Author Archives: Amber Dilabbio

A General Good Time

Written by guest blogger Matthew Smith.

Illustration

Judging children’s behaviour is largely a matter of perspective.  Whether we see certain childhood behaviours as positive or negative often boils down to our particular viewpoint and, crucially, how said behaviour impinges on us, the adult.  As I suggest in “Snips and Snails,” perceptions of positive and negative childhood behaviour have also changed historically, and for a wide variety of reasons that often have little to do with childhood itself.  What hasn’t changed, however, is that we adults have not tended to be particularly concerned with how children view their own behaviour.  But should we?

There is an illustration by True Williams (1839-1897) in the original edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that nicely sums how a child’s perception of their own behaviour – and its repercussions – can differ markedly from that of an adult. In the illustration, entitled, “A General Good Time,” Tom has just fed Aunt Polly’s cat, Peter, a spoonful of “Pain-killer,” a quack medicine she has been giving Tom to pick up his spirits.  The cat goes berserk, knocking over flower pots and furniture, and eventually smashing through the window.  While everything in Tom’s posture and expression exudes how hilarious he thinks this is, his poor Aunt Polly looks mortified, hands clasped together in a desperate plea to the Almighty to set this boy right.

Although most of us – certainly those of us who are parents – might side with Aunt Polly’s interpretation of the situation if we were left to clean up the mess, what if we saw a scene of this nature in a comedy film?  We might well laugh along with Tom at the cat’s antics.  The scene reminds me of my eight-year-old son’s recent birthday party, which was a “tubing” party at a local ski hill.  While rocketing down the hill, the children’s screams and shrieks of delight were charming; not so when they continued during the birthday lunch, held in a cramped room in the lodge.  After a few minutes, the scene in the lunchroom resembled that in “A General Good Time,” except with a dozen maniacal children replacing the cat and all manner of birthday detritus replacing the plant pots.  While some of the kids chased each other around and under the table, others engaged in a belching competition that drowned out my attempts to attain some sanity to the proceedings.  My son sat back in delight, taking in the carnage.  And if I hadn’t had to clean it all up, I might have as well.

There is a final, telling moment towards the end of the scene depicted in “A General Good Time.”  Tom, having made Aunt Polly guilty for making him drink the Pain-killer asserts that – taste notwithstanding – the medicine did Peter the cat good.  In other words, a bit of mindless mayhem might not be all bad.  As parents – and adults – we should remember that sometimes.

Read Matthew Smith’s article “‘Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails’: Boys and Behaviour in the USA” free for a limited time on UTP Journals Online.

Notes on Ethnographic Situations in Vietnamese American Communities

Written by guest blogger An Tuan Nguyen.

Four men standing for a photo outside. Southern California, May 2012: Standing in a parking lot of a motel where I stayed for several weeks during one of my field visits were three young informants and I. All three of them were my former students in Ho Chi Minh City between 2008 and 2009. They also introduced many other informants to my project.

My article “Global Economy, Citizenship Pluralism, Transmigrant Mobility, and the Sojourn-Immigrant Vietnamese Americans” in Diaspora is a part of a large and comprehensive ethnographic project that started in 2010 during my time in graduate school and is continuing until now. Unlike most scholars in the field of Vietnamese American studies, I came to the United States as an international graduate student and am still a [proud] Vietnamese national. My background profoundly shapes my perspective and decisively helps me probe Vietnamese America from different angles. Whereas this ethnography was mostly written in a small Midwestern college town, the research was conducted in multiple ethnographic sites from Vietnam to the East Coast, the Midwest, the South, and, of course, the beautiful state of California of the West Coast USA. I deliberately extended my project to include trans-community, trans-state, and transnational focus. The various ethnographic sites were intended to provide more comprehensive and inclusive analyses of the varied Vietnamese American/immigrant lived experience.

Doing ethnography in traditional Vietnamese American communities has always been treated as contentious and risky work. Many ethnographers, often academics who literally live in, and virtually rely on sites of Vietnamese American ethnic enclaves to develop both their research and their teaching career, have admitted their fear of being outcasts once their research reveals some uncomfortable truths and upsets the locals. Such fear might be coupled with a sense of betrayal to those who help them to do the research. This is particularly true when research touches on the controversial and highly heated topic of Vietnamese anticommunism. One researcher confessed, “I too am familiar with the fears […]. [I was] once afraid that my writings would cause me to be labeled a communist and therefore make it difficult to simultaneously research and be a part of the Vietnamese American community.”[i] Another admitted, “My fear of being dubbed a “communist” made me take a safer route.”[ii] Another expressed her anxiety after traveling to Vietnam with “a bunch of lefty antiwar peacenicks” and “spoke with officials of the Communist Party”: “I worry what he [one of her radical anticommunist informants], and other Vietnamese Americans, would think about my travels.”[iii]

