Review: Alison Landsberg’s Engaging the Past.

Review: Engaging the Past. Mass Culture and the Production of Historical Knowledge

Alison Landsberg

New York: Columbia University Press

213 pages

ISBN: 978-0-231-16575-4

Published in 2015 by Columbia University Press, Alison Landsberg’s Engaging the Past is a slim, well-designed and useful book. Landsberg attempts to chart the ways in which mass cultural artifacts, such as Hollywood movies and major TV shows allow their viewers to discover and process history, in ways which differ from written accounts by historians, but that she refuses to dismiss as merely superficial or romanticized. Though she does ask the question: “Can [these objects] produce a deeper understanding of the complexity of the past, or do they simply turn the past into a charade?” (118), she clearly thinks the first option is more convincing.

The following review will seek to account for the intent and content of the book but also to apply some of its findings and pronouncements to historical comics and to comics as scholarship in the field of history (to the best of my knowledge, and perhaps surprisingly, comics has been used extensively for outreach by historians, but not in the context of comics as scholarship).

Landsberg opens her discussion by quoting from R.G. Collinwood’s The Idea of History (1943), who called for historians to “re-enact the past in his own mind” (qtd. 4), to “see for himself” how historical situations unfolded (qtd. 5). Landsberg sums up this outlook by describing it as an “experiential” approach to history, noting that for Collingwood, the reenactments provide historical knowledge only inasmuch as they remain reflexive and conscious (4-5). This theoretical framework undergirds the rest of this short book, as it allows her to argue that popular representations of history can provide forms of historical knowledge much different from traditional written accounts, precisely because they are experiential and sensual. Landsberg seeks “to explore the complexity of being touched by history” (10). Though she agrees that historical fictions which rely on identification, “obscur[e] the inevitably mediated nature of the present’s relationship to the past” (8) but argues that self-reflexive moments in these fictions help dispel this illusion of proximity. This caveat functions as a retort to historians who worry that the emphasis on affect may provide a form of knowledge in which systemic issues and mechanisms are downplayed or made invisible.

This theoretical framework allows her to reflect on the specific types of experience afforded by mass cultural objects. Since these objects invite what Walter Benjamin called a “distracted” form of reception, they resist identification or absorption and never fully erase the distance between the viewer and the work. The self-awareness required to produce historical knowledge is thus a function of this mode of reception, which individual works may or may not choose to emphasize. The case studies that follow analyze more closely the formal and narrative devices which may foster this historical knowledge, and the book deals in turn with film (Milk, Hotel Rwanda, Good Night and Good Luck), TV series (Deadwood, Mad Men, Rome) then, more unusually, with reality history TV and virtual historical exhibits.

Each of these chapters is accompanied by a substantial introduction which expands and refine the theoretical framework to apply it to objects under study. In particular, they allow Landsberg to draw from contemporary cinema scholarship in making the case that the reception of cinema is an embodied and multisensorial one – a useful corrective to a more abstract view of the process – and in detailing the type of historical knowledge to be gained in these films. She convincingly describes the process as an “encounter” (36-38), in which film’s “excess narrative” provides a reconstructed material history and locates its characters within that history.

The case studies themselves are unsurprising. The film and tv shows Landsberg select are all big-budget, critically acclaimed pieces (HBO’s Rome, the lowest-rated of the six on Metacritic, still stands at 71/100 among critics, 93/100 among viewers), and they provide a wide range of examples of the push and pull between identification and self-awareness which is of interest to Landsberg: from the ostensible mediation of the Rwanda massacre within the diegesis in Hotel Rwanda to the use of potentially jarring language in Deadwood. Landsberg does a very convincing job of guiding the reader through these examples, with clear and precise summaries, which do not feel redundant if one is not familiar with the example and remain strikingly intelligible if one is; more broadly, her writing in Engaging the Past is controlled, well-structured and admirably clear at all times. Taken together, the film and tv series chapters provide a convincing exploration of the potential but also the limits of historical investigation through audiovisual fiction. This feels all the more useful since the temptation of reading popular fiction as history is a compelling one, however conscious one might be of the tension between entertainment and scholarship.

Landsberg’s third series of case studies is bound to be unfamiliar to European readers, as she delves into the genre of reality history TV, in which contestants roleplay for weeks in historically-accurate environments, in shows such as Frontier House (Montana, 1883) or Colonial House (New England, 17th century). The format is of course perfect for her study, as it calls for identification with the contestants while constantly reminding the viewers that he or she is watching a staged event. Landsberg is even more interested, however, in the way the contestants themselves articulate the simulated past with their present condition. Providing once again precise summaries of the narrative arcs of the tv shows, she focuses on the way the game provides an embodied and affective knowledge of hitherto abstract socio-political conditions, and highlights the way in which the contestants themselves articulate this discovery and their occasional resistance to history (historical race relations proved impossible to replicate, for instance).

