Article

Goin’ Down The Road

My blogging here will continue its typically pokey pace for the foreseeable future, as Lisa and I make the move to Canada. The computer I’m typing on gets packed up today and everything gets packed up tomorrow and I expect I’ll be in offline limbo for a week or two. But I have been blogging up a storm, at least by my own standards, over at my LiveJournal, and I thought I’d offer a link for those who don’t know me from there. I’ve written a series of posts looking back on my ten years in Boston, in particular my first years of grad school, and it’s all very angsty and autobiographical, for those who like that sort of thing. The LiveJournal is here, and the autobiography starts here, with yet another shout-out to Ben Franklin.

Be warned: my LiveJournal is not the work of a mature and erudite scholar but that of a feckless and nerdy grad student. Footnotes are never provided, profanity is not uncommon, and in-jokes that I do not bother to explain are rife. There are no permanent links to my LiveJournal from this page, but I haven’t made any great effort to keep the connection a secret, either. I set up this page while I was on the job market, and it made sense to strictly divide posts about history matters from posts about every other thing in my life. After I make the move, I’d like to renegotiate the divide a little between what I post here and what I post at LiveJournal. Not that I won’t have to maintain some kind of decorum here (in fact, I’ll probably remove links to my LiveJournal, or cull most of the more confessional posts, once I start teaching) but my favorite blogs are the ones that have a central topic and a grown-up tone, yet still let us in to the parts of the author’s life. Like everyone else, I’m still figuring out how to do this blogging thing, and just what authorial voice works best for me. Maybe if I bring a bit more of my own life over here, I’ll also feel like I have more to say about history proper at Cliopatria, since right now my most “serious” history blogging (I use that word advisedly) gets diluted between this site and that one, and I often feel bad about that.

But for now, just more radio silence, as we pull up stakes and bid adieu to the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. Thank you, America, it’s been a hell of a decade. See you in Canada.

Article

Turk 182

A few weeks ago I asked you who you rooted for in the French revolution: peasants, aristocrats, philosophes, bourgeoisie… I also rambled a while about Ben Franklin and imagined a ridiculous Enlightenment action movie pitting Poor Richard against the (fake) chess-playing mechanical clockwork known as the Turk. A friend of mine immediately slapped a “who do you root for in the French Revolution?” poll on his LiveJournal. Alas, he’s taken that site down, so I can’t link to it, but I believe the bourgeoisie turned out to be the surprising fan favorite. Must say something about LiveJournal’s emo youth demographic. My friend also flipped my plans for the Turk. In his version of the blockbuster Ben Franklin Code, the oaken Ottoman was a fomenter of rationalism and revolution, not the servant but the enemy of absolutist monarchies. He might have something there.

Soon after writing that earlier post, I came upon Simon Schaffer‘s article “Enlightenment Automata,” which puts our friend the Turk at the center of a wonderful discussion of eighteenth-century clockworks and their implications for Enlightenment-era debates about liberty, politics, economics, and free will. There’s lots of good stuff by Schaffer floating around the net, particularly at the Hypermedia Research Centre, about which I will hopefully post more later. But to find this particular essay, I fear you may have to read a book.
Read more

Article

It’s Mostly About The Benjamins

“Who do you root for in the French Revolution?”

Lisa and I were in Paris this summer, a trip my other website chronicled at some length. One morning we toured the Conciergerie, the prison where those condemned by the Revolution spent their final days. Considering all it commemorates–tyranny! revolution! heroism! terror! heads, and the cutting off thereof!–the Conciergerie is surprisingly dull. There are two ways for a museum to be interesting, I think. One is to offer genuine historical analysis: to put things in context, to make real connections between history and the objects on display, to teach visitors something new. The other is to pander to what visitors already think they know: cheering the heroes and hissing the villains, and maybe tossing in a nice laser light show or some gory wax mannequins. But the Conciergerie steadfastly refuses to do either. The stone cells where Marie-Antoinette, and later Robespierre, waited for the guillotine are just empty rooms now. Shuffling through them with a hundred other tourists does not evoke La Terreur so much as L’Ennui.

So in an attempt to liven up the proceedings, I asked Lisa, “Who do you root for in the French Revolution?” The Conciergerie offers no hints as to whether its curators’ sympathies lie with doomed aristocrats, brilliant philosophes, ruthless dictators, downtrodden peasants, or angry bourgeoisie. Dividing the past into good guys and bad guys almost never makes for good history, but it does pass the time. Lisa thought about it a bit and said, “Benjamin Franklin.”
Read more