Books

When Does an Object Become a Historical Artifact?

Linda Levitt

Dispatches from Dystopia seeks out and is drawn to tell stories of places that are often left open to interpretation.


Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten

Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Author: Kate Brown
Publication date: 2015-05
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The aesthetic pleasure of “run porn” -- documenting places that have been abandoned and decayed by the quirks of cultural or economic transitions -- is deeply connected to historian Kate Brown’s Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten. Rather than holing up in the library for the close inspection of primary source documents, she ventures out to places like Uman, in the Ukraine, and Billings, Montana, where dystopian stories resonate in the land and the people who occupy it.

In her array of evidence to examine how we seldom look at place as having agency in the narratives that become history, she asks the reader to consider threads of similarity among places and the stories they reveal. While narrating histories of places and people, Brown also raises questions about what is remembered, as well as what is forgotten.

Dispatches from Dystopia draws strength from its subjectivity and Brown’s reflections make the book richer and less suspect. She acknowledges that the subjective personal lives of historians always play a role in the histories they render: the places they choose, the evidence they use to develop arguments, and the details that are left out. In the opening essay, Brown asks: “Why, in disciplines that aspire to verifiable truth, do scholars sustain the fiction, when researching and writing, that they are not there?” (11) The writer can best explain a place and its people by putting herself in its midst, and this is precisely what Brown does throughout the book. Some readers may find the author’s voice intrusive, as we are accustomed to playing along with an idea of objectivity that simply does not exist, yet accepting this narrative voice has rich rewards.

Brown seeks out and is drawn to places that tell stories, often left open to interpretation: history is, after all, an interpretation of the past. One of these places is the Panama Hotel, located in what was once a Japanese neighborhood in Seattle. When Japanese Americans were told to prepare for evacuation to relocation camps during World War II, taking only two suitcases with them, many families left their valuables in the hotel basement. The hotel was owned by Hori Takashi until it was sold in 1995 to Jan Johnson, who has worked to restore the building to its appearance in 1942, when it was a center of Japanese life with its bath house and tea house. She also cordoned off access to the trunks left in the basement.

After telling the story of her time spent in Seattle, Brown turns her questions over to the reader. Should the personal belongings in the storage room at the Panama Hotel be handed over to a museum, where they can be organized, preserved, and interpreted for visitors to file past? Or should they be left where they are, secreted away from public consumption? When does an object become a historical artifact?

Brown’s subjective presence is crucial to her essay “History (Im)possible in the Chernobyl Zone”, which is included as the book’s third chapter. She admits that she's drawn to this site of post-nuclear devastation because of a website called Kiddofspeed, featuring narratives and photographs by a mysterious woman called Elena who documents her motorcycle rides through the abandoned, uninhabited zone. Before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, this was a thriving residential area, built to create a high quality of life for its then-Soviet residents. Elena claims her father was a nuclear scientist who has been working on cleaning up the zone, enabling her to have access to the area.

Yet Brown discovers that the adventurous idea that drew her to Exclusion Zone is not exactly what it seems. Only by relating her own experience can Brown effectively show how stories and histories can entice us to see the past through a particular lens, authentic or not.

The arrangement of chapters is important to Brown’s project. Had she opened the book with the lengthy essay, “Gridded Lives: Why Kazakhstan and Montana are Nearly the Same Place”, she would situate the argument before the evidence. That may seem like an intuitive approach, but the reader is better able to support the argument when the richly detailed evidence precedes it. Even in this third post-Soviet decade, there's resistance to the idea that oppositional ideologies could create such similar built landscapes.

Each of Brown’s essays is engaging, and together they create a larger story about the ways that places tell stories that often remain untold. The book is not a memoir, but in some ways may function as a memorial to the dystopic places that call out to her.

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