Tag Archives: history in the media

History in the Media: Vibrant Spectacles of Sublime Destruction

It should come as no surprise that a group like ISIL would seek to efface any traces of pre-Islamic history from areas under its control.  Indeed, they have done precisely that, destroying large parts of a museum in Mosul and bulldozing excavated parts of the ancient city of Nimrud (though it should be noted that the extent of the damage has yet to be fully ascertained).  Every time I hear of another piece of history being destroyed, I feel a profound sense of loss, something that strikes me deeper than just the thought that these traces of antiquity (for which I have a particular fondness) are being forever eradicated.

I want to state up front that I am fully cognizant of the fact that there is a great deal more than just objects being lost.  The horrendous losses of life that have swept through so many portions of Western Asia are truly some of the most ghastly of the 21st Century, and I do not want to in any way dismiss the importance of human life.  At the same time, however, I also think it is necessary to think about why it is that we respond with such heightened emotions and such profound feelings of loss when we see objects of historical importance (however nebulously defined that is) subjected to the chisel and the bulldozer.

I think there is something paradoxically vibrant, vital even, about the objects that so frequently appear in the news media, their pitted surfaces being brought to ruin by the vengeful sledgehammers of those determined to eradicate the traces of a past that proves troublesome and resistant to newer narratives of national and religious identification.  These objects carry with them the sedimented meanings and experiences of civilizations that have long since ceased to exist.  At the same time as they possess vitality, however, they also inhabit a space of abjection, cast off and out of the teleological march of history.  They also seemingly provide us access to an intimate and intricate skein of human lives that goes beyond the individual located in a specific, bounded location in a particular temporal and spatial location.  Though they may be in ruins, they still remind us of our past, that we belong somewhere in history.

The sight, or really even the description, of this destruction elicits a deep, guttural, visceral reaction in most of us, and for a variety of reasons.  As Lana Asfour and Michael Scott put it at Al-Jazeera English, “ We were shocked by the wanton destruction of artefacts because material culture is not only about people but also about identity. It connects us to the past and embodies and represents our collective experiences and achievements.”  It is precisely this sense of collectivity that, I think, helps to explain my own response when I see these signs of destruction.  These scenes, with their sharp juxtaposition of the technologies of modernity with the seemingly archaic ruins of antiquity, threaten our collective sense of being embodied in a particular temporal location, of being a part of something greater than ourselves.

Just as importantly, however, the sight of destruction serves as a potent reminder of the fallibility and ephemerality of even the greatest of imperial and cultural ambitions.  Of course, the ruins themselves already have within them those layers of meaning and those cautionary notes of imperial hubris and ephemerality, but seeing those destroyed, I think, brings out intense feelings of the sublime.  When I see a city like Nimrud subjected to demolishment, I cannot help but feel a profound sense of the sublime, as the scale of what is being destroyed goes beyond my (or, I would argue, any individual’s) ability to come to terms with it.  In other words, what is being destroyed is not just the ruins of an ancient city, but also everything that city has come to represent, the layers upon layers of meaning and significance it has attained throughout the millennia of its ruinous existence.

Finally, and I must admit to this being a bit more speculative, the destruction of these objects also pose a powerful threat to our sense of time, of being individuals situated in a discrete historical moment.  In other words, seeing objects and ancient ruins destroyed detaches us from our sense of being located in time.  We take great comfort in the idea that we have deep histories.  Ancient cities, even those that exist only in ruins, are a claim that we as a species have roots that we can point to in order to justify our existence.  Such a feeling becomes particularly acute for those in the U.S., for whom the ancient world has often held out the promise of a richer history than we (falsely) believe we possess.  It is that feeling of temporal dislocation and pastlessness, I think that more than anything helps to explain my own profound feelings of loss and melancholia at these spectacles of sublime destruction.

