Monday, January 23, 2012

Above and Below

“traditional history offers a view from above…a number of the new historians are concerned with ‘history from below’, in other words, with the views of ordinary people and with their experience of social change.” (Burke 4)
So let me get this straight.  My story is “from below” if I’m not one of the privileged, straight, white, western men?  Yes, it’s a charming tweet-sized binary constructed to portray a simple difference between traditional history and new history, and I certainly appreciate the impulse to include and uncover histories that have not, thus far, been deemed worthy of the canon, but there’s something in it that feels so condescending.  Even in deconstructing the established hierarchy, he pays homage to it.  He does concede problems with the term, both in connotations and in definition of which “below” to choose in any given scenario.  E4r3\ (My new kitten Matilda felt like assisting with this post, so I figured I would leave in her contribution.  Where, after all, is the kitten’s-eye view of history to be written if not here?  She is awfully small, so perhaps “from below” is fairly literal in her case.)   Later, Burke addresses the everyday – and perhaps this is a place to draw a less divisive binary.  Traditional history deals with the exceptional while new history concerns itself with the everyday?  No, there is still the implication of a higher value for the material of the traditional approach.  Yes… even the deconstruction needs deconstructing.  Just another in a string of readings this week that seem designed to remind me of my interest in semiotics, structuralism and (especially) poststructuralism.  While some see a dark and uneasy nihilism in the uncertainty of poststructuralism, I find a reassuring freedom.  If no meaning is fixed or ultimately, definitively knowable, then change is always possible.  And if other people won’t accept the change, it doesn’t particularly matter: “Our minds do not reflect reality directly.  We perceive the world only through a network which varies from one culture to another.” (Burke 5)  Context, context, context.  Reality isn’t a fixed point, so why feel hamstrung by it?  When I look at the comedies of Bekah Brunstetter, an interesting and energetic young playwright, I see an impulse that seems to fit in this discussion.  She sets up old tropes and signposts of femininity, only to turn them on their ear or squoosh them under the heel of her characters’ sensible shoes.  In one play – You May Go Now – she introduces us to Dottie, “a bake-from-scratch throwback to the halcyon TV mom days of Donna Reed and June Cleaver, complete with a starched apron over her pleated dress,”[1] and her daughter Betty, whom she is attempting to raise to be the perfect housewife.  Together they make icing and talk about how to please a man:
“When he arrives home, be gay and a little more interesting for him.  His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties it to provide it… Catering for his comfort will provide you with intense personal satisfaction.  Speak in a low, soothing voice.  Don’t ask him questions about his actions, or question his judgment or integrity.  Don’t dare judge him.  Don’t neglect to – don’t neglecthim.  If you have your own goddamn wishes for yourself, for your future, push them deep inside and make dinner.  Keep them to yourself…Remember, he is the master of the house.” (Brunstetter 15)
Of course, as we go along, we discover that Dottie is not all she seems.  In fact, she was a driven career woman who never cooked and who had no intention of having children; a fact that led her husband to commit suicide.  So she kidnapped a child, called her Betty and has been raising her in this hermetically sealed, Donna Reed bubble for fifteen years.  As the truth comes out, both Dottie and Betty are left completely out to sea, and the structure of the blissful domestic goddess (a distinctly patriarchal construction… constructed “from above,” one might say) is irreversibly shattered.  Though destructive, there is a playfulness in the way she points out the absurdities of the accepted too-neat-and-tidy narrative, replacing it with a fractured set of questions about her characters’ places in the world.   This sort of using narrative to break the narrative could prove itself to be a useful tool in attempting to write a history that incorporates some of these viewpoints “from below.”

[1] William Westhoven, “Review Preview: ‘You May Go Now,’”Jersey Stages, 26 February, 2009, <>.

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