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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Timothy Burke, in his response to Graphs, Maps and Trees by Franco Moretti, reaffirms the importance of the quantification of data as a methodological approach to history but also establishes some limitations to this model, specifically certain factors approaches that are not able to be quantified or measured.

One idea that Burke introduces through his critique is actually strikingly similar to what Hayden White calls metanarrative, which is a term to describe all-encompassing concepts that gives meaning to historical facts. Burke doesn’t use the term metanarrative. However, he explains that Moretti’s approach to data has “difficulty explaining rupture, breach, or novelty,”[1]meaning it needs an overall idea that would account for divergences, changes, and discontinuities in history. Burke calls this the complexity theory or emergence.

Burke’s idea allows for a history that it is not just linear – or gradual, as he refers to Moretti’s methodological approach. Instead, he offers a perspective on history that allows for the emergence of other factors and creates a non-linear history that can go incorporate more complex relationships. Burke uses “modernity” as an example of a metanarrative that he refers to as “emergent, and in some ways [an] accidental social structure which in turn creates the possibility for individual agency, that then generates still other emergent forms through will, choice or deliberate selection.”[2]

This shows, as White suggests, that metanarratives are always needed to provide meaning to history. Burke gives them the added role of explaining unexpected turns in history, that data can’t easily quantify, furthering the idea that history is not linear and that those unexpected divergences from the linear perspective are, in fact, the essence of the study of history.


[1] Timothy Burke. “Book Notes: Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Tress.” The Valve a Literary Organ. January 2006.www.thevalve.org

[2] Burke. “Book Notes: Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Tress.”

After spending some time playing around with Wikipedia, I decided to ask post a question on Facebook to see how friends with very different backgrounds viewed this Wikipedia. The question I asked was: When do you use Wikipedia and how do you use it? A musician said that he uses it to check historical facts, out of curiosity. An exhibition designer said that he never uses it as a source, but that sometimes facts on Wikipedia have footnotes with legitimate sources, and that he uses those. A writer responded that she uses it to get a sense of the subject and then she goes to actual sources.  A Pan-American Health Organization employee responded that he uses it all the time at work to check facts, mainly out of curiosity.  A college student said that she uses it to learn about the basic information of a subject and that she sometimes uses the footnote information published at the end of the article in the essays she writes. Another person, who works at the World Bank, said that she uses it all the time to check specific data out of curiosity but not for “serious research.”

These answers clearly show that for this group of people from differing backgrounds Wikipedia is a tool that allows them to quickly check facts and get a sense about a subject, inform themselves about other possible sources, but never a source of information directly used for in-depth research. It seems that out there is a general sense of the limitations of this tool, but also the advantages of it. There is an acknowledgement of its ability to provide information instantaneously. For this reason, these people use Wikipedia as a reference tool in their daily lives.

After reading Roy Rosenzweig’s article Can History Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past, I think not only that Wikipedia with all of its pros and cons is a great communal resource, but it is also generates a challenge to the discipline of history and art history. The challenge lies in that historians are taken out of their comfort zone. Traditional resources for historical reference, like highly specialized academic journals, are intended to be read by other professionals in the field and are usually produced by an individual author or small group of authors. The increased use of Wikipedia is quickly challenging professional historians to explore collective knowledge sources, available to all people. In other words, there is a new need to democratize the field, without loosing it seriousness and objectives.

In my opinion, I do not think that Wikipedia and other professional, historical research resources compete with each other. In fact, sometimes they might even complement each other and, as it appears from my Facebook questionnaire, Wikipedia may have become the first step towards a later, more refined historical source. I do think, however, that Wikipedia is generating new ways to approach writing and finding knowledge and that this model is an opportunity to re-imagine the field – using new, outside-of-the-box vocabularies and methods to share history and art history outside of traditional, academic communication formats to new ones designed for the general public.

Can you imagine a collective Latin-American art history database, produced by scholars in the field that is able to update information instantly and is open to the general public? I can, and I would love to work on something like this.

In the article The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality by Hayden White, the author elaborates on the idea that narrative is a “metacode” –which he means as a universal way to tell history that is able to traverse different cultures throughout time. For him, the act of narrating transfers “moralizing judgments” to the meaning of history. By considering history as a science that seeks to achieve objectivity, consideration must be made as how to make negotiate the inherent tension between the actual facts of an event and how they are narrated, for him there is always a value, a concept that gives meaning to the historical narration.

Concerning the above article, I would like to make one observation and pose an additional question for further thought with this blog entry. The consideration is regarding the examples White cited. Both of them are primary sources and were produced in the period in which the events took place under their own unique circumstances. Primary sources such as annals or chronicles are permeated by the moralizing judgment of the person who choose to record those events and the circumstances in which they were recorded. It is the job of the modern historian writing about medieval history, for example, to determine the context, strengths, and weakness of primary sources such as annals and chronicles. As the modern historian writes about past events using primary sources, their text, whether intentionally “narrated” or not, will still be permeated by moralizing factors because of the historian’s action of building a history made in the “narrative” of the selection of events that build their case.

