- Narratives and Spaces: Technology and the Construction of American Culture
David Nye is a prolific historian of technology and American culture best known for his Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology. In the present set of essays, all of which have been published before, but typically not in places easily accessible to an American audience, he turns his considerable powers to how technology is used to structure social narratives and conjure public spaces. Along the way, he grapples with the broader problem of the fidelity of any historical reconstruction or narrative.
Nye splits his essays into three groups: the social construction of spaces (Niagara Falls, for example), the construction of competing historical narratives (about energy, for example), and the construction of narratives in spaces (such as expositions). Alternatively, there are really two rather different types of essay here: historical vignettes, and literary criticism very much in the tradition of what used to be called “American studies.” The most pervasive theme in the [End Page 991] essays, one that runs through not quite all of them, is the role of electricity, especially the various forms of electric lighting, from arc lights to incandescent lighting to flood lights to neon to IMAX theaters, in construing spaces and tinting the narratives told in them. Nye uses the cultural development of lighting as a powerful metaphor for what he sees as the increasing substitution of artificial (and largely risk and hardship-free) “experiences” or “action” in consumer culture for the real and authentic—and of formulaic soap opera history, “docu-dramas,” for real historical engagement.
Nye uses this theme of artificial experience to try to gain insight into the broader problem of the limitations and artificiality of all narrative, even that integrated with photography (as in Wright Morris’s The Home Place) or material objects, as in museums or expositions. In the sections on historical narrative that crop up in the various essays, Nye tries to find a middle path between overt claims to positivist objectivity and full-house, unrepentant relativism. He makes some odd missteps. For example, while nodding approvingly in the direction of the likes of Jaques Derrida and Hayden White, Nye still wants to claim that historians “can establish a bedrock of facts that set limits to what is true and what is false. Matters of chronology, measurement, kinship, and census- taking may be open to debate, but usually they can be established (p. 8).” Well, not very easily. Few people would take the “who said/did what to whom when and where” of official White House chronologies uncritically for any administration since maybe James Buchanan’s. Moreover, if social constructivist accounts of science and technology have demonstrated anything, it is just how problematic and praxis-based all forms of “measurement” are. And of course, “census-taking” is not just controvertible, it’s also litigable. Nye hasn’t solved this problem He makes some other problematic choices as well: I for one would have preferred that he engage Walter Prescott Webb on technology in the American West, rather than the straw-man he makes of Frederick Jackson Turner (Chapter 2).
These difficulties are minor, however, and do little to detract from the volume as a whole. It is on balance a highly original, wide-ranging, provocative, and elegantly written exploration of unexpected cultural dimensions of technology and history.