Living in the liminal

Living in the liminal

In 2020 fashion, this Labor Day weekend was strange for me and my crew.

We quickly ascertained that it would be too hot for camping–not to mention all the other people we were bound to run into, since the virus has rendered most other folks’ primary pastimes ill-advised at best and cancelled at worst.

When I was still going to school in Norman, one of my colleagues invited me to an exhibit centered around the town of Picher, OK, and it’s been on my list of places to visit since… and I doubt visiting an abandoned superfund site is most people’s idea of a fun Saturday activity. This seemed as good a weekend as any.

For those that don’t know the story, I’ll summarize. In the early 20th century, Picher was booming; after the discovery of lead and zinc deposits, its population exploded to over 14,000 in the 1920s, and it supplied 50% of the ore used during World War I. The excessive mining took is toll, however, when major sinkholes began appearing in the 1980s, and the Army Corps of Engineers determined that most of the town’s buildings were in danger of caving in. Picher’s water supply was also dangerously contaminated with heavy metal runoff. By 2010, the town had just one remaining business — a pharmacy — and six occupied homes.

When we arrived around 1:30pm on Saturday, September 5, 2020, I was shocked that it had ever been a town. It was a far cry from the photos I had seen in the exhibit; the town’s return-to-nature had been hurried along by the demolition of buildings and blocking off of side streets. If you didn’t know the history of the town, you’d have thought it was a little privately-owned junkyard along the highway.

As we continued to drive around, however, I was struck by the inconsistencies. The visual truths that made the place difficult to assign an identity to.

A clearly abandoned collection of duplexes — doors and windows removed, siding melting off from too many Oklahoma summers without maintenance — that someone had gone to the trouble of recently mowing around.

Across the street, there was a large field with a set of unmaintenanced bathrooms toward the center, a single set of bleachers, overgrown with trees and facing toward a junkyard, and a statue of a gorilla at the corner of the lot. “1A Football State Champs 1984,” it read.

A faded sign overlooking the area explained that the “park” we were standing in was maintained by volunteers. At least that solved the mystery of what the area used to be. But what was it now?

Armed with my camera, I found myself drawn to capture the sense of order among the chaos. The juxtaposition of items arranged in a way that indicated some sort of care, intention, definition… but in a context that left the observer unsatisfied.

We weren’t in a town. But we also weren’t not in a town.

We spent a couple of hours driving back and forth along the main stretch of Picher and went down a few side roads, but many were blocked off by concrete barriers. We assumed this was to keep annoying people like us from driving into a sinkhole. The scorching sun and humidity kept us pretty close to the car, though I’d like to venture back on a cooler day and (carefully) walk down some of the blocked off streets.*

I shared some of my photos from the day and made an attempt to explain the dis-ease the setting elicited, to which a friend responded that I check out “liminal space” galleries. I’d never heard of such a thing.

Enter the concept of liminality.

From Wikipedia: “In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.”

If this isn’t the theme of the fucking year.

The concept originated with an anthropologist studying folklore, but it’s been expanded as a theory to explain social and cultural change, too: “During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.”

It’s that really uncomfortable place that people hate between what something used to be and what something will become.

A global pandemic has sent us all into this kind of space. The reality that something we can’t see and sometimes struggle to measure has such a real, profound impact on our way of life is difficult to internalize, and the lack of information about what the future in which this reality exists looks like is disconcerting.

These spaces are so, so very important, though. They don’t come often, and they are a terrifying, beautiful, crazy opportunity to change relationships with reality. They bring people, things, and ideas together that wouldn’t, in the previous paradigm, have had the same level of opportunity to interact and create.

As I’m considering a major change in my personal path, this weekend was important. Picher reinforced for me that change is going to happen and that it can be devastating. But to keep on doing what you’re doing because it’s what you’ve always done is living in a reality that doesn’t exist — and it will eventually result in disaster if not questioned.

Here’s to sitting in my own period of liminality. Like the land that used to be Picher, I have a few areas that contain what I understand to be mutually exclusive pieces, but I pledge to do my best to feel this space. To use it as an empowering agent in defining what I will become. To question the very fabric of my judgements and to have the strength to take the risks inherent in redefining parts of myself.

I think we all need to be doing that off and on throughout our lives, but when we get an opportunity like a global place of becoming… well, that’s something you don’t want to come out the other end of unchanged.

*It’s worth noting this is probably illegal, so… don’t be like me.

Why I chose the Slow Game, and how that’s working out for me

I should really write blog posts more than once a year. I’ll put that on my ever-expanding list of goals for 2020.

This is me checking in after 18 months or so in corporate America. What a strange, challenging, fascinating journey it’s been.

