Category Archives: HIstory: Musings

Looking for the Past in the Future

Are you a fan of science fiction? A space enthusiast? A historian of technology? All three? Chances are you may have seen this image:

Standard cut-away of the inside of a Torus space colony,

In the 1970s, NASA commissioned a number of hypothetical images to help determine what space colonies might look like. In 1977, NASA sponsored the NASA Ames 1977 Summer Study, where space colony inventor Gerard K. O’Neill and colleagues worked together to determine if space colonies could feasibly be created in the near future. O’Neill had already confidently asserted that the large habitats, meant to hold up to 10,000 people, could be built if not immediately using current technology, then in the near future. But despite NASA’s serious interest and the support of many enthusiasts, ranging from experts to hippies, space colonies never came to be.

Though certain groups, like the National Space Society, still actively pursue the building of space colonies, when the ubiquitous image above flashes around the internet, it is usually attached to nostalgia and gentle amusement. So why would historians like W. Patrick McCray, De Witt Douglass Kilgore, and myself, choose to make space colonies a topic of study? Why do historians study things that fail?

In history, sometimes the end of the story is far less important than the process. The study of space colonies reveals a process or way of imagining the world. Not only that, plans for space colonies and images like the imagined rendering above can teach us about the way our historical actors thought the world should be. And the historical moments they lived in always shaped these imaginings of the future.

For example, we’ll deconstruct our image to demonstrate the process historians use to read texts, as well as what can be extricated from this text about the way our space colonists imagined the future. Knowing the shape of that future can tell us about how our historical actors conceived of their present.

On the most basic level, what we see is an image of a space colony shaped like a torus, or wheel. The artist has rendered it so that we can see it arc through space, but has also cut away the colony’s hull to reveal its interior, placing it in the foreground. This emphasizes to us that this image is about the way space colonies look on the inside. In other words, this is the way life looks when it is situated in space.

Even upon first glance it is clear that life in space looks a lot like life on Earth. The two most dominant images are greenery and trees, and those of houses. Both of these images tell us important things about the way space colonists envisioned the future.

Firstly, the abundance of plant life indicates that space colonists envisioned habitats as resembling forested or landscaped places on earth. Specifically, they imagined green spaces, not arid or arctic or other landscapes. Though some space colonists envisioned habitats large enough to hold mountain ranges and have their own weather systems, this artist has chosen to emphasize a less extreme environment.

The absolute control over the environment in this habitat is made clear when coupled with the carefully arranged houses. These houses are much remarked upon by historians of space colonies, mainly because they bear a striking resemblance to an idealized middle-class, suburban American landscape. Just glancing over this image we have learned the type of economic class that space colonists value – the suburbs and the middle class are what’s worth saving along with all the shrubbery.

We can also learn about how race played a role in space. In the most immediate foreground of the image are the only people visible in the illustration. Looking very affluent as they lounge on their patio, they are all white. Because we cannot see inside the other houses, it is impossible to know what their inhabitants look like. But we do know that among all the images generated of space colonies, only one includes an African American. No other minorities are represented.

Gerard K. O’Neill believed there would be diversity among the stars. But De Witt Douglass Kilgore has rightly pointed out that O’Neill’s vision amounted to a homogenization of space, as O’Neill believed groups would separate from each other based on their differences, living like with like.

So now that we have done a basic deconstruction of this image, what does all this information amount to? This is where we must put on our historian’s cap and remember that this image has a historical context. That means this historical context influenced the illustrator’s vision of the future. And this is why we can read imagined futures to learn about the historical time periods in which they were created.

Let’s take the issue of homogeneous suburbanization for example. The ideal of a middle-class suburb had been a part of the American Dream for decades by the 1970s, and Americas were just beginning to recognize that this dream might include people other than whites. It’s also true, however, that the social movements of the 1960s powerfully questioned the validity or even attainability of this ideal. So why would Gerard O’Neill in his writings and these artists in their drawings imagine the suburban ideal to be worth preserving in the future?

Remember, space colonists tried to sell these plans not only to the public, but also to Congress. Someone had to fund their dreams. That means they thought their ideas about the future and what to preserve in it had to have cache, and so they chose images that appealed to them personally and that they also hoped appealed to a wider audience.

But we still haven’t answered our question. What’s the appeal of saving white, middle-class suburbs while life on earth goes to rot? This is the exact question I hope to answer as I begin work on my dissertation. It will mean reaching back into cultural sources to examine the changing role of the American Dream and its orientation in the 1970s. It might also mean doing oral histories with members of the community who supported space colonies or created these images. In short, it will mean putting the image above in particular, and space colonies in general, back into their historical context. It means seeing them as important and instructive historical texts as opposed to interesting but quaint relics of a goal still not obtained. It means bringing them back down to earth.

History can hide in the most surprising of places. This time it was hiding in the future. Who knows where it will be next.


What does your historical collection say to future historians about you?

Sometimes, when I am taking pages of notes on a book or a primary source, or when I browse and organize my many bookshelves full of historical monographs, I wonder what would happen if my home froze in time and remained undisturbed for a 100 years or more before humans stepped foot in it again. Because I’m a historian, whatever future archaeologist or other wayward explorer who stumbled into my library would find is a wealth of information about the past. What would the books and notes tell future historians, not only about the history of mankind (more specifically American history), but about me?

To pursue this thought experiment further, we have to lay some ground rules in order to allow it to function without too many distracting technical questions. We’ll assume our hypothetical historians are fluent and literate in English (whether or not it’s their native language), so therefore they can read any written texts they find. For the sake of imagination, let’s assume that large parts of American history have been lost or are obscured, so they’re encountering some of the ideas contained in my library, if not for the first time, then rarely. Obviously these historians are bringing their own cultural biases with them, so to keep the experience simple we will not assume race, gender, or any other categories of identity – maybe these historians are even aliens from another planet seeking to learn more about the human race who have very different cultural assumptions from our own, so different we can’t imagine them. While hoping this isn’t a cop-out on my part, we’ll just assume our intrepid explorers have a cursory familiarity with but a healthy interest in the history they have found without complicating their assumptions by trying to determine imaginary bias.

