Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The questions we ask

I'm starting to think about the questions my dissertation asks, and the problem I see with the existing scholarship in my field is sometimes not that it answers important questions incorrectly, but that it asks the wrong questions.  Like a cat who likes to sit squished between both a window screen and a couch, the scholarship is awfully comfortable and doesn't want to go anywhere.  (Is that too much metaphor to put on one cat?  Sorry.  Had to work in the cat photo somehow).

I've been going round and round in trying to frame my dissertation, because I do find the way that the current scholarship answers the big questions to be wrong, but I also find the questions wrong in a way I couldn't articulate until recently.  Graduate education, or at least my graduate education, has focused on learning to engage with the terms of debate as they stand in the field.  There's nothing wrong with this; I think it's necessary to know how to engage a discussion as it stands in order to recognize your position in it and the limits of that debate's frame.  What it doesn't teach you is how to reframe the debate.  Some of the best scholarship does that, and while it may be overly ambitious for a dissertation project, at least in my subfield, the terms of debate are so broken and retrograde that I'm beginning to feel they're unusable for what I think my evidence is telling me.

I study the material culture (clothing, homes, tools, etc) of Native people in the Northeast* from about 1550-1850, during what is somewhat problematically known as the American colonial period** to the early republic period.  The history of European consumer culture and Anglo-American consumer culture celebrates this period as one of expanded opportunity for consumers: goods became cheaper and more accessible to more people, luxuries moved down the social ladder, and exotic goods (often the product of slave labor or colonial exploitation) became integrated into daily routines (think tea, chocolate and cotton).  Sounds great, right?  It's known as the consumer revolution, and it was pretty great for a lot of people, since it helped solidify the middle class as we have come to know it.  It also helped relieve or at least moderate many (but not all) women's labor burdens, since it shifted the physical toll of production out of the home and onto distant (enslaved, colonized, or otherwise marginalized) workers (who were sometimes also female).***

So anyway, here's the joke:  A white woman and a Native woman walk into the same store in Albany, circa 1750.  Both buy a few yards of the same India calico for dresses.  The white woman walks out to find herself enmeshed in a dynamic Atlantic economy in which her purchasing choices have newfound global political implications.  The Native woman walks out and finds she's not Indian anymore.

Good joke, no?

No, not really.  It relies on two questions, and presumes a profound difference based on race.  How did the white woman use consumer goods to solidify her white identity, and how did she choose to engage with an expanding array of new products in a way that meshed with her social/cultural background?  And: How did Native people become colonized?  If it seems like there's a big disconnect between those two questions, it's because there is.  I think it's because, like I noted about the field's sources earlier, a lot of scholars still rely on 19th century questions, or they accept what the sources tell them at face value.  The store clerk in Albany wrote that Indians don't wear clothes, so if a Native woman buys a dress, she's not Indian, right?  This grossly oversimplifies a lot of things, but the outlines of the problem are the same.

So that's where the dissertation stands: there aren't right answers to wrong questions.  I suppose this all was a long way of introducing you to the background of my reading for the Summer Book Club, so if you made it this far, thank you for reading all the way!  Here's another cat picture.

Im on ur ironing, increasing ur labor burdenz

*I'm not Native.  We can talk about the politics of this another time.

**Problematic because A. the settlers who came over from Europe were not colonized (ie, dominated) by European powers, as conceptualized in the popular imagination, because those settlers viewed themselves for the most part as members of European nations, and B. Native people in the North America were, in some cases, colonized in the way Africa, Asia, and South America were colonized, but this is erased by the imagined (A), and C. many Native people in North America, even on the East coats, were NOT colonized as soon as white settlers came to their areas, and this is also erased by (A).  Let's talk about this another time as well.

***I would also argue that the mid-twentieth century, with the expansion of appliances like fridges and washing machines into most homes, and the current digital changes we're witnessing represent a second and third consumer revolution.  I think a key feature of consumer revolutions is that they reduce women's labor burden in the home while creating new female labor demands.  While the technological changes which make a consumer revolution possible take place mainly in industrial sectors women have historically been excluded from, consumer products which reduce women's production in the home both reduces their daily labor burden while demanding new standards of housekeeping, for which women have been historically and continue to be mainly responsible for.  Consumerism is thus both a means of female labor liberation and patriarchal equilibrium.  Let's talk about the class and gender politics of this another time.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm, sounds frustrating, if you are questioning the very framework your dissertation is based upon!
    However, the Notorious writing group sounds like it could be a fun distraction...