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August
15
2017

Q&A with Thomas W. Laqueur

Posted by rdaily under Interview | Tags: cultural history, death, Laqueur , stansky | 0 Comments

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Q&A with Thomas W. Laqueur

Helen Fawcett Professor of History, University of California Berkeley

Winner of the 2016 Stansky Book Prize for

The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton University Press, 2015)

 

How did you become interested in this topic?

 I have always been interested in death but my academic engagement began when I was a graduate student almost fifty years ago and read about the deaths and funerals of students in the Stockport Sunday School Memorial Book from the early nineteenth century. I used evidence from this source in the book in 2016.

Did any specific elements of your training as an historian prove to be useful to this project?

The Princeton of my graduate student days encouraged thinking big and eclectically.  My teachers—Lawrence Stone and Tom Kuhn in particular—had big theoretical and empirical  stakes in their work. At Oxford I had the privilege of working different sorts with historians who had a deep and intimate knowledge of local particularities. I think I had the best two worlds. 

Which archives and/or collections did you find most helpful?

When I began to work on what became my book I wrote to every local history archive and local record office in England. I must have picked up magpie like something from scores of them. As the project progressed new libraries and archives suggested themselves; archaeological reports at the Museum of London and the archives of the Imperial War Graves Commission and the Imperial War Museum for example.  I must in the end of visited nearly a hundred archives and libraries and picked up something useful in most of them.

Did you make any particularly important archival findings? Was there a moment when you felt like you had achieved a breakthrough in your research?

The breakthrough in this project as in all of work came when I was able to recognize and articulate clearly the historical problem that had been motivating me without my being able to say precisely how and why. There were of course moments when an archive opened up a new avenue of thought and research but the really important moment came when I recognized that the question I had been pursuing was at once foundational—why do we care for the dead—and locally specific—why do we care for the dead in particular places and ways at particular moments.

Does your project engage other disciplines? If so, which ones, and how?

My work has always engaged other disciplines. Historical anthropology dominates my most recent book; my college major in philosophy and continued engagement with certain figures—Hume most importantly but also others—informs all my work; medicine and biology were essential to the two before my latest. (I spent eighteen months in medical school to gear up for them.)  And two of my closest intellectual soul mates—Catherine Gallagher and Steve Greenblatt—are  English.

Do you have any advice for graduate students and early career professionals as they begin research projects or embark upon the writing process?

Three things:

 1. Think concretely. What do you really want to know and how might you find out? Begin there and not with some claim you want to “prove.”

2) Also think broadly. A great German historian who had been a student in Meinecke’s famous Berlin seminar before the Great War and had retired from Berkeley took me aside my first week here as a twenty seven year old assistant professor and told me that “the task of the historian is to connect the particular with the cosmic.’ I tell that to my students.

3) Heed the pleasure principle. Your work should be fun.

What did you find to be the most challenging part of the project?

 Figuring out what it was about.

 What was your most surprising revelation or important conclusion?

That while there are all sorts of religious and metaphysical reasons to care for the dead and that people in many instances act on these they are neither sufficient or necessary to explain the role of the dead in human affairs. The dead matter whatever one actually believes about them.

 Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary—political, social, cultural, etc.?

 Not a week seems to go by when there is not some news story about the destruction of graves, the naming of the dead, the building of memorials or some related topic.

What are you working on next? Will you be pursuing related research questions or turning to something completely different?

I am working on a book about why dogs matter to humans. I begin with art.  This is a wholly new project. I am also starting to work with Seth Koven on a book about the history of humanitarianism that builds on some earlier articles. 

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