The Uncanny Valley of American History

Note – the following was composed at an altitude of 35,000 feet by a man too cheap to purchase in-flight WiFi. It makes no attempt at factual accuracy, presents no graphical illustrations of its ridiculous claims, and claims no informational purpose whatsoever.


Most (all two of) of my readers are probably already familiar with the “uncanny valley,” a concept first proposed by some guy, as I recall to describe the strange dip in human comfort levels with robots as a function of those robots’ similarity to the human form. Put simply, we humans are comfortable with a robot that is sufficiently inhuman — an R2-D2 or a C-3PO — because we recognize that it is non-human due to its shiny metal exterior, and we treat it as human only in the same that way we anthropomorphize our pets. On the other hand, a robot that is sufficiently human – the Replicants from Blade Runner or the Michael Fassbender / that-guy-who-played-Bilbo-in-Lord-of-the-Rings androids from the Alien franchise (where here the inclusion of Prometheus plays fast and loose with the terms “Alien” and “franchise”) – doesn’t bother us, because it looks, acts, and feels like one of us (here the extras chant “one of us” in creepy unison). It’s specifically when something looks like one of us, but doesn’t quite get something right – a motion that’s too jerky, or unseeing, dead eyes, perhaps – that we become uncomfortable. There is something wrong, but we just can’t quite put our finger on what it is. It’s like the human-skin-mask-wearing villain of our own personal horror movie.

Ladies and gentlemen (read: “lady and gentleman”), I would like to introduce you to the human-skin-mask-wearing villain of American history: 1870-1910.

Think about it – if you could envision a graph of your own personal familiarity with American history, starting in, say, the 1750s, it’d probably start pretty low, hit the revolution and spike, stay pretty high through the 1830’s (war of 1812, Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears), dip a bit, and then spike again from 1850-1865, dropping abruptly after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s subsequent assassination. Then it rises again come WWI; the ‘20s was “The Roaring 20’s;” the business of America was business! The ‘30’s had the Great Depression, the ‘40’s had The War, and the rest your parents lived through.

What the hell happened between 1870 and 1910? As far as I know, literally only two things: reconstruction and populism. I can’t tie a single event to either of those things, except maybe … something about the gold standard? I don’t know if that was abolished around the turn of the century or if it happened 30 years later … or 30 years prior for that matter. And don’t get me started on reconstruction; I grew up and took all of my history classes in the south, and all anyone could say about reconstruction was “there were carpetbagging northerners!” It is a fact that I know the derivation of the term carpetbagger, but I couldn’t tell you why they were bad, or what they did.

But I think there’s more to it than just “it was a boring-ass time, and we didn’t do a whole lot as a country for several decades.” Really, it gets down to the fact that this era saw the rise of a modern industrial, imperialist America … but it wasn’t quite the industrial, imperialist America of today.

Think about it – antebellum American society is sufficiently foreign to us that we immediately recognize it as an Other, something that is distinctly different from ourselves. The slave-owning, locally-governed federal republic of the pre-war era, where the most important legislative chamber was the House (the House, for God’s sake!) and presidential hopefuls could come from the backwoods of Kentucky (Kentucky, for God’s sake!) is the R2-D2 of American history. There are no photographs, just paintings, and the subjects of those paintings are wearing strange garb that is immediately recognizable as old-fashioned. You know no one who lived through that time, and in all likelihood you know no one who knew someone who lived through that time. It is safely relegated to The Past.

The last hundred years, meanwhile, are readily identifiable in today’s world. They exist in living memory; chances are, your grandparents were born before or during the Depression; their parents fought World War I, and they know that history as well as you know your parents’. The society of today is found firmly rooted in the progress made over the last hundred years; the flapper society that saw women get the vote is echoed in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the sexual revolution and again in the ongoing fight for gender equality in the workplace, and the excesses of Wall Street that led to the stock market crash of 1929 and ultimately the Great Depression are alive and well today, as evidenced as recently and poignantly as in the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. The advent of photojournalism and the rise of modern media means provide meticulous documentation for this era; color footage of kamikaze pilots hitting American warships made of steel could, aside from a certain level of graininess and a lack of jet engines, have been filmed in the Gulf today. The players of the last 100 years of American history are indistinguishable from us; they are the Replicants living among us, and we are comfortable with them. The last 100 years is Now.

The intervening period (postbellum?) is a strange time — a relative unknown wherein is found the seed of modern society. This is the era when the electric light goes mainstream; when Tesla and Edison duke it out in the war for AC or DC and electrocute elephants at public spectacles. This is an era when the railroad hits its full stride, and the continent is suddenly and inextricably linked together, and the wilderness is conquered. Think about the scene in Lincoln where Lincoln goes into the basement of the White House (or whatever) and talks to the telegraph operator. The 1910’s have telephones; the antebellum period has mail carriages. This era has telegraphs – a crude approximation that clearly leads to technology available today, but is sufficiently different that it is utterly foreign to the average person in the modern era (although admittedly was still being used in the American Navy until recently, I think?). Similarly, the antebellum period has covered wagons; the 1910s have the automobile and the airplane. This period has enormous locomotives powering their way across the country, by river or by rail, as part of everyday life; something we are now sufficiently divorced from to find comfortable.

From a political standpoint, this period gives rise to the modern, centrally-empowered federal government of today, but it doesn’t really come to fruition until the trust-busting and federal regulations of the early 20th Century, which of course reaches its height in FDR’s New Deal. Antebellum America is a collection of states – “the United States are going to War over the issue of slavery.” The modern America is a nation composed of states – “the United States is going to war in Europe.” The America of this interstitial period is a murky grey area with respect to the issues of federal versus state power; an America that will see the rise of nationalism and jingoism and the ultimate triumph of the Red, White and Blue in the early 20th Century, complete with Sousa marches to back it up.

The people of the era perhaps are most obviously residents of the uncanny valley, captured in a nascent photographic medium that distorts colors, with details that have faded over a century and a half; the etiquette for photography had not yet evolved to produce the “say cheese,” smiley happy photos of today, and subjects often look serious or wooden, with cold eyes staring out through they years. Auditory recordings are similar; the newborn phonograph producing a higher-pitched, tinny tone, complete with a voice speaking what is unmistakably American English, but in a slightly strange accent, with an odd, formal vocabulary and strange cadence. The Civil War brings fashion out of the tailored age of the antebellum era and into a mass-produced, industrially sized and supplied era, but the materials are the same wools and cottons used before the war, rather than the machine-picked, clean cottons of today, completely lacking artificial fibers, which wouldn’t be invented until the early 20th Century. This is a people that is discernably real – we can see and hear them – but we can’t quite put ourselves in their shoes; we can’t genuinely identify with them, and that makes us uncomfortable. There is something distinctly uncanny about our encounters with them.

Perhaps all that’s missing is a light to shine on this period of American history – perhaps it’s precisely the lack of knowledge of this time that leads to this conclusion. Maybe if we get to know these people and their deeds, study their likenesses and get to know their voices, we’ll look at them and find within them the essence of our own kind. More likely, though, the uncanny valley will spread into the future; the next generation will view the deeds of our grandparents as uncomfortably foreign, and eventually even our time, our Facebook posts and our newspaper clippings, will seem queer and awkward for not being in 3D and set on Mars. But if that’s the case, maybe eventually we, too, will be relegated to the Past. And maybe that’s the most anyone could ask for.

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