In a tiny college town, I did not live in an actual Vietnamese community. Therefore, such fear did not affect me. I, in fact, lived in an imagined community, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s term.[iv] My status, however, switched accordingly in each site. During my field research in areas of strong anticommunist fevers such as Dorchester, Boston, MA and Little Saigon, Orange County, CA, I was embraced by my entrepreneurial participants as a teacher (many of my informants were my former students, their parents, relatives, and friends) who attentively listened to their lamentations, confusion, and hopes in the foreign land. To the professional informants in many smaller cities, I was a fellow Vietnamese who was predictably following their trajectory: coming to America, striving for an education, and aspiring to be a researcher and a teacher at a US postsecondary institution. I was not a stranger ethnographer who arrived in a community, lived with the locals for years, learned their language and culture, and wrote a book. Neither was I an ethnographer who explored the local community and claimed my “insider” status to conduct a research. I was a site-hopper whose length of stays, ethnographic methods (including observations, participations, and interviews), and sometimes, means of survival, relied heavily on the goodwill of my people: the Vietnamese immigrants who trusted me with the job of telling their stories; the stories that otherwise would not be told and heard. Although their real names can never be revealed in any of my publications, by participating in the project, their bravery and willingness have rendered possible this article and will continue to shape other publications in the future. They in fact have taken all the risks while I took none; and for that I am forever grateful and indebted.

An Tuan Nguyen teaches in the Asian American Studies Center at the University of Houston. His research interests focus on how histories of Asian immigration forged the making of Asian American ethnic enclaves and identities and how globalization reconceptualized such communities and identities. His past and current research are community-based projects that explore the lived experience of contemporary Vietnamese immigrants living across the country in their socioeconomic struggle, political empowerment, cultural identity negotiation, and globalized transnationalism. His articles have appeared in DIASPORA and Journal of Vietnamese Studies. Amongst several other projects, Nguyen’s book manuscript entitled “Luggage to America: Professional, Entrepreneurial Immigrants and the Twenty First Century Vietnamese America” is under final revision.

Read his article “Global Economy, Citizenship Pluralism, Transmigrant Mobility, and the Sojourn-Immigrant Vietnamese Americans” in Diaspora Volume 20 Issue 2, free for a limited time here: https://doi.org/10.3138/diaspora.20.2.002.

Notes

[i] Kieu-linh Caroline Valverde, “Creating Identity, Defining Culture, and Making History from an Art Exhibit: ‘Unfinished Story: A Tribute to My Mothers,’ Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 19, no. 2 (2008): 60.

[ii] Thuy Vo Dang, “Anticommunism as Cultural Praxis: South Vietnam, War, and Refugee Memories in the Vietnamese American Community,” (PhD diss., University of California, San Diego, 2008): 220.

[iii] Karin Aguilar-San Juan, Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America, (University of Minnesota Press, 2009: 158.)

[iv] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (Verso, 2006).

“Inside the box, outside the box, and among boxes”

Written by guest blogger, Steven C. Muir.

People are encouraged to “think outside the box,” and while this is worthwhile advice, it does not tell the whole story of doing effective and innovative research. Below are some observations on this process, and how I go about it. These issues were at work in my article for Mouseion.

Inside the box. Dive deep! Don’t settle for a superficial reading or quick assessment of data. Go over the material very carefully, multiple times. Investigate the context of the phenomenon you are investigating. Things not only reflect but are a product of their time and setting. In your research, sometimes the background may need to be moved into the foreground. Have a good grasp of the relevant methodologies and theories. Consult assessments within secondary scholarship, but don’t be locked into those. They are relative to the perspectival context of the researcher. Finally, always check primary data. Don’t rely on footnotes and what others say. Others may be wrong, incorrect, or only have a partial grasp of the issue. Come to your own conclusions and don’t just parrot what others have said.

Outside the box. Question old paradigms and theories. Seek new connections and explanations in data. Look for patterns. Assume very little. Investigate as much as possible. Cultivate your intuition and don’t be afraid to be creative and imaginative. In research, I empathize with others – walking the paths they walked, seeing the sights they saw, feeling what they felt. Have a sense of humour, for whatever humans do may seem surprising or even odd at first. Have fun in your research! “The devil is in the details” – and so is the fun.