Discovering the Wonder and Pleasures of Historical Television

At the recent Film and History Conference, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing the renowned Tom Gunning deliver a compelling talk about the nature of wonder and cinema.  There was something charming and delightful about his obvious love of early cinema, a period that isn’t as sexy as, say, contemporary blockbuster film but which, perhaps surprisingly, shares a great deal in common with it.  While I would love to write about that issue, today I want to think through another set of issues that Gunning’s talk raised for me, namely, is there wonder to be found in television?  If there is, how does it differ from its big-screen counterpart?

At first, I wasn’t sure that it does.  Television seems to work on very different logics—aesthetic, industrial, and political—from film, or at least it used to (though this point is, obviously, debatable, considering the long and intertwined history of the two media).  Then I began to think about historical drama television in particular, as well as recent discourses of quality and complexity (raised by such scholars as Jason Mittell), and I began to think that yes, television (and in particular, historical television), can offer us a particular type of wonder.

In her stunning essay on the Hollywood historical epic (which I highly recommend reading, even if you’re not particularly interested in that genre), Vivian Sobchack compellingly argues that these larger than life films offer spectators a means of being in time, of negotiating a particular way of experiencing ourselves as historical beings.  While the immersiveness and extravagance of a widescreen or CGI spectacle are largely out of the realm of even the most cutting-edge and high-end of TV drama (even Game of Thrones saves its CGI luxuriance for especially important moments), there are other pleasures of television that I think can engender in contemporary spectators a sense of wonder and sense of being-in-time.

There has long been a sense of immediacy to television, situated as it is within our homes, and to some this might suggest that television acts to tame some of the wilder excesses and pleasures offered by the epic film (one of the subjects of my dissertation).  At the same time, however, television also taps into a similar wellspring of libidinal energy and, as Amy Villarejo and Michele Aaron have recently pointed out in their work on the queerness of television, there is something increasingly promiscuous about the act of television viewing.  In an age of DVR and time-shifting, we in the audience are now invited to not only take part in the unfolding of the events of the historical past, but also to actually control how those events happen.

There is, however, still something of a resistance to seeing television in particular as capable of either conveying any sort of historical truth or engendering in audiences a sense of historical experience similar to that of, say, the epic (one of the most high-profile ways of representing past historical moments in the cinema).  Whereas epic films typically last upwards of 3 hours or more that one must watch all at once in a theater (if one wants to get the complete aesthetic experience), television’s narratives are stretched across several episodes (typically 10 in the case of cable, where most historical dramas go to live).  Whereas epics typically utilize all of the technological affordances of the cinema—widescreen technologies, long shots, casts of thousands, technological wizardry—television must make do with mostly indoor settings (though there are exceptions), as well as cheaper special effects.

And yet.  And yet I find myself increasingly drawn to the world of history brought to life on television, and not just because that is where decent storytelling has taken up residence.  Instead, it has something to do with the intermingled pleasure and embodied experience of watching television.  If epic films about the past engulf us as spectators, television history much more explicitly invites us to become a part of the workings of the past, through its evocation of the familiar genres of television, the family melodrama, the soap opera, the costume/heritage drama.  It is a mistake, I think, to dismiss these series as just more fluffy/soapy forays into the aesthetics of the past.  Instead, I would argue, they ask contemporary spectators to take a stance, to engage in exactly the types of unbridled sexual excess that makes so many series, from Rome to Game of Thrones.  I would even extend this to the violence on display on such series as Spartacus, as we as spectators are invited to understand the intertwining of sex, violence, and power in a world that is not our own yet is also a hyperbolized version of our own fraught sexual social world.

To experience the wonder of television is, in a sense, to give ourselves up to the jouissance of a different viewing experience of film.  This is not to say that one is better than the other, nor to suggest that there is not a relationship.  After all, part of what gives series like Rome and Spartacus their cultural capital is their reliance upon tropes and idioms expressed in their cinematic counterparts.  Nevertheless, as history becomes ever more prominent on our television screens, we would do well to consider what types of pleasures and wonders historical television offers us.  At the same time as we find ourselves drawn into the fraught worlds of politics, power, and violence, we must always be aware of our being in time.  We must always remain conscious of both our being in the past and our being in the present.  And that awareness, it seems to me, is one of the greatest of pleasures.