Faculty Spotlight: Alison Landsberg's New Book

Faculty Spotlight: Alison Landsberg's New Book

Congratulations to Dr. Alison Landsberg who recently published her book called Engaging the Past.  Read what she has to say about history, visual culture, mass culture, and viewership in her interview below.  


In your previous book, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, you argue that objects of visual mass culture, particularly those that engage with historical experiences, are potential sites for resistance through cultural memory. How does this new book, Engaging the Past: Mass Culture and the Production of Historical Knowledge, build upon or diverge from the last?

In Prosthetic Memory I was interested in exploring how the cinematic mode of address – the specific, formal ways in which audiovisual texts speak to and position viewers in relation to an unfolding narrative about the past – made it possible for individuals to take on memories of events they didn’t live through in the traditional sense, memories I labeled prosthetic, to signal both their artificiality and their usefulness. Furthermore, I was interested in the way in which the circulation of images and narratives about the past, as commodities, had the effect of opening up what was once a group’s private memory to others. That these memories were commodified meant that they could be taken on by people who live in different places and come from different backgrounds, races, and classes. Furthermore, because they are not natural they have the potential to change the way a person sees the world. Prosthetic memories enable individuals to take on perspectives to which they might not otherwise have access. Here, I think, is where the idea of resistance comes in: I suggest in the book that such experiences, enabled by prosthetic memory might foster empathy and/or the formation of unexpected political alliances.

The new book, Engaging the Past, begins with this form of engagement, and asks about its ramifications for the acquisition of historical knowledge and for the project of history more broadly in the current moment. More and more, on film, television and the internet, historical pasts are being put before viewers in a range of formats from traditional biopics, to what I have called “historically-conscious dramas,” to reality-inflected shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? and the highly successful House franchise (Frontier House, Colonial House, Texas Ranch House, etc.), in which participants are made to abandon all aspects of the present, from clothing and personal effects to dispositions, and then placed in a setting from the past where they are meant live as their historical predecessors did. The question of whether these new modes of engagement with the past count as history, in the way historians understand the term, is a complicated one. First of all, this sort of popular history often relies on affect as a means to draw viewers into identification with characters and situations of the past; insofar as it is ever lauded, it is for adding flesh and blood to otherwise dry and lifeless history. And yet attempting to bring the past to life, engaging viewers affectively, is anathema to most academic historians; for them, the proper historical gaze is disciplined, distanced, and cognitive.

Among the claims I make in the book, is the idea that for representations of the past on film, television and the internet to be considered history, they need at the very least to complicate the kind of simple identification that the stylistic and narrative conventions of classical Hollywood cinema tend to encourage. They must, through either narrative or formal properties, assert a sense of difference between viewer and protagonist – a sense that the past is foreign and in some profound sense inaccessible and that any account of the past is a mediation, a representation, and not a return of the past itself. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to take quite seriously the way these texts elicit and transmit affect, the elements that make these texts effective and affecting. I propose that bringing viewers close to the past, in ways other than through simple identification – what in the book I call affective engagement--is part of the constructive work a popular historical text can accomplish. Viewers can be brought right up to the edge of the frame, in physical and intellectual proximity to the narrative, but not as a part of it. In being held out in certain ways the viewer is compelled to reckon with that experience of alienation.


How is history being constructed by visual culture in the contemporary moment? Is this production of history particular to this moment? If so, how has engagement with the past changed and why?

Although history, or history experiments on television, appear in a range of formats (some of which I mentioned above) there seems to be particular interest right now in what I am calling historically-conscious television dramas. I am thinking here of television shows like Deadwood, Mad Men, The Americans, and so forth. Unlike docudramas or reenactments, these shows do not attempt to recreate or represent significant historical events of a particular period. Neither are they concerned with the psychology or mental life of important world historical personages. Instead, they attempt to recreate a historically specific, socio-economic and in some cases political milieu. Often these milieus – the Black Hills of what would become South Dakota in the 1870s, midtown Manhattan in the early 1960s, and Cold War Washington DC, respectively – are meticulously researched by the shows’ creators. And indeed, much of the visual pleasure of the shows, as many have argued, is a product of the recreation of a particular style. One could argue that such (over)attention to material culture stands in for actual engagement with the historical processes – the ideologies of race, or class, or gender – that demarcated the parameters of the possible for people living at the time and in those milieu. Indeed this critique has been leveled at historic sites such as Williamsburg, where authenticity on the level of material culture is used to validate particular hegemonic historical narratives. However, I see these shows working in a different fashion, as they are all too aware of the dominant ideologies of their historical moments. By placing fictional characters in a historically researched environment, one bound both materially and ideologically to what was possible, thinkable, within those limits, these shows, I suggest in the book, function almost like social history experiments. As such they do in fact generate historical knowledge. It is not the “what-really-happened” kind of knowledge—not that that’s possible anyway—but more what the conditions of existence would have been like: in the case of Mad Men, what liberal racism, even among those committed to Civil Rights, looked like in New York city and in Deadwood how masculinity was worn or experienced, where power resided, how and where the lines between public and private were drawn, and so forth.


In the last ten years or so, there has been a wave of television series that are preoccupied with history; this is demonstrated not only in television dramas, as mentioned above, but also in reality television. Can you speak a little about why such shows arise from this particular historical moment? What do they reveal or obfuscate about contemporary culture?

I do see some possibilities for the production of historical knowledge in reality history TV, in particular shows like Frontier House and Colonial House, outgrowths of the enormously popular British programs, including 1940s House and Tudor House. These shows share many of the conventions of other reality television shows--placing a group of strangers in a shared living environment, editing hours and hours of footage in such a way as to amplify social dramas and tensions, and so forth—and like other reality television shows, they are in some fundamental way entertainment-driven. Nevertheless, the form these shows take, I argue in the book, might actually encourage specific kinds of historical thinking in viewers. Although participants are eager at first to try on the period clothing, and are willing even to return to a gendered division of labor and sexism more generally, there are certain dispositions that contemporary participants refuse to take on: in Frontier House, for example, none of the participants would own the racism of their historical predecessors. While this refusal is clearly anachronistic, it has the effect of generating something like an alternate history. I suggest in the book that, perhaps counter-intuitively, in highlighting the point of departure, the moment at which the past was so intolerable that people from the present refuse to reenact it, they bring that intolerable moment into dramatic relief for the viewers. It becomes palpable in a new, more immediate way.

Along similar lines, these shows, by forcing individuals to make choices governed by the material and ideological conditions, often provoke a kind of cognitive dissonance in their participants. In Colonial House, for example, one participant has the dawning realization that she is participating in imperialism, that their settlement is displacing the local, indigenous tribe. It is striking to her that she is willingly participating in a system she ardently opposes intellectually. Before this moment she was able to maintain intellectually two contradictory historical narratives: that the “discovery of the new world” was a noble quest inspired by a desire for freedom and that the “discovery” of the “new world” meant the conquest and decimation of existing peoples and cultures. Her experience on the program forces her to embody, to confront in practical and material ways, these ideological contradictions. The cognitive dissonance the experience produces compels the participant, and by extension the viewer, to understand how fundamentally contradictory, in fact mutually exclusive, the narratives actually are. And this is just one of the ways the medium – and the generic form of these shows in particular – create the conditions for a complex and critical engagement with the past.



By Meg Fariello