No Black Country history this week I’m afraid, more like a sideline that I’ve been exploring…
I’m currently making notes for my first ever paper at an academic conference, in just under four weeks time. It’s not a full, 20-minute affair, but a 5 minute conversation-starter for a somewhat unusual panel at the Social History Society’s 40th anniversary conference at Lancaster University. Based on the #storypast Twitter reading group (see Storying The Past) and featuring live interaction with both Twitterstorians and those in the audience, we’ll be looking at Alison Light‘s lovely book of family history, Common People. Even if you’re not able to attend the conference, I’d highly recommend it – it’s accessible, enjoyable, emotional, and well worth a read if you’ve ever had a pop at doing your family tree (and you don’t even have to be there to join in the conversation!).
The purpose of the reading group is to look at ways of writing and presenting history that are creative, that bring story to a historical narrative in new ways. So far we’ve discussed Laurent Binet’s somewhat-postmodern HHhH; Seth Koven’s excellent – but certainly more academic – The Matchgirl and the Heiress; and Julia Blackburn’s Threads, this one definitely written by an artist more than a historian. If the lack of evident rigour in this last grated with some, then what I’m about to post will probably not help matters. But I was reminded (by a tweet from Plashing Vole) of some of the more… esoteric presentations of history that I’ve seen, and how actually, I love them and think they’re probably A Good Thing.
Everybody knows that Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. Right? It’s even got his name on one of the fittings. He was the archetypal American inventor with over 2,000 patents to his name, he was Homer Simpson’s inspiration, he was the American Dream. This is the received version, at least, in which success is measured in how much you are remembered and how much money you made.
Recent years have seen something of a popular revision of this though. I don’t know the beginnings of the meme, but a few years ago the name of the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla began to be used in opposition to Edison’s, as a paragon of self-effacing genius compared to to Edison’s self-aggrandizing greed. As this website notes, like many my experience of Tesla up to that point was the ace Tesla Coil in Command & Conquer – I don’t think I’d even come across the car make. Perhaps my first experience of Tesla as a popular character was on Kate Beaton’s always-excellent, historically-themed Hark! A Vagrant comics (here). Here Tesla is a virginous sex symbol, the handsome geek with science as his only goal (a popular trope these days).
The lack of accessible posting-date makes it difficult to track who got there first with Tesla, so much so that I really pity historians trying to make sense of internet history. For me, the next encounter was on Drunk Histories, and its here that Edison makes his début as the villain of the piece.
Firstly, it’s Crispin Glover, and who doesn’t love Crispin Glover. Secondly, the whole idea of drunk histories is so dumb and hilarious that you really wouldn’t expect them to be at the forefront of historical revisionism, nevertheless here you go. Here, Edison is portrayed as a duplicitous, money-grabbing, intellectual-property-stealing industrial saboteur, and Tesla as the creative mind, innocent to the rapacious ways of American capitalism. The story is supported by this Oatmeal strip, which again places Tesla as the handsome but exploited hero, and Edison as the, well, as the strip puts it, douchebag of the piece.
History is getting re-written and I have reddit
The most adversarial version of the story (by its very nature) must be Epic Rap Battles of History‘s take. Here’s one you can pinpoint – it was uploaded on 11th March 2013 – and has since garnered nearly 36 million views (compared to Drunk Histories’ version, c.3 million). ERB is one of the biggest channels on YouTube, with something north of 2.7 billion views overall. I get that this is hardly academically rigorous history, but I love it anyway – they’re always well-researched (the crowd-annotated lyrics do well to point out both the historical references and the puns) and witty to the point of laugh out loud at times, and this is one of the best. Again Tesla is the heroic and enigmatic star with Edison the tacky and exploitative villain, and this time this central, almost ideological battle is forefront. Tesla is the mysterious intellectual who sees the potential to make this amazing new electricity free for all; Edison the vicious capitalist who squashes such non-profit dreams and who is willing to go to the point of electrocuting animals to try and humiliate a potential business rival.
My understanding of the story is incomplete so I can’t comment on the historicity of either the traditional argument (in which Edison invents all the things, is massively successful, and goes on to inspire generations of entrepreneurs and scientists) or the newer version (in which Edison is an intellectual magpie, exploiting and making money off the back of naive but idealistic employees). I can’t even tell you the whole story of the online development of this meme, only the way I discovered it – which, I think, is rather the point of something so vast as the internet. The ERB rap suggests, for example, that reddit may have played a part in this revision, and that’s a whole world that’s as alien to me as 4chan.
I’m interested in what’s come through to me though. The Edison-as-hero version is a tale of capitalist ascendancy, that says success can be measured only in profit, perhaps even that sabotage and exploitation are justifiable to benefit the whole of society. Such ruthlessness and such casualties fit right within Adam Smith‘s foundational version of capitalism, of course. The Tesla-as-hero version appears to signify more respect – at least, among the younger or more tech-savvy demographic – for the freedom of ideas, disdain for the unfairness of the capitalist system. This seems to mirror the sharing economy that has made great swathes of the internet both fascinating and controversial, from Napster to Wikipedia.
Presenting an alternative point of view to act as counterpoint to the excesses of a dominant narrative like capitalism is a massively important thing. This story is fascinating in that in world of freely-shared knowledge, a discourse is being created democratically rather than approved from above, and as such makes a really interesting argument not just between capitalism and not-capitalism, but between traditional and non-traditional power.
This is where #storypast has been most intriguing for me – it challenges not just the way historians do history, but also who the historians are. If histories are by their nature stories told by historians for reasons known to those historians, then they are completely subjective. Their power lies in the story they tell in the present. To my mind the absence of a so-called ‘expert’ historian is not what makes a history valid; it might make it better-written, more persuasively-argued or more thoroughly researched, but not more or less important. A history is important because it tells a story that ought to be told; perhaps it’s my role as one of these ‘experts’ in training to make sure the right histories are being told and being told well.