Archive for Popular Culture
Myers-Briggs personality assessments are sprouting up everywhere on Facebook this week. For those who don’t know what this is, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the most widely used personality profile in the United States, a favorite tool of career planners, team-builders, and guidance counselors.
Brain child of Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers, the MBTI divides the human psyche in four separate areas, each one of which has two different tendencies or dichotomies:
Extraverion (E)/Introversion (I)
Intuition (N)/Sensation (S)
Thinking (T) /Feeling (F)
Judging (J) /Perceiving (P)
There is nothing obvious about these psychic divisions. In truth, the categories of the MBTI were long in the making. In the early 1920s, Briggs was experimenting with a number of different categories for explaining the diversity of human behavior. More specifically, she was interested in explaining the strange, unBriggs-like behavior of her new son-in-law.
Then Myers read Carl Jung’s Psychological Types in 1923 and psychometric light bulbs started to go off in her head. Jung’s system seemed perfectly suited for creating a system of personality profiles. This is probably because Jung had his own strange in-law to explain, former mentor and father-figure Sigmund Freud.
Freud, Jung observed, gained energy by focusing on the outside world, a process that Jung called extraversion. Jung, however, was different. He found succor looking inward. (As a boy Jung spent his days writing secret messages to a mannequin carved on the end of his ruler). These were not neuroses, he thought, as much as they were different expressions of personality (though Jung does make one wonder).
Indeed, Jung felt that the spectrum of introversion and extraversion expressed a key dichotomy in western thought, one that dated back to the different approaches of Plato, who usually sought truth inwardly through the world of ideas, and Aristotle, who looked for reality in the phenomena of the world around him.
All of this is to say that the roots of the MBTI go deep. By the 1940s, Myers had expanded on Jung’s types and established a test that could be used for commercial application. Since then the MBTI has rocketed into mainstream culture, used to profile everyone from religious seminarians to astronauts.
Next Post: MBTI and the Explorer Type
In 1989, I accepted a two-year job teaching English in Egypt. The school offered $50/month and a place to live. The city of Cairo offered everything else, a theater of sound and spectacle, and a small part for me to play alongside seventeen million other residents, all acting out their lives on a stage twice as crowded as Tokyo. None of this felt comfortable.
Growing up in Maine, I was nurtured in a world of careful distances, social and spatial. This was exactly the point, I guess, in going to Cairo: to push beyond the boundaries of comfort, to come up against the hard-to-digest, to learn truths not accessible in the coffee shops of Portland or the classrooms of Boston.
Still, everyone has limits. When I reached mine, we, my roommates Joe and Alex (also American teachers), would head for Dahab, a dusty Bedouin village on the East coast of the Sinai Peninsula – about as remote and sparsely populated a place as you could reach from Cairo on our salary.
Dahab was the anti-Cairo, a place of self-indulgence and open spaces. It was our refuge from work in the city, a world of scattered huts and ex-pat dive shops, a place that always smelled of grilled fish, motor oil, and hashish, where daily calls to prayer had to compete with Sinead O’Conner’s Nothing Compares 2 U.
We spent most of our time there underwater. When we weren’t snorkeling, we were reading, or writing, or drinking warm beer in the bars that lined the beach. One time we arranged a ride to the Blue Hole, a coral lagoon just outside of town.
From the front seat of a Fiat, the Blue Hole did not look like much. It was much like the rest of the Sinai coast, arid, brown, and rocky, devoid of life. Two things stuck out though: a giant gouge of blue water in the long shallow shelf of coral that hugged the shore, and a set of improvised memorials for dead divers on the rocky beach.
I put on my snorkel and flippers and swam towards the gouge, the tip of which was only a few feet from the shore. What I saw there made me flinch: a vertical wall of coral that dropped straight down, hundreds of feet, out of sight into blackness. The wall extended in a rough circle the size of a stadium.
Beneath me were schools of fish, angel and butterfly fish, clown fish, and beneath them, anemone fish and coral groupers, and beneath them, other fish that I couldn’t see clearly because they were so far away.