I decided to take the plunge after hanging out around the office as an intern long enough to gain a good amount of respect for the employees of the industrial contractor for whom I work. During that time, I interviewed with the University of Arkansas (for an Academic Counselor position), as well as with Planned Parenthood, but both ended in a mutually dissatisfactory experience.

That’s when I realized that my special brand of “making a difference” was probably best suited for an environment that valued compromise. I have an almost problematic ability to see a situation from every perspective–including the one that most would probably consider the “bad guy’s.” Because in real life, 95% of the time, there isn’t a black-and-white bad guy. Sometimes, situations are such that there isn’t a good answer. 

Other times, the “bad guy” is a result of the environment that conditioned him. This doesn’t mean his/her words or actions should be tolerated, but in my 25 years on this planet I have learned that the way to a desirable result is not to attack him. It’s to try and understand, so that you can (sometimes more slowly than you’d like) make a difference by showing that decision-maker why he should think or feel differently. Shoutout to my hero, Ruth Bader Ginsburg–Queen of the Slow Game.*

As one of my very favorite quotes captures so eloquently:

It’s easy to judge. It’s more difficult to understand. Understanding requires compassion, patience, and a willingness to believe that good hearts sometimes choose poor methods. Through judging, we separate. Through understanding, we grow.

And that’s why I stayed. I saw–and continue to see–so much goodness around the company I work for. I see injustice (both environmental and socioeconomic) built into the system I work in, but I also see people who have been there their entire careers listening and watching and changing as people like me and you offer new perspectives. It’s the slow game, but I think it’s one that needs to be played if we ever want to enact peaceful, meaningful change in some of the oldest and, despite what might be comfortable to think about, most critical industries (I’m looking at you, oil and gas).

 

Most would probably consider 75% of what I do internal communications. I run the company’s intranet, fielding news from around the organization and feeding it into a website hosted on SharePoint that only our administrative employees can see. I also help with initiatives that require a deeper reach, on to our field employees, which proves a unique challenge. How do you get in front of people that are always on the move, or those who don’t regularly have access to a computer at work? It’s something that surprisingly few resources have been devoted to in the past at my organization, but I can tell we are definitely moving that way. I’m pretty passionate about continuing to push in that direction.

The other 25% of my job is divided between helping out with other departments’ projects, coordinating the design and installation of interior decor at office locations, and designing and procuring different kinds of branded items employees find themselves needing.

It’s a big job, and I’ve had to learn to be comfortable knowing I can never possibly get everything I need to get done, done. But that’s what grad school was, and that’s kind of what life is, so I guess it makes sense. And to be honest, I wouldn’t actually want it any other way… despite what I will tell you after a long, stressful day.

My favorite part of what I do is how often I have the opportunity to interface with people who are so very different from myself. I love slowly building trust, becoming someone’s go-to in my department, and learning little pieces about them, their day-to-day at work, and their personal lives in the process. I am consistently fascinated by how many different ways there are to approach a problem and how much I can learn by tackling projects with teammates who think, react, and process information differently than I do. And they’re full-bodied, interesting, fun people outside of work, too.

Humans are just interesting. Even the ones that take a little work to really get in with.

That’s why they’re worth playing the slow game with, even if I don’t understand their way of being at first. Everyone has a perspective with inherent value that you can learn from. As long as you can see the good in what you’re doing and the people you’re working with, I think you are where you’re supposed to be.

 

*I found myself using the masculine pronoun here and thought about correcting it because there are definitely women involved in this, for lack of a better term, patriarchy as well… but in my experience, it’s the male perspective that has historically informed most of this socio-economic milieu we’re living in. If there’s one thing I learned in grad school, it’s to quit apologizing for speaking from a woman’s perspective. Sorry, not sorry. (That’s the closest I can get to not apologizing–I’M MAKING PROGRESS!)

 

The Transition

I graduated from a History of Science program in May of 2018 and have been serving as an intern in the human resources department of a relatively large and well-known industrial construction company.

Talk about contrast.

I have been forced through exposure and an increasingly intense desire to get out of my parents’ house to evaluate the skills I have accumulated during my tenure as an academic hopeful against the needs of the real world. I have been confronted with and made humble by the realities of corporate America. In knowing so very much about the importance of context and deep, contemplative thought, I have come to realize that I know very little about the importance of directed, practical thinking. About the importance of real-world skills and the amazing power of their impact on today.

I have found the pragmatist in myself, something that always felt like a hinderance in academia. I tried to throw it off, to disown it, in my first semesters of graduate study, expressing dissatisfaction in group discussions centered around historians who used the first and last chapters of their books to tie their work into current issues and thus politicize (read: sully) their work by exposing its current applications. History should be produced for history’s sake, I thought in an unreflective reaction to deep-seated concerns about what in the hell the study of history could do for the world.

