Here at the AP World History Gulag the work crews just got a visit from Bonnie Smith. Smith is one of my heroes, a terrific historian of women in Europe who has moved to historiography, world history, major edited volumes and now the newly-published Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. She’s prolific, smart, and generally fine, in my view.
She told us a bit about how the sausage gets made in a project like this. Wrangling the egos and enthusiasms of specialized academics is one obvious thang. Prompted by her general editors at Oxford she had to learn to respect/indulge her experts, sometimes in arguably irrational ways. Well right, if I’m being praised, pimped and paid to be an expert I would want to be respected and indulged.
An example of this is the missing entry on “harem.” As I gather from Bonnie’s thoughtful and diplomatic explanation, the area editor decided there shouldn’t be one because harems have been ‘done to death’ as the lazy way to do exotic gender practices of the Orient — footbinding is another example, although it does have an entry. The westerners head straight to the hoochees when they want to be deliciously scandalized about ‘other’ cultures (my observation is that this is reciprocal, as a conversation with a scholar of world religions who’s spent a lot of time in India has just anecdotally confirmed), so the idea was to intercept that dumb ethnocentrism by leaving harems in the index as aspects of other entries.
I’ll not debate the general tendency of encyclopedia-users to be seeking the information that least challenges their intelligence or preconceptions. If you want your stories quick and dirty both you and the people who supply them get what all y’all deserve. At their best encyclopedias take complete ignorance and turn it into relative ignorance. They are useful for orientation toward a deeper understanding, which is the project this editor seems at least momentarily unclear on.
So rather than use readers’ laziness and/or ignorance to prompt a deeper thought, this expert collapsed into a kind of reciprocal superficiality. Rather than, say, do an entry excavating the concept of the harem for its history not just as a way of living for some real historical women, but as a titillating orientalism, this bratty intellectual Stalin decided that just airbrushing it out of the picture would be the way to show those eurocentric snobs a thing or two. We’ll just pretend that one doesn’t exist, shall we? Because the word is the thing.
Meanwhile, how much you wanna bet all those readers will feel shown is that the incompetent editors of an encyclopedia on women in world history don’t even know about harems? Will they be coming back for more?
By the way, I am not one of those historians who worships the sacred inviolability of the past. If there were a reliable way to eliminate human misery in the present by selectively editing or completely rewriting the past, I’d be all for it. This would be a much better use of the past than most of those currently in vogue.
Another thing Dr. Smith said that caught my attention more directly in relation to the current string of posts was that she had to do some work to get some of her contributors using ‘women’ instead of their preferred ‘wymyn‘. She remarked sardonically that there had been a time when she also preferred that term, but she “got over it;” and that her contributors got over it too.
Good for her, and them. I can’t even remember all the dumbass shit I’ve gotten over, but fortunately now this blog exists for older, wiser me to be embarrassed by later.