To swim in the Blue Hole was to hover at the top of a giant underwater atrium, the walls of which were alive and moving with color, a column with no bottom, no reference points except void and sky. It was unnerving and disorienting, an effect that became more pronounced the further I swam away from shore and towards the outer edge of the reef. There, I felt as if I was swimming through an electric current. My limbs felt twitchy and my heart raced. I felt exhilarated and ebullient and, strangely enough, like I was about to die.
Joe and Alex were also deeply moved. We spoke about it back in Dahab, wrote about it, continued talking about it back in Cairo. It entered our discussion of books — The Razor’s Edge, On Human Bondage, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Fountainhead — , which we swapped back and forth, the young man’s library of self-discovery.
Swimming into the Blue Hole, “the abyss” as we now called it, became a metaphor for this quest of meaning, a measure of authentic experience. Real change, it seemed to us, had to evoke fear and present dangers. It could not be controlled and would always exact something as payment. After I started graduate school in the 1990s, I laughed when I discovered that a long tradition of Romantic self-discoverers had already thought through this sort of experience and named it “the sublime.” We were only 250 years behind Edmund Burke. At twenty-three, I had the hubris to think it was something new.
But I didn’t care and don’t care much now. If the questions were not historically unique, the experience was, a moment seared into our collective memory. It still is. And the questions raised by Dahab still linger: does authentic, change-provoking, experience always come through such electrifying moments? Does it have to produce terror and exaltation? Or is this a young person’s enlightenment, only one of many paths to discovery? Perhaps are there different, more incremental experiences that etch change more indelibly on the psyche: a decade of grading papers, reading bedtime stories, tying shoes, changing diapers.
Twenty years after Dahab, I have different questions. What are the elements that most affect us when we travel? People buy guide books and travelogues and maps on the presumption that places have qualities that are important, durable, and thought-provoking, that a meaningful tour of New York City requires stops to the Statue of Liberty, Nathans, and Broadway. Historians tend to see the larger forces at work: our trip to Dahab came only seven years after Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt – and was only a few months removed from the beginning of the First Gulf War.
Yet maybe these features of landscape, culture, and politics are not always so important – the catalysts at best to a process of change that is latent, subliminal, primed for expression. Perhaps my moments of discovery — Boston 1988, Dahab 1990, Copenhagen 2009 — are about people rather than places. Perhaps Joe and Alex were the key features of this Sinai landscape, not deserts or coral reefs. Or maybe the peoples, places, and things of any trip always take on changing levels of importance, values of meaning that, like schools of fish, are always in flux.
Sitting at the long desk of an archive, wearing cotton gloves, reading old letters on the verge of turning to powder; this is about as good as it gets for a historian. Yet more and more of my research takes place elsewhere, now on my laptop mostly, looking at materials that have been scanned and displayed online.
Things have changed. When Frank Luther Mott began researching his comprehensive History of American Magazines in the 1920s, he had to track down a paper copy of each periodical in libraries scattered across the country. Many of these publications, printed on acidic paper, were already falling apart.
By 1941, University Microfilms (now ProQuest) began photographing American periodicals, making them available as reels of microfilm. By the time the project was complete, UM had a collection of 1100 American periodicals spanning the years from 1741-1900.
This was the state of things when I began my dissertation research in the late 1990s. When I wanted to find out what was being written about Arctic exploration in the press, I consulted a set of books, the 19th century Poole’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which gave titles and citations of popular literature by subject. Then I would drive to Chicago (from Madison WI) with my list of citations to track down the articles on the spools of microfilm housed at University of Chicago and Loyola University.
Now Poole’s has been turned into a digital database that can be searched online. The American Periodical Series has also been scanned, and, because of character recognition software, can be searched down to the level of single words. Where I spent hours tracking down a handful of articles indexed by Pooles by title and subject, a “full text” search of the American Periodical Series online yields thousands of results, all of which are instantly readable, printable, and download-able from the comfort of my front porch.
Less romantic than heading to the archive, I understand, but infinitely more powerful and convenient.
