I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Monday, August 24, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Interdisciplinary Anxiety

I was very happy to start writing my book last Thursday. I have drafted the first thousand words of a chapter which will mostly be about prisons. I have lots of ideas and lots of materials. So far so good.

And then I had a momentary anxiety as I was thinking about structuring the next section/paragraph. It was an anxiety that took me back to my work on the Order of the Garter, when I would sometimes ask myself, "where's the text?" Trained as a literary critic, I am always most comfortable when I have a text to organise myself around. But as with the previous book, I am happy to think about the emotive language used about these bluestone buildings and natural formations; and indeed, that is the main concern of this book. I'm also getting better at reading images, and applying my discursive analytic skills to texts (journalism, reports, histories) that aren't obviously "literary." So I'm pretty confident of my general approach in this book.

But I recall one particularly aggressive review of the Garter book that chastised me for calling that book "a vulgar history". The gist of this review was that non-historians like me should stop using that word "history" so loosely (and also stop writing studies that weren't proper historical ones).

Undaunted, I am thinking of a comparable subtitle for this bluestone book. Bluestone: An Affective History is my working title. So I will be treading into same disciplinary hot water. Similarly, although I have some training in historical method, I won't be writing a "straight" history in the sense of a sequential, comprehensive narrative.

I've also just been reading readers' reports on an essay going into a book collection where most of the other authors are historians. Apparently my essay sticks out a bit because it is based on a single text. Nor does my essay deal with broader social movements like the others do. (That's because it's based on a single text.)

So here are my questions.

  • How does interdisciplinarity really work in practice between Literature and History? There are some brilliant examples in medieval literary, cultural and historical studies, but what about in other, later fields?
  • Do we police our respective territories with equal vigilance?
  • Should we be trying harder to respect each other's starting-points and assumptions? 
  • Should I use "history" in my subtitle?


Elizabeth said...

I don't see why you can't use 'history'. Historians use primary sources to back up what they're trying to argue. You're trying to write about the emotive language(? I assume from what you've written) of bluestone and using the bluestone of Melbourne as your primary source: your archive. As a historian I would pull in research from others for context - maybe about stone used elsewhere and does it have the same emotive value, but if there isn't anything else on bluestone then of course your primary archive is what you'll rely on.

Also, as I assume with all disciplines, there's always going to be one stick-in-the-mud who declares their vision of their discipline is The Way, when of course that's never the case.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Yes, that's exactly what I'll be doing. And the stick-in-the-mud attitude won't stop me. But these responses did make me realise — and I have just been discussing this with a colleague from a third discipline -- how in Australia we medieval and early modern and literature and history and art history and music and language people have all learned to listen attentively to each other in very productive and forgiving ways. We have done this because there are so few of us and we live so far (expensively and painfully far) from so many of our specialist colleagues. This may make us a little vulnerable to the critiques from the more securely maintained borders between disciplines elsewhere.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

But the same critics would squeal with outrage if you turned the tables and questioned their expertise in textual interpretation. Historians interpret written/verbal texts all the time, often in ways that We Who Are Trained In Literary Style Close Reading find extraordinarily limited in their naivete, lack of verbal sophistication, and/or literal-mindedness, and I'm pretty sure they are rarely chastised for it in reviews.

This sounds to me like a strictly in-house academic problem of people policing their disciplinary boundaries -- in desperation, as those boundaries continue to dissolve. One of the great pleasures of writing my book on Adelaide, and I bet all the other 'Cities' series authors found this too, was the fact that I was writing across several genres: straight history, social history, biography, autobiography, personal essay. But because it wasn't claiming to be Scholarship (though very painstakingly researched!), no reviewer, or reader that I know of, had any kind of problem with it.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Well, the writing of your "Adelaide" and Delia's "Sydney" will both be very relevant models for this project, though I'll perhaps be a tad less personal. It's probably all about how I pitch it in the beginning. As we always say to PhD students:to be clear from the beginning about what you are and aren't going to do.

batang said...

The bluestone, what is created from it, it's historical and cultural contexts which change over time - this is your text. One of the most exciting things about research is our object of study - that and stepping outside your field and comfort zone into new territory that also embraces interdisciplinarity. Go forth and conquer.

batang said...

The bluestone, what is created from it, it's historical and cultural contexts which change over time - this is your text. One of the most exciting things about research is our object of study - that and stepping outside your field and comfort zone into new territory that also embraces interdisciplinarity. Go forth and conquer.

batang said...

P.s. Bat ang is Angela Ndalianis :)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I like "affective history" a great deal and if that seems right to you, retain it. There will always be quibbling over who owns what terms, but when it comes down to it, none of us own any of them (historia is, we medievalists know, STORY ... Bluestone: An Affective Story is one register of your subtitle).

I used "Ecology" in my own subtitle to try to sidestep some of the disciplinary arguments -- as well as to signal that I actually could not delineate (make linear) my own materials into a culminative history or some such. Stone is so thick with time it vexes conventional modes of history-making.

Affect does the same!