More Ways To Make History

This week I was really interested in finding more ways to “make” history.

Steven F. Anderson’s Technologies of History is an exploration of ways of creating and viewing history that embrace the multimedia technologies that have emerged over the past century. While this book expresses many of the same ideas as T. Mills Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age, I would argue that Anderson goes a bit farther in advocating for creating personal histories, alternative histories, and fake histories.  Where as Kelly primarily wanted people to make history to be engaged and learn technical skills, Anderson believes that the act of making history can lead to a deeper understanding of the way histories are constructed, and how based on that many points of view may be left out of the discourse.

His over arching point seems to be that we need as many points of view as possible to come to a “true” history.

History is now up for grabs in ways that were hitherto unimaginable; the past is routinely being remixed, reimagined, rescripted, and reappropriated in powerful and eccentric ways, often by individuals—fans, geeks, hackers, teens, and artists—who do not necessarily see themselves as engaged in the discourse of history at all. Tempting as it is to view this as a threat to both the order and discipline of history, we may equally see it as a sign of healthy, dynamically contested relations to the past. (Kindle Locations 80-84)

In addition he goes in to much more depth about the details of creating these histories, and gives many great examples.

The beginning of the book is about how television and cinema have largely been overlooked at legitimate avenues for documenting or discussing history. He argues that television shows that revisit the past have a unique ability to open up new discourse about events from the past. They can answer questions we might have such as:

What if it were possible to not only reexperience the past but also change it? How might figures from the past understand and experience the present? What if history as we know it were a lie, created and maintained by a massive governmental or paragovernmental conspiracy? (Kindle Locations 629)

This has been happening for much of televisions’ existence. You Are There was radio/television show that ran from 1947 to 1957. In the show an historical event was reenacted and a news anchor reported on it as if it was happening in the present.

Meeting of Minds was a PBS show in the late seventies. The show was a round table populated by actors portraying famous people from history. It was all scripted based on actual history, but gave the appearance of a casual conversation.

What both of these shows have in common is that they had the potential to open up a dialogue about events that many people might think have one “true” history.

Anderson points to such shows as Quantum Leap, and Star Trek, as being able to go even a step farther because they contain time travel. Both of these shows frequently included traveling to the past to change, preserve, or at the very least comment on events from our very real history.

“The presumptive goal of this obsessive rewriting and fictionalizing is not historical closure but actually the opening of additional channels of discourse” (Kindle location 720). “The frequency of this narrative device—revisiting troubling moments in the past to correct wrongs—is a revealing expression of desires to work through the trauma of past events” (Kindle location 720). Although these shows were created by large companies and thus may represent a narrow view of history, I did think the idea that fictional television shows still have something to offer our view of history was interesting.

A whole chapter of the book is devoted to “found footage.” Artists (or historians) use previously made footage and edit, juxtapose it, or print on it to create new meanings.

The appropriation and reuse of “found footage” inaugurates multiple possibilities for reinscription and critique of previously articulated codes of representation, and invites us to question the manner and extent to which “history” may be constituted through images at the most basic level. (Kindle Locations 1434-1436)

This idea is very much a predecessor to the mash-up culture, and I think it is interesting to note that this was already happening early after films creation. Anderson says that found footage work frequently results “in fragmented and chaotic reworkings that open up spaces for alternative voices or readings from within received historical texts (Kindle Locations 1449-1450).  As an example of that a Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory is presented. It is an exploration of the cultural memory of the Japanese internment camps. It includes her own family’s history in the narrative. Video was taken from “official” sources and are woven with interviews of her relatives.

Tajiri’s historiography allows for something very close to historical certainty to emerge from her competing threads of discourse. One such moment crystallizes three separate strands of her family’s past—personal memories, archival documents, and a physical artifact—around the figure of her grandmother’s carved bird. (Kindle Location 1200)

I believe this type of mash-up is different than some of the ones discussed previously in my blog about T. Mills Kelly. It is a mash up of many different views of the same event.

The latter part of the book deals with digital histories. One of the coolest examples of digital history Anderson presents is something called Terminal Time. It is a “history engine” that uses AI to present history in a way that the audience suggests. It is connected to a database that is filled with historical data, images, and video. The audience is encouraged to experience it multiple times to see how history can be changed based on how it who is telling it or who it is being told to. Anderson talks about “database history,” the idea that an incredible amount of historical data can be indexed in a computer, though it may not be that helpful. ” It seems clear that the impulse to simply “digitize everything” dwells more in the realm of the archival than the historiographical. As this book has been at some pains to argue, the ability of future generations to make sense of such masses of data depends upon developing historiographical sensibilities and models that allow for idiosyncrasy, experimentation, and eccentricity” (Kindle Locations 3161-3163). I think Terminal Time may be an example of how all that data might be used now to teach historical thinking.

In his conclusion Anderson says:

I take it as a given that our ability to think about the past is significantly shaped by the media through which we imagine it, so the forms of media we allow ourselves to consider and what we imagine is possible to do with them are extremely important. The complexity of our awareness about the systems of representation made available to us through media correlates with the sophistication of our thinking about the past. The days of discrete works of history are numbered if not already productively behind us. (Kindle Locations 3356)

I take away from that that in our digital world many new methods of creating, portraying, and recording history are being invented and actively used. We would do well to learn them if we want to understand the past, and be able to contribute to its interpretation.


Sources:

  • Anderson, S. F. (2011). Technologies of history: Visual media and the eccentricity of the past. Hanover, N.H: Dartmouth College Press.
  • Terminal Time
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