I have two definitions of history which I keep coming back to in my mind.
1. History is what was known once but has been forgotten.
2. History is the present’s interpretation of the past.
Time and again historical questions, interpretations and hypotheses involve trying to recover something that was common knowledge. Equally, history can only be seen through our ever-changing eyes. The history we understand now is not what those tomorrow will understand.
All of which makes the idea of history and cultural memory a bit nebulous. If history is about forgetfulness and re-interpretation, then remembrance has little to with it, and the memories of others are theirs alone.
But we press on.
Day three of the Iamhist conference on the above theme, and the last day for me, though conference and events continue to Sunday. Nothing among the 9am parallel sessions immediately grabs me, but I think I’ll go for New Media, New Memory – three papers piquantly bringing together pirate radio, the Bible, and the Tea Party.
10.20 – Efficient paper from David Dault on ideologically-biased Bible commentaries (e.g. explaining that the invitation to share all your goods is not an invitation to communism) which seemed to belong to a different conference entirely.
Chirpy paper by A.W. Badenoch on pirate radio, mostly a critique of The Boat that Rocked for misremembering Radio Caroline. Do films ever remember anything correctly? What is a correct memory anyway?
Katy Scrogin on the Tea Party’s use of new media to disremember. Depressing account of ideology run riot. History as the past reinterpreted by the present in extremis. Or a denial of any sort of history at all. I guess their belief in interpretation overriding historical fact makes them cultural theorists of a kind.
You fear that the media have failed, because fundamentally they cannot communicate truth. But rather they ably reflect human fallibility.
I need to escape into the past. I need a paper on newsreels.
12.25 – Somewhat disappointing paper on Swedish newsreels which announced work to come rather than work done. Lively paper by Scott Anthony on iconography of Imperial Airways, though not quite sure how it connects with memory.
Jo Fox gave authoritative, clear paper on the self-myth making of the British documentary movement, revisiting their 1930s’ work as an ideal for engaging with the working man and helping to change society. They were driven to myth and overstatement because they were arguing their case in the face of a sceptical comissioning body (Ministry of Information) which was probably more interested in results. Did they really believe documentary would be fundamental to building post-war Britain? Such vanity.
13.15 – Now this is going to be fun – keynote from Richard Howells on the Titanic and modern memory. Just what’s needed at this stage of things – a star turn.
17.50 – An entertaining deconstruction of all things Titanic, pointing out that in historical terms its sinking is little more than a footnote, but in mythological terms it retains huge importance. The myth-building began almost as soon as it sank (witness the fakery in newsreel from the time), and has changed according to need, from early patriotic interpretation, to nationalist (the Nazi film version), to liberated Rose in James Cameron’s avowedly historically accurate version.
We learned lots about Titanic merchandise, including teatowels, sinking bathpugs, and cheese. Our ‘memories’ (there are no surviving survivors) are all so post-modern, it’s too easy to forget that there was a real tragedy, with real people dying.
From multimedia myth to memories of cinemagoing, using evidence from the time or derived after the event though interviews. I chaired a session with microhistories from Guy Barefoot (Leicester), Lies Van de Vijver (Ghent) and Kathleen Lotze (Antwerp), all fine examples of what sometimes gets called the new cinema history – empirical evidence, databases, sociological questions, films as something seen by people. Right up the Bioscope’s street.
17.20 – I’m now journeying back to find that street once more. Maybe more thoughts later.
20.20 (UK time) – Back home (Gatwick is starting to feel like home). Do I have any more thoughts? Cultural memory is a con, at least where history of the usual sort is concerned. Like personal memory, it’s about what a society wants to have happened rather than what did. Of course history is all about interpretation in any case, but not the interpretation by society. History is made by historians – by people who know what they are doing. That’s why bodies like Iamhist are important and why conferences such as this are important. They are essential means for discovering the truth. It is good to explore cultural myths and memories, but the truth is our anchor.
And now I’m going settle down with my newspaper and read all about the sorry end of The News of the World.
Godard, quoting Charles Péguy, who was quoting Victor Hugo (Ultima verba):
history is a ‘sombre fidélité pour les choses tombées’.
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