Wednesday, October 10, 2012

the historical present / representation, reenactment

Intuition brought me down a serious/awful thesis rabbit-hole, so bear with me… I am thinking about representations of the historical present; about the present as it unfolds and overwhelms, about the shift from representation to information that Terranova talks about, about habituation that “stretches the present out” and makes one appear “both stranger and intimate to himself…” I am thinking about the way that the historical is aesthetically represented as present to “dissolve the distinction among and fetishization of memory, history, fantasy, and futurity.” When Berlant gives us the Sontag passage she even calls it reenactment.

This weekend I went to a historical reenactment of a “representative” October day six months after the battle of Lexington and Concord. This reenactment happened on the site known as Lexington and Concord. The participants loved to bring up the discontinuities they'd been related-- the Battle of Bunker Hill is a misnomer, they said, all the fighting happened, actually, at Breed's Hill nearby.

A woman in a bonnet and she interpreted for the crowd, and then, with musical interludes, asked for questions and referred to things like the tour of a colonial house on which we were about to embark. She existed out of time; her speech lay somewhere between performance and conversation, in Berlant’s sense of the word. It was not clear who she was playing—it didn’t matter—but it was clear that the represented woman had existed and had been an inhabitant of a nearby still-standing house (where Nathaniel Hawthorne would eventually live—“I hear in my house in the walls a man named Nathaniel Hawthorne,” she said). The  information provided to viewers was concrete and (auto)biographical—the number of children she birthed (17), the occupation of her husband (merchant), the locations she lived in succession (Boston, Concord, Boston, Maine) … the bureaucratic tax profile of a human circa 1775, reconstituted like a freeze-dried shrimp.

In the moment, though, I noticed not this information but her tone and her tense (her affect?). Her depiction did, in fact, have a past—she recounted events she’d lived through. But then something strange happened: she said to the crowd, “My husband has been a merchant. He’s been involved with the triangular trade routes.” That is-- the information she conveyed was verbalized ahistorically and anachronistically—the “triangular trade” exists as a historical concept rather than a term of the era, and so to use it does something... weird to performance/reality/time distinctions.

Berlant talks about trauma as creating “a periodizing norm for writing about the history of the present,” an insta-history and memory delineated and separated by the instances of the unpredictable and unconceptualizable, the quick naming and remembering brought on by the perpetual, gasping crisis ordinary... I wonder what she would have to say about this sort of half-present(ation) of the past, half first-person acting and half-textbook, but all individual, of course, all contained within one human. Why did this woman reenact? Why this way? Was the a-/multi-historical narrative an accident, or something else, something virtual?

If reenactment is an idea of a human filtered through another human, that is, a human representing itself in an intentionally dislocated or disassociated way, then… might the way of interacting with the world induced by events “caught in the throat of memory” impact choices in conceptualization, re-inflation of the past? What political guidelines must be followed for a person to imbue themselves into a national past? Can placing oneself self-conscious historical subjecthood itself be freeing… because intuition and dislocation still happen, but under the guise of performance or representation…? I’m thinking again of the discontinuities in Sontag’s text that Berlant brings up—that the words represent ambient perceptions of conversation but present them linearly, mimesis itself folded into historical present… what, then, can we say about the monologue of a reenactor?

1 comment:

Saudi said...

I was really interested in the many questions you posed about the politics of representation in historical reenactments, but I was particularly taken by the idea that these reenactments serve as an anchor and trainer for human intuition about the so-called "societal past." The phrase that you used "caught in the throat of memory” implies a certain institutionally in the formation of memory. There is indeed one site of “memory” that remembers events in the past in a particular way. These institutions may be the local government, the town or city governance board, Organizations or museums. The very fact of that the reenactment exist means that there are certain groups with vested interests in maintaining the memory of events whose consequences into the future may not be beneficial for all. The last statement leads me to wonder if perhaps allowing those whose present is negatively affected by the consequences of the triangular trade or the battles waged at this location to have greater power in creating representations of the past. Many will simply not have the same affective frame of reference for these events and the forms of life now being “reproduced” into the present. Using the idea of Intuition, one can say that it is impossible for certain groups of people who cling to the margins of “the throat of memory” to put themselves in the shoes of those whose lives are being represented. Their intuition is not naturally attuned to the lives of those being represented, for example, in the tableau in mimi’s post. It may even be incredibly hard for even the descendants of those represented to see themselves affectively in the shoes of their ancestors. So why do we do this anyways? Shouldn’t the fact that our interactions are marked by historical intuition mediated by the negative consequences of the past be enough to eradicate these representations? I think it’s the attachment to seeing ourselves in others, or even seeing outside of ourselves, as validation and solidification of the “us” in the “now”. “We exist, look at us then and look at us now,” that sort of thing. Or even more peripherally, “We were affected by you, look at us then, look at us now.” Walter Benjamin writes that “Each now is the now of a certain recognizability… rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” It may be that the desire to see ourselves in the past, even in those dehydrated specters of human beings portrayed in the story mimi gave us, provides a sense of calm and anchor, or repetition and timelines, that allows us to carry on into the future. It’s hard to imagine Benjamin’s constellation because it says “Perhaps we should not be so attached to the idea of progress.” As Berlant writes, “the training of intuition is the story of individual and collective biography.” If intuition guides us, even somehow protects us, then it is not nearly as guided by our personal experiences in our two decades of living, but the flinch reflexes instilled in us from our societal past.