A/P Ian Gordon – Why I Became a Cultural Historian

What drove you to specialize in history?

It is a long-term interest in how the past influences the present and the way societies were formed from interactions in the past. Having grown up in Australia, I was always interested in the US and the kinds of influence it had on Australia. Growing up I absorbed American television, comics, music and films. I always wondered: How did America gain such influence? I have long been fascinated by American history as a result of that early impact of American culture.

I guess that describes it a bit. But if you want another explanation, it might be that when I was a kid, I got to see some of history’s grand monuments. I was very fortunate to see the pyramids in Egypt as a child, as well as the Acropolis in Athens and the Colosseum in Rome. Spent the early years of my life in a working class suburb of Sydney but when I was ten, a couple of years after my father died, we had come into some money, and my mother took my sister and I to the UK, and on the way we visited many of these monuments. That probably had some influence as well in my understanding that society doesn’t just exist. There’re other societies, there’re longer histories.

Did you consider other disciplines at that point in time?

No, not really. I was ten when I went to Europe, I didn’t go to university straight out of school. In fact, I didn’t finish school – I left school, did other things, and eventually sat an adult entry exam and went to university to study American history. At the University of Sydney you couldn’t do American history in the first year, but you could in the second.  I started with Late Modern European History (LME) with the wonderful Professor Richard Bosworth and Dr Tony Cahill in the General Lecture Theatre just off the main quad. In the following years  I studied mostly American and Australian history, but we had to take other subjects so I did Economics, and what in University of Sydney we call “Government”, but is called “Political Science” most other places. In the very first LME lecture Bosworth read the passages from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish on the execution of the regicide Damiens (who attempted assassination of King Louis XV of France in 1757). He also mentioned Le Pétomane (Joseph Pujol), the flatulist.

Where do your research interests lie?

Like most historians I’m interested in the way that cultures change and shift. As a historian my interest originally  lay in understanding the way American culture changed and shifted, primarily from the period of the Gilded Age, which is around the 1870s, through until the early 20th century.

The focus of my attention was the  deep-seated changes that happened with industrialization, the growth of large corporations, and delinking of society from a producerist kind of base where most people produce things they had an intimate association with to a culture in the 1920s that very much became a culture of consumption where people didn’t necessarily produce things in such a way that they had an intimate association with the product. They may have been white collar workers or factory workers but importantly they only did very small part of the process. The trade off for this was a greater availability of goods and services in a consumerist society. So it’s that shift that has long interested me.

I also saw the role that media played in that transformation. And so that’s what I wrote about – the role of newspapers as a mass medium and the role of comic strips in making newspapers a mass medium. I’m interested in the way popular culture often gives us a sense of history. So, I’m interested in the ways that things like film and television entertain but also deliver a sense of history. We can learn a lot about the late 1960s for instance by analysing television, music and films from that era. By comparing and contrasting them with similar media from say the early 1960s we can understand how media both reflected and created change in cultures and societies.

The way we interact with popular culture, for instance, in memes, can come to sum up a large event in and of itself, and one’s knowledge on the meme then leads to other forms of knowledge, jokes and cultural moments.

I focused on a lot on American foreign policy work as an undergraduate. In those days at the University of Sydney, you spent the first year doing a subject. By the second year, you were writing five to six thousand-word essays. By the third, you were writing eight to twelve thousand-word pieces. You were being trained as a historian by second year, not through answering questions, but through shaping essays and addressing specific issues, reading widely in the literature and trying to come up with an interpretation.

And almost quite by accident, I became a cultural historian writing a book review for a course. I wrote a throwaway line wishing George M. Fredrickson had written more artists in his influential The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (1965) and the tutor, now Professor Shane White, wanted to read more about such concepts . The next year, in my third year at uni, I wrote a 12,000 word paper on the subject.

So being a cultural historian happened by chance?

Well, in some ways, yes. I mean, it appealed to me because I was always interested in visual material. When I read that book, one of my criticisms was that Frederickson, a very distinguished historian, who wrote a lot of work on African American History dealt with intellectuals who were journalists or essayists but also with not so much with intellectuals who were artists like painters whose response to the crisis of the Civil War might not have been as immediately apparent to historians trained to read texts.

Do you have any advice for current freshmen who may be unsure of taking history?

I think it’s always good to do what you really like. So if you don’t know what you like, spend the first year trying to figure out what you like. If you think you might like history, but are not sure about it, go and sit in some of the history lectures and see.

You are not going to like all of history. Over the years of being here, there’re people who love to do just Asian history and others who never want to do any Asian history at all. There’re all sorts of tastes in the department, all sorts of history being taught and all sorts of personalities teaching it. So it’s always good to go and figure out what you want to do. Whatever you do, try and do something that you’d like. Because after you finish university, the chances of doing something that you like are not always going to be that great.

The main thing in university for the humanities if you’re doing subjects like history is the skill to write and communicate. That’s the only real skill we’re teaching you. Being able to write means being able to approach a subject and a set of information and ask questions of that material that let you analyse  the situation to reach an understanding of what it means, how it happened and what the outcomes were reached.  Before university, students spend a lot of time learning to answer questions they are given. At university you need to learn how to shape a question for yourself and then how to structure a meaningful analysis. And you need to be able to do that better than people who have other hard skills. Because we’re all about soft skills like written and verbal communication that are transferable. We solve problems and we communicate the solutions clearly.

A lot of people may find that history is all about facts, but it’s more about stories and the ability to tell a narrative that explains. When you go out into the workforce, you’re going to have to write these kinds of narratives in slightly different ways, probably, because your skill is going to be figuring out what questions to ask your material and answering it.

History is not the only department where you can learn that, but I think we’re one of the better departments that teach that. The kind of skills that historians bring to writing,  that we’re training you to acquire, include not writing overly mechanical explanations of things, but telling a story, that builds an analysis into the narrative of what happened and the interpretation of that situation.

Historians are storytellers. In a way, that’s our key skill. But it’s not just a story. It’s a story that explains; it gives the best explanation of why this happened and what that means and how it happened. And sometimes, why something else didn’t happen. And sometimes even what would have happened if the other thing had happened or what the most likely thing could have been. It’s usually written as a story with a narrative. We don’t write fiction. But we are trying to write a narrative because we’re trying to grasp people’s attention. We want people to read it and get interested in what we’re writing.

If you are thinking of doing history, then you should like telling stories. We try to tell the best available version of what happened and why and how it happened. We understand there’s always going to be limits to our ability to convey things exactly as they were, and we have to make choices about how we order things, to make the story clearer to people. But we don’t ignore things. We understand that there are other interpretations and so we’re arguing for an interpretation as well. That’s what History is.

INFORMAL QUESTIONS

What is your favourite book and who is your favourite author?

There are so many. Today it’s Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, or anything by Ian Rankin. Favourite history work is Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven. My favourite author is Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathiser.

If you could teleport to anywhere in the world, where would it be?

New York City.

Who is your favourite cartoon character?

Bugs Bunny. Why? Because he has a liminal character. He can take on all sorts of roles and is not constrained by anything at all.

What’s your least favourite food?

Liver or kidney.

If you could add one word into the English dictionary, what would it be?

I’ve already been quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary – for the word “seeded”. You can check the OED online through the NUS Library.

Could you describe your personal motto?

*Breaks out into laughter*. “Walk hard, that’s my creed, that’s my code.” It’s a reference from a movie called Walk Hard, which is a satire of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. It’s a very funny movie.

Thank you so much for the interview.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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