historian, author, film producer

Tag: Leo Marx (page 1 of 1)

Railroad Exhibition planning with the Sheldon Museum of Art

In 2012 the United States will mark several important anniversaries for the Great Plains region, including the passage of three pieces of landmark legislation–the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act, the Morrill Land Grant Act, and the Homestead Act. In addition, the Civil War Sesquicentennial is already underway, directing further attention to the importance of this period in American history.

We are currently planning an exhibition on “Railroads and the Making of Modern America” at the Sheldon Museum of Art from January 21, 2012 through April 2012. This exhibition will coincide with the Center for Great Plains symposium on “1862-2012: The Making of the Great Plains” and will feature works related to this theme in the Sheldon Museum of Art permanent collection. Railroads shaped the landscape of the Great Plains, and they were a central actor in the drama of American modernity.

In one of the most important treatments of the railroad in American art and literature, Leo Marx explained, “The sudden appearance of the machine in the garden is an arresting, endlessly evocative image. It causes the instantaneous clash of opposed states of mind: a strong urge to believe in the rural myth along with an awareness of industrialization as counterforce to the myth.” Machinery was associated with democracy, progress, a sense of history, and a step beyond natural limits. For Marx, Daniel Webster’s defense of the Northern Railroad’s opening in August 1847 captured the trade-off or reconciliation Americans made in adapting to the railroad–the losses (of peace and repose, ugly landscapes, noise, smoke) were more than offset by progressive force of the machinery, tied as it was to the republican progress, cosmic harmony, civilization, and history. No wonder then that Henry David Thoreau treated the machine as both an interruption and a vital, electric event. Henry Adams would consider the generation after 1865 “mortgaged to the railroads” and concluded “no one knew it better than the generation itself.” Adams thought that the railroads were “but one active interest, to which all others were subservient, and which absorbed the energies of some sixty million people to the exclusion of every other force, real or imaginary.” Indeed, the railroads contributed to “a steady remodelling [sic] of social and political habits.”

The railroads have a prominent place in American history textbooks, and yet the global, transnational modernity that railroads catalyzed remains difficult to convey. Art and visual images open up this issue in ways that can reach larger audiences, including elementary, secondary, and college students. Most often, the railroad as a subject in American art has been associated with the themes Leo Marx elucidated in his landmark The Machine in the Garden–the railroad as a subject of the pastoral ideal. But the Sheldon’s collection offers a strikingly different opportunity to examine the railroad as a principal actor in the making of modernity, and in the global consequences of American railroad development.

The Sheldon permanent collection offers the opportunity to unveil the global breadth of these processes and to explore the ways railroads became symbolic technologies, shaping the modern ideas and practices of this period. The Sheldon collection includes engravings and lithographs from the Great Plains, including works featuring the Union Pacific Railroad (U-222), the Platte Valley (U-4497.1), and the Black Hills (U-4498.1). But the collection also features strong work from the 1930s and 40s (such as “Slag Heaps,” “Railroad Crossing,” and “Railway Station”). Some of this work came out of the Works Progress Administration. Finally, the collection has excellent works from the 1960s and 1970s, including Roy Ahlgren “Great American Perspective,” the “Tubes” series, and Walter Blakelock Wilson “Prairie Boxcars.”

Roy Alghren, 1973

In addition, the International Center for Quilt Studies will lend one of its “railroad” pattern quilts and several local private collectors will lend several major contemporary works on the subject of the railroad.

In 2008-09 the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Kansas, opened an exhibit on “Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830-1960.” This exhibit attempted to focus on “how artists responded” to the railroad and featured the work of a wide range of artists–impressionists, photographers, modernists, and landscape painters. The works were arranged chronologically by period, although a few categories were broadly construed (such as “states of mind”).

This exhibition will take a somewhat different approach. We will examine the ways artists captured and shaped the modern ideas, practices, and experiences made possible with the railroads and why they were so important in American history. Rather than depicting the influences only from Europe, we intend to emphasize the broader cross-border movements of the railroads and to explore their global consequences. The audience will be presented with some familiar objects depicting for example the transcontinental, but they will also see and discover the ways that the Great Plains was part of a much larger set of modern processes.

The Railroad’s “Green Pasture”, New Media, and Digital Humanities

This week’s reading for our Digital Humanities seminar included Marshall McLuhan and Quinten Fore’s The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects and Helen J. Burgess and Jeanne Hamming’s new piece in Digital Humanities Quarterly, “New Media in the Academy: Labor and the Production of Knowledge in Scholarly Multimedia.”

Marshall McLuhan undertakes among other things a brief discussion of the railway and its social effects in almost the exact center of what one student called his “non-book book.” The railroad, McLuhan explains, “radically altered the personal outlooks and patterns of social interdependence.” He predicts that the “electronic” media in post-war America will have different effects however. The electronic age will produce not suburban worlds but a “circuited city,” an “information megalopolis.”

The railroad, according to McLuhan, created a mythic past even as it transformed society. Clearly drawing on Leo Marx’s 1964 classic The Machine in the Garden, McLuhan calls this effect “the myth of a green pasture world of innocence.” But, my students were interested in the way McLuhan’s polemical piece “runs into the other end of his own ideas.” One student suggested that McLuhan calls for a return to a childlike perception, exemplified in the aural not visual and in the non-linear not linear. Is this not also a green pasture? Does the way media “work us over” circularly create a green pasture?

So, much of McLuhan’s text and presentation rings true forty years later of course. These quotations elicited the most discussion not surprisingly:

“societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

“all media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”

“in the name of progress our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.”

The Age of Anxiety is “in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools–with yesterday’s concepts.”

To many of these students, we are currently in academe forcing the new media to do the work of the old. In fact, this is what so disturbed them about McNeely and Wolverton’s apparent disregard for blogs, wikis, and other forms of scholarly creativity. Pointing out that McLuhan’s celebration of the amateur had special relevance in this context, one student cautioned, “digital humanists ought not overly professionalize. Creativity, especially the creativity that sounds outlandish to professionals, is key to innovation.”

Although we did not have time to discuss the recent Digital Humanities Quarterly article in detail, students focused on the apparent paradox of digital humanities in tenure and promotion. How it is that Deborah Lines Anderson might argue ostensibly for counting digital work toward tenure in Digital Scholarship in the Tenure, Promotion, and Review Process, but at the same time define digital scholarship “as independent from the medium by which it is produced.” In other words, seeing tools only as a “means to an end” and privileging the “act of creation” misses an important series of instantiations or practices worthy of consideration. Using Bruno Latour’s concept of ‘hybrids’, Burgess and Hamming get us closer to understanding why we must reconsider what we mean by new media or digital humanities and how they relate to “the problem of genre and tenure.”

I found myself thinking anew about the railroad as a hybrid agent–something I’d been writing about and considering for the better part of five years. And further what constitutes a scholarly work and how to present that work, and how we need more examples of non-linear digital scholarship to break free of forcing the new media to do the work of the old.

So much scholarly media “relies heavily on graphical interfaces, navigational schemas, and visual layout,” Burgess and Hamming point out. We are building, in digital humanities, new interfaces to knowledge and information, just at the interfaces railroads produced shaped conceptions of time, space, and society–and were represented through Charles Joseph Minard with his railroad-inspired cartes figuratives. Railroads too changed the way we thought of the body and became an extension of the body. Burgess and Hamming call for a radical act of “performing scholarship” but their great insight here is that digital humanities and new media represent a significant watershed in the “materiality of knowledge production.”

We should look out for our own “green pastures” that come with the new media.

(A good part of our class time was dedicated to discussion about our iPad app challenge and this will be included in a later post.)