My book Technologies of History: Visual Media, and the Eccentricity of the Past has just been published by Dartmouth Press and is due for release in March 2011. The book examines alternative forms of visual history as constructed through film, television and digital media over the past 30 years. Integrating theory, historical research and textual criticism, I explore issues of cultural memory, textuality and the impact of digital technologies on our understanding of the past, focusing on works that challenge the conventions and forms of traditional historiography. My goal is to broadly reconsider the range of practices that should be regarded as visual history, drawing special attention to voices and forms of practice that have been left out of mainstream historical discourse. Overall, I argue that the primary aspirations of visual history need not be limited to the production of illusionist narratives but may include the creation of new critical contexts in which viewers simultaneously interrogate the past and rethink the entangled relations of history, memory and media. As an intervention in prevailing discourses of media and history, my aim is to rethink our fundamental relationship to history in response to a diverse and rapidly evolving media landscape that includes online video, science fiction, games and digital networks.
In conjunction with the book, I have also created a rich-media interactive history project of the same title that expands upon a single case study drawn from the book. This project allows for an in-depth exploration of the extraordinary diverse ways the John F. Kennedy assassination has been mediated and reinterpreted, ranging from the Zapruder footage to machinima videos captured from the game JFK Reloaded. For me, these two projects represents an ideal conjunction of scholarly modes, with the book allowing for the in-depth development of a more or less conventional academic argument in linear form. However, the project examines a genuinely diverse range of media texts, so that no reader could reasonably be expected to be familiar with all of the objects under examination. By creating a digital companion to the written text, I was able to perform a different kind of textual analysis, not simply through illustration of examples but by juxtaposing different threads of the argument with related media clips. The experience of navigating this database of critical and mediated works allows the user to experience the argument from multiple perspectives and in varying degrees of specificity.
This chapter examines the impact of digital technologies on the writing of history, arguing that the narrative logics of the database and search engine have resulted in two divergent movements – one that seeks to articulate a “total” history that is encyclopedic in scope and rooted in relatively stable conceptions of historical epistemology; another that exploits digital technology’s potential for randomization and recombination in order to accommodate increasingly volatile visions of the past. At the opposing ends of this spectrum are the Shoah Foundation’s Survivors Project, a randomly accessible archive of over 100,000 hours of video testimonies by Holocaust survivors, and the Recombinant History Project’s Terminal Time, an artificial intelligence apparatus that constructs infinitely variable historical documentaries based on audience biases and beliefs. Although these two projects represent competing conceptions of historiography, both are enabled by the proliferation of digital information systems.
This book chapter is forthcoming in Interactive Frictions, edited by Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson (University of California Press).
This article presents an initial taxonomy of generic strategies and conventions that have emerged from the past ten years of practice-based research in multimedia pedagogy at USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy. These genres emerged organically across a wide variety of courses and disciplines at IML and have subsequently been incorporated into the curriculum of the undergraduate Honors in Multimedia Scholarship program. The taxonomy begins with a more detailed description of the five genres that have been deployed most frequently in the IML’s programs, followed by brief outlines of additional genres and their potential for deployment across a range of disciplinary contexts.
This article appeared in Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory Vol. 20, Fall 2010.
This article maps two divergent trajectories within a narrowly defined sphere of short-form, time-based digital media created between 1995 and 2005. These works are considered in relation to the historical avant-garde – particularly the Structural film movement of the 1960s and 70s – and analyzed as responses to a range of cultural concerns specific to the digital age. The analysis identifies movement toward two terminal points: first, a mode of remix-based montage inspired by open source programming communities and peer-to-peer networks; and second, the emergence of a mode of imaging termed the “digital analogue”, which foregrounds the material basis of digital production.
Published in Digital Humanities Quarterly vol 1, no 2 Summer 2007
Download “Aporias of the Digital Avant-Garde”
What will the class of 2020 expect when we (the teachers) meet them for the first time? What should we expect of them? This chapter uses the science fictional device of a time-traveling machine to frame these questions. The aim is to provide a context for examining currently under-recognized styles of learning emerging from contemporary game and remix cultures. We will examine a range of educational practices and suggest three key elements that support learning as a process of critical and creative synthesis: 1) open source scholarship, 2) social networking and 3) youth as cultural mediators.
Written with Anne Balsamo.
Published in Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected edited by Tara McPherson for the MacArthur Foundation series on Digital Learning (MIT Press 2007)
It is a truism of postmodern culture that the difference between truth and fiction is not what it used to be. But in Jesse Lerner’s Ruins, this is more than an empty slogan, it’s a point of departure. Ruins is a self-proclaimed “fake documentary” that exposes the persistence of colonialist ideology in pre-hispanic histories of Mexico and calls into question the processes by which the disciplines of archaeology and art history are constituted. In Ruins, Lerner is as much concerned with historiography – the processes of writing history – as with history itself. The film mobilizes a multiplicity of historiographical and documentary strategies, ranging from archival footage compilation and hidden camera interviews to cutout animation and fictional recreation. Ruins puts forward a scathing revelation of the racist and colonialist underpinnings of ancient Mesoamerican history and offers in its place an enlightened critique and alternate vision of the region’s past.
Published in F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, edited by Alex Juhasz and Jesse Lerner (University of Minnesota Press 2006)
“A remarkable and misguided consensus exists among both historians and media critics regarding television’s unsuitability for the construction of history. Notwithstanding The History Channel’s promise to provide access to “All of History – All in One Place,” television viewers are often characterized as victims in an epidemic of cultural amnesia for which television is both disease and carrier. TV, so the argument goes, can produce no lasting sense of history; at worst, it actually impedes viewers’ ability to receive, process, or remember information about the past.”