Among the boxes. Choose and combine fields and disciplines. Particularly within the Humanities, there is nothing which cannot fit together and inform your research. You will be learning not only about your topic, but about what it means to be human. Be interdisciplinary in your research and eclectic in your interests. In my Mouseion article, I deliberately brought Classics, Philosophy and Religious Studies into dialogue. That synthesis helped me produce new insights and challenge previous scholarship. A new project I am working on will bring together Archaeology/Architecture, Performance and Ritual Studies, and Pilgrimage Studies. Remember, boxes are always a construct, even when they are academic fields. We build and work within structures to help us manage and analyze data. But, those structures are not absolute. When we can achieve new insights by moving outside them, we are at liberty to do so.

“A wheel has spokes,
but it rotates around a hollow center.

A pot is made out of clay or glass,
but you keep things in the space inside.

A house is made of wood or brick,
but you live between the walls.

We work with something,
but we use no-thing.”

Tao te Ching #11, in Getting Right with Tao (a modern translation) by Ron Hogan

photo of Steven Muir

Dr. Steven C. Muir is a professor of Religious Studies at Concordia University of Edmonton. He has published in the areas of Biblical Studies, Classics, History of Early Christianity, Healing and Identity in Religious Communities, Pilgrimage Studies, Ritual Studies. His most recent book is a co-edited volume, titled, Ritual Life in Early Christianity (Routledge 2018). Read his recent article in Mouseion “Greek Piety and the Charge against Socrates”—free for a limited time here.

“Flicking switches, turning dials, and pressing buttons”: The important work of energy historians

Written by guest blogger, Andrew Watson.

I don’t think it’s too much of a cliché to say that most of us have only the vaguest idea what the origins are of the energy we consume on a daily basis. Many of us living in the world’s industrialized countries have it hammered into our daily lives that we should turn the lights off when we leave a room, that we shouldn’t leave the front door open on a cold day, and that we shouldn’t leave the engine idling. Doing these things is a “waste,” so we’re “saving” energy (and money). We’re concerned about an abstraction, but not because we appreciate its true form.

In my introduction to the CJH/ACH special issue on the Material Realities of Energy Histories, I used Plato’s simile of the cave to convey the veil that shrouds our understanding of energy in the 21st century. In his parable, Plate describes prisoners in a cave who have never known any other life. Their gaze is fixed on a wall. Behind them, a light casts shadows on the wall, and the prisoners are convinced that these images are the objects themselves. It is only upon their release and ascendance to the surface that the prisoners come to understand the difference between the shadows dancing on the wall of the cave and the true form of the world.

The phenomenal power of fossil fuels has led us into the false perception that energy is, to quote Christopher F. Jones, “profoundly immaterial.” As Jones argues in his contribution to this special issue, “The Materiality of Energy,” we use so much energy today that we somehow don’t even notice. How is this possible? Under what historical circumstances has the industrialized (and industrializing) world come to detach energy consumption from most knowledge about its origins?

letter Figure 1: Coal breaker, anthracite coal mining, Scranton, Pa. Source: Library of Congress

In the opening article of the special issue, Jones lays out two useful types of arguments that historians of energy should consider in beginning to answer this question. First, modern energy regimes are shaped by the material realities of energy delivery infrastructure. Using oil and coal in the eastern United States as case studies, Jones explains how important it was that pipelines and canals had very different influences over energy pathways. Second, the materiality of an energy source fundamentally influences its production and consumption. Using anthracite coal as an example, Jones reveals that the transition from one fuel to another is never inevitable, but mediated by human negotiation with physical properties of competing fuels.

letter Figure 2: The first oil well. Reproduction, copyrighted in 1890, of a retouched photograph showing Edwin L. Drake, to the right, and the Drake Well in the background, in Titusville, Pennsylvania, where the first commercial well was drilled in 1859 to find oil. Source: Library of Congress

Jones prompts us to grapple with material questions. Energy histories can help us understand the material realities of what are largely abstract understandings. Released from the belief that the material realities of our energy systems and experiences stop at the gas pump, or the light switch, or the thermostat, energy historians (like the ones featured in this special issue) can help society break free of those bonds and turn to see the fire burning behind us.

Banner: Oil rig at Titusville, Pa. Source: Library of Congress

Read the Editor’s Note in the latest issue of CJH as well as Christopher F. Jones’s article The Materiality of Energy, both free to read for a limited time here.

Raised on Oil: From Childhood Memories to Research on Port City Refineries and the Global Petroleumscape

Written by guest blogger, Carola Hein.

