Reflections: Subjects and Objects of History

Argentina: Female, 1950, Buenos Aires. Father: works in city government. Mother: works in a library.

Staring at this information as I began my first Avatar post back in September was a little bit vertigo-inducing. On one hand, I felt powerful holding the keys to what I knew could become an incredible narrative, a life that I could invent and weave as I wished in and out of the complex tapestry of Argentina’s history. Even within the pragmatic confines of the assignment—avoiding anachronisms, bearing in mind the relatively limited class, social, occupational, and ideological mobility in 20th century Argentina, etc.—I felt a sense of near limitless possibility. This sense, while empowering, could also feel overwhelming and paralyzing. I never became completely accustomed to simultaneously determining my avatar’s destiny, even within historical confines (with the real me as subject and Lenica as object), and reacting in Lenica’s non-omniscient voice to those same twists of fate I myself had determined (with her as subject and her contemporary context as object). Projecting myself across space, time, gender, and many of the other differences between my framework of discourse and what would have been Lenica’s was another challenge, one that would have been impossible to achieve with any perfection. I had to let go of my anxiety at making permanent any of my problems of understanding in prose and accept that my posts would reveal as much about what I didn’t know as what I did.

The question of audience complicated matters further. Often, I felt like I wrote in large part for myself, as a valuable way of processing course material. Occasionally, I felt like I wrote for the rest of the class, contributing to the sea of stories that I would read before launching my own entries, taking inspiration from my peers and hoping that my words might light a spark for someone else. But more than anyone else, I felt like I wrote for you, Steve. I think that writing with you in mind was quite a positive force (and especially considering that this project is graded, I don’t think that I could have done a whole lot to avoid it). In many ways, it helped me deepen my learning and elevated the quality of my posts quite a bit. Because I felt that that every post had to be historically sound (both to be able to write authentically as Lenica and to demonstrate my learning to you, my de facto reader), I worked hard to deeply immerse myself in and understand the nitty gritty circumstances of whatever date my entry represented. This diving in and absorbing lots of detail was a  process that I’d never really attempted as thoroughly in any other history class at Oberlin. In general, I think courses in the department here emphasize large scale trends and systemic approaches, sometimes at the expense of a complete contextual foundation (of course, in an ideal world, students would look up every relevant piece of information not covered in class or by syllabus readings, but let’s be real…). Even when courses have embarked on a micro-historical close reading of a primary source, or examined something particular as “history from below,” the implicit impulse has always seemed to be relating that individual thread back to our systemic understanding. The emphasis on drawing larger connections is valuable, but what gets lost (at least for me, often), is more of the contextual understanding that comes from combining those big-picture ideas with close attention to detail, sequence, causality. The avatar project was a great way to pursue that level of detailed understanding because the motivation for doing all of the hard work inherent in such an endeavor came from a desire to assemble a holistic narrative, to imagine a real life, instead of some requirement to memorize dates and names and terms for an exam. At the very least, I had fun digging up all of the old magazine covers and photos I included in many of my entries.

While Lenica did eventually develop a distinctive voice and persona, I never wrote anything in her voice that I didn’t believe in myself. In this regard, I probably didn’t take full advantage of one central purpose (or possibility) for the project, as stated on the Avatar syllabus page: “The whole point of this exercise is to move you away from habits of thought (“positionality”) that you are comfortable with, to challenge you to feel what it would be like to be different.” If I were to do the project over again, I would probably try to take on more of this challenge, to try on a different political hat and wrestle with the dissonance between what my avatar wrote and what I thought. But even without braving any substantial ideological departures (a choice which invited the challenge of articulating arguments I really believed in with conviction through Lenica, often still requiring a lot of courage), I still think that the project challenged me to newly embrace a reality that’s too easy to avoid as a history student in the Oberlin bubble: I am not only an audience member to the drama of history or merely a member of the chorus, but in additional to these roles, an actor on the main stage itself.

1 thought on “Reflections: Subjects and Objects of History

  1. ssvolk says:

    Thanks for your comments, Lénica (as I will continue to call you!). While one point of the project is certainly that of empathy, moving you away from your own positionality, it is also to confirm a sense best brought out by the protagonist in Zambra’s novel: we can only write our own stories. The project helps you write your own story via other characters, and you did a fine job.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *