Saturday, October 16, 2010

Cleveland: You Gotta be Tough

I've come to the conclusion that historians are either OCD, Asberger's savants or (and I may just be building my own escape hatch) people at peace with total chaos. At bottom, we organize information. Often this information is scattered throughout thousands of books, diaries, newspapers, corporate earning reports, morgue statistics, a half-buried oil pipeline that now houses a chipmunk colony, and, well, you get the idea. In fact, visualizing the sources that comprise a single history, which is to say a single argument or idea, is quite a burden in itself. Flip to the bibliography and you will be able to recreate the journey of five, or say, ten years in a single afternoon. Although you might be able to stack these documents into a tidy pile on your kitchen table by following the bibliography and maxing out your library card, the historian's journey is far less efficient.

Any event, even one as modest as this post, makes an impression in the historical record that immediately begins to vanish like a footprint in river mud. Most, and I mean 99.9999999% of human history has completely vanished from memory and record. Think about that next time you snuggle up with a text that promises the "History" of anything. Honest historians have turned downright biblical in describing their pessimism of discovering any big "T" Truth. They argue that the profession, even at its best, can only hope to view the past "through a glass darkly." I prefer to get, in the tradition of Carl Sagan, downright cosmic. Each event, whether a battle, a kiss, or a butterfly fart, is a miracle for it represents the only time in which all the variables exist in a single place at once. With every passing second the fates of nations push a battle front one way or another, time alters lovers' relationships, and the fickle wind blows our butterfly flatulence to distant lands. How much of the evidence can we hope to reassemble in front of our body's sensory apparatus from any event in the distant past? 1%? .01%? .000000000000001%?

I have been on a quest these past five years to view as much of the detritus left in the wake of the Standard Oil Company that is humanly possible. Even with an organization as anal about record keeping as a corporation and characters as self-congratulatory as John D. Rockefeller I have had to battle the cruelty of Time. Yeah, I'm personifying Time as the Greeks would have done (Chronos). I imagine her as a mischievous teenage girl, but no matter. She swallowed up nearly all the company's records from their California business during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. She laughed as the US Supreme Court shattered the company into 34 separate corporations, splintering their records along the way as each company was swallowed by another that, at times, cared very little about preserving the history of its new "property," as I have been informed by the head archivist at British Petroleum concerning the whereabouts of the quite substantial Standard Oil of Indiana's (aka Amoco) records. Each scrap of the past I do find, therefore, represents a small but satisfying victory over this petulant mistress.

This past Wednesday, to make this long story short, I struck a virtual vein of evidentiary gold. Forty-five reels of microfilm of the Chicago Tribune from the 19th century had been shipped to my library here at Case Western Reserve University from my Alma Mater in Columbus and, over the course of eight hours, I pulled 25 pages of notes out of the nether. Likely enough material, with a few other documents I already have, for an entire chapter of my dissertation. Serious fucking business. I didn't eat, didn't visit the bathroom, hardly blinked, I served as a translator and recorder and captured all of this on my laptop. But as I was working on my last reel and the last rays of sunlight were vanishing over the horizon I began to feel a growing anxiety. I realized that much of my work and certainly the hours worth of notes from the previous weeks was contained within the memory of my laptop and NOWHERE else. Why hadn't I backed up this info?

What was boring into my confidence wasn't concern that I might, by accident, spill water on my keyboard or drop my laptop on the way to my car but a realization that I was about to walk outside into a world that has become something akin Mad Max beyond Thunderdome. Earlier that day, the charter one bank on campus that shares a building with Starbucks had been held up for the THIRD day in a row. In the past years the security updates I get via my campus email have been a litany of horrors from rape at Wade Lagoon, a beatdown in the middle of Mayfield, and countless stick-ups for pocket change and cellphones. I made it to my car, walking faster than normal out of Kelvin Smith Library and down East boulevard, and told my friends over a beer later that night that I was completely prepared to run or fight in the event I was robbed. My life's work was worth such a risk after all I had put into it. Such is the desperation of a graduate student. They thought I was either lying or insane and recommended several ways of making my data redundant. If you think I'm mad, when I got home later that night I found this sitting in my inbox:


Case Western Reserve University Police and Security Services

Location of Incident: Kelvin Smith Library & East Blvd near Bellflower Rd.

Date of incident: October 13, 2010

Time of Incident: 10:47pm

Incident Description: While walking near the east side of the Kelvin Smith Library, a student reported he was approached by a male who demanded he turn over his property of value. The student advised the male that he didn't have any property to turn over and then fled. The suspect then ran through Freiberger Field towards the intersection of East Blvd. and Bellflower Rd. where he encountered another student. The suspect demanded the second student turn over his property of value and after receiving a small amount of cash and a cellphone, walked northbound on East Blvd. attempting to leave the area.

Additional Information: During both incidents the suspect motioned to the victims that he had a gun underneath his outer clothing, however, no weapon was seen. Case Western Reserve University Police and University Circle Police toured the area and located a suspect matching the description provided. The suspect was positively identified by one of the victims and was in possession of the stolen items. He was subsequently arrested by Case Western Reserve University Police for two counts of robbery.


Mikah McMikah said...

Glad to hear you hit the history jackpot. I always like to picture you, creeping through the library, dressed as Sherlock Holmes, and muttering to an imaginary Watson. HISTORY DETECTIVE FTW!

Also, I still get the UofM-Flint campus alerts......we should compare horrible, horrible alert emails sometime.

Black Kabbath said...

Two historians enter, one historian leaves.


In all seriousness, I enjoyed the post. My touristy conceptualizations of history aside - I'm the first to point a finger at myself and scream "J'accuse, dilettante!" - I dig the idea of the complete impermanence of the historical narrative.

It's refreshing to see an academic recognize and deconstruct the borders between philosophy, history, and metaphysics without fetishizing the parts in favor of the whole.

In other words, it's good to see you questioning the pedantic quagmire that all too often still bogs down higher education.

Now, if anyone needs me, I'll be busy avoiding living in Cleveland, that post-apocalyptic slice of Americana.

Anonymous said...

Good to know you haven't duplicated your collection as of yet. We'll be in touch shortly.

Lillian said...

I enjoyed the post Jon. I tried to decipher it to the best of my capability since well I am me and I have to ask a lot of questions to actually understand anything fully.

My teacher always says to us students at my school roughly something like this, " I know you are students and don't have much money, but you all are seem to be waiting for something bad to happen by not backing up your work and then backing up again. Don't assume something might go wrong. Something always will go wrong. I will tell you this message now, but I know you will not fully learn it until the 4th time you loose your work."

She was referring to us buying terra byte hard drives to store are work and not buying a duplicate to store our work again and then keeping it at a different location.

So I can relate to loosing a lot of work and having to start over because I put too much trust in technology.

Rockonomist said...

I guess campus email/text message crime alerts are a good thing, but even though crime hadn't really increased in Tallahassee over the last few years, it sure felt like it increased dramatically after FSU started doing implementing its message system.

Bottom line, BACK UP YOUR STUFF.

I had been slacking on backing up my dissertation data, and then last month lightning hit close enough to my house that my surge protector was useless and now my computer is, umm, special. Still works, but it does some funny things, like automatically powering back up when I turn it off--and yes, I've done everything possible troubleshooting-wise to fix's definitely the hardware. So now I back up my stuff religiously and unplug my external hard drives when not in use. Of course, by doing all of this, I am just begging for a meteorite impact.

anna kiss said...

I'm serious, offsite FTP is the way to go.

Rockonomist said...

Yeah, I definitely should do that, too, although it would be illegal for me to do that with a lot of my data. The best option is to finish the dissertation quickly and then burn down my house and laugh.

riot_nerrrd said...

I finally got my account figured out so y'all will know who is writing.

motherinlaw2 said...

Anna and I just had this conversation. Old-school mother-in-law still keeps a paper/pencil copy of most things important. My graduate research is now only available in this form or on floppy disc (remember those) as the computer I owned at the time was unable to convert the information to the new. I just don't trust either the computer or my ability to refrain from pushing the wrong key to make everything disappear. I also lost an entire IEP on a student at school due to an unexpected power failure.

I must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed your writing. You have the gift of knowledge and articulation. Allow your editing to be part of the process.