For many, the very idea of ‘history’ calls into question narratives of the past, distant and disconnected from our contemporary moment, and out of tune with the media-centred world of our post-2000 popular culture. This approach to history, however, is based on profound misconceptions, and does not take into account the fact that the present is history: we experience our historical moment via multiple and multi-faceted media practices, from using social media to watching movies, from watching television to consuming food. The past is, in turn, never far removed from our contemporary and everyday experiences, informing not only the way we live now, but the ways in which our futures are cemented. Ever cogniscant of this, history is changing and evolving. As Anthony Grafton put it in 2007, the function of history is “giving multiple methods and practices a place to meet, as antiquarianism intersected with ecclesiastical history, both collided with law, and all of them in turn experienced the shock of the new as travellers described unknown worlds to the east and, even more surprising, to the west” (122).
There is a dictum invoked by historians to remind ourselves and others that History is, by its very nature, a construction: history is what we want it to be. As soon as we set to writing history, what we write is already in the thrall of distorting influences and culture. From the writer’s bias to the publisher’s constraints, History is always flawed. For the twenty-first century reader, our view on History is written, presented, read and critiqued, then revised and re-written, to be argued further in what can appear to be a continuous loop of publication. Within History, conflicts can be headlined by weighty semiotics like The History Wars, or by evolutions in historiography, from the simplistic dichotomy of Political vs Economic to ‘turns’ tracing the Sociological turn of the 1960s, the linguistic or cultural turn of the 1970s and 1980s and the material turn of the 2000s, or even the recent embracing of post-modern, indigenous, gender, and queer methodologies. But we hold that the culture of history itself is changing, partly through the immediacy of media and the embrace of online platforms, and partly through the ubiquitous presence of anonymous-but-informed readers, users and subscribers questioning, challenging and revising some of what has been held to be true for centuries. As Maria Grever and Sipe Stuurman and contend, “the citizens of the twenty-first century need a history that addresses their concerns as citizens of a particular nation, but also as world citizens” (3). In looking at ‘media and culture’ through the lens of ‘history’, it is possible to see and confront how History itself is changing before our eyes. We take history to be a lived-in subject.
This issue of M/C Journal seeks to redress the critical balance by re-evaluating and re-visioning the notion of history in connection to media and culture. The intention is to see history as intersecting with all parts of life, in an open refusal of the often-reductive view that has long-surrounded history as an area of interest, both in and out of the academy. This critical stance answers the cultural shifts that we see intrinsic not only to history as a discipline, but also to the ways in which, in the cultural sense, history is shaped and adapted into the narrative of the everyday. The interaction of history, media, and culture evokes the principle that “in a globalizing world, an inward looking…canon” for the historical paradigm “will become less and less convincing. In the end, it might make history simply irrelevant” (Grever and Stuurman 3). The notion of history becoming irrelevant is something that, naturally, we fervently wish to avoid.
The articles in this issue collectively aim to show the directions that research in history in taking in the 21st century. The approach to ‘history’ we take is, overall, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transnational, as we see history itself as an entity shifting boundaries and registers. The articles show distinctive ways in which history intersects with our media and cultural practices in the contemporary moment, as we simultaneously engage with critical exercises of re-discovery and re-evaluation, as well as indicative and diagnostic scholarly prerogatives. The issue draws strength from the points of intersection between articles, while maintaining a critical awareness of their different approaches to ‘history’, both as a critical entity and a disciplinary standpoint. After this editorial, this issue opens with a feature article by Adele Wessell, entitled “‘We Will Show the Country’: Bringing History to Life”. Here, Wessell provides an overview of the important concerns that historians are presented with as far as recording national chronicles is concerned, and the tendency over time to privilege written accounts. With a particular focus on the Australian context, Wessell considers the different and differing accounts of recording the past, and places food at the centre of the historical question, providing a tangible and cultural coordinate for the exploration of the national past, and its contemporary repercussions.
Paul Ryder and Jonathan Foye’s article “Whose Speech Is It Anyway? Ownership, Authorship, and the Redfern Address” considers themes of ownership, authorship, and acknowledgement as they relate to the crafting, delivery, and reception of political speeches. In light of an ongoing debate over the authorship of the now well-known Redfern address, Ryder and Foye focus on the difficulty of identifying notions of creativity and colaboration as far as political speeches are concerned, and how this impacts on the historical and cultural relevance of political realities over time. The relationship between artistry, ownership, and memory is also the focus of Christina Chau in her article “Remediating Destroyed Human Bodies”. Chau investigates the connection between art and digital culture, by placing an empahsis on the relationship between the past and what she terms contemporaneity. In particular, Chau focuses on artists who ‘remediate’ news media and motifs within the broader popular culture scope, with an intent to monumentalise and historicise contemporary digital culture.
The impact of digitisation of historical research is the focus of Rob Allen’s article, entitled “Lost and Found: The SEARCH for the Hidden and Forgotten”. Allen’s argument is foregrounded by the contention that much of the 19th century ‘disappeared’ from view in the 20th century. Considering the change in archival practices in the 21st century, Allen argues that digitisation has revolution the ways in which historical traces are accessed and re-evaluated, allowing for the re-discovery of previously (potentially) forgotten historical figures. Using the Victorian figure of John De Morgan as a primary example, this article considers the uses of digital sources to recover and reclaim the past.
