I’ve been working on PhD applications the last few weeks (again), and have as a result been thinking more about what type of history (or art history) I like, where my interests lie, what sort of approaches I like. It’s the sort of thing I think about all the time, actually, justifying to myself my choices, and trying to work out where I stand.
I am sure there are many different ways of putting this, many different aspects; it’s a complicated thing, “what kind of history do you like?” But here’s one thing that I think I have always stayed true to, even if I didn’t quite know it or articulate it to myself as such.
For me, the study of history is like traveling in a time machine. My interest is in the actual time and place, how it looked, and what you might find. My interest is in fashion, architecture, and perhaps most of all in famous historical places, people, and events, and how and where they intersect.
There are those who study history in order to better understand how societies work, how nations or states rise and fall, or any number of other abstract and relatively universal concepts not necessarily tied down to a given time or place. Many are not interested in Japan because of its culture, its aesthetics, its Japaneseness – for them, it might as well be Portugal, or Benin, so long as certain societal or political structures are in place to be studied and analyzed. They are the kind of people who are interested in the Meiji Restoration as an examination of a relatively non-violent transfer of power, a revolution from the top down (i.e. not initiated or otherwise performed by the peasants or commoners), in which the ruling class willingly gave up their own superior class status, etc. etc. The kind of person who studies revolutions, regardless of when or where they occurred, being chiefly interested, rather, in how they occurred. And that’s wonderful. That’s a perfectly valid and extremely important type of historical research. But it’s not me. I, on the other hand, am the kind of historian who sees the Meiji Restoration as a very specific time and place, with a particular aesthetic, feel, or flavor, and as a nexus point where numerous people of great historical significance with extremely interesting life stories come together. I am not the political theorist, the societal structural analyst. I am the time-traveling tourist standing across the street from a group of important-looking people, holding an illustrated “who’s who” guide, and gasping to myself, “oh my god, that’s Saigo Takamori! And omg, that’s Kido Takayoshi and Ôkubo Toshimichi!” … Or, that is, I am the historian attempting to capture that experience through reading history books and otherwise researching and teaching history.
For me, what’s important about the Meiji Restoration is not the type of revolution it was, or whether it’s something we can call “a revolution,” or precisely what kind of political structural shifts took place at that time, in some kind of abstract way, as an example of “X type political structures” in some broad global-view comparing X-type politics to the Y-type politics seen in 13th century England or the Z-type political structures of 21st century Sri Lanka. For me, what’s exciting and interesting about the Meiji Restoration is what it must have looked like and felt like to be on the streets (or in the halls of government) at that time, as elements of Western dress, architecture, language, Western people themselves, begin to appear and to become incorporated into the urban landscape, alongside the traditional buildings, fashions, and lifestyles that continue (for now).
And I think this is where I struggle… against what I (perhaps mistakenly) believe to be a widely and strongly held perception in academia that it is the more abstract, structural, type of scholarship that is more valued, and that is, in fact, expected and required of anyone calling themselves a real scholar. For me, it has always been about the people, places, and events, about their stories, how they intersect, and about the colorful, exciting, interesting environments in which these stories take place – stories filled with samurai, townspeople in kimono, streets lined with machiya. I ask the who, what, where, and when, and revel in how the answers help me visualize vividly the scene. Yet, are we not expected to be focusing more on the how and why? And the why of the why? … Perhaps I am mistaken, and my approach, my kind of history, is more widely accepted and valid than I think. But I’m afraid to ask… afraid to be fully honest about my interests in my PhD applications, giving them instead what I think they want to hear.
What do you think? What sort of approach, what aspects of history do you find most interesting? Do you think one type or another is privileged and more appreciated and accepted in academia?