Tuesday, July 22, 2014

revisionist histories in progress

How many of you have heard of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh?

She and her sister were artists in Glasgow in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They attended the Glasgow School of Art and then formed their own independent art studio. You can see some of Margaret's work in the Hunterian Art Gallery's Mackintosh Online Catalogue, courtesy the University of Glasgow.

But hold on... whose photograph is that there in the banner at the top of the site?
This is the other Mackintosh, Charles, whose surname Margaret shares because they got married in 1900. Charles Rennie Mackintosh did some cool things too. A bit of cursory digging around in the same online art catalogue brought up over 500 artistic/design artifacts under Charles's name. In comparison, there are 122 under Margaret's.

Maybe Charles was generally and honestly the more prolific creative, or maybe this collection is skewed his way for some other set of reasons. I do not know.

When we visited the Glasgow School of Art last week, our tour guide Lili explained along the way that though we celebrate Charles and his influence much more thoroughly today, it was his wife Margaret who garnered more fame during their working lives. How do we know? Mackintosh himself called Margaret a genius, but so often the work they did was collaborative--not easy to divide satisfactorily into his and hers. Both exhibited work at the 1900 Vienna Secession, both worked on plenty of architectural and design projects around Glasgow, together. Without doing a lot more research, I can't say who was really more regarded then vs now, exactly. But simply the idea that Charles has come to overshadow the female artists he worked with brought to mind a headline I noticed weeks ago: 'We Have Always Fought': Challenging the 'Women, Cattle, and Slaves' Narrative, an article by Kameron Hurley. In turn, Hurley's writing led me to others' on similar themes: Your Default Narrative Settings are Not Apolitical by Foz Meadows, and then from there to Tansy R. Roberts's unravelings of so-called Historically Authentic Sexism. Admittedly, these are not the most academic or theoretical or 'official' sources or platforms to turn to--they are concerned primarily with fantasy settings and the market for fiction, but before I knew all those details, the Hurley piece came to mind. So I went back to find it, read it through and followed a few of its links, and now I am applying some of the points from these pieces to some of the history and story we've encountered in and around Scotland so far.

Like Hurley, I too have "been nurtured in the U.S. school system on a steady diet of the Great Men theory of history." The notion of women's history as a separate field altogether--a separate set of classes, a separate set of textbooks, a separate level of influence--almost feels normal to me. It makes sense... But separateness isn't the only problem here. As Hurley explains, "pretending there’s only one way a woman lives or has ever lived--in relation to the men that surround her--is not a single act of erasure, but a political erasure. Populating a world with men, with male heroes, male people, and their 'women cattle and slaves' is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world."

Erasure is a strong word. We couldn't really say that Margaret Macdonald has been erased, can we? And plenty of Scottish women haven't been fully erased by history--we can read about and visit a handful of memorials to women here in Dundee, if we like--and one even might argue that surely plenty of men's lives have been erased over time too. History can't make room for everyone, can it? Some people must be forgotten along the way, or nobody will feel very important. Some people just have to lose. Not everyone can have a plaque in the town square, right? Is any of this really a problem? Is it worth worrying about? I don't know.

Margaret Macdonald's wikipedia page is 1/3 the length of her husband's. Do we just happen to have more to say about him? Maybe.

I don't know.

Hurley writes, "Half the world is full of women, but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things." In her conclusion, she acknowledges that "so what?" question, anticipating the "is this really worth worrying about?" objections, and widens the lens: "Stories tell us who we are. What we’re capable of. When we go out looking for stories we are, I think, in many ways going in search of ourselves, trying to find understanding of our lives, and the people around us. Stories and language tell us what’s important."

In German, the words story and history are the same word: Geschichte. I like to remember learning and being somewhat astonished by this idea. We consider the two from such varying perspectives most of the time, and sure, there are some differences between the things we call in English stories and the things we call histories... but not many. Neither is pre-determined and neither is ever unbiased.

While the analogy of cannibalistic llamas in Hurley's essay feels extreme to me, it is a successfully gripping introduction, at least. And the way Hurley uses the example, in some ways, brings me back to Andrew Feenberg (I wrote a little bit about his book last week) and Katie King (I wrote about her book last month) talking about black boxes. Hurley is seeing a single, lazy narrative concerning her example llamas and by analogy, concerning women. The shape of that story is so easy, so common, so normalized, that "our eyes glaze over, and we stop seeing [...] anything else." Once the differences get smoothed away, we can box up all the expected, traditional, standard things we "know" will be there--the elements and characterizations that seem to have worked so well for so long--into a shiny black square. We won't need to unpack any of it anymore--it works however it works and life goes on.

Nearer the end of Between Reason and Experience, Feenberg summarizes the black box concept again, specifically with respect to technology. He writes, "Standard ways of understanding and making devices are called 'black boxing' in constructivist studies of technology. Many of these standards reflect specific social demands shaping design" (178). Along with technological devices and gadgets, Feenberg mentions the market and bureaucratic systems as places where black boxing happens. I want to expand the idea even more; what if black boxes, as they make magical/invisible the design and standardization of devices, engines, markets, etc. also do the same to stories, as Hurley seems to see, and to groups of people and relationships in real life?

The women, cattle, slaves narrative is another instance of a black box. Women within that narrative become invisible bits and pieces--not because they aren't there, but because they fit a certain set of preconceptions which signal a certain level of insignificance, or at least lesser significance. Any kind of discriminatory prejudice could work the same way, not just the kinds based on gender. Sexism is complicated enough on its own, but it isn't on its own. It comes overlaid with plenty of other oversimplifying, reductive, unthinking prejudices. Our biased expectations of people based on any random characteristic, from hair color to gender to age--all of them take advantage of our tendency to put things in neat, tidy, little boxes.

Another word Feenberg uses for these sealed black boxes is "design codes." It has less of the great imagery of the black box metaphor, but it does gesture importantly to the non-tangible and more discursive manifestations of similar phenomena. Design codes. Official specs. Standard procedures. Traditional recipes. Ways Things Are Done. Sometimes such codes are incredibly useful, and they acknowledge important standards, guidelines, and functional patterns. But sometimes they need to change. Feenberg says so, too, admitting that "design codes are durable, but they can be revised" (178). Humans are good at revision. Change is a thing we've gotten pretty decent at. All the histories and stories, after all, yours and mine and the whole planet's, are still in progress. 

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