Tara Brabazon: History as nostalgia, or one damned thing after another

Jerome de Groot’s Consuming History offers a forensic examination of modern culture’s sentimental, simplistic repackaging of the past. Tara Brabazon admires its corrective qualities

November 17, 2010

I read dead people.

Academics dialogue with the dead. We spend our days reading and thinking about old ideas for new times. Occasionally, a great book springs from the land of the living.

One of the best monographs I have read in the past decade is Jerome de Groot’s Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture (2009). It is powerful and innovative, like David Lowenthal’s The Past is a Foreign Country (1985), but relevant for an age that inserts “collaborative” before random nouns and “2.0” after them. It is inspirational to read a book with an expansive agenda – a big idea – to explore.

History and popular culture are the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of higher education. One has skill, wit, intelligence and flair. The other has stunning frocks, interesting shoes and shiny hair.

When history and popular culture combine, something riveting, startling, quirky and weird is produced. Television historians bestride our screens. Historical/hysterical re-enactments pepper tourism. Bloody battles rage through gaming culture.

Clearly, de Groot has chosen a fertile time to release his book. Consuming History probes two major issues. First, it investigates the relationship between professional historians and those who access and use the past. Second, it explores the impact of new technologies on the consumption of history. Through these changes, history is not studied but experienced; instead of theorised, it is emoted. Most importantly, de Groot offers a context and explanation for historical re-enactors. You know the type: they seem normal, but on weekends they become Vikings or members of the SS. They restage the Battle of Culloden, possibly hoping for a different result.

Whenever I feel myself asking why my husband has left the refrigerator door open for the 658th time during our marriage (yes, women do count), I now stop. A voice in my head warns: “Tara, it is only a door. Things could be worse. Steve could be a re-enactor. Or he could play golf. Be grateful you are only worried about the fridge.”

That little voice is right. Historical re-enactors, along with (the many varieties of) birdwatchers and fans of Barry Manilow, fill out the category of husbands to be avoided.

Impressively, de Groot’s book also takes on another group of dodgy prospective husbands: amateur genealogists. They are part of his study of popular cultural history, exploring how online searching and programmes such as BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are? have renewed interest in local and family records. He then completes the list of husbands to avoid by monitoring the blokes who attach themselves to metal detectors looking for buried treasure, along with those who clean out attics and appear on Antiques Roadshow or Flog It!

Consuming History scans this rich popular-cultural environment, with or without a metal detector. It is odd how conservative governments trigger such challenging and risk-taking historiography. When progressive parties are in office, progressive academics enact the university equivalent of dishwashing and vacuum cleaning. When the likes of the Tea Party enter the electoral race, the strongest among us fight the Mad Hatter, following the mercury aperitif with a paint-stripping chaser.

Robert Hewison’s fiery reproach of the invention of heritage in the name of history erupted from the Thatcher years. Peter Read’s gentle and moving Returning to Nothing: The Meaning of Lost Places (1996) captured the sterility and coldness of John Howard’s Australia. Peter Carroll’s Keeping Time: Memory, Nostalgia, and the Art of History (1990) jutted from the brutal Reagan/Bush the Elder landscape.

These stellar scholars connect popular culture, history and heritage. While de Groot published Consuming History in the final years of Gordon Brown’s premiership, there is no doubt that it speaks to an exhausted New Labour movement and a coalition Britain where David Cameron has returned to the Second World War as the key battleground of identity, remembering and forgetting. The British (well, English) Bulldog is back, but without the chafing leash of postcolonialism to offer a jolt of injustice during a pleasant walk through the history of empire.

De Groot realised that the touch pads in this consumed – rather than researched – history are: “experience; scepticism; enfranchisement; access; embodiment; variety; virtuality”. These words are “metonymic of the historical in contemporary society”. They also capture a transformation in the positioning of universities and academics in contemporary culture.

Well before Cameron’s reclaiming of Dunkirk, the postwar world was peppered by media historians, or more precisely historians in the media (there is a difference). A.J.P. Taylor, E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill are three of the best examples. But the new crop is of a different order: Simon Schama, David Starkey and Dan Snow.

Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain (BBC Two, 2007) and Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain (2009) were broadcast without apology or acknowledgement that their journalist presenter may have lacked the necessary qualifications for such weighty subjects. But facts and interpretation have become less important than a rollicking narrative and celebrity sound bites.

Perhaps the most powerful – yet understated – argument in Consuming History is that de Groot tracks the removal of history from universities, with popular culture acting as the supportive midwife. Viewers follow narratives of human progress without the discomfort of dissent or defiance.

Basically, if Leopold von Ranke and Oprah Winfrey produced offspring with an interest in the past, then he or she would be the ideal “celebrity presenter” of the new historical programming. Facts are spoken with a tear in the eye and a lump in the throat. With the proliferation of autobiographies, diaries and personal memoirs in bookshops, an interest in famous people is not only satiated, but also saturates the collective and community histories desired by Raphael Samuel and the History Workshop.

The challenge raised by de Groot is that much of the history consumed today is empiricist rather than empirical. It is also conservative, nostalgic, individualist, self-serving, neo-colonial and hyper-nationalist. The radical history and historians that attempt to intervene in popular culture – the Television History Workshop’s challenge to the media coverage of the 1981 Brixton Riots is a powerful example – are rarely part of this packaged and consumed history.

The confusion between chronological narrative and history is the most damaging for students in an age of consuming history.

Like many readers of this column, October is my MA examination month. While the usual bizarre abstracts and post-referencing referencing were presented for examination (excuse me while I pop off to kill myself), the saddest elements of the process this year involved history.

Instead of students offering considered, careful and conscious historiography, a bland, bald and boring chronological narrative was presented in its place. In one case, 500 years of Mediterranean history was “told” in two pages. A war-torn African nation’s complex relationship with colonial powers was expressed in three paragraphs. In both cases, the sources used were a dictionary and Wikipedia. The “story” component of history predominates. Random facts are placed in chronological order. That is one consequence of consuming history. When “everyone” becomes an historian, history is reduced to chronology. It is consumed rather than read and enjoyed rather than questioned.

There are radical, difficult and defiant histories of ideas still expressed through popular culture. These rarely work as entertainment and are not always pleasant, but they are powerful. Two examples are Mike Dibb’s film Edward Said: The Last Interview (2004) and Astra Taylor’s brilliant (and disturbing) documentary Examined Life: Philosophy is in the Streets (2008). Interviewing Cornel West in the back of a cab and Slavoj Zizek in front of – or actually among – rubbish is riveting, funny and odd.

Both are defiant documentaries that cut up time and probe meaning. Narrative is easy: exposing alternative trajectories rather than repeating well-trodden facts is the real intellectual challenge.

While historical re-enactors and metal-detecting enthusiasts are at the extreme end of the consumption, it is possible to critique the conflation of nostalgia and history. Raymond Williams argued for the need to offer “resources of hope”. While most popular cultural history – or more precisely, historical popular culture – cannot create such resources, Consuming History offers a foundation for the project. Such a book not only provides hope for university historians, but also offers an example for a post-Browne Review academy considering the purpose and – dare I write it – “impact” of humanities research.

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