Still, the conversion to digital has its downside. Poole’s and the American Periodical Series have been digitized by private companies which sell subscriptions to their databases at a hefty price. The result is that that Research I universities like Yale have extraordinary access, whereas smaller universities like the University of Hartford make due with less. Many of my European friends — working at institutions with little money for databases — go without.
The good news is that freely available digital resources are growing in breadth and depth. While the American Periodical Series remains a subscription-service, students of American history can access the 3.8 million pages of 19th century books and periodicals in the Making of America database developed by the University of Michigan. You can also find close to a million pages of material at the Making of America sister site at the Cornell University. Serious free research also extends to the Library of Congress’s 1 million pages of newspaper text at Chronicling America.
These are general databases for American history. Students of more specialized topics, such as the history of exploration, can also find free riches online. In addition to the links at the right, you might also want to check out:
A site of highlights and citations from dozens of 19th century expeditions fielded by Harvard and other organizations.
The Scott Polar Research Institute’s collection of polar images from 1845-1982, searchable by date, expedition, photographer, or subject matter.
The National Library of Scotland’s site for important historical expeditions, from the ascent of Mt. Blanc to investigations of Antarctica.
Since the release of the Incredibles in 2004, Pixar has proven that it can run with grown-ups as well as the kindergarten crowd. Kid movies, after all, will always have multiple audiences. The trick is to produce stories that cohere as well as engage these different movie-goers. The Batman and Bugs Bunny of my youth did this by packing episodes with jokes, allusions, and celebrity guest stars geared to my parents. No matter, the shows had enough fights, cliff-falls, and shotgun-blasts to keep me watching.
Pixar’s strategy, however, has been more ambitious: to produce films that pull in adults by compelling stories rather than sophisticated jokes.
The Incredibles (2004), for example, broke with a tradition of scripting superhero movies as bildungsroman, coming-of-age stories for teens with mutant powers. Instead it told the story of superheroes as they are getting soft, wrestling with the demands of family life, middle age, and lost ambitions. While there are plenty of explosions and chase sequences, the real action of The Incredibles is in the livingroom, when Bob Parr (Mr Incredible) spars with his wife Helen (Elastigirl) about life’s priorities.
Up boasts no superheroes or spandex, but it follows The Incredibles‘ lead by creating a protagonist, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), widower and would-be adventurer, who has seen brighter days. When we meet Carl, he is grieving the loss of his wife Ellie (Ellie Docter). After a court pressures him to sell his house and enter a retirement community, he uses his balloon expertise to turn his Victorian house into a helium dirigible, sailing aloft and out of reach of contractors and nursing home attendants.
He decides to steer his craft south, towards the mythic South American land of Paradise Falls, a place he dreamed of visiting with Ellie since they formed an adventure club as kids. Only after lifting off does Carl realize that he has a passenger, Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer trying to earn an “Assisting the Elderly” merit badge.
What inspires me to write about Up here? Because the film is about exploration in the many senses of the word. From its opening shot, Up creates a backstory for Paradise Falls, a lost world which was explored by wealthy adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plumber) in his dirigible, The Spirit of Adventure. Muntz returns claiming discovery of a large flightless bird, meeting with ridicule. With no proof of his discovery, he is stripped of his membership in the National Explorer’s Club, and leaves on The Spirit of Adventure (with a large pack of dogs) vowing to return once he has proven his claim to the world.
Muntz’s exploration of South America borrows much from Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 book, The Lost World, which also tells the story of a South American expedition (led by Dr. Challenger) who is ridiculed for claiming the discovery of living dinosaurs.
Yet as a wealthy explorer with a keen sense of technology, Muntz also resembles Howard Hughes, piloting the H-4 Hercules (Spruce Goose) in 1947, and Walter Wellman, who steered the dirigible America toward the North Pole in 1906. He also reminds me of Frederick Cook, whose claims of discovering the North Pole in 1909 eventually brought about public ridicule and expulsion from the Explorers Club the following year. (As for Muntz’s dogs, trained to perform human tasks and provided the power of speech, I couldn’t help but think of The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells).
