Disciplinary pissing contests

A mildly diverting post at Crooked Timber today, on William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal, noting

the introduction where he extols the merits of archival research, as against the kind of “subaltern history” that pads out existing secondary sources with large dollops of theory…

Now, it’s not my field (and I recognise the rhetorical get-out-of-jail-free card in the words ‘the kind of’), but this resembles a not uncommon move amongst archive-based historians: what you might call the ‘my sources were harder than your sources’ gambit. (Think of Monty Python’s four Yorkshiremen sketch, but with historians.)

Points are awarded according to a number of factors, in particular:

a) the difficulties involved in getting to the archive;

b) the obstacles to getting into the archive;

c) the physical condition and accessibility of the documents;

d) the obscurity of the language or script of the documents;

e) the illegibility of the handwriting;

f) the monstrousness of the archivists;*

g) the discomfort levels of the environment, including the chairs, room temperature, lighting, etc;

h) the awfulness of the canteen food.

The higher your Archival Endurance Points score, the more rights you acquire to condescend to your printed-sources brethren, and to disdain Theory.

What are the equivalents in other disciplines? They must have their own pissing contests, surely?

*NB that I’m not suggesting archivists generally are monsters. But you don’t get AEPs for the nice ones.

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7 Responses to Disciplinary pissing contests

  1. Oooo, I confess to playing this game. But it’s mostly because I have a colleague who is a historian of the 19th century in the region where we live, which means that his archival sources are 1) practically in his back yard, 2) in English, and 3) PRINTED. But he has the gall to complain occasionally that it’s so boring to leaf through these catalogs of printed records. I keep a photocopy of 16th-century Spanish inquisition records in my desk to whip out just for occasions like that.

  2. Sharon says:

    Obviously, all pre-modernists start with extra helpings of bonus points!

    It occurs to me that I forgot an important one: the state of the catalogues. No points if some anonymous 20th-century archivist prepared beautifully accurate detailed item-level calendars of your documents. But you get lots of AEPs if you have to dive into boxes of uncatalogued mouldy documents that pretty much nobody has touched in the x centuries since they were originally filed away. Except the rats. MASSIVE AEPs if you find a dead rat.

  3. John says:

    Anthropologists have something similar regarding where one does field work – in fact, you could almost replace archives with field site in your list and it would work pretty well.

  4. Janice says:

    Oh, I keep a pile of archival photocopies on top of my office filing cabinet. There’s nothing better to shut up a student (or a modernist colleague) when they whine about the difficulties of their sources when they see the spidery hand I’m dealing with on a daily basis.

    That said, the archaeologists have us all beat. They literally have to dig up their sources. It only feels that way for some of us historians!

  5. John Quiggin says:

    Dalrymple plays this game (right down to the spidery hand), but also has a variant “I went to Rangoon and it turned out that just by asking, I could get the entire archive, fully-indexed, on a CD. Of course, no-one before me had bothered to go and ask.”

  6. Profane says:

    Under c) – bonus points should be awarded for working with manuscripts treated with acidic reagents in the 19th century. Bad for the manuscripts. Bad for your fingers!

  7. Pingback: historians, archivists, crybabies and archival pissing contests « the patriarchive

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