Do we make history, or does history make us?

Two of my math students mentioned today that their essay tutor had assigned them the topic “Do we make history, or does history make us?” They said they didn’t really understand the “history makes us” part of the prompt, so we discussed it a little during our break; I asked them if they keep journals, and how they decide what to write in them.

Brittany said that she writes down everything she does in the day, including the time she gets up, eats breakfast, etc. (sounds like an offline Twitter account, doesn’t it?) I asked her and Katie how they decide what’s important enough to include, and they gave somewhat tautological answers, but we had a better discussion about how different people have different perspectives of what’s important. They then mentioned their tutor’s example of how, as Koreans, they might have lingering distrust of Japan because of the history between the two countries, and Katie brought up how proud her dad is of Korean cars.

It’s interesting to hear 11-year-olds’ implicit understanding of how culture and history shape their identities, even though they weren’t direct participants in the stories that influence their views of self. I really wanted to talk about Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities,” but I’m their math tutor, and our break was over. (Incidentally, they asked what my major was — they were surprised it wasn’t math, but Brittany guessed English — and then tried to figure out my minors. They got French, then repeatedly guessed philosophy, science, pre-med and “water.” I had my own “What makes up my identity/how am I perceived by others??” moment about that.)

The personal histories we make
Anyway, back to identity-making — Katie mentioned that she read somewhere that she should hide her journal in a bookcase, and she hid hers behind a book and has no idea where it is now. I thought I lost one of my journals today, and I was just about ready to freak out when I found it. I wrote about externally stored identity in “Searching for self,” but I was mostly referring to digitally stored information. (Ooooh, oh, also, there’s an expression and field for storing information in other people; it’s “transactive memory,” and it’s super exciting, and I clearly will be writing more about this later.)

I don’t know if I would be more distraught to lose access to my gmail account or all of my journals. I started forcing myself to write more once I got to college,* and I journaled like a maniac when I was studying abroad in Paris (you know, existential crises, American abroad, being simultaneously perceived as not-French and not-American, translation, culture shock, language barriers). The sheer volume of words in both forms is kind of ridiculous, though clearly the balance tips toward gmail on that front, although the journals feel like tactile pieces of my identity.

Last night, after talking with my mom on the phone about a bunch of different things,** then I inadvertently pulled an all-nighter when I was seized by the desire to make a chapbook. My poems are all over the place: There are drafts in googledocs, in gmail conversations to myself, scribbled on envelopes and scratch paper, drafted as Blackberry notes (though these have rolled over into gmail — I sent them all to myself when I turned in my work phone), and two that are written in a beautiful leather-bound journal because they were “finished works.”***

I was also looking for one poem about living in LA that I know is on pale blue scratch paper, but I can’t find it, and another one that I knew was in a journal from a certain time period (the one that was missing from the stack of the other six filled notebooks). Anyway, trying to find that handwritten poem was pretty much the analog version of recovering the digital drafts, and since I can’t have a Pensieve, I’m going to make a chapbook instead.****

I made this for my friend Sarah, with an excerpt from “My Fault.” This is part of an ongoing campaign to remember to add images to my posts. The text is all black, I just hit the canvas directly with the flash of my point-and-shoot, so that part looks weird. Apologies.

Is this a chicken-or-egg question?
So I veered way off topic, again — see the footnotes for topical notes about my off-topicness — but in thinking about the question of whether we make history or history makes us, I think the answer is closer to “we make ourselves in the way that we make history.” How we choose to order the events of our lives, the ways that we share and transmit information, the different mediums we use to do so both reflect and affect our sense of identity. I wonder if this is a view particular to people who are all about the humanities, or if it’s something felt more strongly by people who are heavily into literate culture.

I attended an interesting reading yesterday by Simon Reynolds, who talked about pop culture’s obsession with the past and the constant reproduction of nostalgia. It was interesting to hear about different music genres’ trends of looking back on themselves as an analogue to how other sectors of culture and society are doing the same. We’ve never had this level of access, or this instantaneity, to the past before, and it’s interesting to see what we’re doing with it.

What about you? Would you rather lose all of your journals and letters or all of your emails and google documents (or Dropbox files or external hard drives, be creatively pessimistic)?

* During my first month, I was sketch/journaling on this giant sheet of cardboard. I had just read Salinger’s “Nine Stories” and fell in love with the idea of Seymour Glass scribbling notes on shirt cardboards. But as I mentioned above, writing on scraps is a terrible system, archivally speaking. Yesterday I didn’t have any paper with me and tried writing a poem on a dollar bill, then found a bus schedule and wrote a different poem about writing poems on money on that. Do I sound more and more like a deranged person? I worry I have that disease that Robert has in David Auburn’s “Proof” where he just scribbles a lot and thinks that things make sense. Typing just makes this happen faster.

** I think this blog is making me less good at being coherent and staying on topic. I also have taken to talking about the things I blogged about IRL, but I get way too excited, and I think it’s probably starting to get annoying. Oops!

*** One poem I never looked at again, and the other one has evolved through performance.

**** I have a failed tweet from 2010’s LA Times Festival of Books saved in my phone that reads “Erickson: have to learn when to let book go, when it’s close enough to done, bc it’ll never be perfect. #latfob” I meant to retweet it at some point, but now it’s just kind of been in my phone for 15 months, and it seems a bit late for that. I wonder, though, if Proust had been writing “À la recherche du temps perdu” in GoogleDocs — or with a word processor, even — would he ever have stopped revising and expanding? Point: I feel like if I publish a chapbook, I can look at the finished product as such and delete/be rid of the drafts.

One response

  1. That’s a really tough one. Gmail isn’t as important to me but when you said Dropbox I admit my heart skipped a beat… I’ve always written my first drafts longhand and then typed later so I’m really not sure which would be more devastating.

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