Följande anförande fick inleda det symposium på temat (Micro)history and the production of images: towards and audiovisual historiography som jag var med och arrangerade på Vitterhetsakademien i slutet av april. Jag lägger upp det här först och främst för deltagarnas räkning, men också i den händelse att någon annan är intresserad. (Samma tema har jag redan behandlat här och här, så möjligheten finns ju.) Mitt eget inspel under loppet av symposiet återfinns här.
Birgitta [Svensson] has just told you about her personal encounter with Ginzburg’s work. My story is a partly different one – predictably enough, since Birgitta and I belong to different academic generations: whereas she has had the privilege of taking part in the development of microhistory as it unfolded, I have the advantage – and, at the same time, the disadvantage – of hindsight. In effect, this is what compelled me to go back ‘to the sources’ in a more deliberate way.
Hence, if Birgitta has emphasized some features of the microhistorical approach, to me other features have come to stand out: not so much the interest in marginal phenomena, nor the attention to minute details, nor even the exacting combination of ingenuity and precision encapsulated in Ginzburg’s notion of “flexible rigor” (rigore elastico) – but rather that fundamental constructivist attitude which denies any stable fundament, especially that of an absolute relativism, to historical inquiry. In Ginzburg’s own words, “[the] awareness that all the phases through which research unfolds are constructed and not given” – in combination, crucially, with “an explicit rejection of the skeptical implications” that have all too often been considered an inescapable consquence of such a constructivist stance.
The sense, in short, that, in the writing of history, nothing can be taken for granted: neither the sources (as in empiricist historiography), nor the methods (as in positivist historiography), nor the theories (as in some brands of postmodern historiography), nor the personal convictions of the historian (as in other brands of postmodern historiography) – and also, by the same token, that nothing can be entirely disregarded. Rather, all of these variables must somehow be kept ‘in mid-air’, indefinitely suspended and at the same time poised to enter into a variety of combinations – all of them caught up in the process of inquiry, in the dialectical back-and-forth of questions and answers, answers and further questions.
At the end of the day, it is precisely this constructivist stance that makes microhistory seem so eminently useful for the purposes of this symposium: if all phases or variables of the research process are ‘suspended’ in this sense, we can easily imagine how one of them – in our case, the discursive mode of communication that has informed practically all kinds of historical inquiry to date –, how this particular variable could simply be taken out of the equation and replaced with a different one – in our case, images (as opposed to words). And then – once the experiment has been set up, so to speak – we can simply resume the process, let it run its course, and find out where it takes us.
To some extent, that is precisely what we did in…
… this book – or rather in the project that is partly presented between these covers. Microhistories was the working title – and, eventually, the definitive title as well – of a practice-based, transdisciplinary research project that brought together artists, theorists and curators as well as the odd historian (myself) to explore the potential connections between microhistory as an approach within academic historiography and the so-called essay film as a key genre in contemporary artistic practice. It was headed by Magnus Bärtås, author, filmmaker and professor of fine arts at Konstfack, one of Stockholm’s two main art schools, as well as one of the organizers behind the current event. In the course of the project, a couple of us travelled – or perhaps I should say that we ‘made a pilgrimage’ – to Bologna, where Carlo Ginzburg invited us into his home and generously shared his time, his knowledge and his seemingly boundless intellectual enthusiasm with us. Apart from the interview with Ginzburg and the half-dozen essays contained in the anthology, the project also resulted in a number of creative works, two of which are featured in tomorrow’s film program.
Speaking of ‘the back-and-forth of questions and answers,’ in relation to the Microhistories project, this symposium takes two steps back – and then, hopefully, another step forward. Or, to resort to the military metaphor that is all too often employed in discussions of academic scholarship, it offers two different lines of retreat and then a new line of attack.
The first line of retreat, corresponding to the first session of the symposium, leads us to the question of what role images play – as empirical evidence, but also as means of expression – in historical inquiry in general and microhistory in particular. Do visual sources provide insights that written sources do not, and can images also convey such insights in ways that the written word cannot?
