Taking Stock of Cambridge – and Digital History

It’s the last normal weekend for a while here in my perch above the Charles. A week from now at this time, I’ll be in Germany, hopefully not too groggily presenting some work from my book project at a Cold War history conference, while almost immediately after getting back from Deutschland, another flood of events awaits: a close friend from college coming up to Cambridge to visit, another long conference trip to Moscow (this time on Soviet photography), and other visitors to Boston after that. Finding time to squeeze in all of my (relatively limited) classwork and do enough writing on a day-by-day basis to feel like the manuscript is coming along will be hard. But, then, one of the joys of the courses I am taking – a seminar on Digital History with  Kelly O’Neill of Harvard’s History Department and a class in advanced Persian – come together with my writing. Every time I learn new digital methods, read an article that challenges my assumptions about how to structure the project (or even think of it in terms of media like ‘the book manuscript’), or struggle to understand, eventually, Persian poetry, it all feeds back into the larger project of becoming a more thoughtful scholar. Right?

Combine mastering even a trifle of the languages of Eurasia plus digital history plus conference travel, and it’s all work (and some blogging) for your humble narrator!

As part of the digital history seminar, we’re invited every week to blog about a new topic: one way to get the creative juices flowing for next Tuesday’s seminar and to spar with the other seminar participants, who range from other semi-traditional historians à la moi to Divinity School students to professional MOOC designers at HarvardX. This week, we were asked the following question(s): Is your field well represented in the realm of digital history? Why or why not? Does it matter? Which begs the question, at least for me, of which discipline I’m really in (there’s still time to make up my mind before thinking of the job market … I think). In truth, however, if someone were to ask me, I’d say that my work fits pretty snugly into so-called international history, itself a turn within the old discipline of diplomatic history, and which is best represented by ambitious international histories of big topics like Mark Mazower’s Governing the World, Matthew Connolly’s Fatal Misconception, or Nick Cullather’s The Hungry World: all works which take up the question of how certain issues became internationalized – global governance; population control; the struggle against hunger – and the ways in which these trans-national narratives challenge our usual conceptions of a bilateral “Cold War” as the defining theme of the latter half of the twentieth century. My work contributes to that discussion – I think – by looking at the ideas of “economic development” and “modernization” – fruitfully explored by scholars of US foreign relations like Michael Latham in their works – and bringing them to bear on an unusual context: Afghanistan during the Cold War, and in particular the history of Soviet attempts to transform that country. In doing so, while the work remains most akin to the works of international history mentioned above, it also speaks – or at least I’m flagellating it to speak – to scholars closer to the fields of Soviet history and Central Asian history.

So, how well represented is international history or any of those other fields in digital history? My initial attitude is mixed. I see lots of resources – great resources, in fact – but I also fear that compared to some of the work highlighted by Omeka (Steven Barnes’ “Many Days, Many Lives” on the GuLAG is a wonderful exception) – we still aren’t where we could be in terms of creating immersive digital forms. Why? I think there are a couple of reasons. Firstly, as with so many scholars, the big ambitious international history book (usually professionally positioned as a second major monograph after a first book stemming from the PhD that was more local in focus) remains decisive for tenure and professional prestige. Secondly, however,  the field of Cold War history (sort of distinct from international history, but not entirely) has remained focused (for good reason) on new documents coming out that shed light on what we thought about the US-Soviet rivalry and its global implications. The work of scholars like Svetlana Savranskaia at the National Security Archive has been huge in this regard. Thanks to their work (and Russian colleagues, and translators), we increasingly have access to tantalizing documents about the Soviet Cold War experience: Anatolii Cherniaev’s diaries come to mind as something I frequently use, or the recent translation of Vladimir Snegirëv’s and Valerii Samunin’s Virus A: How We Got Infected by the Invasion of AfghanistanIn short, because the Soviet Union was a closed society – particularly so in its treatment of national security-related archives – there’s still a lot we don’t know. The novelty of documents strikes us as pathbreaking enough – we’re satisfied to know the one extra layer of detail about Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan, as opposed to creating a digital map of atrocities in the country from 1978-1996, say. (Underscoring the problem of secrecy not just in Moscow but also in Central Asia here is the fact that just such a project was actually done by Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission. Because publication of such data threatens to delegitimize current warlords as well as slain national hero Ahmad Shah Mas`ud, its content remains guarded.) Working on “secret” stuff is fun for historians: we like to play detective. But even setting aside the question of authoritarian countries, or countries with traumatic pasts, guarding their historical data with fist clenched, one worries that secrecy and novelty themselves become the gold standards for innovative scholarship. (As opposed, say, to a highly interactive history of US and Soviet non-military aid in the Third World, which I think could be done today.)

