Cool-guy academics

During our discussion about Eric Tagliacozzo’s Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States along a Southeast Asian Frontier, one of my classmates coined a new term: “Cool-guy academic.” Which is to say, the type of academic -- preferably as nerdy as possible -- who focuses on “cool guy” topics like smuggling, piracy, drugs, organized crime and prostitution.
And I’m sitting there thinking, “guilty as charged.” With the exception of a few papers on nationalist historiography, every major project I’ve worked on in the last few years has been about sex, drugs or violence (or some combination of the above).
So I confessed.
“Why heroin? Why not rice?” a fellow student asked. At the time, I cracked a joke about actually wanting to find a job after grad school, unlike the PhD students in history I was surrounded by.
But it is a serious question. Take drugs, for example. An incredible amount of ink has been spilled about the role of opium and alcohol monopolies in financing and consolidating the colonial state. No one’s denying this revenue was important, but some recent scholarship suggests it may be exaggerated, or at least overemphasized. Meanwhile, other, less sexy, areas like rubber plantations and tin mining are seriously under-studied.
So I’ve been reflecting on my fascination with the ugly underbelly of society. Granted, I did have the ultimate cool-guy academic as my undergraduate advisor. But it goes back a lot further than that, and I think it’s fair to say that I wanted to work with McCoy because of my fascination with the illicit, rather than developing that fascination as a result of working with him.
I’ve been this way ever since I was a kid. I read every single holocaust book we had on the shelf, and anything else with comparably dark themes, from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee to Shakespeare’s tragedies. A fascination, shall we say, for the morbid.
I’ve always seemed to want to fill my head with the most horrific information I can find. I’m not sure if that makes me a “cool guy.” But it definitely makes me something.