Sunday, November 4, 2012

Hacking the yack: A farm/history thought experiment

Two events a couple of weeks apart have helped me think more clearly about the food/farm/history intersection that I've been working on for a while now, and particularly about the tension between two approaches to knowledge about the agricultural past:  (1) putting it to immediate, practical use, and (2) using it to build more complex, informed analyses of the development of the food systems we're attempting to change.  Farmers tend toward the first, historians toward the latter, and the difference between them is the one that's sometimes characterized as "hack vs. yack--people who build and do things versus people who mostly talk and analyze.  I've been pondering ways to nudge the two into a more active dialogue with each other, on the theory that we desperately need both.  But these two events, and a little thought experiment that I've been playing around with, have made me realize that there's still a long way to go, mostly because of the hierarchies and distinctions embedded in these two ways of knowing about the past.

Dean Koyanagi of Tree Gate Farm in Ithaca with new-old electric tractor
The first event was FarmHack Ithaca, which I wrote a bit about in my most recent post.  Farm Hack was created to bring IT folks and young farmers together to design and build  things, ranging from electric tractors (like the one at left, a repurposed 1949 Grand Haven) to digital spaces for expanding and strengthening the local/sustainable food movement (like FarmHack's online forums).

As with other projects that embody the DIY/hacker/maker ethos, FarmHack is active, experimental, and radically collaborative.  When it comes to how they're approaching history, though, that DIY mindset leads them to see the historical record mainly as a transparent source of usable, practical information--plans for forgotten tools and methods, data about what was grown and marketed in particular places, inspiring statements from earlier farm activists.  Their tool kit for thinking about history doesn't include the kind of assessment of sources and contextualizing of different kinds of data that historians see as crucial to putting together a bigger, more balanced picture.  It also doesn't include an awareness of the lens  of "doing history" itself--that is, the selectivity, motive, and interpretation involved not only in approaching the historical record but also in making the materials we're examining in the present. 

During the discussion in Ithaca about putting historical materials and collections to use in the young-farmer movement, I found myself in the unusual (for me) position of being the most cautious and conservative voice in the room, urging that it might be smarter to slow down and try to connect with people and institutions who are already collecting, curating, and interpreting farm-related materials rather than jumping feet-first  into the history business themselves.  But I also appreciated the sense of politicized urgency driving the FarmHackers.  And I loved the way the structure of the entire event reflected the less-hierarchical society these farmers and activists would like to see.

Lunch prep at FarmHack Ithaca (Photo:  The Greenhorns)
That challenge to hierarchy was clearest at lunch.  Like just about every other food-movement gathering I've ever attended, this one included a communal meal, in this case prepared on the spot using food grown by local farmers.  (That's me in the middle, attempting to slice very large beets with a very dull knife;  my friend Anna Duhon of the Farmscape Ecology Program is on the right.)  We all pitched in;  we had a great healthy meal;  we all washed our own dishes.  The leveling effects of this are profound:  sleeves get rolled up, skills get shared, and everyone participates in "menial" tasks and services that are revalued here as an essential aspect of participation.

And here's my thought experiment:  I've been asking myself whether the same kind of leveling is possible within the "yack" side of the equation where I spend most of my professional time.  Can we envision public historians and other knowledge workers at a professional gathering sharing the labor of making a communal lunch and cleaning up afterward?  An event I attended at the University of Massachusetts Boston campus on Friday gave me a chance to picture that, and I have to say I couldn't quite do it.

Read or download the full report here
The event was a "Critical Conversation" about the recent "State of History in the National Park Service" report from the Organization of American Historians.  A standing-room-only crowd gathered for the afternoon to discuss some of the findings and implications of the study, which calls on the NPS to devote far more attention and resources to supporting and disseminating high-caliber historical scholarship at its sites. One point that recurred throughout the discussion (as it tends to do at public history events) is that historians, by and large, really haven't done a very good job of convincing the public of the value of the kinds of careful, provisional, critical knowledge they produce. A list of general recommendations did emerge from the conversation, but these weren't tied to any definite, consequential next steps or any specific forum for effecting change, and I left with a strong sense that while the discussions had been terrific, the immediate future would hold a lot more words than actions.

Beyond that, I was struck by how faithfully this gathering--like virtually every academic conference or symposium--reproduced the kind of intellectual politics represented by the hack/yack divide.  Purely talk-oriented forums delegate everything having to do with hands-on skills (making food, setting up and running AV equipment, and the like) and expect participants to show up dressed in ways that don't really enable us to do anything but talk, even if we were to want to do something as startling as helping out with the more menial side of the event.  The hierarchical implications of this are subtle but profound:  we are the ones who have risen above the hands-on tasks, whose time and ideas are important enough that we have other people take care of those more material needs for us.  Most of us don't believe those things consciously, but our patterns of gathering and working reinforce them on every level.

It was particularly striking at this event because one of the things we were discussing was whether front-line historical interpreters at national parks could give enough attention to upgrading their historical skills if they were also expected to perform jobs like checking on the toilet paper supply in the bathrooms.  The sense of the gathering, needless to say, was that the historical skills should take precedence.  In other words, we were talking about how to extend the hack/yack divide rather than challenge or undo it.

This isn't entirely illogical.  IT hackers make things with code and farmers grow food, but historians' "making" is inherently less tangible in many ways. But the higher status that has historically become attached to professional "hands-off" labor means that this is the logic of the compartmentalized, hierarchical society that has created such vast distances between farmers and eaters, between service work and knowledge work, and between embodied place-knowledge and more abstracted ways of learning about the world.  Those distances, I think, help to account for the strange absence in much of the yacker realm of the sense of urgency that motivates young farmers and food activists.  Even in the wake of this week's "superstorm" (which kept a number of would-be NPS participants in their own parks dealing with Hurricane Sandy's aftermath), only one speaker--Rolf Diamant, the recently-retired superintendent of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park--connected those dots, arguing that climate change has pushed its way to the top of the agenda for all national parks.  "If you're not talking about the issues of the day and connecting them to the place that you're at," he said, "you're not preparing the American people for the issues that they're going to face."

When I started this post, it was going to be a high-falutin piece about the essential contributions that professional historical skills can make to rethinking our current food systems.  But I've really said most of that elsewhere (for example, this previous post).  And as I ponder these two gatherings more deeply, I'm left feeling that historians need to find ways to sit down at actual, literal dinner tables with farmers and foodies, as an essential first step toward making the case for the importance of the more abstracted kinds of knowledge we can bring to the metaphorical table.  The young farmers are ahead of the historians on this, and if we're going to bring these two together, maybe those of us in the yacking sector need to be prepared to roll up our sleeves a little more often.

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