Humanitas: A social history of ice, and the ‘storification’ of reality

The latest edition of Humanitas explores the history of ice and coldness in Hawai’i, how we make images and what they mean, and learning from Bach.
Manuscript written by J. S. Bach

The Gilmore Music Library’s manuscript of the “Clavierbüchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach,”  the “little keyboard book” J. S. Bach compiled just over three centuries ago for the instruction of his eldest son, then nine years old. (Photo: Stephen Gamboa-Diaz)

In the latest edition of Humanitas, a column focused on the arts and humanities at Yale, a scholar of Native and Indigenous studies explores what the history of ice and coldness in Hawai’i reveals about imperialism and food sovereignty, two young podcasters dig into how we make images and what they mean, Yale music students get a glimpse of what it was like to learn from Bach, and a professor emeritus of literature delves into what he considers a worrying trend: the exploitation and overuse of a good story.

For more, visit an archive of all arts and humanities coverage at Yale News.

How ice shaped Hawai’i: a history

The story of the history of ice and refrigeration in Hawai’i doesn’t just reveal the ways in which life on the tropical islands was made easier by the ability to store and consume a wide variety of foods and beverages. Rather, as Hi’ilei Julia Kawehipauaakahaopulani Hobart demonstrates in her book “Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment,” (Duke University Press), that history is also a story about settler colonialism, American imperialism, racism, and more.

Book cover for "Cooling the Tropics"

Hobart, an assistant professor of Native and Indigenous studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), tells of how beginning in the mid-1900s, Americans hauled frozen pond water, and later glacial ice and ice machines, to Hawai’i to allow them access to their own food and beverage preferences, as well as for profit. She charts the social history of ice in Hawai’i to illustrate how ideas about the freshness and refrigeration of food and drink “underpinned settler colonial ideas about race, the environment, and the senses,” and demonstrates that thermal technologies “can — and must — be attended to in struggles for food sovereignty and political self-determination in Hawai’i and beyond.”

The book earned Hobart the Duke University Press Scholars of Color First Book Award.

The process of researching and writing this book taught me so much about asking questions with personal stakes: My relationship to my family, heritage, and home sit just below the surface of the story and to me, this becomes an important — and exhilarating and sometimes scary — part of doing Indigenous studies scholarship,” Hobart said.

Taking a hard look at what we see

Seeing is believing,” a popular old saying goes, and there’s truth to that. But the familiar adage “seeing is deceiving” can be equally true. The creators of a podcast launched at Yale last year hope to impress both these realities on listeners.

In each episode of “Picturing Knowledge,” Kevin Hong, a Ph.D. candidate in art history, and Ethan Perets Ph.D. ’22, a biophysical chemist who is now conducting postdoctoral research at Harvard, along with guests from a range of fields, look closely at one particular image and try to “unpack its complexities.” In each case, they explore why we make images and how we use them to understand the world.

Covid virus red and grey

Our conversations reveal how our values participate in the visualization process — the creation and consumption of images — and how we might critically consider the decisions that shape our pictures of the world,” they say.  

So far they’ve discussed the history of an image that has become emblazoned on the public consciousness — the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2020 image of the coronavirus — and how it became an icon of the COVID-19 pandemic. And they’ve explored how contemporary cosmology makes sense of Cosmic Microwave Background (the radiation that holds keys to understanding the origins of our universe) through images acquired by millimeter telescopes that scan large portions of the sky and then are reconstructed by supercomputers to reveal the statistical radiation throughout the universe.

Their most recent episode features a chat with Josh Ellenbogen, a professor in the history of photography and modern art at the University of Pittsburgh, about Francis Galton, who developed a method, steeped in scientific racism, of inferring  data from photographs of human faces.

Images are ubiquitous for communication in our modern-day society,” said Perets. “We want to expose the assumptions people may have on a day-to-day basis when interacting with images, but we also want to show people the importance of creating images to the shaping of knowledge.”

The podcast will explore a wide range of imaging technologies, including but not limited to microscopy, computer imaging, mapping, and illustration.

Technology can bring invisible things into view, but the images produced can also obscure certain contexts that are really important to think about,” Hong said. “We are hoping our podcast can bring some of those into focus.”

The project is supported by “The Order of Multitudes,” a project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Sawyer Seminar on Comparative Study of Cultures that brings together Yale humanities, social sciences, and science scholars to think about the long histories of information management. Episodes of “Picturing Knowledge” are available on Spotify.

Seduced by Story’: the exploitation of narrative

Peter Brooks, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature in FAS, begins his new book, “Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative” (New York Review Books), with a quote from the popular television series “Game of Thrones.”

There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,” he quotes the character Tyrion in the series’ final episode. “Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”

Book cover for "Seduced by Story"

In “Seduced by Story,” Brooks makes the case that today’s culture is witnessing the “storification of reality” — an overuse and exploitation of narrative. In what he calls the “mindless valorization of storytelling,” he notes in his book that “stories” have proliferated in advertising, in politics, in the law, in corporate reports — basically throughout all our social institutions — and reminds readers of stories’ power to deceive as well as to inform, enlighten, and entertain.

Examining stories in all facets of life, ranging from the novel “The Girl on the Train” to Supreme Court arguments, Brooks calls for careful analysis of narrative to ensure that reality and myth, information and false information, are not confused — and, as Brooks writes, “recognizing that telling and living are not the same thing.”

We may live in a world as an unfurling narrative, but when we tell of it, whether anecdotally or analytically, that’s a different operation… Swamped in story as we seem to be, we may lose the distinction between the two, asserting the dominion of our constructed realities over the real thing.”

Bach to school

What was it like to study music with Johann Sebastian Bach?

Graduate students in organ performance at Yale School of Music recently got a glimpse of J.S. Bach’s work as keyboard teacher and composer in a special tour of some Yale Library treasures related to the illustrious German Baroque musician.

Pictured above is the The Gilmore Music Library’s manuscript of the “Clavier Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach,” which Bach compiled for the instruction of his eldest son — then only nine years old.

In one piece, smudges of ink suggest that the elder Bach would sometimes compose directly into his son’s notebook during their lessons. “You can see how he moved some notes into a different octave, and added others for rhythmic interest,” Kerala Snyder ’70 Ph.D., a musicologist and scholar of the works of Dietrich Buxtehude (one of J. S. Bach’s predecessors and teachers) who led the seminar, told the students.

Wins all around for Yale-connected authors

As one of five finalists for the National Book Award in nonfiction, Meghan O’Rourke ’97, editor of The Yale Review, was on hand for the recent awards ceremony in New York City. Her book “The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness” — a New York Times bestseller that chronicles O’Rourke’s long journey to find a diagnosis for her own chronic but mysterious symptoms while also exposing how those with poorly understood illnesses have been dismissed and even blamed by the medical establishment for their physical suffering — did not win the top prize, but another Yale-educated writer, Imani Perry ’94, took that honor. Perry won the National Book Award for “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.”

In “South to America,” Perry, a native Alabaman who now teaches at Princeton University, reflects on how an understanding of the American South and all of its complexities is key to understanding America as a nation.

O’Rourke’s and Perry’s books were among just five finalists chosen from a longlist of 10 nonfiction books, which were selected from an initial pool of 607 submitted books.

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Relics of empire: Exhibit shares story behind Yale’s Slavic collections

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