Pilot

History is forever written with a pencil. Revision lurks behind its vision by necessity. Like chalk on a blackboard, sponge at the ready for after the bell rings, it is not simply malleable, its malle-must. When historians adduce evidence into their stories, it comes from the places they look, and sometimes from the places they purposely don’t look. There is a strategy to it, a logic that cannot escape its own heritage and context. So what is written down is layering sediment – to be swept away or built upon by those who in the future will add their own interpretations.

This new site is me putting down some silt. I am trying to see whether when I step on it, I will leave a footprint and press it further into the ground to make a good foundation, or if the wind blows it away immediately after. Thus, History! is, as so many things that turn out to be somewhat more serious than originally conceived, named in honor of a joke. It self-consciously parodies many researchers’ propensity to apply a simple view of the world, one theory, one key to everything to, well, everything, and then to run with it. “Thus, history!” is the facetious exclamation of the historian who amasses facts and factoids, pushes them through the meat grinder of well trodden explanatory filters, and calls it a slice of world, a piece of reality.

“Thus, history!” is perhaps the exasperated last attempt you would make to convince the heretofore unconvinced of what you believe strongly in but do not yet have enough evidence for. The thing you would say if you were still a big thought short of an explanation and the coffee stopped working a week and a half ago. It is, in the worst case, a self-aggrandizing way of throwing in the towel. In the best case, however, it is a proving ground, with its interrobang inflected ever so slighty upward, giving way to a question mark: “Thus, history?” read as “Is that what happened?” Or, as historians once were fond of saying, what really happened. A discredited really, but not a forgotten one. After all, when things are obvious, they are obvious, right? When you have the upper hand, the better system of thought, the all-important argument, you must advance it. You must convince. You must. There’s never anything wrong with making good arguments, at least when it is in the service of obtaining more knowledge. But when you have convinced yourself, you can sometimes forget why others have not yet shown up to your party even though you bought cake and all the balloons. And that forgetfulness, in a true O. Henry twist, will make you less convincing.

This blog is where I don’t always try to convince. It’s a place for things half baked or still mostly raw. A quarry and at the same time a place where I can store materials unearthed along the way. It’s a public space in which I can try out thoughts and hypotheses, collect ideas and theory and inspiration. A hill where I can stake a flag. It’s a log of sorts, too, that can continue to hold opinions I held at one point and might no longer. It’s where I can come back to check against what I will believe in the future. It’s a direct link to others who may be working on the same problems and issues, or working with similar methods. It should be, in short, a place to document and help along research. Yours and mine, academic or otherwise. In that, despite the tongue-in-cheek grandiosity of its title, it should be useful in small but important ways. Useful like a chest of drawers or a memory palace.

I call this first post “Pilot” in reference to the Hollywood term because it is the first in a series of which no one yet knows how long it will continue, and where it will go; who will write and who will be recast and what storylines can be expected. Much like the pilot for a television show, this post is a marker, a how-to, and a suggestion: “This is what the whole can be. It’s going to change, but the mission statement, in some form, is here.”

There may be others joining along the way, but for now it’s me, and I will simply start producing. Thus… history.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is due out in July from Transcript publishers. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Mainz and an adjunct lecturer in History at the University of Cologne.

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