Friday, August 31, 2007

Deviant historians

How do historians pick a subject to study? Most hit on a topic that floats their boat. To which I say: birds, war, observation, landscape? Dude! Why would anyone work on anything else?

Historians try to maintain the fiction that what they work on is either the cutting edge of current historiographical inquiry or merely happenstance. But it ain't so. Snobs work on the cultural history of the class system. Spies work on the history of Afghanistan. There are historians writing on the history of horse racing, on amateur mushroom hunting, on the history of Boy Scouts, on the history of the book.
(An aside: Historians of the book are an exceptionally excellent bunch. They're all crazy about books. Not just the text: the book, in all its musty, bumped, sunned glory. They know that the materiality of each copy of a book is part of the experience of reading the text within it. They get excited about typography, about buckram, about the different sizes and colours of nineteenth century cheap editions. Those endless internet debates about the goods and bads of e-publishing would be so much more interesting if their authors had read some good History of the Book before they opened their mouths)
There are exceptions to the "look at the subject and see the historian's psychopathology" rule. In my field, for example, you mark yourself out as a proper, level-headed, non-eccentric career academic if you work on Darwin. Darwin is not kinky. Darwin is "real" history of Science. Similarly level-headed subjects include the Manhattan Project, the history of Molecular Biology, the history of Medicine (generally) and maybe the history of Astronomy (although I'm not sure about that). Newton scholars are all bonkers. To a man. Remember that. It may one day save your life.

(Note: any subject that attracts the interest of "independent scholars" is, ipso facto, not on this list. I once spoke companionably to a guy in Starbucks. Nattily clad in a linen jacket and a Panama hat, he was poring over a copy of the Principia. It was a mistake. Within thirty seconds he'd started telling me about this code he'd found, hidden in its pages, which was the key to...") Me running away.

Anyway, the reason for this? An email from my friend R this morning. Which I reproduce below. This Bullough chap seems so delightfully, honestly unworried about all these pesky face-saving academic conventions. Yay for him.

I was just looking for information on a couple of articles on the medieval universities by a historian of medicine called Vern L. Bullough, when I discovered the following reference to a piece by him:

'Attitudes toward deviant sex in ancient Mesopotamia,' Journal of Sex Research, VII (1971), 184-203.

I'm torn between wondering who would want to read an article with a title like that, and wondering who wouldn't want to read an article with a title like that.

Then I spotted, further down his bibliography, another reference:

'Deviant sex and the detective novel,' Mystery and Detection Annual, edited by Donald K. Adams, II (1973), 326-31.

How's that for a sideline?

1 comment:

dr. hypercube said...


Thanks for the book book link. To quote Dan Hicks, "got my paycheck today [true]/think I'll spend it like a crazy fool".

Interesting warning on Newtonians - I once saw a 1st edition of Opticks at one of Tufte's seminars (don't start running!). It was there to illustrate good presentation; Tufte is a rare book fiend. He may be bonkers (don't know/doubt it), but Isaac the Alchemist isn't the reason.

Who gets to define deviancy w/ regard to Mesopotamia? I wonder if it's our deviant or their deviant.

Thanks - great start to my day!