The 1930’s was an interesting time for the historical profession in America. Professionalization of the discipline had been all the rage around the 1910’s, with the “scientific revolution” of historical thought towards the turn of the century. What ushered this revolution was a series of half-thoughts about Leopold Von Ranke’s famous dictum: “wie es eigentlich gewesen” or tell the past “as it actually happened.” I don’t know enough German to describe the details about why this phrase is problematic, but it has to deal with the term eigentlich, which more generally refers to “essence” than anything more explicit. This is more developed by Peter Novick in his landmark text, That Noble Dream (a text I’ve given some notes on this blog).
In any case, by the 30’s, a new set of historians had taken the scene. Thinking about the historical context of the 30s, being caught between the Depression and the rise of World War II led to a much more radical politicization of history than had previously been necessary. I bring this all up because the title for today (partially) comes from a lecture given by Carl L. Becker, in reception of the American Historical Association Presidency and infinitely quotable:
“Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman.”
Becker’s been suggested to be a very early form of the post-modern engine that would show up in the 50s. You can kind of get hints from it here: what is important isn’t so much the facts or even well-researched narratives. What’s important is what our Everyperson conceives as important, or at least, what leaves the largest impression on Everyperson, be that fact or fiction. It’s something that will be picked up especially during the Cold War/after the bombing of Hiroshma and Nagaski. While firebombs in Dresden were much more damaging, the psychological effects of the atomic bomb had vast consequences for the humanities in a variety of regions.
But the point of this is not that Becker called post-modernism. It’s the role of Everyperson in fashioning her own history. The history that is unread has no power. The history that does have power is what connects the Everyperson to her every day existence. An example of this is given earlier in the speech, in which Becker describes the steps in which his Mr. Everyman goes after finding out he had a mistake in his records of to whom he owed money.
“Mr. Everyman would be astonished to learn that he is an historian, yet it is obvious, isn’t it, that he has performed all the essential operations involved in historical research. Needing or wanting to do something (which happened to be, not to deliver a lecture or write a book, but to pay a bill; and this is what misleads him and us as to what he is really doing), the first step was to recall things said and done. Unaided memory proving inadequate, a further step was essential—the examination of certain documents in order to discover the necessary but as yet unknown facts. Unhappily the documents were found to give conflicting reports, so that a critical comparison of the texts had to be instituted in order to eliminate error. All this having been satisfactorily accomplished, Mr. Everyman is ready for the final operation—the formation in his mind, by an artificial extension of memory, of a picture, a definitive picture let us hope, of a selected series of historical events—of himself ordering coal from Smith, of Smith turning the order over to Brown, and of Brown delivering the coal at his house. In the light of this picture Mr. Everyman could, and did, pay his bill. If Mr. Everyman had undertaken these researches in order to write a book instead of to pay a bill, no one would think of denying that he was an historian.”
I bring these quotes up because La Giralda is an interesting intersection of these lines between the professional and amateur lines of doing history. To back up, La Giralda refers to the tower from the Seville Cathedral:
It was begun in the 12th century, when the Almohad dynasty still controlled Sevilla, and was meant to be a minaret. But, the Almohads didn’t get to enjoy it for very long, because in the 13th century, Fernando did the conquest thing. Apparently, after Fernando’s death, a few Muslim subjects considered tearing the tower down, brick by brick, to which Fernando’s son, Alfonso X (aka El Sabio, cause he was a nerd) responded by saying he’d put them to the blade if they touched a single brick. He then ordered the construction of the original Cathedral. In our chronology, then, we can give the Cathedral life beginning in about the 13th century, and La Giralda in the 12th. This means that people could have been (theoretically) walking up and down the bulk of the tower (the way tip was built in the 16th century, after an earthquake damaged the top of the tower).
Most of the history is in and around the building and dead people and artifacts, but I was drawn to something somewhat different:
On the top, it’s pretty visible. Someone went on a tour in 2014! That’s awesome. On the bottom, someone named L.R appears to have been at the tower April 19th, 1936.
I’m always fascinated by regions in which the academy and the real world intersect. On one hand, here’s the hugely famous and influential structure that is indicative of all sorts of trends. On the other, here are two Everypeople! The bottom one happening five years after Carl Becker’s speech!
After capturing this, I felt pretty badass and decided I wanted to find the earliest year possible. There’s scraffiti nearly everywhere on that tower–I could dedicate a summer to it, and probably still miss something. However, what I found was pretty incredible.
1777. What in the actual fuck. Note: I don’t actually have a way of double checking the person who wrote this actually wrote this on the year. So I decided to keep looking, and see if there were any others that predated the 20th century. Sure enough:
Ultimately, this feels like a space in which grand political narratives intersect with the every day reality of average people. While it’s connected to the decrees and orders and battles of varying monarchs, rulers and soldiers who fought for the land, as well as the bishops and cardinals buried in the cathedral itself. However, it’s also connected with the hundreds (thousands?) of visitors who have traversed through these spaces and left their marks throughout the area. In this sense the signature become reflective of a plethora of historical perspectives, both vertically and horizontally.
I think it’s especially interesting in the current day, considering we have a number of ways in which these sorts of signatures can have significant ideas behind them. I know everyone says “DON’T READ THE COMMENTS” on whatever blog/article/whatever has gone up, but that is a perfect example of the sort of history that will be available to social historians of the future. Not only will they have “L.R. August, 17th, 1777” they will be able to analyze just exactly what Everyperson’s historical record looks like. What books influenced her thoughts, what events were significant? It’s a crazy time in which we live.
For bearing with this, have a selfie of me and a bell!