My time out of academia has brought on the realization–already partially developed–that it isn’t quite where I belong. It could be my background or my natural inclinations, but I have an awareness of immediacy and practicality about me that makes the idealism of the university setting seem a bit naive. I understand its importance and have all the respect in the world for those who choose to remain there, but it’s not home for me.

The skills I developed under its wing and the weaknesses I exhibited when measured by its standards, however, are telling.

  • I am an excellent writer that thoroughly enjoys the process of taking an incomprehensible amount of data or an unwieldy process/idea and reformulating it in a way that means something to a predetermined audience.
  • I know how to structure evidence in order to formulate a convincing argument. (Yes, law has crossed my mind. No, it’s not for me.)
  • I understand the importance of context. I know it is vital to consider audience, the source of information, and perceived or actual motives when building or evaluating a narrative. I know that narratives are constructed things, and I understand that they can be manipulated… and I also know how important it is at times to be in control of the way that an event, person, process, place, etc., is understood.
  • I understand–having tried to widen the perspectives of people indoctrinated with this mentality as well as working within it–the importance of numerical data (the “business case” in HR terminology) in building arguments.
  • I couldn’t ever get on board with the egos academia requires. Even if you know your argument has holes, you have to work your way around them. Diminish them. Not show weakness. I’m more collaborative than that, more interested in the overall outcome than playing up my own attributes in an attempt to validate my position. This may be considered a weakness in other circles as well, but that’s me. I’m a team player at heart, more interested in overall outcome than my own professional success.
  • I am and will continue to be a lifelong learner. I will always seek out and consider the opinions of those around me. I value feedback–positive and negative–and will integrate it into my decided courses of action.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that I have a skillset and mentality that will render me successful in positions that value initiative, curiosity, and coachability. I am passionate and love to learn, and I credit my time in academia as a major contributor to my desire to continue fostering those traits. I don’t know that a masters degree in history is the way everyone develops these characteristics, but it certainly worked for me and I am grateful for what I learned and not the least bit upset that my original plan–to become a part of the university system–didn’t end up becoming my calling.

 

Post-Thesis Thinking

I reread my thesis today. It’s always a scary practice, reading your own writing after you’ve let it sit for awhile. But I came away pleased overall, and the time I’ve spend out of the academic world has made it a lot easier to reflect on some of the real-world implications of my research.

I think the most important takeaway from it for any normal, non-historian reader is the idea that our ideas of what is healthy (and by extension what isn’t) are concepts that are constantly changing. It’s not based on some absolute truth, determined by the medical powers-that-be that understand, through the power of science, how the human body really works and interacts with its environment. Doctors are humans too, and they are exposed to the same articles you read at midnight on Facebook about how drinking unfiltered springwater is actually good for you or how only drinking cranberry juice for a week will cleanse your system. Outside of popular health fads, they are also exposed to very real and very persuasive economic incentives for maintaining certain ideas about what human health means in their professional lives (ever seen Dallas Buyers Club?). Doctors–and other scientists, religious leaders, and authority figures–are all human and subject to the same biases that lead us all astray and color our perceptions in unique and impossibly complex ways.

I think there’s this idea that the experts in any given field have determined some sort of abstract truth, often understood as universal laws that exist independently of human existence and merely await our discovery of them. The fundamental flaw in this way of thinking is that it fails to account for the very human aspect of human-held truths. Our doctors, our scientists, our teachers, our neighbors, our families, and we ourselves are all contributors to the social milieu from which our beliefs about the world are drawn. Our ideas of what is true and what isn’t are culturally, economically, and socially contingent, and it is every individual’s personal responsibility to realize our role in creating that truth. It is only when we have realized how our humanity factors into the way that we understand ourselves and our world that we are truly empowered to create it.

Science and the Construction of Health in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, 1879-1906

It is done, and it is online for anyone to read!

The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a crisis in therapeutics as scientific developments overturned the theoretical underpinnings of humoral medicine, leaving room for lively and pluralistic discourses of health and healing. This thesis examines the controversies surrounding therapeutics in late nineteenth-century America through a microhistorical study of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a spa town developed in the late nineteenth century. Physicians, scientists, patients and town boosters all contributed to conversations about the healing properties of the natural springs that dot the landscape around Eureka Springs. Beginning in 1879 with Eureka’s founding, this work covers its establishment as a health resort by means of aggressive investment and advertising and traces the changes in rhetoric and language of the town’s promotional material and other ephemera through the early twentieth century. Its story, one peripheral but concurrent to that of mainstream medicine, makes clear that therapeutics, and by extension health, are constructed concepts, and that they are constantly being created by physicians, scientists, and the everyday person alike.

Writing my thesis was a journey–had some very good, and also some very bad moments–but I am so incredibly proud of the result. If you’d told me I would be citing Foucault in any piece of writing a year ago, I’d have laughed in your face. Thanks in large part to an incredible mentor, however, I ventured into the terrifying world of theory. And I found it to be a pretty powerful tool for framing my research and really digging in and answering some of the questions that have been gnawing at me since I started this project.

