impact of those changes or that care. Because you could not know how the treatment meted out impacted on the lives of patients, the basic role of the hospital remains opaque.
But now, it is increasingly possible to start from the other end – from either a collection of lives that define a local community, with a subset that ends up within the hospital records; or else, from the collection of lives that end up on a particular ward, in the care of a particular doctor, or whatever, and to then trace them back to their communities. You could then assess the role of the hospital in the lives of its patients, and demonstrate and reconceptualise the function of this particular institution in the patterning of social change.
In the process, what is created is a counter-point to the stark history of institutions. A new narrative of collected lives, to set against and compare to that narrative found in the structures of eighteenth century record keeping.
At some level, we have been here before, in the aspirations of the authors of micro-histories, in the empathetic personal narratives of the history from below tradition, in the collective political biographies of the Namierites. But, what is new is the ability to use these techniques and approaches on the infinite archive itself.
To return to the theme of this conference, and for myself, I believe that the technologies of knowing that have evolved in the last few years, mean that for the first time in generations, it is possible to put ‘lives’ at the centre of our analysis. To move beyond the ‘text’ as the object of study, to society, to lived experience, to the individual, and the collective – to lives.