Thursday, March 15, 2012

Interpretive Vernacular: Pop Culture is a Language

I trust people who sound like me. I trust people who speak the same language as me. Part of this comes from a simple fact of understanding. I speak very little Spanish, even less French.

But I also speak other languages, and trust people who speak to me in those languages.

First, I speak geek. I am an unrepentant lover of science fiction, native to personal computers since the era of the DOS prompt, frequent quoter of nerdy movies and television, admirer of the beautiful simplicity of physics and the amazing symmetry of maths. Geek is a second tongue for me.

I also speak the language of popular culture. Frankly, we all do to greater or lesser degrees. I know what Mad Men is all about. I 'get' a good number of the gags when Saturday Night Live lampoons MTV, BET or Lifetime. I have enough of a working knowledge of the Twilight series, The Jersey Shore and much of modern popular music to understand a passing reference to them (and know they hold no real interest for me).

But when I interpret, I am told to dress up my language. We struggle in the public history world with this awkward concept of 'agency voice.' We quake in fear at the concept that we as individuals speak in some mystical, disembodied voice on behalf of our agencies or institutions. But this gussying up our prose, this abandonment of a cultural vernacular for some perceived cultural high ground could be severely destroying our ability to communicate with a modern audience.

We can't speak to an audience in a language they don't understand. Speaking more slowly and louder doesn't work. Just because an audience might listen to Lady Gaga doesn't make them unable to understand, appreciate and come to care for large historical concepts and truths. Sometimes we need to speak in the very words our audiences share with each other, that we share with each other everyday.

So what might this look like? Simple: imagine if Lady Gaga performed a power-anthem to accompany the women's suffrage movement of the late 1910s...

From the folks who brought you Too Late To Apologize, the latest in vernacular public history.

This video is nothing new per say. Yet it is still powerful. Watch it ten times, twenty times, a hundred times. Each time you'll find another small, powerful detail. Did you catch the note from the Senator's mother telling him, "Huzzah and vote for Suffrage"? Did you catch the doubt in the woman's eyes as she proudly declared she didn't need to vote? Did you notice how the protesters in front of the White House were a spot on match for the real women who stood there fighting for their rights? The piece is outrageously powerful, even on the hundredth viewing.

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But it is only an evolution, not a revolution. It joins a long lineage of style and straight parody incorporating history and civics into a modern vernacular language. Who from my generation and the one preceding doesn't recognize the line, "I'm just a Bill, Yes I'm only a Bill..."? I learned the preamble to the Constitution thanks to Schoolhouse Rock! as well, and still need to hum the tune to keep the pieces in the right order in my mind. Even Schoolhouse Rock! took on Women's Suffrage, with another power anthem about gaining the right to vote.

How can we foster more creative ways of sharing the vast world of history with the public in the language they speak instead of the stilted and foreign voice we think our institutions should speak with? How can we reach an American public where they already are, instead of fruitlessly demanding of them that they try to understand a language they don't speak natively?

I'm not sure. But I think it looks something like a tribute to Lady Gaga featuring Thriller-esque suffragettes, a brooding Woodrow Wilson and a struggle for freedom embodied by men and women acting to make the world better. I think it looks like Ben Franklin wearing a mock AC/DC tee-shirt and shredding the guitar while Thomas Jefferson sings his grievances to the King. I think it speaks in the language of the modern world, the vernacular of the culture we live within. That history will gain far more traction than anything in 'agency voice' could ever hope to, I guarantee.


  1. The problem with the video is this: it's not "sharing history." What they present is not the arguments presented by those who fought for women's suffrage. It is what a 2nd wave or 3rd wave feminist might have argued, but certainly not what 1st wave feminists argued when fighting for suffrage. Therefore, it is an terribly inaccurate presentation. I think the same idea with more accurate content would be better -- right now, this is only going for an emotional response that is wishful thinking of what we today wish they argued -- it is mythology.

    1. Really, Raffi? Not the argument they presented?

      Parsing the lyrics closely and looking at how the visuals overlay with the words, this piece seems to be a picture perfect interpretive description of what Alice Paul believed, and what drove her to fight (quite militantly) for both the 19th amendment and eventually the E.R.A. The images it presents of Paul behind bars and being force fed while wearing a straight jacket during her hunger strike, combined with the lyrics mirroring the language and arguments she leveled during her fight for the E.R.A. offer an interpretive moment of investigating the historical period. Notice I said "interpretive" there.

