From Documents to Monuments

I had a long talk with my advisor yesterday, and I am sort of shocked with how well everything has been going. Although things have fallen to new levels of deadness on the blog, there has been a flurry of research and negotiations in the real world. The travels have been both “virtual” and “actual.”

I’ve become interested in doing research into the photographer Henry Hamilton Bennett—not because he is particularly outstanding or unique, but because there is a wealth of information available about the ordinary functioning of his studio between 1865-1908. Bennett was an enterprising businessman that managed to scratch out living by transforming the area that he worked into a “tourist” attraction. After his death, his studio continued after him in the hands of his second wife and his daughters— as a “brand” built upon Bennett’s self-made myth.

As near as I can figure out, there are two other researchers working with the Bennett archive materials. Both are Cultural Geography / American Studies people. Between them, they have produced at least four excellent articles and one dissertation chapter. Discussing this with my advisor, he says this is both a good and a bad thing—it confirms that the material is rich, but it also means that I couldn’t “own” Bennett. That’s fine with me, because it isn’t Bennett as a person that interests me—it is Bennett’s role as a center for imaging practices in the Wisconsin Dells. Both of the other researchers are “light” in the theory department and “heavy” in terms of historical narration. My interest is largely theoretical—Bennett’s photographic documents were instrumental in transforming the Wisconsin Dells into an odd sort of monument. I am not interested in emplotting Bennett into a cultural or technologically determined narrative; I am interested in how this transformation, intentional or unintentional, was managed and produced.

It dawned on me this week that my current research question—how are documents transformed into monuments?—is precisely the same question (appropriated from Foucault) that I spelled out in my application letter to the University of Minnesota. Travel and tourism have gradually encroached on my thinking, both because I have been traveling, and because photography has a provocative role in the promotion of traveling. The problem with restricting things primarily to “the impact of photography,” “the impact of halftone printing,” or “the impact of the railroad” is the implication that these factors have a self-important causal relation (photographic promotion created tourism) rather than an instrumental function (photographic promotion facilitated tourism).

But even as I write this I realize just how slippery the difference is between instrumentality and causality. Perhaps more reflection on Aristotle’s four causes is in order. While there has been no shortage of reading, there has been a scarcity of writing and talking in the last year or so. If I can get my level of articulation back up to par, it will be easier to work through this.