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5/13/2006

Visualizing cultures

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:04 am Print
The M.I.T. site is back up. The most controversial part was the section on Old China, New Japan. There is a cache of the old version here The only change that I see at first glance is the disclaimer, which is, I think, as should be, as I thought the text was quite good to begin with. lots of discussion on H-Asia

(My H-Asia post)

I think the point made by Vincent Pollard, among others, that these images are being read in different ways, and then when scholars put things on the internet they have less control over how they are reacted to than they might in a classroom setting is a good one, but also I think, misses the problem of how these images are being read. It is certainly true that once something is posted on the internet one looses control over it, and it is technically easier for someone else to take your work and place it in another context than it would be if one did printed scholarship. On the other hand, what seems to be happening here, at least at M.I.T. and H-Asia, is not a misunderstanding, but a deliberately different reading. Winnie Wong (5/12) states that the text needs better editing to “[make] visible the historian's intervention as much as possible.” As she claims that the needed changes are self-evident I am not sure what she means, but Kas Ross (5/13) agrees with her

I'd like to express my agreement with Winnie Wong's comment over the need for sharper editing on the MIT Visualizing Cultures website. Statement such as 'In short, the Chinese are riotous in every way, disgracefully so in their behavior, and delightfully so in their accoutrements' are ambiguous, I think. Adding a few words ('In short, the Chinese are portrayed as riotous in every way') makes the critical stance more obvious.
Ross at least implies that there is a critical stance, and that he can see what it is, but that the text needs to be more clear so that this will be apparent to unspecified other readers. This is the same position taken by the M.I.T. students
we are confident that the authors do not endorse the wood prints’ contents in any way beyond their artistic and historical value. Nevertheless, we cannot condone the irresponsible manner in which such material has been presented. An exhibit should provoke discussion, but in this case, it could have been done in a more delicate manner.
A lot of comments I have seen about this seem to be from people who are not offended, but are speaking on behalf of those who might be. As far as I can tell, both Ross and the M.I.T. students seem to be saying that they understand the authors’ meaning, but that other possible readers might not, and that the authors should take this into account. I suppose I agree with that, but I suspect that these other readers are a very small, possibly non-existent, group. Apparently some readers of the site deliberately took images from the site and posted them without context or with deliberately misleading context, an act which Peter Perdue condemned, rightly I think, as “despicable.” Kas Ross and possibly Winnie Wong seem to be saying that Dower and Miyagawa have created a text that they can read in the sense that the authors intended, but that they could also chose to read the text in another way, and that the authors should try to create a text that is not susceptible to deliberate misreading. I’m not sure that is possible, nor am I sure that it would be desirable if it were. Historians are notoriously bad writers, and this site is one of the few on the internet that tries to bring Asian history to a broader public and does so in a way that draws an audience in. Sprinkling the text with caveats as Ross suggests seems to serve one bad purpose (deliberately trying to distance the reader off from the text) and no good purpose (deliberate misreading will always be possible unless historians become lawyers.)

I think that Dower and Miyagawa have handled this affair in a fairly clear way. The contrast between the revised site and the original (cached here) is quite clear. As far as I can tell the only change is to add a disclaimer asking readers to (among other things) PLEASE VIEW & USE THESE “VISUALIZING CULTURES” UNITS CAREFULLY & IN THE SPIRIT IN WHICH THEY HAVE BEEN PREPARED.” In other words, they are asking for a scholarly reading of their work. Are there those who will refuse this request? (I don’t think anyone on H-Asia or at M.I.T. would fit in that category) Probably there are such people, but Dower and Miyagawa are, in effect, ignoring them, and I think that is the best approach to take. The process of expanding scholarly discussion beyond traditional scholarly circles and formats is complex enough without attempting to create texts that cannot possibly be misinterpreted.

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