Sunday, 18 January 2009

When does a thing become The Thing? The various newspaper digitization projects have allowed intellectual historians an unprecedented look into the codification of ideas. Previously, scholars argued that, through the careful study of texts transmitted over the wire, they could track the dissemination of a phrase from New York to the Canadian wild. The problems with this approach were, first, that it was an argument, not a comprehensive database; second, that it assumes ideas transmit best in print; and third, that as an argument it relied on a unidirectional model in which everything invariably flowed from the same source, through the same channels, to the same destinations. When common sense suggested otherwise, that is, when an idea clearly originated in Savannah instead of New York, the means of dissemination remained the same, only now the idea worked its way north to New York before being routed into the same pool and distributed through the same channels to same destinations. I’m oversimplifying, obviously, and I’m not even trying to account for concepts primarily transmitted via the spoken word. The Great Awakening, for example, began anywhere people felt pain and had tents. It spread down from upstate New York and up from Florida and out from Appalachia with ease because it took the form of a common recognition, as if everyone woke up one morning and convinced only God could improve their awful lot. The lazy way to account for such mass recognitions invokes the language of biological warfare: weaponized ideas contaminate air and water alike, such that those who breathe what’s “in the air” swiftly follow Derrida, while those who drink what’s “in the water” embrace Foucault. Evidence that someone dumped a francophilic compound into the cooling system or water supply never consists of an epidemiological study of all breathers or drinkers; instead, we are presented with a measurement, in decibels, of the howls produced by the ecstatic afflicted. Measuring how intensely people predisposed to shouting actually shout is not, I contend, the best means of discussing the pervasiveness of a certain idea. Suppose we wanted to know when Americans first came to realize that wars to their distant east and west were not two very large conflicts but one world-historical war. As mass realizations go, this one falls under the category of ideas anyone could have had, had he but thought about it a bit; and after 1 September 1939 everyone thought about it a bit more. But they didn’t call it World War II or the Second World War. Newspapers spoke of the Sino-Japanese War and the European War, but as 1939 came to a close, America does not seem to have connected the two—at least not idiomatically. If you want to know when, precisely, Americans understood they were in the midst of a second world war, there are two ways to find out: find the first mention of “World War I” (not “the First World War,” for reasons I’ll explain shortly) find the first mention of “World War II” or “the Second World War” Lest...

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