In 1871

In 1871

For the last week I have been living almost entirely, and Emilia has been living intermittently, in the year 1871. This is because we are doing the preparation research needed for a joint presentation at the Norbert Elias conference in Brussels in December. Broadly speaking, the presentation will be concerned with whether and to what extent Elias’s ideas ‘travel’ to South Africa, in this case with regards to his work on the We-I relationship, and that personal pronoun use more generally provides a route into understanding the unfolding and processual character of figurational relationships. For the presentation, we’re focusing on, firstly, a diary that David Forbes wrote over most of 1871 while he was on a long trip to the then newly discovered diamond fields; and secondly, all of the letters that were written by or to him over the same year of 1871.

Very different conventions exist now, and largely also existed then, for how diaries and letters ‘should’ be written. An example is that now they can (usually) be easily told apart in terms of their material composition. But back then and in South Africa it was often not like this, with many letters looking more like intermittently-written diaries, as the letter-writers waited for ‘opportunity’ to dispatch them on the way and every now and then added another dated communication. But what was the 1871 diary written by David Forbes like? Were the dated entries kept regularly? Was it dispatched back to his home at Athole, and so was more like a letter, or did it remain intact and stay with him, and so more like a present-day diary? Did it record his plans and hopes? How did other people he was travelling with feature in it? And what about his family at home? Also, what was the relationship between his diary and the letters he wrote over the same period? Were these filled with information about what he was doing and who he was seeing, or were they more responsive to the person who he was writing to, many of whom were also writing to him? In particular, how does this shape up concerning Kate Forbes, who was pregnant as well as in charge of the Athole farm and estate while he was away? Kate was the person who most of David’s letters were sent to, and most of those he received were written by her. So how does she figure in his  letters and how does this compare with his diary?

In more exact terms, what we’ve been doing is as follows.

  • In order to write the conference abstract, we transcribed in full the 1871 diary and the 1871 letters and discussed the result. The transcriptions were at this stage full ones but they had not yet been checked in close detail and so were in places a bit lumpy and bumpy.
  • We then checked and double checked the 1871 diary by David Forbes (which is actually part of a larger activity that Emilia has been in charge of, in transcribing all the Forbes diaries over many years; later we will be spending some weeks together checking and correcting these transcriptions before they appear on the website).
  • We have also checked and double checked all the 1871 letters which are part of the WWW one-in-five sample and so for which we have JPEGs (this is actually the majority of the 1871 letters, rather more than we were anticipating). Because of the way the Forbes Collection is organised in the archive, there is no strict chronology in any of its composing boxes, and so doing this has required as a first step actually locating and retrieving database entries for the 1871 letters, which has involved searching across all the Forbes research materials.
  • What has happened over the last week are these checking and re-checking stages, and this has also involved a major detailed re-reading of the diary and letters.

What will happen now, starting tomorrow, 20 July, Is that both the letters and the diary will read in a more analytical and interpretational way and discussed in a number of Skype meetings. In these, the details of the conference presentation will be worked through. We will also be discussing the possibility of extending this work to another Forbes year, so that we can say something about changes over time, as part of turning this into a journal article.

For the ideas background to this work, some of the things that Elias wrote about the personal pronouns, positionality and figuration are helpful. A good place to start is with the short sections on ‘The personal pronouns as a figurational model’ and ‘The concept of figuration‘ in part 4 of his What is Sociology? If possible, the version in volume 5 of the Collected Works is preferable, as this has more editorial discussion.

Last updated:  19 July 2018


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