This essay examines an array of television shows, ranging from Star Trek and Quantum Leap to Meeting of Minds and You Are There, to argue against prevailing assumptions about TV and history and the culture of amnesia that television is supposed to produce.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s thoughtful post How To Index Your Own Book and Why I’ll Never Do It Again on ProfHacker sparked a very interesting debate over the merits of self-indexing vs. professional indexing of academic books. Coincidentally, her post appeared less than 24 hours after I had completed my own index and enthusiastically blogged about the pleasures I found in indexing. I responded to Kathleen’s post with a brief comment and link on ProfHacker, which prompted several responses by professional indexers that ranged from bemused condescension to reassertions of the value of proper indexing.
I realize now that I should have done a bit more to inoculate my characterization of indexing as a creative reinterpretation of a text against being perceived as naive or irresponsible. For me, indexing is clearly an extension of the fundamental information architecture of a book, similar to chapter breaks, sub-heads, tables of contents, image captioning and the ordering of a book’s contents, none of which is routinely turned over to professionals or software programs to be completed objectively. I would make a similar argument for the importance of typography and page design in a printed text, but that’s another discussion, and indeed we do routinely (and with mixed results) turn this part of the publishing process over to professionals. The index, however, is arguably the heart of a book’s information architecture and we know that the categories and presuppositions of knowledge systems are at least coextensive with, if not co-constitutive of, any scholarly endeavor. If an author is inclined to do so, thinking seriously about the index as a creative interface offers an important way of directly addressing the fantasy that readers (particularly in a digital age) follow a linear trajectory through a text from start to finish. I am not against professional indexing, which doubtless results in a more faithful rendering of a work’s contents and is probably appropriate for most books, it’s just that for me, this would constitute a lost opportunity to reinforce certain paths and associations in the text that I hope will be productive for readers.
I should say that much of my work for the past decade has been devoted to thinking about the potentials of scholarly interface, information design and what good can come of encouraging humanities scholars to explore the creative (not just practical) potentials of electronic publication. The Vectors Journal that I co-edit with Tara McPherson has been doing this with some success through collaboration between scholars and designers for the past few years and we have now moved on to developing a platform called Scalar that encourages an even deeper reconsideration of scholarly publication and electronic argumentation. Both of these projects invite scholars to rethink their work in terms of database structures and the combinatoric possibilities they enable. The relational and/or semantic structures of databases open extremely productive avenues of possibility for some scholars and some works of scholarship, though clearly not all. Given my immersion in database-driven scholarship, interface design and cultures of remix, it was impossible for me to approach indexing as anything other than a welcome bridge between traditional text publication and the electronic publishing platforms that now I largely prefer.
I almost didn’t ask my editor if it would be possible to have Technologies of History published under a Creative Commons license. With many academic presses struggling economically and so much disinformation equating open publishing with communism or piracy (or both), such a request seemed ridiculously unlikely to be granted. To my surprise, the response of my editor at UPNE was curious and welcoming; he had heard of Creative Commons and knew that, although this book is about media and history, I am also deeply invested in issues of copyright and fair use. I wrote up an informal proposal, explaining that Creative Commons licensing did not mean giving the book away for free to everyone with an internet connection and why I believed it would ultimately help us to craft a more effective online marketing strategy. With the help of a former student who now works at Creative Commons, I also compiled a list of other academic presses and publications that have used CC licenses recently. He promised to run it by the suits and the law-talking guys at the press and, to my surprise, with just a few additional clarifications and reassurances (e.g., that the press could still collect royalties for parts of the book that might be republished in course readers, etc.), everyone was on board. Interestingly, initiating this conversation with my editor also sparked a discussion of ways to use CC licensing to reactivate older titles in their list that have stopped selling and, perhaps most importantly, it has made me feel even more invested as a partner in the marketing of the book, since I don’t need to feel like a total sellout for allowing a standard copyright notice to go in the front.
I have just completed the page proofs and indexing of my book Technologies of History, the final stages in a long and not entirely unpleasant process. Against the advice of my publisher, I created the index myself rather than hire a professional who is experienced and competent in such matters. Although this decision was initially driven by simple aversion to paying money for the service, I quickly recognized the process of indexing as coextensive with the creative and scholarly work in the digital realm that I have been focused on for most of the past decade. Specifically (obviously, now that I think about it), the process of indexing combines two of my core pleasures: interface design and remix. The index itself is, of course, an alternative interface, offering multiple points of entry and the possibility of non-linear navigation of the book’s contents. At the same time, it is a creative reinterpretation and visualization of the themes, people and works under discussion. Whereas pouring the book’s complete contents into the Wordle visualization engine brings mostly painful revelations (Am I really that obsessed with the JFK assassination? Should I try to find another word for “although”?), the distillation of the text according to concepts, sub-heads and page ranges suggests insights into my own writing patterns: seemingly fewer sustained discussions of complex ideas and primary texts than I would like; less precise parsing of terms such as “memory” than intended, etc.
On the other hand, I feel encouraged that the project has somehow never seemed boring or tedious, even as its arguments have grown overly familiar. Ironically, now that the book has finally been committed to its ultimate, linear form, I want nothing more than to subject it to the kind of dissection and recombination that is only possible via a fully digital, interactive database-driven platform (the kind of transformation to which Vectors has been devoted for the past six years). Is it any accident that the index, which is arguably the most “writerly” and hence most threatening aspect of text-based scholarship, should be politely relegated by academic convention to both the final stages of composition and the most extreme margins of the published book? For my next book, I will generate the index first and compel the written words and everything else to fall in line behind it.