Among my early childhood memories are Esso items. My father worked for the German branch of the parent company, Exxon, an American oil company. He would often bring home collectible sticker images of wild animals or fish that I could collect in albums published by Esso. From the small Esso man to the Esso tiger, our home hosted a number of company promotional products. Every time we travelled we stopped at Esso gas stations to fill up the tank. In my early mental map, petroleum played a structuring and entertaining role, one quite different from the large refineries where my father worked.

letter Figure 1: Esso Oil Drop Man was an emblem of the company present at gas stations during the 1950s. Source: ExxonMobil

In my contribution to the special issue, entitled “Old Refineries Rarely Die”: Port City Refineries as Key Nodes in the Global Petroleumscape,” I focus on refineries. These huge, highly specialized and expensive industrial structures are globally similar and usually hidden in large industrial areas, often in fenced-off port locations. I trace their historic evolution, form, and function in global networks.

The article explores exemplary cases in four select periods of the petroleum industry: the lighting age (1860s–1910s), the car age (1910s–1950s), the plastic age (1950s–1980s), and the period since the 1980s with early attempts to go beyond oil. I examine the relationship between major refineries and nearby (port) cities of Philadelphia, Dunkirk, Suez, Abadan, Rotterdam, and Tehran. These refineries are fascinating places in themselves, but they are also part of a much larger network of oil spaces. Few people realize the pervasiveness of petroleum, but it is all around us.

letter Figure 2: Philadelphia Oil Refinery, 1980. Source: Library of Congress

Studying architecture and urban planning, I didn’t expect to encounter the oil world again. The first article that I wrote and published was about the City Nord business district in Hamburg built in the 1950s. The district was designed to give relief to the inner city where big companies occupied multiple buildings and clogged up space. A new, American-inspired comprehensive plan for a business district was designed to host large-scale headquarters each of which was designed by an architect after a design competition. In the City Nord, companies built city-like headquarters with a hairdresser, cafeteria and other services on-site. Three major oil companies were among the first occupants: Esso, BP, and Shell. Each of the companies opted for a unique design. BP’s building stood out with its hexagonal elements and open floor plan, whereas Esso had a glass-clad modernist building served by elevators.

As I continued to study architectural and urban history, I began to pay more attention to the impact of oil on the built environment. Investigating the history of the selection of a capital for the European Communities, today’s European Union, I found projects for business districts in Milan and in Paris (La Defense), in which oil headquarters played an important role. Studying the works of the French planner Maurice Rotival, I realized that he not only planned a capital of Europe in 1945, but his career largely floated on oil. Trained in Paris, Rotival worked in Caracas, where oil revenue allowed for large-scale replanning of the city centre. After becoming acquainted with the Rockefeller family and their architect Wallace Harrison, Rotival was appointed professor at Yale University.

From project to project, I discovered an interconnected network of spaces that were driven by oil interests, some more and some less visible, and a layer of representation of these oil spaces (or their absence) in corporate publications as well as artistic, architectural, and other commentaries from the public at large. The different parts of what I have termed the petroleumscape vary in space and visibility: some are as big as a refinery and storage tanks in a major port, others are as small as gas stations.

Among the diverse industrial, administrative, retail, and ancillary spaces that form the petroleumscape, refineries have the most important “staying power” and they are the focus of my contribution to the special issue on the Material Realities of Energy Histories. Refineries have a number of requirements for implantation. They need access to water, both for industrial processes and shipping. They also need distribution infrastructures. Once these connections are built, refineries tend to stay in place, attracting flows of oil rather than following them. Even when their ownership changes during periods of war and nationalization, of destruction and re-appropriation, their location stays the same.

letter Figure 3: Adaban Oil Refinery. Source: Wikipedia Commons

My article explores the history of the construction of refineries as part of global transformations and national strategies. It examines how the location of refineries globally has changed over time as a result of colonization, decolonization, and war. It explores their spatial impact on their mostly urban neighbors, and it examines what their presence means for post-oil landscapes. By considering the multitude of ways in which petroleum has shaped a broad range of spaces in people’s everyday lives, the article provides insight into the relationships between energy landscapes, space, and culture.

Such an enhanced understanding will hopefully inspire the reader to reflect upon the diverse ways in which new sustainable energy networks will reshape our spaces and lifestyles. Such a reflection might even inspire producers, designers, and parents to provide new kinds of trinkets, toys, and other products to children, who might use them to imagine the energy systems of the future.

Banner image: Adaban the city of oil. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Carola Hein is Professor and Head, History of Architecture and Urban Planning Chair at Delft University of Technology. Her book publications include The Capital of Europe, Rebuilding Urban Japan after 1945, Port Cities, Routledge Handbook of Planning History. Read her article in the latest issue of CJH, “‘Old Refineries Rarely Die’: Port City Refineries as Key Nodes in The Global Petroleumscape”—free for a limited time here.