The Blog Lebowski

16 11 2008

I’ve been thinking about some recent discussions bouncing around on several blogs regarding the form “information compilation” blogs should take.  Whenever we start speaking in terms of should instead of could I get a little nervous.  Now, I believe that certain basic tenets need to be followed when dealing with history, including digital history - proper citation and attribution especially.  But when I hear some suggest that there necessarily be interpretation and analysis, I have to wonder.  Of course, narrative form history requires an interpretive framework that is the product of the author’s analysis (see here).  But do we want to constrain ourselves with the narrative format when we don’t have to?

im-a-lebowskiIn a comment I made to this post, I mentioned that I think of the digital history portion of this blog, the Bull Run Resources, as being like the Buddha: not the moon, but the finger pointing at the moon.  Now, I didn’t come up with that on my own – I don’t know much about philosophy (about all I learned from the one philosophy course I took in college was the very valuable lesson that it’s less important to provide a correct answer than it is to provide the answer the instructor wants).  No, I got the Buddha thing from none other than The Dude, or His Dudeness, or The Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.  That is, the actor who made The Dude famous, Jeff Bridges.  In the foreword to the book I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski: Life,The Big Lebowski, and What-Have-You, the actor wrote [emphasis and brackets mine]:

“I often take these little walks in the evening at sunset and listen to different things.  Recently I played some Alan Watts [a British philosopher], and it reminded me of my conversation with Bernie [Glassman, founder of Zen Peacemakers] and how Zen relates to Lebowski.  Watts says, ‘The whole art of poetry is to say what can’t be said.’  I suppose that’s true for any art, including filmmaking.  He goes on to say that ‘Every poet, every artist feels when he gets to the end of his work, that there is something absolutely essential that was left out, so Zen has always described itself as a finger pointing at the moon.’  The Big Lebowski is a lot like that.

“The guys who wrote this book say the Coens [the writers, director and producer of The Big Lebowski] have kept clear of them entirely, and that tickles me.  Like all of you reading this, I’d be interested to know what the Coen brothers think, but it’s kind of beautiful that they don’t want to say anything definitive.  Let ‘em be the pointing finger.”

So that’s kind of how I view Bull Runnings.  I’ll give my opinion and analysis on the blog part of this site.  But for now let the Bull Run Resources section serve as a pointing finger.  Depending on who explores the data, why, how, and in what order, the story will be different.  To me, that’s what really distinguishes digital history from traditional narrative.  And perhaps what makes it more like real life.

More on poetry and digital history later.

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13 responses

17 11 2008
Robert Moore

Harry,

Good post. Though I’m leaning toward something that might be considered radical in challenging conventional thought as to “proper historical practice” in my recent post, I do need to be more conscious of my use of “could” and “should” in reference to different aspects of digital history. The beauty of the Web environment (why am I getting an image of Donald Sutherland in “Kelly’s Heroes” when I am saying this???) and digital history’s place in it, is that it isn’t well-defined. Read some of Landow’s work regarding hypertext theory and Tim Berners-Lee regarding his vision of the Internet and you’ll get what I’m talking about… dig?

17 11 2008
Harry Smeltzer

I dig, Oddball, on a conceptual level. My reading on digital history is limited to Rosenzweig’s & Cohen’s book. I just tend to see historians, academic historians especially, attempting to trim DH to conform to the traditional boundaries of written narrative. If I was a historian (I’m not), I’d certainly be bucking against that. I don’t need to buck though since I’m outside the loop. I see DH as more like poetry, where these guys view it as another type of prose. And that will be the subject of a future post, as we switch gears from Zen to Frost!

When I think of the possibilities of DH, I get the same “beautiful” sound in my head, but instead of Donald Sutherland, it’s Keir Dullea!

17 11 2008
Robert Moore

In my first post in my blog (in Nov. 2007), I did give the warning up front… that I am a “rogue” digital historian.

17 11 2008
Harry Smeltzer

I guess that makes me just a plain old rogue. Or maybe a digital rogue.