One path for camels, one path for automobiles: Theodore Roosevelt Jr. near the Khyber Pass in the Kingdom of Afghanistan, c. early 1930s

Moving to Central Asia and Russia more specifically, given the still-sensitive status of the relations of the United States with a variety of the countries in the region – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Iran … – I see cases in which digital history methods are being used in delightful ways (and with federal funding), and yet where the content seems troubled precisely because of the need to present a seamless picture of America’s relations with a part of the world that, frankly, we didn’t pay very much attention to for most of our country’s history. Such were my thoughts, at least, when looking at In Small Things Remembered, a luscious digital history of Afghan-American relations. (Afghanistan became an independent country in 1919; formal US-Afghan relations were established in 1936, but relations were handled by the Tehran Embassy until 1942, when a legation was built in Kabul.) Many of the photographs are gorgeous – many of them taken by James Albert Cudney, an American photographer who lived in Afghanistan for much of the country’s developmental moment, in the 1960s and 1970s. So far, so good. But because the imperative of the whole project is (obviously) diplomatic, we get a very sexy (and not always accurate) view of how sour relations between the two countries have always been. The excellent PhD dissertation of Abdul Qayum Mohmand, an Afghan national who studied at the University of Utah in the early 2000s, provides more background. Poorly informed by State Department officials who viewed Pashtuns as “wild,” “rebellious,” and “unreliable” compared to traditional Anglo-American clients in the Arab World, U.S. Presidential administrations from Harding to Roosevelt rejected Afghan requests for diplomatic recognition. (Fear that the USA would step on the still-might British Empire’s toes was another concern.)  Given that these rejections came at the precise same time that a still-alive Lenin proclaimed the need for the “peoples of the East” to liberate themselves, and as German engineers helped Reza Shah Pahlavi modernize Iran, or at least its army, the lackluster American response was a bitter pill indeed. American oil concerns signed contracts granting them a concession to exploit (used here descriptively, not pejoratively) Afghanistan’s oil in the mid-1930s, but backed out upon realizing that the oil wells in Saudi Arabia – “America’s Kingdom” – were more productive and had the distinct advantage of not being thousands of miles from the nearest deepwater port.

Here’s the problem. Work like Mohmand’s doesn’t leap off the page. It’s a PhD dissertation, sitting on dead trees the exact same way that mine does. Digital history projects like “In Small Things Remembered” do. Yet I worry that they do Americans a disservice because of the perceived mandate to present the content as a story of ever-rising waters, rather than one of – like almost all bilateral relations! – with high and low points. Situating America’s relationship with Afghanistan in the context of British–Soviet–German rivalry in the 1920s and 1930s, or granting more face time to the very real inspiration that the USSR presented to audiences around the Third World (but especially in Kabul – the USSR was the first country to grant Afghanistan diplomatic recognition, as Soviet sources never tire of mentioning), could help American soldiers, aid workers, diplomats, and the informed public get beyond the essentialist framework of “why do they hate us?” that too often plagues American discussions of the Muslim World, the Arab World, and Central Asia – all of which are extraordinarily internally diverse. Digital history can, and perhaps has, to help, in conveying that complex history. But if we use the new media at our disposal to prop up diplomatic myth, that ironically makes the problem of civil society exchanges even more devilish in the long run.

Dreaming of digital history, Central Asian style: young Afghans crowd around a sunlight-powered projector made of a one-gallon oil can, a mirror, two eyeglass lenses, a cardboard box, a condenser, and a piece of acetate in the early 1960s.


It’s true that one can tire all too quickly of the “call to arms!” tone that ripples through much of the digital history literature: I certainly do sometimes. But, as Marshall Poe reminds, there’s a lot of public history – not all of it so great – being done out there already, whether we like it or not. And if not technically savvy, linguistically competent scholars like our generation, then who? Call to arms indeed.


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