This week, we completed our discussion on The Histories of Herodotus. The students’ treatment of the authorial voice, the performance of objectivity in the claim to present “both sides,” and how to identify the bias of the historian/anthropologist in his language and framing of events was sophisticated and nuanced.
Because I knew we would discuss the intention behind the text as Herodotus articulates, his treatment of Greeks and non-Greeks, the reliability of his sources, the reasons he puts forth for why we war, and the centrality of the story of “how they treat their women” to how a group of people is represented and ranked among others — I began class by showing two images.
I wasn’t sure where it might lead us but based on the comments and the discussion they provoked, the images were very useful for getting the students to think collectively about the work of representation and the reality of a subject, the claim of expertise and the role of imagination, knowledge and power, and war propaganda.
We began with this most excellent meme a doctoral candidate and friend from another institution shared on Facebook and which I thought I would save for next semester but could not wait:
I asked students to first identify what they saw or noticed – before telling me what they thought it meant.
Their observations were sharp. They are, after all, highly meme literate. They noticed the objects of expertise present — such as the rubics cube and the multicolored pencils. They noticed the lack of detail in the drawing and the distorted proportions. They noticed the well-meaning attentive effort.
One of the observations that struck me most is that the cat looks scared.
I responded — Yes. The cat truly is an unwilling object of study.
I later thought — Not only does the cat not want to be represented by the toddler/orientalist, one could imagine the experience might not be that much better if another cat was holding him/her/them down. And by “one could imagine” — I mean I could imagine.
That is, I pursued this line of thinking, it indicates exactly why cultivating native informants are no good for the project of representation.
Then I showed them this 1917 image by Harry Ryle Hopps:
The students noticed the German word Kultur, the cap on the beast’s head that points to the German military, the faceless but breasts-bared white damsel in distress who wears the gowns of Lady Liberty, the dripping blood, the teeth, the forward facing stance of the beast, the call to enlist and the address, the rubble on the other side of the ocean, America in the foreground.
They immediately called it propaganda — a politically motivated call to action that intentionally deployed generalizing imagery to invoke fear, disgust, and urgency.
I mentioned that I took this photo when I visited the New York Historical Society exhibit on WWI propaganda two summer ago. It’s an image calling for U.S. Americans to enlist in the army. Germany – represented as a destroyer of cultures by way of its culture – is represented as an ape-like figure. The threat the beast presents is a threat to beautiful white women – the epitome of purity and vulnerability – and the threat of proximity and cultural imperialism. The image targeted two fears at once – fear of the enemy abroad and fear of the enemy within – that is “waves of immigrants diluting American bloodlines.” It was later used by the Nazis to point to how the U.S. viewed Germany.
My thoughts as the students continued to discuss the image — There really are no new stories for contemporary war propaganda, just different names for the same characters. We war – pretending to care about white women in relation to state security and power – when in reality we don’t care at all for any women. Dr. Blasey Ford’s experience underscores that. We war abroad, and then worry about immigrants within. Moreover, the particularities of U.S. racism makes transferable the identities of the national enemy. That is because racism is a structural, systemic problem — and not a kind of problem that can only be solved by more stories and more representation.
So that is how the class began and framed the discussion that followed. For the rest of the class, we closely read the prologue and the story of Gyges ascent to the throne.
For the second class on The Histories, my colleague Professor Jenny Rhodes who teaches at the same time down the hall proposed a brilliant collaborative exercise to begin our class that day. We exchanged a delegation of three students. Our students collectively decided on three questions to send with their delegation and ask the other class to discuss. When they returned, the delegation was asked to report on what they learned and to describe their experience of another “culture” with their own “customs” and social structure. The exercise was incredibly effective in highlighting issues of testimony and here-say, source motivation and reliability, translation, the experience of difference, and the importance of trust and rapport in receiving, understanding, and conveying information about another community.
At some point, my students noted how much more they appreciated their classmates and how much closer they felt after the exercise, so I said – nothing consolidates group solidarity like the presence of outsiders, huh?
There was a short beat — before we laughed loudly at our faults.
For the rest of the class, the students analyzed the reports on customs of the Ethiopians, Egyptians, and Persians; the “madness” of Cambyses; and the construction of the Persian tyrant.