One question I’ve purposefully left dangling is how these people or beings know what history is, or if they even conceive of it in the same way that we do. Let’s assume they too record facts about their past, and so, in the most basic sense, practice history. The first thing that our future historians may have to decipher is the way in which we write about the past and how we conceive of modalities of time (whatever time happens to be). If we assume they our familiar with our linear concept of time, simply looking at the way my books are arranged wouldn’t offer them any help in determining chronology, seeing as my books are all alphabetized. That means they’d have to figure out how to read our time line on their own. Different cultures conceive of time differently, so this may prove to be a challenge to them.

Let’s assume our explorers have managed to decipher our way of cataloging time, which in and of itself would teach them about how a western historian conceives of history and how westerners conceive of the structure of time. What else could they learn from my particular collection of books? I’m a 20th century American cultural historian who attends an institution that also requires me to be well-versed in all periods of American history. As an undergraduate I focused mainly on East Asian history, a fact which also informs the content of my bookshelves. With these broad categories now delineated, what kind of topics would our future historians learn about from my books?

They might first note a particular obsession with identity. From my books a future historian would learn at least a perfunctory history of race and gender in America (though, regretfully not nearly as much about class or sexuality). My books and notes would provide them with definitions of the concept of race and stories about how it operated in society. Future historians would also learn about gender, competing definitions of it, and also many books about how gender operates as a category of assessment in the historical field. Luckily for our future historians, my bookshelves contain many volumes on historical methodology, especially concerning gender. Learning the historiography of a subject would do a great deal to teach future historians about how our ideas about ourselves and how we deconstructed them changed over time as influenced by surrounding circumstances. Study changes in methodology also means they would study the changing circumstances that inform it.

Learning about identity through history opens a door for both future and current historians to examine all other aspects of society, culture, and politics. A book like Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound is a great example. Through May’s focus on gender constructs in the home in the 1950s, she is able to demonstrate how the Cold War state entered the home and helped shape family roles in order to guarantee the continuation of the national security state. May links identity formation to the policies and formation of the state. As our future historians journey from identity formation to political projects when they read my books, they would learn not only about culture and society but also about the way our government is structured, and the way it operated both inside and outside the halls of power. They would be exposed to the names of laws and policies these authors considered important and related to their topics, which, while informative, would still leave out a wealth of information. How would future historians decide which narrative focus to pursue? And what would they think informed my choices?

There are hundreds, thousands of years of history on my bookshelves. And these bookshelves display only a tiny fraction of what has been written by historians since the just the professionalization of the field in the 19th century. Say our future historians found a book from the Dunning School and Hannah Rosen’s Terror in the Heart of Freedom in my collection. How would they know which one to privilege when trying to construct an accurate picture of Reconstruction? Would they think that my passionate interest in culture and popular culture was a reflection of larger trends in historical inquiry at the time I was studying? In other words, would Karal Ann Marling’s As Seen on TV take precedence over Steven Casey’s Selling the Korean War in their understanding of our culture?

Perhaps the larger question here for historians is, how do we understand the historical worlds we construct for ourselves, and how does our work and study interact with those of our colleagues and peers? As I prepare for my comprehensive oral exams, I keep finding books to add to my list that seem just as compelling as the ones I’ve already read. Despite the daunting task of memorizing so many books, it seems I can never read enough to understand not only the multifaceted subject that is American history, but also to understand the workings of the discipline itself, the way through collective endeavor we all work to change it over time.

When I consider our future historians, I cannot help but picture them as frustrated with the lack of clear narrative my books would provide when taken in alphabetized pieces. Instead they’d find a mishmash of books covering a range of different but intimately interrelated interests. Having them sit for something like my comprehensive oral exams would perhaps be one of the best ways to help them understand the connection between William Cronon’s Changes in the Land and De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s Astrofuturism. Finding a historian’s treasure trove of books must be celebrated not only for the blanks that it might fill in, but for the incredible complexity of material that it would provide to someone trying to understand past cultures. How we think of the past both informs and is informed by the present. I would hope our future historians would keep this in mind as they browsed my bookshelves to learn about the past.

Historians In the Vacuum

I thought I would come out of my long slumber to make a post about research that may prove helpful to some of my colleagues as we begin work on dissertations that will monopolize years of our lives.

Historians like Warren Susman constantly remind us that history does not take place in a vacuum – it is not solely the province of historians locked away in our ivory tower writing for a limited audience but instead suffuses the cultures we live in and therefore affects all our daily lives. Just as historians must remember that historical narratives do no arise in a vacuum, we must also remember that, as historians, we do not research and write in a vacuum either.

I am currently working on the prospectus for my dissertation, and at times have been overcome by feelings of inadequacy about my topic and my research. But, as I always tell my students, learning is not a solitary process. We often have our greatest breakthroughs when we overcome our anxieties and reach out to others for help.

For example, after a recent discussion with my advisor, I found the direction of my research completely changed. Simply put, she suggested a new way of searching for sources and source repositories that immediately led me to a new body of sources I’d never even considered before that will be crucial to my project. I felt excited and rejuvenated by this discovery.

Forming bonds with our colleagues and peers and reaching out to them, whether we feel confident or lost, is an important and perhaps understated part of the academic process. I would encourage all academics, from college freshmen to tenured professors, to remember and explore this important facet of our work as historians. History does not occur in a vacuum. Neither do historians.