My masters defense was a bit bumpier than its undergraduate equivalent, but that’s to be expected. I got some useful advice and a couple new leads if I keep on hacking away at what could totally someday be a tenable dissertation topic… or a popular history book. Or just the subject of more blog posts. It’s all kind of up in the air right now, but I don’t think Eureka Springs will ever be out of my mind. It’s still magical and fascinating to me, which is the feeling I think most historians are chasing. You know you’ve found your topic when it doesn’t get boring, even after four years of digging and fussing over it.

I got asked to change the title of my work. It’s still a sore spot for me, and while I have the utmost respect for all of my committee members, this was one piece of advice (well… it was really a demand) that I couldn’t quite stomach. The finished product is recorded at OU with the title I was required to change it to, but it will always be “Science and the Construction of Health” in my heart. That’s what I will call it here, but you’ll notice a slightly different title in ShareOK.

I will be stringing together some thoughts soon around my work and what the conclusions I came to mean for current beliefs about health, wellness, and water. Turns out my brain isn’t just going to stagnate now that I’ve earned my degree and left university–woo! Stay tuned!

Thesis Revisions: Contextualization in AR History

Howard C. Westwood, “The Federals’ Cold Shoulder to Arkansas’ Powell Clayton,” Civil War History 26, no. 3 (1980): 240-255.

Here Westwood tells the story of Reconstruction after Arkansas was reintegrated into the Union and Federal forces were removed. Ku Klux Klan violence was rampant, and the first Republican governor Powell Clayton was forced by a lack of federal aid to resort to the use of a rag-tag, ill-disciplined volunteer militia to protect citizens from their midnight murdering sprees.

Westwood notes that the Klan’s activities were, relative to the other regions of the state, minor in the Northwest region. Martial law was only enacted there in a single county in 1868. (254)

Clayton decided to stay in Arkansas after he served as a general there during the war. Westwood claims that he was not much interested in politics until the era of congressional reconstruction, when he became an active Republican. He “strongly advocated the economic development of the state still so nearly primitive that the war had found it with less than forty miles of railroad.” (242) He seemed rather popular with Dems and Reps alike until the activities of his militiamen engendered distrust and hatred.

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American Nervousness, 1903

Tom Lutz, American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

This is a strange one, but offers and interesting and valuable perspective on neurasthenia in its heyday primarily through the use of literary sources. Lutz takes what can loosely be described as a microhistorical approach with the goal of showing how a discourse of disease can be used to negotiate cultural change.

It would be incorrect to say that Lutz really “argues” anything in this book; rather, he’s taken a selection of literature and analyzed it in the context of the discourse surrounding neurasthenia. Most of his actors use it to express very different feelings about their cultural hopes and realities.

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The Nervous Origins of the American Western

Barbara Will, “The Nervous Origins of the American Western,” American Literature 20, no. 2 (1998): 293-316.

Will looks at the role that neurasthenia played in the development of the idea of the American West, specifically in its literary iteration.

Neurasthenia, as defined by George Beard and Silas Mitchell, was a disease brought on (specifically in men) by the strains of capitalism, political freedom, and technological superiority. These are good things. Modern men needed to maintain a balance, though, and engage in the kind of “struggle” that characterized his ancestors’ experiences on occasion — and they should write about it, according to Mitchell (it’s these writings that the author spends a lot of time analyzing in the second half of the article).

The disease needn’t be cured by a rejection of modernity, capitalism, etc., but rather “through a temporary and repeated entry of the urban into the rural, into a space in which the ‘sturdy contest of nature’ could be waged and these ‘stores of capital vitality’ could be replenished through the simulation of the life of ‘country men.'” (300)

Before Freud

F. G. Gosling, Before Freud: Neurasthenia and the American Medical Community, 1870-1910 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987).

Gosling provides a history of neurasthenia before Freud entered the scene of American psychology that considers those outside the “elite” group of physicians (Beard, Mitchell, and co.) who developed the concept in the late 19th century. As a mental illness constructed by physicians and their patients, Gosling argues neurasthenia provides an excellent inroad into the “gender and class biases” that the disease served to justify.

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Exhaustion and the Pathologization of Modernity

Anna Katharina Schaffner, “Exhaustion and the Pathologization of Modernity,” Journal of Medical Humanities 37, no 3 (2016): 327-341.

Argues that “exhaustion,” typically paired with other, varying symptoms, has factored into medical discourse in the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and has functioned as a medicalized critique of technological advancement. Looks at works by George Cheyne, George Beard, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Sigmund Freud, Alain Ehrenberg and Jonathan Crary.

Continue reading “Exhaustion and the Pathologization of Modernity”