Friday, October 31, 2003

Thought of the Day: Are historians inherently nostalgic?
Is there a certain built-in nostalgia that comes with (or precedes) being a historian (an historian, for stuffier readers)? I was thinking about this while plowing through a dense 400-plus page analysis of the decentralization and suburbanization of New Haven, Connecticut. The author goes into meticulous detail while chronicling the midcentury decline of central New Haven, listing many of the businesses and social groups that disappeared as the highways were built and people migrated to the burbs. Pages and pages and charts and charts on who was there and what was lost. Implicit in them is dismay over their demise and disapproval of the privatization of life--the way cars, television, and other technology have replaced the former ways of face-to-face city living and isolate us. At one point the author acknowledges that, yes, the old city could be foul and noisy, so let's not get carried away (see the related Jonathan Franzen quote at my page on Chicago's Union Station, where I get rather nostalgic myself). But the thrust of his writing, as purely reportorial as it seems to aspire to be, is that "progress" isn't necessarily progress. I wondered how much this lament is fundamental to the writing of history. Do historians take an interest in studying the past not just because they think we can learn from it, but also because they are personally nostalgic for it? Are they especially prone to romanticizing history as they thumb through colorful portraits of historical battles or black-and-white television footage? (Black-and-white footage evokes a realm that is separate from our full-color--and increasingly sensory overloaded--present, and we may unconsciously forget that the referents of such images were full-color and as "normal" as anything we lay eyes on today.) This may be mostly true of liberal historians--who, like the author I'm reading, are dubious that the explosion of capitalism and technology has made the world substantially better and long for a simpler age--but also of conservatives--those who fondly recall the valor and honor of World War II soldiers (a glossy outlook deconstructed here) and bemoan the cultural subversion of the Sixties. Are all ideologues living in the past, or at least overeager for the present to conform to it? How much does this impair their analytical powers?

Previous Thought: illusory regret

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