In “Blood on Boylston: Digital Memory and the Dramatisation of Recent History in Patriots Day”, Melanie Piper examines the movie phenomenon whereby historic events are offered as movie recreations within months of the event which they purport to re-present, asking questions like ‘when is too soon?’ when it comes to on-screen death and disaster sanitised for public viewing. Constructing the re-creation through the merging of social media representations and media files, actual footage and dramatised recreation in Patriots Day forces us to question the place of ‘crowd-sourced’ investigations, of online sense-making of events, and what Landsberg termed ‘prosthetic memory’ for mass culture. Patriots Day sits at what Piper calls “a somewhat uncomfortable intersection of fact and fiction, of docudrama and popcorn action movie”, requiring that we consider the history/media/culture nexus in such mediated dramatisations, concluding that our digital memories of the present will help make the prosthetic memories of the future.
“‘The Blood Never Stops Flowing and the Party Never Ends’: The Originals and the Afterlife of New Orleans as a Vampire City” is authored by the issue’s own editor, Lorna Piatti-Farnell. Here, the discussion provides an analysis of New Orleans as a ‘vampire city’ as put forward in The Originals, a contemporary television series where vampires are the protagonists. Piatti-Farnell contends that, alongside New Orleans’ well-cemented reputation as tourism centre for hedonistic and carnivaleque pleasures, the historical folds of the city’s urban mythology also hold a distinctive narrative populated by vampire sightings. With this in mind, the article explores how, in The Originals, the historical narratives of New Orleans become entangled with – and are, at times, almost inseparable from – the fictional chronicles of the vampire in both aesthetic and conceptual terms.
The historical and cultural connections to urban spaces, specially in relation to specific landmark venues, continues to be the focus of attention in Ailsa Brackley du Bois’s article “Repairing the Disjointed Narrative of Ballarat’s Theatre Royal”. In her analysis, du Bois explores the history of the Ballarat’s Theatre Royal, and aims to take some initial critical steps towards retrieving lost knowledge from fragmented archival records and what she terms cultural silence. Taking a look at the evolving history of the Theatre itself, form its construction to its later renovations, this article specifically suggests that many forces converged to affect the venue’s own historical popularity. Ultimately, du Bois offers the beginning of an investigation into the prospects for telling of the ‘real story’ behind the rise and fall of the Ballarat’s Theatre Royal as a cultural entity.
Music can stimulate, placate and induce nostalgia; it can construct what some people call a ‘soundtrack for their lives’ or it can soothe hurts and create inter-personal connections. Kris Vavasour, in “Pop Songs and Solastalgia in a Broken City” examines how explicitly local pop songs and their ability to evoke memory meets Glenn Albrecht’s ‘solastalgia’, the disaster-created homesickness in people still at home, to restore hope for post-earthquake Christchurch people. For those who lived through the seismic upheavals of 2010 and 2011, memories of culture and media which provided a level inter-personal ‘glue’ are key to understanding how they endured such trying times. Music is revealed to be more than an historic soundtrack to this process; it is one of the key components to the re-emergence of the people and city. Music is also the focus of Jack Ellis’s article, “Material History: Record Collecting in the Digital Age”, which examines the improbable death-then-rise track of vinyl records in the twenty-first century. Once consigned to music history, vinyl records and vinyl record collections have recently emerged to become cultural icons, measures of taste and the semiotic of musical engagement and even counter[digital]-culture in an oppositional narrative to the convenience and usefulness of download files. Music collectors reveal their reasons for accumulating shelves of records instead of computer files of digital downloads in a series of interviews emphasising materiality, the embedding of legacy and a gradual redefinition of media history through vinyl record ownership.
The intersections between gender studies, film studies, and history are the focus of Jay Daniel Thompson and Erin Reardon’s article, entitled “‘Mommy Killed Him’: Gender, Family and History in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)”. Here, Thompson and Reardon evaluate the nuanced representations of gender in Craven's well-known film, in order to situate it within the context of the historical period in which it was produced. Taking a particular look at the impact of 1980s Reaganite politics on the narrative, Thompson and Reardon contend that the families in Craven’s film are purposefully presented as dysfunctional. Ultimately, this article argues that the kind of patriarchal family structure endorsed by Reagan is thoroughly ridiculed in Nightmare.
In the final article of the issue, Kate Warner plunges into the infamous decades-long ‘History Wars’ debate between revisionists and post-revisionists examining Australia’s Indigenous narrative, to discuss four recent seminal television drama shows. The depiction of, or engagement with, Aboriginal stories and story-telling emerges as critical to the nature of who owns the narrative, who holds the power and therefore, who owns the histories. Contrasting the fantastic fictions of Glitch and Cleverman is the realist The Secret River and Redfern Now, but also pared back is the nature of Aboriginal ownership and television show direction versus the traditional colonial hegemonies, each taking on aspects of the ‘History Wars’ debate to raise new questions and to create a new view on the past.
In a journal of media and culture, history transcends both aspects. Yet, as our contributors have shown, both in their breadth and depth of engagement with, and definitions of history, easy ‘pigeonholing’ or typing of history falls apart as soon as analysis begins. As several writers have noted, issues of hegemony, colonialism and post-colonialism, indigenous voices and ways of looking at our own chronicles, all combine to determine how we see the past, how we view the future, and how we live in the present. The power of the media in the digital age has changed how we engage with history; the traditional culture of history residing with academic experts who produce weighty tomes surveying the past is revealed by these media-savvy cultural historians to show the past in an entirely new light.
Grafton, Anthony. What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.
Grever, Maria, and Siep Stuurman. Beyond the Canon: History for the 21st Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.