Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Geographic Revolution in Early America

This afternoon, I read chapter 3 of Martin Bruckner's The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (2006).

I was primed to enjoy this piece - I am completely on board with the argument that language, maps, and education are key to creating imagined communities. I agree that efforts to exert authority over people are often most effective when they are matters of education and acclimation rather than coercion. Furthermore, I find the subject matter (education, national identity, symbols, etc.) fascinating.

Still, I found this chapter less than satisfying. It's difficult to articulate exactly what bothered me, but I've come up with three criticisms:

  • The writing is disappointing. I suppose this is a subjective criticism and some might disagree with me, but the prose seemed deliberately opaque. Take this sentence as an example:
    Being sounded aloud, the place-name now signaled spatial demands, invoking territorial rights and borderlines for both readers and listeners.
    What does that mean? I'd like to say that the context provides an explanation, but it does not.

    Similarly, does anyone know what "direct prop" means? As in
    Examining Ralph Earl's portrait of Mrs. Noah Smith and her family, a closer look reveals that the nation's outline becomes the direct prop of the young man holding the geography book.
    I do not know what this means, and Google was unable to help me. Perhaps it is terminology from a theory with which I am unfamiliar (Prof. Bruckner is an English prof). The outline of North America is only partially visible in the painting - in fact, it is the only part of the world map that is hidden.

    Finally, for an essay on the power of language and symbols, the language is either remarkably careless or calculated to make points that don't stand up to scrutiny. For example, in discussing Americans' "eager[ness] to sever all representational ties with the formal imperial power," Bruckner describes English as "the very language of the oppressor." I'm not sure it is wise to call England "the oppressor" without a larger discussion about the implications of the term. After all, the white population of colonial America considered themselves to be Englishmen, and the degree to which any sort of "oppression" triggered the American Revolution is not a settled question.

  • Bruckner uses a lot of slight-of-hand logic to make his argument. In the introduction, he discusses both Federalist and Anti-Federalist objections to the language of the Constitution. Essentially, Federalists thought that language was inadequate to express the complexities of the proposed government, and Anti-Federalists thought that the language should be simple enough that anyone could understand it and it could not hide the document's true intent. After describing the controversy, Bruckner writes:
    The perceived linguistic crisis was resolved at least temporarily by the framers' shared culture of geographic literacy. When the time came to ratify the nation's founding document, the signers of the Constitution ceremoniously bypassed both the alphabet and the vexing ambiguity underlying the English language. As Robert A Ferguson has pointed out: "The signers of the Constitution appear neither in alphabetical order, nor by presumed importance or seniority, nor in haphazard fashion. They are grouped, instead, by state with the states themselves appearing in geographical order from north to south . . ."
    Do you see what he did there? He said the crisis was "resolved" and then presented evidence that does not prove it. How does the order of the signatures address concerns over the limits of language or the fear that the Constitution's ultimate goals were concealed by confusing wording? The geographic orientation is interesting and supports his larger argument in the chapter, but it doesn't resolve the problem he says it resolves.

    Bruckner does this several other times in the chapter. When explaining Noah Webster's frustration with "the inherent flexibility underlying all languages, the fact that linguistic forms do not always follow rules but evolve constantly and are shaped by individual oral applications, local habits, and social settings," Bruckner states:
    Webster resolved this dilemma by turning to the discourse of geography, in particular the spelling of place-names.
    Really? He "resolved" the problem of English's notoriously unpredictable spelling and ungovernable evolution? It would be more accurate to say that he "attempted to address" this dilemma or "sought to impose order," but Bruckner can't resist the grand statement. Such wild overstatements provide continuity between paragraphs, but they aren't good history.

  • Bruckner fails to ask many of the obvious questions. This irked me most of all. This post is way too long already, but one example will suffice: Bruckner makes the unassailable point argument that many people hoped to standardize American orthography and pronunciation during the early national period, but doesn't ask the next question: "What is the standard?" Did Webster compile local pronunciations and disseminate them, or did he hope to enshrine his own pronunciations as the standard?
Maybe I'm just being picky, but I was annoyed. I was ready to enjoy this assignment, but ended up filling up the margins with questions and corrections. Disappointing.

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