How we answer these questions apparently depends on what specific aspect of the past we hope to understand as well as on which specific audience we intend to share that understanding with. Art history, to take the most obvious example, could hardly dispense with images, whether as subjects of study or as illustrations to the historical account (although the significance of verbal description should not be underestimated). The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for other disciplines – archaeology, architectural history, and so forth – that deal with more or less tangible aspects of past reality. However, even those disciplines that try to grapple with an entirely intangible past, such as cultural or intellectual history, have made both good and ample use of images, especially in the last couple of decades. Microhistory is a case in point, with Ginzburg’s latest essay collection as the most recent example.
Now, while the question of the role of images is itself rather tangible, it would seem to imply another, more intagible one: which is the role of the imagination, the mental faculty of forming and unforming images, in historical inquiry? Since the past is absent by definition, the imagination apparently consitutes both a fundamental condition and an inescapable dimension of the historian’s craft – but one that can be dealt with in vastly different ways and brought to the fore to different degrees in the historical account. In this regard – to insist on the same military metaphor – professional historians have had to fight a two-front war. On the one hand, their own scientific aspirations, as well as increasingly strict demands for ‘objectivity’ in rival academic fields such as sociology, have compelled most historians to suppress the imaginative aspect of their work. On the other hand, the continuing challenge from literature and other forms of creative expression claiming to bring the past to life in a way that scientific history can no longer allow itself –, this challenge has induced some historians to not only acknowledge but also surrender themselves to the vagaries of the imagination.
This underlying tension is perfectly captured by the various meanings of the term evidence: on the one hand its modern denotation of proof, verification, corroboration, on the other a pre-modern but still abiding sense of vividness, immediacy, ‘truth to life’. That Ginzburg has explored precisely this theme in one of his most thought-provoking essays is hardly a coincidence, considering that microhistory took up position in the very midst of the resulting force field – without constituting some sort of shallow compromise. Neither suppressing its imaginary dimension nor giving in to it, what microhistory does is rather to show the historical imagination at work – another manifestation, if you like, of its constructivist attitude.
Now, if the first line of retreat points to the role of images in historical inquiry, then the second one – corresponding to the second session of the symposium – leads us in the opposite direction, inviting us to consider how historical themes in the widest possible sense are being incorporated and worked through in the contemporary visual arts, especially those operating in archival or documentary modes. In which ways have creative artists made use of images to approach the past from unexpected angles, and to what extent could such approaches either contribute to or complement the modus operandi of professional historians?
Certainly, for artists to deal with historical themes is nothing new: on the contrary, commemoration was one of the main duties of the visual arts well into the 20th century. “Painting,” in the words of Leon Battista Alberti, “contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive.” In modern times, the same ‘divine force’ would be ascribed first to photography and then to film, both of which were hailed as inherently historical media (in fact, an early name for the film camera was “historiograph”). In part due to the challenge from these mechanical processes of image production, modernism liberated itself from the demands of mimesis in order to explore a wider range of expressive possibilites – but even its most iconoclastic currents, such as surrealism, remained preoccupied with the past.
For our purposes, however, the most significant turn of events is arguably the establishment, underway at least since the 1980s, of so-called artistic research in an academic setting. Although the implications of this development are still far from clear – and, indeed, vary significantly from one creative discipline to the next – artistic research would seem to hold out the promise of a double movement, a kind of crossing-over. On the one hand, it challenges artists to approach their creative process in a more rigorous way, with an even higher degree of reflexivity and transparency. On the other hand, it challenges scholars in traditional disciplines to take the arts into account, not only as creative practices, but also as forms of knowledge in their own right.
