Monday, January 10, 2005


Hint for future historians

Sometimes when I'm impressed by the prevalence of a theme in contemporary culture, I find myself wondering what future historians will make of us.

There is a long-standing premise in the history of historiography that time must pass before we really can be understood. The recent past and the present, accordingly, cannot be the objects of historical investigation. A cynical reason for this belief is that we cannot write the history of the present because our subjects are still alive and all too willing to contest our generalizations about them. The dead are obliged to remain silent when we misunderstand them. As Voltaire bitingly put this cynical perspective, history must be a pack of tricks that we play on the dead. The living often don't fall for it.

But I prefer this less cynical belief: Future historians will be able to tell us things about ourselves that we were unable to see clearly while alive. Things under our noses are harder to get a clear picture of than things we view over our shoulders, even if both kinds of vision are imperfect. Self-inflated as it may sound for an historian to say, I stand by the old dictum of textual hermeneutics: when we carefully interpret the texts of the past, our aspiration is to understand the authors even better than they understood themselves. We certainly do not always achieve that aspiration, but it does make the goals of history different, by definition, from the goals of contemporary cultural studies or punditry. We cannot understand ourselves any better than we understand ourselves. It will take someone else, some future historian, to bring to light the things we missed about us, either by accident or design.

This does not make attempts to understand ourselves now, in the present, futile or worthless. But sometimes, when I can see faintly some glimmer of a deep truth about our present culture, I'm satisfied to mark it down as a hint to future historians: "I think I perceive a clue to understanding us, but you, the historian of the future, will have to put it together with other clues to figure out if I am right."

This weekend, I think I saw, dimly, something important about our culture in two recent movies. First, we finally watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I loved this film, which was romantic, entertaining, and moving in the best of ways. It accomplishes what few films do -- it makes you look at your own life, and appreciate it even more. The night before, we had watched Jonathan Demme's version of The Manchurian Candidate. It was considerably less "sunshine-y," to say the least, but thought-provoking nonetheless.

Here's the hint to future historians: Despite their obvious differences, these films share a common concern with the potential discovery of technology that can erase memories or otherwise wash our brains. That's the first clue: that we are worried about this right now in 2004. The second clue to you is this: both films resoundingly express the hope that there is something deep down inside us, something wrapped up with the core of who we are, that cannot be touched by mind-changing technologies. (Another set of films that reinforce this hope are The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, the second of which I also saw a few weeks ago.) I wonder what you'll make of this, historian of the future -- if, that is, you still remember us.

Collective Improvisation:
Brilliant post. I adored Eternal Sunshine. I found the original Manchurian Candidate so unwatchable that I actually turned it off, one of the few times I've ever done that to a film. Still, you're totally right about this concern for the essence of humanity, the desire that something within us should be unchanging. There is a ton of science fiction on this subject, including Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil, which happens to be a fascinating look at gender roles as well.

(Incidentally, over in my field, François Furet wrote a celebrated essay declaring that at long last, historians finally had sufficient critical distance to evaluate the French Revolution in the way you describe. He wrote it in 1989, for the bicentennial, and even then, one had the sense that many people did not agree.) 

Posted by Jason Kuznicki

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/10/2005 07:29:00 PM : Permalink  

eternal sunshine, gotta love that movie.. 

Posted by guile

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/11/2005 03:16:00 AM : Permalink  

This Manchurian Candidate was pretty hard to watch, too, but only because the plot was so disturbing. It's interesting that we also considered turning it off early. But Denzel Washington's performance almost compels you to watch; he manages to make you sympathize deeply with his character without realizing that you do.

Re: the French Revolution, it does seem like some things stay under our noses for longer than others. The distance required for historical understanding is not absolute. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/11/2005 08:05:00 AM : Permalink  

Hard to say which hint the future historians pick up. I mean, in 3027, when a young Caleb starts writing, the big obvious truths about the long 20th century would already be written by established historians and converted into mega-byte neuro-chip downloads. And to get tenured, Caleb will have to figure out some new angle, some arcane footnote: like what glimmer of truth lies in the prevalence of Zombie movies (28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Resident Evil) in the early 21st century.

great post. 

Posted by sepoy

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/11/2005 11:53:00 AM : Permalink  

The Zombie movies is another interesting hint, I agree, and perhaps not unconnected with the brainwashing hint.

Are you suggesting that the 3027 Caleb might have to reach deep down into the core of himself, to his un-washable spark of humanity, in order to override his neuro-chip downloads and see something new about the twentieth century? That's so 2004, Sepoy. ;-) 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/12/2005 07:02:00 AM : Permalink  

Wow -- We've got our netflix discs of both the movies waiting for this weekend. Just remember, coincidence does not equal causality! Seriously, though, I'm such a fan of the original Manchurian Candidate with Laurence Harvey that I've been very apprehensive about the re-make. I don't know how Jason could think it was boring -- it's absolutely brilliant, especially when watching it with a historian's perspective.  

Posted by Another Damned Medievalist

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/14/2005 01:09:00 AM : Permalink  

A friend of my wife's has loaned us a copy of the original, so I'm looking forward to seeing it and comparing. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/14/2005 08:38:00 AM : Permalink  

Post a Comment

Back to Main Page

Site Meter