      A public historian's job is not to provide History. History is, in the end, a product produced by the academy for the academy and nothing more. The public historian, instead provides interpretive opportunities based in historical settings and using the experiences of the people of the past. We offer people a glimpse into the past, an opportunity not to simply learn about the past but to viscerally understand and inhabit it. I take umbrage at your denigration this product (and by extension any product) for, "only going for an emotional response." Repeating facts and figures AT a crowd, dictating AT THEM endless litanies of quotes and statistics will NEVER help them understand anything in the sites and places we hold dear. Helping them feel the raw human emotion these places hold creates stewards, not simply helping them to know what happened in them. Interpretation based solely in intellectual connections is far less successful at forging meaningful visitor experiences than that which incorporates, highlights and places center stage universal emotional connections.

      Facts don't win hearts. Hearts win hearts.

    2. Yes, to pile on...
      You could also make the argument that the video is whitewashed - where are the black faces such as Ida B. Wells, etc? But nitpicking the video misses the entire point. The video is a snapshot of history, a glimpse of one singular moment (put to song) focusing on Alice Paul and the National Women's Party.
      Is it going (or trying?) to teach the history of feminism and Women's Rights? No. Is it trying to form an emotional connection with the viewer? yes. It's trying to spark interest sharing history by speaking the language of pop culture.

    3. John,

      You completely went way too far with what I said. Despite your philosophizing in your second paragraph about the public historian's job, I never claimed that we should be "Repeating facts and figures AT a crowd, dictating AT THEM endless litanies of quotes and statistics" (your words). I think the presentation could be a very useful style of communication, yes, but that does not excuse inaccurate content.

      Moreover, I believe you are contradicting yourself. In your original post you refer to "sharing the vast world of history" but now your response claims, "A public historian's job is not to provide History." So then why did your original post ask about how to share history as a central question?

      Finally, please read up on Alice Paul before using her as your evidence. She and other militants were actually booted from the National American Woman Suffrage Association for being too radical. The movement that succeeded was one that shifted starkly to the center -- it had to, in order to get the votes they needed (all from men) to ratify the 19th amendment.

    4. Jake,

      To use Alice Paul as representative of the fight for women's suffrage is misleading. See my last paragraph above.

      No, I don't mean to nitpick by saying it is not nuanced enough in its presentation -- which is what you seem to suggest I am doing with your understandable example of the race element. But I believe you are speaking to a different issue there. My point isn't that this video lacks the nuances of the complexity of the movement. My point is that it is inaccurate.

      I certainly agree with you that the audience feeling a connection is critical. However, why can't we present in a compelling manner and still retain the accuracy of the content? The best contestants in middle school and high school do this for National History Day (in my experience as a judge for it), which judges on BOTH creativity AND content accuracy -- so we can do it as public historians can uphold the same standard, too.

      We cannot shrug off inaccuracy with the excuse that it gets people interested so it's ok. That is a fallacy that equates good research with no research, and it can be dangerous because the neo-Confederate clowns could use it to make their perspective legitimate as well. As you know, Jake, from the amount of research I have seen you do for your programs, accurate content can be used in creative presentation (which, I might add, you're very good at creativity).

    5. So to both of you:

      I am not denouncing the format of the presentation; I am just asking for better accuracy. If anything, presenting Alice Paul as representative is actually a nuance of some sort, because frankly it was not her militant arguments that "won" women's suffrage -- those arguments were REJECTED by the mainstream of the women's suffrage movement itself! So Jake, while you think I want more nuance, I actually want less of it, ha, because I don't think you two presenting Alice Paul is fair.

      Which, given the rejection of the militant brand of feminism by the mainstream of first wave feminism, it goes back to what I said in my original response: the video "is what a 2nd wave or 3rd wave feminist might have argued, but certainly not what 1st wave feminists argued when fighting for suffrage... [The video] is wishful thinking of what we today wish they argued -- it is mythology." In other words, you did exactly what I said: you applied 2nd or 3rd wave concepts backward and out of context anachronistically in order to make 1st wave feminism what you hope it was.

    6. Raffi,

      Don't want this to devolve into a flame war of sorts, because I know we all in the end have the best intentions here in mind.

