Soooo from what I can tell from my blog stats, most of the random google traffic I get is from this post about a paper I was writing in the fall term. Although (and trust me, this upsets me more than anyone else) it would appear that these google searches are looking for a very rarified market of bonnet-and-wide-brimmed-hat pornography, I suppose it’s possible that there’s someone out there looking for more about dress and social memory. So, let’s give the people what they want.
Anyway, the class was about archives, evidence and institutions of social memory, and was a way to get at the idea that the way that societies engage with their past may or may not have very much to do with archives or professional historical practice. Memory is transmitted all kinds of ways, and many of us tend to think of the links between past and present as more direct and inevitable than is true.
The paper for the class was a research paper on social memory, which I thought was conceptually flawed. It’s difficult to be analytical without falling into the trap of “X group thinks that their history is Y but it’s REALLY Z!” and it’s very hard to explain or measure the social history of a group without a bit more ethnographic skill. The most successful papers were from classmates who were very intimate with a particular social tradition, but their papers were the most vulnerable to empirical blind spots, For instance, someone was writing about the influence of the Adventist Village (a site in Battle Creek, Michigan, that preserves the homes and buildings used by church founders) among Seventh-Day Adventists and how the church’s past is used to create a sense of shared past among members and proselytize to potential new members. But what, really, was the author supposed to say about the relationship between place and memory? There’s plenty of room for description, but how exactly does one measure how successfully this kind of site can create social identity?
My project was similar and somewhat easier. I was interested in a micro-trend I had found while blog-surfing of present-day Quakers (usually women) wearing “plain dress.” Entire pages of websites were devoted to the definitions and permutations of plain, but the results often resembled historical Quaker women from the 18th and 19th centuries, or present-day Amish women. And, as I mentioned, I had the benefit of a living archive, entire blogs and web communities of plain-dressing Quakers who vociferously explained their reasons for wearing plain dress and how these reasons related to religious practice, community identity and spiritual beliefs.
But whence analysis? I decided to use the paper as a critique of the limits of describing what the past (and practices of the past) mean to groups of people.
It is not uncommon for members of a religious tradition to look to their collective pasts for spiritual inspiration and direction. However, the concept of a “collective past” is slippery and the lived practices of how this inspiration from the past is transmitted to the present is unclear. The phenomenon of modern Quaker women donning “plain dress” brings many of these questions into sharp relief. In a tradition marked by competing views of the role of mysticism versus the place of tradition, foundationalism and doctrine, some groups of Friends in the 20th and 21st centuries have often eschewed doctrine and practiced a faith based on continued revelation that looked toward the future and social justice rather than to the past. Thus, women who look to the past do so outside of (and according to some, contrary to) the current practices of their religious communities….
As I looked at the history of plain dress, I was faced with something of a methodological crisis. If I’m trying to measure some distance between “history” (plain dress from the late seventeenth century until it was largely discontinued in the early twentieth century) and “recurrence” or “nostalgia” or “revival” (plain-dressing Friends today), on what authority do I measure that distance? How do I say that I can identify the “true” history of Quaker dress? Even if plain-dressing Friends today don’t claim exact authenticity, they are claiming to be part of a particular tradition.
As I look over my work, it’s clear that I couldn’t figure out what to make of this paper and these problems. After all, in order to really measure the distance between what is remembered and what was lived, I have to some how measure how wearing this kind of costume makes people feel and why it makes them feel connected to the past. And really, what I want to know is what kind of power there is in this connection to the past.
These are important questions to an archivist. What we’re really doing in our archives is wielding our own bits of power. In the case of government or institutional records, it’s easy to understand the potential for power in our documents. Decisions are made on precedent; records can provide evidence for restitution or compel another to acknowledge past events. But what of memories? What is the power in the feeling that one gains from reproducing the past?
So, googlers, if you’ve come to this blog by searching these themes and you have some insights, please let me know.