The Storm, the Protesters, and the Would-be Purge
(The purge never happened. But a more authentic history emerged.)
The following thoughts were originally published by Joseph Wilder, Editor, Journal of the Southwest, Volume 56, Number 4, Winter 2014, and were written about what he regarded as Jim Hills’s “landmark” perspectives on the history of Mata Ortiz. Wilder is responding here to what he calls “orchestrated” criticisms of the groundbreaking work.
Per Joseph Wilder:
The Journal of the Southwest (54, 1, Spring, 2012) published a special issue on the pottery-making traditions of Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, Mexico. “Forgotten Tributaries of the Palanganas: Untold Stories from Mata Ortiz” was edited by Jim Hills , and included articles across a broad spectrum of Mata Ortiz life and production, including interviews with potters, photo essays, discussion of the social life of the village, analyses of art and craft practiced over decades. It was a landmark issue on a significant place and its meaning. Central to the issue was a section dedicated to “New Perspectives” on the phenomenon of Mata Ortiz, and at the heart of that section was Jim Hills’ 78-page essay, “Reconstructing a Miracle: New Perspectives on Mata Ortiz Pottery Making.” Publication of this article ignited a storm. A group of American residents of Mata Ortiz or Americans with deep personal and professional ties to the village and its craft production made their displeasure with Hills’ revisionist history and the beginnings of modern Mata Ortiz pottery-making plain. Besides email and letters to me personally, as editor of the journal, there was an orchestrated letter campaign to various officials at the University of Arizona, our academic home, including to our college dean and the president of the University. There were also, I hasten to add, positive – indeed, glowing – reviews and responses sent to me. I responded at length to a number of the protestors, who often called for us to retract the publication (after admonishing us that the publication should not have been published at all, despite normal peer review); usually the critical letters focused on the putative lack of objectivity in Hills’ piece, and this was something I took particular pains to address. I quote from one of my responses:
“Jim’s piece makes real claims – but he does not claim to have spoken the final word; instead, as his publisher, Jim’s effort opens a conversation and it is a powerful opening that is the essence of scholarship. You state a concern with “objectivity”, implying that this issue (and Jim’s essay in particular) fail on that score. Again, while you do not support this charge, you also do not specify what “objective” might mean in this case. The term, of course, is loaded, and there exist literally shelves of materials accumulated over the last 150 years of social science research contesting, analyzing, and plain worrying about that concept. A useful way to think about “objectivity” in human affairs (as opposed to observing molecules through a microscope) is to think in terms of transparency, openness, and intersubjectivity and to remember that in human sciences the “theorist” is a part of that which he theorizes: we do not stand outside of the history we seek to understand; rather we of necessity inform and belong to that history – such are our limitations, and Jim Hills never transgresses those limitations – indeed he respects them, as do I and as does Journal of the Southwest.”
The key of course is the notion of dialogue or conversation. In another correspondence I wrote:
“Jim has written a new narrative history of aspects of Mata Ortiz. He, admittedly, does not pull punches, nor should he. It counters a prevailing, dominant narrative that has held sway for several decades. No doubt this version may be challenged – and further developed – especially since it seems that Jim’s essay has broken through an insularity that is a working danger of small communities of knowledge – and this is a good thing. Ultimately it will be nice to hear the voices – directly – of the Mexicans themselves and how they might construct the narration of their recent history. All of this is the normal intellectual development of the history of time and place, and it shocks me that it seems to be unacceptable to some. It goes without saying – or should – that the way to respond to new narratives to which you might disagree is with your own carefully researched, thought out article – that is reviewed, refereed, and published in the scholarly literature. Indeed, in all of the social sciences, this is exactly the way scholarship proceeds. We are not publishing coffee table books – nor are we publishing magazines or op ed newspapers. We are the arena for academic, scholarly engagement, in all its messy glory. There is a lovely concept of Hegel’s about history – the loving struggle of opposites – the “agon” or agony that provides continually renewed, provisional “truths” of history. This is at bottom what the intellectual enterprise is about: we challenge reigning paradigms, we challenge ourselves and our complacency, we risk ourselves in the marketplace of ideas, and out of that struggle do emerge hard-won truths that imperfectly begin to describe the world we live in and create. My job as an academic publisher is to reflect that struggle and to provide the means for it to occur.”