Today at The Junto, we’re featuring an interview with Alejandra Dubcovsky about her new book, Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South, which Jessica Parr reviewed yesterday. Alejandra Dubcovsky is an Assistant Professor of History at Yale (and soon an Assistant Professor of history at UC Riverside). She earned her BA and PhD from UC Berkeley. She also has a Masters in Library and Information Sciences from San Jose State. She was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her work has appeared in Ethnohistory, The William and Mary Quarterly, and Native South.
JUNTO: In your acknowledgements section, you describe rewriting your manuscript twice. Can you say a little bit more about where the project started, how it evolved, and why it ended up where it did?
Alejandra Dubcovsky: When I began presenting chapters from the finished dissertation, the most common response I got was: “Now that I hear you explain it, I understand what your work is about.” So I knew I was in real trouble. There was a disconnect between what I was writing and what I presenting. I realized that the story of communication and information was getting buried in layers of background and detail. I had to find a way to bring the story of communication to the forefront. First I re-wrote the book thematically, highlighting different types of informers and communication. While this thematic approach brought information to the limelight, my work lost all sense of time and change. So I re-re-wrote the book, keeping the thematic questions at play—what information circulated, who carried it, and how did these networks develop—but now structuring the stories chronologically. Using both a chronological and thematic approach, Informed Power explores how different aspects of information were privileged at different times. In the process, it reveals the intricacies and contingencies that constituted the core of both personal experiences and historical processes in the early South.
JUNTO: At various points in the book, such as in your analysis of raids by the Westos from the 1660s to the 1710s, you’ve embraced the idea of confusion. How did you realize that this is what you wanted to say, and are there time periods where analyses of confusion are particularly useful?
AD: Historians often bemoan (or celebrate, depending on your perspective on this debate) the complexity and confusion of early America. The focus on information allowed me to consider not whether I thought this time and place was confusing/complicated/nuanced, but how people at the time understood it. In the 1660s to 1710s many people, native as well as African and European, described the difficulties of navigating the increasingly volatile early South. But these difficulties and confusion did not deter them from seeking news or trying to process the latest developments. I uncovered a story that was less about consternation, and more about how people worked to make sense of their changing worlds.
JUNTO: You describe, and in some cases offer visualizations, of various networks. Although the shapes of the networks change, the size of the nodes are all equal. What drove your choice to depict nodes of uniform size?
AD: I am so glad you picked up on that! When I began this project I dreamt of doing network visualization work, but for that you need data. The limited data I did have could be interpreted in many different ways. I felt that network maps were more deceiving than useful because they only visualized (and thus codified) one of the many possibilities. So I analyzed one Franciscan Mission list from 1656 in two different ways. In other words, I visually represent the same source twice. To show how strikingly different the interpretations of the same document could be, I kept the node size the same.
JUNTO: You make a point that because Spanish is a gendered language, it allowed you, in your research, to know additional things about communicators of nuevas that you might not have known in English-language sources. Were there other ways that work in non-English sources shaped the way you used this material in the book?
AD: Non-English sources are at the heart of my book. Having a multilingual source base broadened both the breadth and the detail of my work. Reading Spanish, French, as well as some native sources (primarily Timucua) allowed me to expand the actors, chronology, geography, and perspectives of my study. I also worked through archaeological and linguistic sources. Engaging with the findings and theory of other disciplines allowed me to decenter European nodes and European forms of communication, uncovering instead information networks hidden in plain sight sustained by multiethnic, multilingual, and increasingly multiracial nodes.
JUNTO: It’s only late in the book that factions within Indian groups, as in the case of the Creeks, becomes apparent. Why is it that Indian factors don’t seem to feature in your discussion of the earlier periods of contact?
AD: Factions are always present. Just like when I say “the English” or “the Spanish” I am glossing over huge differences within these European groups, when I say “Timucua” or “Apalachicola” I am simplifying cultures and identity markers that were far more complex. Whenever possible I try to emphasize the importance of inter- and intra-Indian relations. In the seventeenth-century, for example, I am able discuss the differences within Timucua towns (and the different reactions to the Timucua Rebellion). In the sixteenth and fifteen-centuries, the sources more readily allow me to differentiate across native polities (like between Ais and Calusa, Coosa and Cofitachequi, and Etowah and Cahokia) rather than within them.
JUNTO: After reading your book, what would you most like history teachers to change about the early years of the U.S. history survey?
AD: Most basically that there was an early South! Usually when the South gets taught in the U.S. history survey it is to introduce the rise and development of African slavery in the mid-eighteenth century. There was a whole other world that existed before. Integrating this multi-imperial world dominated by native geopolitics into the U.S. history survey is about more than simply adding layers of complexity. It is about confronting assumptions of what early America looked like and who mattered (exercised power and effected change) in that world.