Academic journal article Film & History

Digital Memory, Moving Images, and the Absorption of Historical Experience

Academic journal article Film & History

Digital Memory, Moving Images, and the Absorption of Historical Experience

Article excerpt

Digital memory will offer future historians distinct advantages over traditional archival sources. Vast quantities of written records can already be compressed onto disks occupying a few linear feet of shelf space. New technologies generate digital sources beyond measure: from every possible angle, the crowd records the revolution.1 The internet makes all such representations universally accessible, fulfilling one dream of the philosophes. As more and more of the world can be recorded digitally, the evaporation of temporal and spatial constraints on the exchange of ideas reshapes our communal experience.2

The ability to preserve events on digital media of increasing technical sophistication and fidelity - over time replicating three dimensionally the interpersonal encounter - promises a new type of historical archive. In the future the historian will walk though corridors of vanished buildings and encounter fully embodied representations of long-dead figures. The past will feel present in a way never before possible. Historical discourse will become increasingly an immersive, multi-sensory activity, bound inevitably by the limitations of its authors, but relived in ways that traditional written narratives could never capture. Historians will confront a fundamentally different past once it is assimilated fully to digital space. How this rich embellishment of empirical data might affect historical understanding remains, of course, unresolved, but the differences between the lived experience of any historical moment and the vicarious experience of it as virtualized history must be examined. The interpretation of virtual worlds requires, then, a new hermeneutics that departs radically from the emphasis on language that informed the scholarship of the twentieth century.

Alternatives do not come easily, in part because, among historians, the study of non-verbal communication remains in its infancy. But this essay makes a number of inter-related proposals for the historical understanding of this new mediated embodiment of experience. First, drawing on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, it proposes that historians ask a fundamentally different question about behavior captured digitally. Second, the standard metaphor for understanding vicarious experience on screen-i.e., the visual or scopic paradigm-must be challenged because it misrepresents the relationship between interpreter and spectacle, present and past, I and Other. Third, the echo chambers of postmodern reflexivity rest upon assumptions that might be examined more critically to enable a more constructive historical relativism.

Digital Memory and the Limitations of Vicarious Experience

Initially the distinction between vicarious and lived experience would seem to be obvious: watching even the most realistic depiction of combat on film cannot approach the material horrors of war. But our suspension of disbelief grants absolution to all kinds of voyeurism that would be unacceptable in real life. Observing the suffering of others as entertainment or aesthetic enrichment remains a complex subject that still owes much to Aristotle,3 yet it acquires a new dimension when graphic images of violence depict actual events, some occurring in real time. In an underappreciated book, Garnage and the Media, Jean Seaton explores in illuminating detail "the basic truth that people like to be disturbed by the news they instinctively recoil from." Being "disturbed" is part of the historical experience, and the information media know it, however piously they frame their gruesome footage. The vicarious experience, through the media, of a violent reality "is part of the mainstream of collective life."4

The expansion of media technology only increases this voyeurism and narrows the distinction between spectatorship and lived experience-a development that carries with it implications for historical memory, both individual and collective. For the individual, a new form of nostalgia has emerged, distinct from the feelings explored by the Romantics. …

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