18 11 2008
cenantua

On another note, I just realized where you are at in PA (around the stomping grounds of the old 22nd Pa. Cavalry!). Next time I head up to my mother-in-law’s house in Wheeling, I need to touch base with you so we can grab a cup of coffee somewhere around Washington, PA.

18 11 2008
Harry Smeltzer

Sounds like a plan! BTW, we also have a lot of 4h PA Cav graves around these parts.

18 11 2008
Mannie

Harry,

I think that its the nature (and value) of blogs to be personality driven, at least for now, in this very volatile virtual venue.

As long as I’m provided with attribution (Jeff Bridges) or citations, I say celebrate the humanity of the transaction as well.

Yours, in alliteration,

Mannie

18 11 2008
Harry Smeltzer

Mannie,

Like I said, tis site is a little schitzo. My blogging is pretty traditional. My use of a blog platform for my Bull Run Resources is not so traditional. But I’m not alone (see the Information Compilation Blogs list to the right).

The world is our oyster (or clam, Antoninus).

18 11 2008
Don

Harry,

Beautiful, baby, beautiful. But try to keep the waves positive so no one blows up the bridge on us, okay? Don’t start with the negative waves. While off-topic, I must observe that Donald Sutherland’s portrayal of a tanker is even better than Gerorge C. Scott’s.

I think the poetry analogy finally made it all click for me. At least part of our discussion now seems to me to be debate over whether sonnets or haikus are better, while someone’s trying to explain the possibilities of iambic pentameter. Which is about as far as I’m willing to extend the analogy, since it took an embarassingly long time to remember the correct phrase for IP.

18 11 2008
Linda Mott

Although, I only have a BA in History, I do feel I am allowed an opinion about how history is presented. One must have the evidence to back up the narrative. It’s much like assembling a jig-saw puzzle. All the pieces have to fit before we can see the finished picture. If we rely on the ORs for information, do all the pieces fit? Maybe to some, but to a historian with an eye for precise details; the OR’s cannot stand alone as a source for information. Case in point, Col. Miles states in his OR that he was ill the day of the battle, do we believe him? Is this a red flag to the historian? Yes, the puzzle is missing a piece. Where is this piece and how can I find it? This is when digital compilation history comes into play. Perhaps, someone has the missing piece that will answer the question, was Col. Miles really ill? Someone may have posted an actual eye-witness accounting within a digital history blogsite about Miles’ true illness the day of the battle. Voila! The historian now has a true source, he/she can be directed there, and read about Miles’ illness written within days after the battle. However, before the historian can confirm or refute Miles illness several other like eye-witness accounts must be located before placing a statement in a narrative. If you’ll notice I have deliberately refrained from stating what his illness was. I have merely hinted that Miles may or may not have been truthful about his illness, I leave the “Budha finger pointing at the moon.”

Linda

19 11 2008
Robert Moore

Good point Linda. Piecing together history is a lot of fun, and a lot of work. My favorite work was with the records of the Charlottesville Artillery. I think I had 3 or 4 different perspectives from members of the unit as to what happened at Spotsylvania Court House. Piecing them all together to make sense of it all was challenging, but I felt satisfied when I was able to wrap it all in one package. The puzzle is an excellent mataphor.

Speaking of an eye for precise details, by default, I think anyone who works with historical materials has to be an “investigator.” We shouldn’t be satisfied to take something at face value and, therefore, we have to be critical… and part of being critical is learning how to curb any personal thoughts (Civil War “memory” being an excellent example) that might cloud our analysis. I always go back to the metaphor of the “cube.” How many different ways are there of looking at the cube… and who is to say we shouldn’t include also look at things from within the cube?

19 11 2008
Robert Moore

Don, Sounds like there might be a parallel between the mentality of tankers and submariners. However, where you guys get in the middle of things, I think we more enjoy being sneaky… of course, there are times where a little one-on-one game of “chicken” does go on underneath the waves.

Off topic again here too… I know…

20 11 2008
The Figure a Poem Makes « Bull Runnings

[...] Figure a Poem Makes 20 11 2008 In this post, I tried to explain – ineloquently – my “vision” for this site (I’ll use the word [...]

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