The question I would like to post following the reading of this article is: is then, this concept that White describes imposed by the modern historians, is it a construct of the time in which the document was written, or both?

After reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr and from Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner, and as someone who is just learning about the history and mechanisms that make up the Internet, a new realm of understanding emerges from this technology. Despite of it being pretty familiar to our daily lives, it is at the same time a complex system that not only is a “medium” for a person to connect into the collectivity of the world, but also it is a technology that shapes and structures human behavior.

Carr elaborates on how the constant use of technologies, in his case the Internet specifically, has the power to change the brain way our brain works, creating new routines and ways of processing information. To illustrate this, he compares the discipline deep research through reading books, in which a person sits for a long period of time and immerses her or himself into the text. Reading word-by-word, they eventually form an understanding of the entire book. With the Internet search, the same person can not only access the information faster, but also can access more information. This information pours in from the past and from the present simultaneously, leading to a shortened attention span and developing a style of reading that is not about understanding the whole of the content, but instead just the highlighting the most important information. Carr also argues that the power of the Internet is not based in the information we transmit through it, but in the technology itself.

This new condition of the brain, a product of continually using the Internet, has created new behaviors in people from past generations. Now, new generations are being born into this new way of conditioning. Some of the more radical changes that this technology has introduced are the ways in which we work and interact with people, new capacities for multitasking, and lowering – as a result – our attention span.

On this first change, Turner focused his studies on the transition that took place during the 1960s, a time when technologies once used for military purposes were redirected by what he calls the counterculture. This counterculture was formed by a group of revolutionary people who imagined a new use for these technologies. Opening them up, democratizing the flow of information, and creating networks that work at the service of communities that were part of this revolution.

By opening these processes to the world, the structure of work dynamics have shifted with the technological progress that Internet has made. The shift that took place in the 60s and the creation of the Internet was just the beginning of the decentralized, collective, and individualized way in which we function today.

The second change of decreased attention spans and increased multitasking is a condition we now consider normal, however, perhaps our parents or grandparents do not. I would like to suggest the blog entry Attention and Information by Professor Michael O’Malley as it introduces the idea of the “surplus attention,” or the result of the great accessibility and fastness in which society processes information nowadays. In my opinion, this extra attention allows individuals to produce more knowledge in different fields, all in a faster manner.

At the end of the day, if through the Internet is the way in which we live, think, and organize our daily routine, it is our job to take advantage of all the advantages it provides in order to produce more knowledge collectively and maximize its access to people. In this way, if harnessed positively, the role of the internet can be seen as an agent for social change.

Our first assignment for Clio Wired’s class is to write a blog post about “why we are doing history?”

When I began studying history, I approached the field with the general assumption that the role of history was to prevent those in the present from making the mistakes of the past.  However, while I was in college I realized, as Professor Michael O’Malley elaborated in his blog, that “history rarely if ever helps you to ‘avoid the mistakes of the past.’”[1]  What I came to understand after studying Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic, is that history is relevant because it allows people to trace the specific junctures that triggered new systems of thought. In the case of Foucault this was in science, specifically in medicine. However, this idea can be extended to view these junctures in different fields such as art, culture, politics, and economics.

This concept of junctures can be seen in what the Annales School called “history of middle duration”. The middle duration is the idea that the historian can study processes within a specific period of time and field instead of the single fact or event (short duration) as this short duration may not necessarily be the most important aspect of the issue or juncture. By employing this idea of looking at the middle duration, historians can create meaning in our contemporary circumstances by viewing the junctures – or changes – that lead up to the present. These changes do not necessarily form an evolutionary sequence, but rather form a collective series of processes that resulted in the current situation.

In this same way, art becomes a tool or document to study these junctures in time. My primary focus of study is in the field of Modern Latin American art. Again, what excited me about this area of history and what makes it relevant to today is using this art as a document to understand the critical combination of events and circumstances within the Latin American nations during the first half of the 20th Century. This process can be seen through the works of the Mexican Muralists in Mexico, and the Atropofagia in Brazil. These American countries were defining their national identities at this time – a process that can be seen through the works of the Latin American vanguards of the 1920s and 30s, which showed a change of thinking from colonialism to nationalistic aspirations. Here, by viewing the junctures in Latin American art history we can see the changes in time that resulted in a new social identity through their own art.


[1] Michael O’Malley. “Why Does History Matters.” The Aporetic. http://theaporetic.com/?p=4745 August 30, 2013