27 June 2009

A Web of Intellectual Connections

I just finished listening to a fascinating interview of science and technology historian James Burke by a podcaster named Dan Carlin (who broadcasts Hardcore History). I had not listened to Carlin's podcast before, but was wondering around online hoping to find a new history-related podcast that I could get excited about.

So far the realm of podcasts has not delivered much in the way of "meaty" history that a professional historian who also enjoys mainstream popular culture can get into. Up until now The Napoleon Podcast has been by far my favorite because of the hosts' passion for history and their exploration of its subject on a level anyone with a basic high-school level education could understand. It's entertaining and reflects the type of conversation shared by people who really love to discuss and argue about history for history's sake.

The other day while trolling I-Tunes, one episode of Carlin's Hardcore History caught my eye, "A Fly on James Burke's Wall" (see Show 18 in Carlin's archive) I downloaded it and was instantly transported to a dynamic intellectual exchange between one of my favorite historians, Burke, and an enthusiastic amateur historian, Carlin, with some really thought-provoking insights of his own.

I am one of a generation that grew up learning about history from the likes of James Burke, with his television show Connections, which first broadcast in the US in 1979. I was at an impressionable age, but eager to learn so long as I had fun in doing so. I can remember that I was watching Connections at a time when I actually found the subject of history in school to be quite boring. I was incredibly good at memorizing the names of rulers, places, and dates of events for multiple choice quizzes, but bored to tears with the way it was presented in class by my teachers. Plop me down in front of the Tube, however, and I would watch, and re-watch Connections and its sequels over and over.

What fascinated me most was that Burke's approach appeals to my innate sense of synthesis. My brain is simply wired to draw together ideas quickly. Linear thinking is terribly uninteresting to me. Always was. Destined to be a post-modernist, my wild inclination was to draw two concepts together from different sides of the question and build a theory around them. That's how my fantasy life operated in my child's mind and, later, it's how my scholar's mind turned around sophisticated groups of facts to churn out pages and pages of grad school ramblings. Honed by a youth spent with exploring connections, I understood that history is not simply a string of happenings, but an array of decisions and inventions that might have just as easily gone the other way had circumstances been altered ever so slightly.

Popular scholars and scientists like James Burke, Carl Sagan, and Joseph Campbell showed me that ideas are power and the brain is a tool of exploration. As my education progressed I began to find the voices of scholars who opened up the field of women's history. I can remember being excited by my first readings of "serious" feminist art history in my first year of graduate school. Scholars like Whitney Chadwick and Linda Nochlin raised my awareness of just how much women had been overlooked in the previous views of world history -- not to mention all of the cultures considered "Other" or "Primitive" by First World scholars.

That brings me to the really nifty project that James Burke mentioned in passing during the conversation with Dan Carlin. He's using the Internet as a tool to expand his theories of inter-connectivity among people and moments in history on a website called the Knowledge Web. I encourage you to explore it for yourself. I highly recommend the "Mystery Tours" section which will introduce (or re-introduce) you to Burke's heady style of historic synthesis. My personal favorite tour so far is "Wallpaper to Germ Theory."

My husband and I have often batted around this crazy notion of writing a book together on a certain sub-set of myths about the history of England as filtered down to us from the Victorian era. It's rather crazy on the one hand because we are both really just armchair scholars of the period concerned, but he -- being a scientific/engineering mind with a devotion to folklore -- and I -- with my background in cultural history, archival research, and post-modernist academic training -- might just come up with a perspective on our topic that no one else has ever written. We have between the two of us background, experience, and skills related to intellectual history that combined is actually brilliant (if I do say so myself). The question is: could we produce research that anyone else would care about or want to read? Well, first we have to do the brainstorming and then the research. I'll get back to you on this topic.

I just want to conclude that human knowledge is at a peak. In my culture I am aware of just how fortunate I am to have information almost always at my fingertips. Making it far easier for me to make intellectual leaps than ever before. Its a long way from the paper card catalogues in my elementary school to the high-speed connections of the Internet on my laptop or hand-held device. Almost whenever I have a question, I can within a reasonable amount of time download all kinds of random facts, tidbits, reviews, ramblings, and conspiracy theories about it in a matter of minutes.

Oh, where, I wonder, will the connections lead?


  1. Thanks for the reminder, Maria. Will have to check out some of those history podcasts.


    ps blogspot's weird sense of humour. the word i have to verify to leave this comment? HININESS!

  2. "HININESS"???!!! LOL that's is just priceless. It's not a word, but perhaps one could create a definition for it.

    Any ideas, C?

  3. My father emailed to ask me a very astute question in response to this entry: "What is your definition of "Post Modernist " thinking?"

    Here is my response:
    That's a very good question. The answer is that it depends upon the context. Simply put, "post modernist" is the best term that anyone could come up with for the generation of scholars and artists who grew up in the wake of the radical cultural shift of the late 20th century.

    Based upon my graduate school training I would say that post modernism is the phase of intellectual thought (or scholarship) and creative expression following the dramatic changes in culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In other words, "Culture" created by people after the Civil Rights, Women's Liberation, and other political/cultural movements to create a greater tolerance for difference and minorities in our "First World" culture.

    M sees it differently. He says, "It's also a reaction to the idea that the Future is bright." It's a more cynical, critical view of the future as opposed to the Utopian vision of Modernism as espoused by artists and thinkers of the early twentieth century through the "Peace, Love, and Understanding" attitudes that Hippies in the 1960s had.

    Both of us are correct, but it's a case of the proverbial glass being half full or half empty.

    In either case, it is a sense that no one can escape from the times they have experienced -- personal history impacts thinking. I dislike the name post modernist because I do not like terms that define themselves by something they are not. However, there doesn't seem to be a better term out there for us and maybe there is some truth to the idea that my generation of scholars and artists does define itself against another.

    In reality, one might say the same of the Modernist Bloomsbury Group intellectually and artistically opposing the Victorian Age in which they were raised.