Tuesday, October 17, 2006
An Anthropology of Ourselves
The Art of Fiction and Spinneyhead reminded me that today is "One Day in History" - an attempt at the biggest mass blog in history and an effort to capture a multitude of days in the life for posterity. Organisers History Matters say: "We want as many people as possible to record a 'blog' diary which will be stored by the British Library as a historical record of our national life."
It's an intriguing idea, but not an original one. Last month I read this great article in the New Yorker about the Mass Observation movement that took hold in Britian between the wars. It's a fascinating piece about a largely-forgotten chapter in history; in a way, these were the first citizen journalists, though what they were doing couldn't really be called journalism, and in fact gave rise to modern polling. Caleb Crain writes that volunteer social observers studied "such aspects of contemporary life as:
Behaviour of people at war memorials.
Shouts and gestures of motorists.
The aspidistra cult.
Anthropology of football pools.
Beards, armpits, eyebrows.
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.
Funerals and undertakers.
Female taboos about eating.
The private lives of midwives.
"They intended merely to expose facts 'in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed,'" he says. And surprisingly, it seems the movement is still alive and kicking.
Crain also had this lovely description of Bolton, which I happened to be reading just as the train was passing through Bolton station:
"Bolton, an industrial town in northern England so bleak that even the riverbed was paved." Bolton became the main hub of the Mass Observation drive; the picture above is from the Bolton Museum's archive of photography by Humphrey Spender, who documented the movement, and its caption reads: "Interior - bar, Swiss Hotel - Walter Hood, ex-miner, mass observer waits to observe customers."
Anyway, get over there and start observing yourselves.