As for the giant flightless bird of Paradise Falls (named “Kevin” by Russell), it could be an allusion to Doyle’s dinosaur, but it also made me of the most famous description of a South American flightless bird, Charles Darwin’s discovery of the Rhea in 1833, a find that had serious implications for his theory of evolution.
More compelling than these historical and literary allusions, however, are the deeper questions Up raises about the idea of exploration. As children, Carl and Ellie bonded over the idea of exploring Paradise Falls, a dream that was never realized during Ellie’s lifetime. It fuels Carl’s quest to reach the mythic locale after her death. Yet once he reaches the Falls, Carl opens up Ellie’s childhood “My Adventures” scrapbook to find that the pages after “Paradise Falls” are not empty, but filled with pictures of Carl and Ellie through the happy years of their marriage. Adventure – Ellie knows – is where you find it, and discovery, as William Goetzmann points out in Exploration and Empire, is almost always a question of re-discovery, finding new things in places already traveled.
Most of all, Carl’s insight into the idea of adventure reminded me of Philip Carey, protagonist of Somerset Maughm’s novel Of Human Bondage (1915). Although Carey nurtured a lifelong dream to travel, he eventually decides to shelve this plan when he falls in love, seeing a different path to discovery:
What did he care for Spain and its cities, Cordova, Toledo, Leon; what to him were the pagodas of Burmah and the lagoons of the South Sea Islands?…He had lived always in the future, and the present always, always had slipped through his fingers. His ideals? He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect?
Charles Muntz is the most traveled character of Up. He is also the least enlightened by his travels, scarcely touched by his experiences of Paradise Falls except for his obsessive quest with finding the flightless bird. Ellie, by contrast, never leaves the suburbs and the zoo where she works. But she understands that exploration is a state of mind as much as a plan of action, an experience that does not require talking dogs or dirigibles.
Whether going up mountains, down rivers, over canyons, or across the pack-ice, adventurists often express a malaise with “civilized life” back home. In the wild, the drudgeries of the mall-shopping, lawn-mowing, 401K-filing world fall away, and with them, the barriers to authentic experience. Says Mt Everest climber Stephen Venables:
Although you don’t deliberately seek an epic, you know that one day something like that might happen. When it did happen on Everest, it was harder and more prolonged and draining than anything I had ever done, but also more exhilarating than anything I had ever done. It was like a watershed. It was something I was probably never going to repeat again. [quoted in Maria Coffey, Where the Mountain Cast Its Shadow, 137]
Why does civilization make some people feel so queasy that they’d travel to the most dangerous places on earth to find relief? A common answer is that human beings are not well-adapted to the world they inhabit, that some deeply buried instinct drives us to leave our suburban ghettos and take up high-altitude mountain climbing. A related argument holds that humans are innately curious, so curious that they are impelled, like cats near washing machines, to explore at any cost.
I don’t like these explanations. No one doubts that human beings have inherited behaviors, all animals do, but humans have proven remarkably plastic as a species. Speech patterns, fashion, diet, and language all show how impressionable we are to environment, experience, and culture.
Perhaps this reveals my bias too: as a cultural historian, I tend to think of explanations that are cultural rather than biological. In this case, I am inclined to believe that explorers and adventurers find catharsis in the wild because, well, they have learned to think of such places as cathartic.
Historians such as T. J. Jackson Lears and Gail Bederman have built a strong case for this argument. Looking at a wide array of evidence from the 19th and early 20th centuries, they link the urge to return to nature with cultural events. In particular, “going native,” Primitivism, and the Arts and Crafts movement all gain popularity just as Western societies transition from agricultural to industrial economies. For Lears and Bederman, the “call of the wild” has less to do with the feral impulses of the human psyche, and more to do with the disorienting world of the industrial city.
Yet, I will admit, the “call-of-the-wild” impulse cannot be entirely explained by culture either. If we travel back in time before industrialization, we can still find a certain malaise with civilization.
Living in 18th century Paris, Jean-Jacques Rousseau railed against the vanities and corruptions of civilized life. He found role models in the islands of the South Pacific where native peoples lived – so he thought – more virtuous lives closer to nature.