      "History" and "history" are two different things in my mind. Check out some of my comments on these comments (how delightfully meta) over at YandT:

      What set off my "philosophizing"? It was your use of this fragment of a phrase: "...right now, this is only going for an emotional response...." An interpretive product only going for an emotional response, if we work directly from the craft's shared description of efficacy and successful interpretation, is NEVER something to denigrate.

      As for Alice Paul, yes, she did get kicked out of the mainstream. I don't think that making a product that is a depiction of her distinct viewpoint (readily acknowledge in everything soomo released along with the video) invalid. I've never understood the penchant to break movements into distinct waves, as if they were isolated by stark barriers. The same happens in "our" time period of choice. We treat immediate abolition, gradual emancipation and colonization as these stark separate movements when they were free flowing and a dialogue. We view Lincoln's transition from one end of that spectrum to the other as something unique when it was modus operandi for hundreds of Americans. Still, if someone made a product speaking of the colonization ethic within the 19th century, would that be invalid? Of course not. It's sharing the ACS' viewpoint. I might make a response video that told radical abolition's perspective, but I wouldn't damn the first for lack of balance when balance was never the object.

      That's the beauty of the internet: if you don't like something, you can make something better. If you think something is off balance, you can balance it by offering a different perspective.

      Again, I went off and philosophized... It's what happens when these types of arguments roll around in my head. I start having arguments with Ghosts and splaying them across the page.

    7. That should read, "makes it invalid."

  2. John,

    Mr. Meta: thanks for the clarification on history and History. Teasing aside, I do understand where you're coming from.

    No flames, but let me further explain myself, without intention to be a jerk, but with the intention to use the forum as an exchange of ideas.

    I agree that emotional response is critical in interpretation (see my response to Jake above). However, as you know, we strive for the emotional response/connection while not sacrificing accuracy in content. Sure, you can debate the periodization of the "waves" of feminism (or anything else), and I can actually agree with you in the nonsense that often creates.

    But without going too far into endless unproductive nuances (as Jake pointed out above), you cannot deny that the mainstream brand/message of feminism changed over time. That is the essence of the process of history: change over time. Therefore, by inserting our perception of feminism with hindsight into what was roughly a century or more ago, I think we are being inaccurate in understanding what the voices of the mainstream feminism were -- that is a disservice to their voices, because it is inaccurately portraying the efforts of these people.

    As I said before man, the National History Day does this well, I don't see why we can't ask for the same standard: creativity and emotional connections do not have to come at the sacrifice of accuracy in content.

    So the funny thing is that we all agree here on method. I never meant to question that, as I have tried to make clear. What I am questioning is whether it should have to come with sacrificing accuracy in content -- obviously, my answer is no. I have 3 main reasons for this:

    1) Separating content from the creativity actually falls into the trap of the unfortunate conception of history as boring facts (the very perception that you refer to in your original post). In other words, by implicitly admitting that we must sacrifice accuracy in order to become exciting, we are also implicitly admitting that the accuracy is what makes it boring -- that history is boring, and unless we alter it, it cannot be exciting. So then this approach can end up back-firing in its intent.

    2) We have to be careful in blurring our critical thinking in evaluating quality for the sake of the argument that claims it gets people excited about history so it's good. There are multiple potential fallacies there: fallacy of degree, slippery slope, maybe others. In other words, something that gets people excited about history while still retaining integrity to the content is NOT to be equated with something that gets people excited about history without any regard for accuracy of content (which, by the way, also overlooks a critical element of history: research).

    3) If we go down that slippery slope of valuing only emotional excitement without also valuing accuracy in content, we open up the potential for making idiots like neo-Confederates (who are certainly quite excited about their history, and love to lack research and invent stuff to present it in an emotionally connecting way) seem legitimate. We also risk allowing clown politicians who proclaims principles supposedly based on history to be considered legitimate in their reckless claims. It can get ugly.

    Therefore, we must keep in mind the substance and the backbone of history (well-researched argument/interpretation) while also thinking about new and exciting ways to present these interpretations. I wasn't joking when I said I've seen Jake do pretty well at retaining content integrity while pushing creativity at GNMP. It's possible to do; and overlooking that possibility opens up the subject of history to the criticism of it being inherently boring and therefore having to be doctored in its content in order to be exciting.