A Capella Science and Guilty Heroism

If we think about “historiography” as meaning, “ways of understanding and writing history,” then the dominant historiography when I was learning was a push-back against “Great Man History,” largely informed by “Social History.”  Basically, we were encouraged to reject (or at least challenge) the notion that major change was chiefly the result of titanic, individual actors who, due to some intrinsic virtue (genius, ambition, courage, entrepreneurship, etc.), turned the course of world events at the fated intersection of History and Their Lives.  It’s an inviting perspective to take: it bolsters the notion (myth…?) of meritocracy by highlighting achievement and rewards; it populates our stories with meticulously described, richly personal characters who can be worshiped, emulated, and reverently shared – legends are appealing.  It simplifies narrative, too, making history more accessible and the forces of cause and effect more comfortingly intuitive.

Growing up in an academic and scholastic culture that highlighted the flaws of Great Man History made it difficult to seriously countenance the notion of the “hero.”  Even though epic individuality featured in most of the narrative-driven games I played, everything was overlaid with and troubled by the prima facie teachings of social history: change is only legitimately understood through the complex interactions of social systems, and if individuals are remembered, it tends to be because they were in the right place at the right time.  For example, if not Galileo, someone else would soon have pointed a spyglass at the sky and come to the same conclusions in relatively short order – the ideas of Copernicus were already in the wild, lens-grinding and glass-manufacturing were already improving, the printing press was already saturating societies with explosive, uncontrollable communication, the literal orthodoxy of the Catholic church was already being undermined by Protestantism and Renaissance humanism.  Galileo just happened to be the guy, okay?

All of this is preamble to explain that I feel uncomfortable using the word “hero” to laud an individual’s accomplishments, but yet I keep encountering contemporary artifacts and accomplishments that seem so unexpectedly-independently epic to me, that “heroic” is the adjective I need to use.

I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while, but I’ll start by highlighting the artifact I saw this morning, since it tipped me over into writing this post.

The video above is by Tim Blais, who I first encountered through the viral outbreak of his Queen parody, “Bohemian Gravity.”  He’s not the first person by any means to have harnessed the confluence of mainstream desktop video editing, democratized YouTube video-broadcasting, and the lump-in-the-long-tail cluster of music nerds who are also science nerds in order to become seen.  And, the discrete components of his work – the lucid precision of his poetry, the density of his information, the complexity of his arrangements, the visual intricacy of his presentation, the polish of his presentation, his willingness to document and share his process so that others can build on his work (and, I hope, appreciate it more deeply), his rigour in presenting accurate information, his choice to bring a critical intersection of incipient technology and ethical ambiguity to a public audience in an appealing package – all of these accomplishments are individually remarkable to me.  That they exist in concert, imagined and enterprised and executed by one person, while pursuing an advanced degree, is heroic.  I feel okay thinking (and evidently, writing) about Blais in terms of “his individual greatness.”  I find him inspiring, and while I know he sits at a nexus of favourable socioeconomic systems, technologies, and cultural affordances, and I know that for every person like him, there are almost certainly hordes of others who work as hard and who I would laud just as fervently except that they’ve been unfairly marginalized outside my field of view by unjust systems completely beyond their control, still, I want to celebrate Blais’ individuality.

There are others who make me feel this way, some of whom I’ve already written about, though not in these terms.  I’ll try to share more about them soon, but among those heroic artists who are in my field of view I count Randall Munroe of XKCD, Victoria (Vi) Hart, alternative British comedian Richard Herring, Zach Weinersmith of SMBC, and Samuel Ascher-Weiss (Shnabubula).

Who are yours?  And, selfishly, have you found a more graceful way to navigate hero worship than I have?

1 Comment

  1. Geoff
    Oct 9, 2016

    I will always have a spot in my heart for Kate Beaton.

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