Monday, August 2, 2010

Leveraging ambivalence

The following piece is an excerpt from a work in progress. Sequentially, it follows the post below it ("A Raft of Hopes") but can be understood on its own terms. --J.C.

I learned something recently, as I occasionally do, in an argument with my wife. We were discussing the schooling of my learning disabled son. Actually, the heart of the argument was over such terminology: seven years earlier, he had been diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), and placed on the autistic spectrum. Though a moment of great anxiety, we recognized this diagnosis as a welcome development that did indeed have profoundly positive consequences, because it allowed our child to receive remedial services through the public school system.

But I've always had trouble accepting the term "autistic" to describe him. He's seemed too connected to other people (though not so much his peers), and, notwithstanding obvious academic challenges, too skilled, for me to feel at ease with it. Of course, many if not most of his attainments can be attributed to the quality of the intervention he has received, primary among them the immensity of a mother's love for her child, a love whose costs to her have been as evident as they've been redemptive of him. But autistic? It just hasn't seemed right to me.

I know what you're thinking: denial. And you may well be right. Certainly my wife wanted to know, after years of sustained contact with the medical experts who have evaluated and treated our boy, just what it was that I understood that they somehow did not. The only answer I could give her -- an answer which, however insufficient, I'd been too obtuse to express before -- is that I've always been somewhat skeptical about medical expertise because I've always been somewhat somewhat skeptical about historical expertise.

This is a notably awkward position for me to hold. Among other reasons, that's because for most of my professional life I've considered myself a professional historian, and as such am a product of some of the best training and practices honed by generations of academic expertise. While the doctorate I hold is not in History, but rather the interdisciplinary field of American Studies, I've always gravitated toward history departments, and written history books. My migration from academe to high school teaching a decade ago has not fundamentally changed this orientation. I still read and review historical scholarship, attend history conferences, and have paid my fair share -- more than my fair share, really -- of attention to trends in the profession. The subdiscipline of historiography has always been one of my passions.

And yet as a matter of choice, disposition and luck, I've always experienced myself as on the periphery of the profession. Though it doesn't explain everything, I think this has something to do with having a working-class background. I had no privations to speak of, educationally or otherwise. But since no one on either side of my extended family had ever had a career as an intellectual, my untutored mind gravitated toward movies, television, and music. Nothing unusual about that: Indeed, it was precisely the point, where the action was. On the loneliest days of my adolescence, Top 40 songs on AM radio gave me shared ground with my peers and a consciousness of a wider world.

It's hardly surprising, then, that my doctoral dissertation was a series of case studies comparing treatments of the Civil War in popular culture and academic history. In the years that followed, I continued to work in the field of popular culture, gradually shifting my focus toward more traditional subjects like the American Dream and the U.S. presidency. Then, after writing books continuously for seventeen years, I found the well had run dry. Shifting my focus back toward reviewing and the new medium of blogging, I've wondered if I would ever write another book again.

In any case, there was always another job at hand (a real job, one with a salary that paid the bills rather than the one whose royalties paid for occasional vacations) and that was teaching.  All through my first decade as a high school teacher, I kept coming back to curious discovery I made after deciding on a slate of movies I planned to show in the inaugural semester of my U.S. History survey: every starred Daniel Day-Lewis. There was The Crucible. And Last of the Mohicans. And The Age of Innocence. Later I added Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood. All told, there were nine times I ran an event I dubbed "The Daniel Day-Lewis Film Festival."

Maybe it's not surprising that my predilections would express themselves without conscious effort. But keep in mind that we're talking about Daniel Day-Lewis here.  As anyone vaguely familiar with his work knows, Day-Lewis is legendary for the extraordinary variety of characters he has played, and the vertiginous psychological depth with which he has played them. I first became aware of Day-Lewis in early 1985, when, in the space of a week, I watched him portray the priggish Cecil Vyse in the tony Merchant-Ivory film adaptation of Room with a View and then saw him embody Johnny, the punk East End homosexual, in Stephen Frears's brilliantly brash My Beautiful Launderette. Day-Lewis went on to have a distinguished career, winning an Academy Award for his portrayal of the handicapped Irish poet Christy Brown in My Left Foot in 1989, but between 1988 and 2007 he played a string of American figures that ranged from a seventeenth century Puritan to a contemporary art collector.

What could this mean, I wondered? Every year like clockwork, I watched these films again with my students (sometimes two or three sets of them per year), always marveling an the inexhaustible nuances of Day-Lewis's performances. Gradually I discerned a thread that connected the Puritan to the gangster, the frontiersman and lawyer. I published an article about it, which I hope to expand upon for the project at hand. But perhaps the more important outcome of the experience is that it got me thinking: Could it make sense to think of actors as historians? That people, in the process of doing a job whose primary focus was not thinking in terms of interpretation of the past, were nevertheless performing it? And that by doing so again and again over the course of a lifetime, that they would amass a body of work that represented an interpretive version of American history as a whole?

Of course, such people are aware when they're dealing with historical situations (or contemporary situations with historical resonances), and may make real effort to to exercise historical imagination as part of their work. But that's the point: it's part of their work. We all understand that there are many people out there who "do" history without writing books -- archivists, curators, and, of course, filmmakers, including both documentarians as well as writers and directors of feature films, who work consciously and conceptually to craft an interpretive and even analytic experience for their audiences. What intrigues me about actors in this context, however, are the obvious limitations and obstacles to performing a purely historical function. Such work is always embedded in a larger context in which their control of the material is limited -- actors do not typically write their own lines -- and their work is collaborative, in enterprises that will always be at as much aesthetic and commercial as they will be historical.

Now I must acknowledge that there is less to the distinction I'm making than meets the eye. Archivists, curators, and filmmakers labor under limitations of various kinds, they collaborate, and they embark on enterprises that are very often aesthetic and commercial, too: they can't afford not to.  So do academic historians. But there's a powerful mythology surrounding such work -- a mythology that extends, for example, to procedures for hiring and promotion at research universities -- that suggests history is supposed to exist outside such considerations. That it has its own intrinsic value, and should be pursued independently of them. This is a powerful proposition, and it has led to work of enormous value that has enriched our understanding of the past. I'd never want to see it go away, and understand it cannot be taken for granted in a society under great financial pressure and long-standing anti-intellectual influences.

But I'm after something a little different here. I'm trying to apprehend the way history is woven into the fabric of everyday life -- messy, half-conscious, and hemmed in by factors that range from distraction to ignorance. The history I've been able to apprehend this way is more suggestive than articulate, more fragmented than cohesive. But, in part with the help of the tools of the expert, I'm hoping to make this history legible and useful. And in so doing to convert the nagging sense of ambivalence I've felt about expertise from a problem into a solution. Who knows: maybe it will help make me a better father as well as a better historian.

But for the moment, a more quotidian question remains: Are actors -- more specifically movie stars, more specifically still Hollywood movie stars -- really the best way to get at this? Actually, I don't need or even want to insist on best way; "plausible" way will do, and indeed it's my hope that this particular avenue might open up others. Granting this, there's still the issue of which movie stars. To the extent it's possible to do so, I will make a preliminary attempt to address these matters. Naturally, I will do so by recourse to history -- this time less personal than generational. But first I'd like to say a few words on the nature of stardom.