If the Microhistories project took up the former challenge, this symposium will hopefully rise to the latter one – to the challenge, that is, of taking the arts into account as forms of knowledge about the past. At first sight, one of the most worthy contenders in this regard would seem to be the cinematic genre of compilation film – simply put, films compiled from archival images – from Esfir Shub’s pioneering account of The fall of the Romanov dynasty (1927) to the latest round of World War Two documentaries. Arguably, however, the more the filmmaker’s creative process approximates to a genuine research process, the more the result will come to resemble an essay film – which is also the reason why the film program tomorrow morning will focus on that genre rather than on more conventional forms of historical documentary.
So much for the two lines of retreat – now for the line of attack!
What the example of the compilation film would seem to demonstrate is that images can be employed, not only as empirical sources, nor simply as illustrations to an otherwise conventional argument (equivalent to quotes from written sources), but rather as building blocks of the historical account as such. In part, this prospect has also been prefigured in traditional academic scholarship, for instance by Aby Warburg’s fabled Mnemosyne atlas, as well as by the more commercial genre of pictorial histories. Following this line of reasoning to its logical vanishing point, we can imagine a historical account made up exclusively of either still or moving images – a perhaps excentric yet theoretically significant possibility that I hope to return to in my intervention tomorrow afternoon…
For the time being, let us settle for defining audiovisual historiography as the historical counterpart of visual ethnography, an approach to anthropology that goes back to the beginning of the last century – if not, indeed, all the way to the invention of photography – and that has been firmly established in an academic setting at least since the mid-1980s (so, for instance, the Society for Visual Anthropology was founded in 1984 as a section of the American Anthropological Association). A scientific discipline, that is to say, that does not exist at present – but that will arguably come into existence, almost as a matter of historical necessity, within the next couple of decades. If the formation of visual ethnography was, if not made possible, then at least greatly facilitated by the introduction of more portable camera equipment in the 1950s – the same technical breakthrough that gave rise to new wave cinema and its documentary counterpart, cinéma vérité – historians, for their part, have mostly had to wait for more recent developments.
Today, however, the time would finally seem to be ripe. With a growing share of existing visual archives accessible in digital form, with increasingly advanced techniques for searching, classifying and retrieving such materials currently in development, and finally with both consumer- and professional-level video editing software already available at little or even no cost, it is reasonble to assume that both professional historians and other scholars working on historical issues will sooner or later begin to explore the possibility of writing history with images in a more systematic fashion. Such explorations, however, will no doubt prove a lot more fruitful in both the short and the long term if some sort of theoretical groundwork has already been laid. This symposium is intended as a step in that direction – certainly not the first, but hopefully one of the more significant to date.
And again, microhistory would seem to provide the perfect point of departure, not only on account of its constuctivism but also thanks to its role in the transdisciplinary debates around historical anthropology in the 70s and 80s. At the same time, it is important to underscore that the historical profession has come a long way since both the austerities of positivism and the extravagances of postmodernism. Above and beyond the merely technical preconditions, the historian of today is equipped with a thorough understanding of how history and memory are necessarily entwined and, for that same reason, necessary to keep apart, of how conceptions of the past circulate in society and how disciplined historical inquiry can help us assemble as well as dismantle such conceptions. Against such a background, I believe, the prospect of an audiovisual historiography will almost seem inevitable.
And so, here we are! Some of you are historians, others filmmakers, yet others scholars of film or photography – and then a couple of ethnologists, a few anthropologists, even the odd philosopher. About half of you are from Sweden, the other half from abroad: most are academics, but some work in archives, museums and similar institutions while others are wholly independent. Some of you are leading figures in your fields, others in the early stages of your careers – and so forth.
And then, of course, the organizers: Birgitta, Magnus, the historian Peter Aronsson, and myself. We are all hoping that the full range of perspectives represented among us will become manifest in the course of our discussions – but at this point, no one can tell exactly how that will play out, what larger picture will emerge. All we can say is that, again, the experiment has been set up – and that we are now in the position to ‘press play’, resume the process of inquiry and find out where it takes us.