We can go back even further. For Medieval Europeans the “Wildman” was a common, if legendary, figure in art and literature. Often, wildmen represented civilized men who, in the throes of madness, grief, or unrequited love, cast off everything and entered a state of nature. They reverted to savagery, acted violently, and lost their powers of speech and reason. Yet when these wildmen, by chance, were returned to the civilized world, they often emerged better for the experience: stronger of spirit and purer of heart. Such was the case with Merlin of the King Arthur legends.
Even the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates to at least 2000 BCE, features the feral wild-child Enkidu, a boy raised by beasts and ignorant of all of civilization’s pleasures until seduced by the temple prostitute Shamhat. No industrial cities here.
What to make of all this? Perhaps there is something of the “call-of-the-wild” that strikes deep, beneath the reaches of culture (is there such a place?). From what we know, it appears that human beings spent most of their 125,000 year history in motion, as nomadic, itinerant tribes. Only in the last 10,000 years or so have we put down roots, developing agriculture and the foundations of complex, specialized societies. Is this restlessness a a biological shadow of our long journey as hunter-gathers? A vestigial organ of the civilized psyche? I never used to think so but I wonder.
Every year I attend two or three academic conferences, mostly to keep up with friends and sneak-preview new research. Usually the best material (about friends and research) emerges from conversations in bars and hotel lobbies rather than in the faux-walled conference rooms where panelists deliver their papers. I know many colleagues who avoid the panels all together, afraid of being caught in a boring session from which they cannot (politely) escape.
Why is this? Most of the historians I know are diligent and innovative teachers, people who care about communicating with their students, who allow a great deal of back and forth in the classroom. But something strange happens when they go to conferences. Suddenly the vibrant professor is transformed into the paper-reading scholastic, delivering his/her monotone lecture as if s/he were a medieval instructor in front of young, suffering novitiates.
It makes me think that we overstate the divide between scholarly and popular audiences. Is the public all that different from the Academy in what it wants from a lecture? I want to hear talks that are well developed and delivered, talks that do not assume too much about my knowledge of the subject, talks that keep to their allotted time, talks that make a point. Isn’t this what everyone wants?
If academic and popular audiences are more similar than we think, perhaps we should also reconsider our assumptions about lecture content. Academics often make distinctions about subjects appropriate for their peers and those appropriate for everyone else. Sometimes these distinctions are warranted, particularly for talks that require a lot of theoretical knowledge at the outset. But theory is not the Iron Curtain separating scholars from public that we make it out to be. Often a quick tutorial in theory can be developed within the talk if the point is important enough.
My experience giving public lectures over the past two months have convinced me of this. While I have had to limit some of the details of my work, the structure and arguments of my talks has closely followed my scholarly writings. My talks begin with anecdote, some context, an argument, and then pieces of evidence to defend the argument. They end with a short conclusion about “why all of this matters.” Overall, I’ve gotten a good response.
What would happen if academics wrote papers for their peers as if they were addressing the general public?
Maybe things are already getting better. In the last conference I attended — the History of Science Society Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh — the papers were terrific. I chaired a panel that was focused and snappy. Everyone used images to illustrate their points. The panels I attended held their own against the meetings of peers in bars and lobbies…except, perhaps, for the drinks.
Apologies for the spare postings over the last two weeks. I’ve been doing a lot of out of town projects. Last week I was down in DC where Story House Productions is putting together a documentary on the Cook-Peary North Pole Controversy of 1909. They interviewed me in the historical newspaper room of the Newseum (just off the National Mall). Museums are strange places anyway, but after dark they become positively surreal.
I was also up in Maine working out the kinks of an exhibition I am curating at the Portland Museum of Art called “The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration in American Culture.” The show examines many of the same themes as my book (no surprise). But where my book was limited to 18 black-and-white prints, the exhibition delivers a much broader range of paintings, photos, and illustrations. The point is to show how the Arctic of these images represents a hybrid-world: a vision of polar regions, colored by the aesthetics and preoccupations of the Americans who traveled there.
You can see some of the images of the show here.
I gave an interview about the exhibition on Channel 6 while I was there.
The show opens this Saturday and runs through 21 June.