The final set of case studies, focusing on digital historical exhibits, provides interesting insights into these objects, but feels somewhat removed from the rest of the book, since these exhibits entail a very different mode of consumption than the other objects under study, and since they are not given as fiction, a crucial difference.

Engaging the Past thus present a coherent and well-supported argument, with a few important caveats. The first has to do with the phrase “mass culture”. Landsbserg uses it in connection with Walter Benjamin, whose description of the “distracted” audience is key to her argument. However, this choice becomes problematic when dealing with experiences such as Witnessing History: Kristallnacht, the November 1938 Pogroms, a virtual exhibit hosted on Second Life, which in all likelihood never had anything like a mass audience. Landsberg also briefly gestures towards the political implication of that phrase (“even in capitalist mass culture it is possible to locate instances of complicated and potentially progressive engagement with the past”, 147), but she never really engages with the idea. More broadly, outside of the HBO series, she is surprisingly unconcerned with what happens outside the texts. Reflexivity might be fostered by textual markers, but it can also be encouraged by reviews, by specific marketing strategies or by the very genre to which a given film or series belong; the reputation of biopics for embellishments make them prime candidates for this type of engagement, for instance. A systemic engagement with the texts framing the cultural experience would have been challenging, but appears absolutely necessary at a time when it is not uncommon to watch historical fiction while checking for inaccuracies on a second screen.

The book also surprisingly fails to justify the way the studied works were selected, beyond their usefulness to Landsberg’s demonstration. Her case studies are sufficient to disprove the idea that fiction is incompatible with historical knowledge – but any viewer of Mad Men or Rome probably already knew that. None of the examples chosen among films and tv shows are especially ambiguous, and none lies squarely within a popular genre. What about such films such as Gladiator (or any other sword-and-sandal movie) then, what about any classical western, what about X-Men First Class, to name but a few examples of movies in which the type of historical knowledge to be gained is bound to be more problematic? In other words, are the examples Landsbserg chose typical or exceptional, is there a threshold after which the search for entertainment compromises the historical experience beyond repair? Even academics skeptical of the use of fiction as history would probably grand the existence of a few worthy exceptions, but to what extent can her insights be generalized?

None of this invalidates the findings of the books, of course, but it leaves their scope undefined, which is truly regrettable considering the clarity of Landsberg’s prose and purpose.

To conclude, I would like to offer some reflections on the way her findings could be applied to comics, a field which she does not include among her mass cultural objects. Most of her developments, starting with Benjamin’s observations, apply equally well to comics. In particular, the idea that the embodied and affective experience of watching film is key to producing historical knowledge is easily transposable. As argued notably by Patrick Grant, Ian Hague and Simon Grennan (Grant 2014; Hague 2014; Grennan 2017), the graphic traces of drawings result from and produce intense bodily engagements. While I have argued elsewhere that comics do not have access to proper “body genres” described by Linda Williams, they nevertheless offer an embodied and affective experience. More strikingly, perhaps, Landsberg’s argument posits that historical knowledge is only possible if the works fosters not identification but “a new vantage point” (127) by foregrounding their constructedness in the present. Since comics never underwent the development of a consensual “transparent” style, reading comics always involve being aware of the code, of the construction of the narrative. Muna Al Jawad, in her investigation of research comics, has argued that this reflexivity is precisely what makes the form of comics valuable for scholarly purposes (Al-Jawad 2013), and by extension, it makes them useful to produce historical narratives which stop short of identification. Again, the abundant scholarship on Maus alone demonstrates that the form of comics is compatible with historical knowledge, but Spiegelman’s work is arguably not meant or read as a fiction. Landsberg’s approach provides a fertile theoretical ground to understand the complex operations at work in comics such as  Blueberry or From Hell, to choose but two examples of well-document history framed within a fiction.

Works cited

Al-Jawad, Muna. 2013. “Comics Are Research: Graphic Narratives as a New Way of Seeing Clinical Practice.” Journal of Medical Humanities 36 (4): 369–74.

Grant, Patrick. 2014. “Bodies on the Board. Materiality and Movement in the Production of Comics and Graphic Novels.” Sydney: Macquarie University.

Grennan, Simon. 2017. A Theory of Narrative Drawing: Simon Grennan. Palgrave Studies in Comics and Graphic Novels. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hague, Ian. 2014. Comics and the Senses: A Multisensory Approach to Comics and Graphic Novels. Routledge Research in Cultural and Media Studies 57. New York: Routledge.

Williams, Linda. 1991. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly 44 (4): 2–13.

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