What if your life were your own personal The Truman Show, with cameras and everything, capturing every experience–but with your full knowledge and consent? What if everyone else did the same? Would history be perfect?
In the second section of his mammoth tome on historiography, Memory, History, Forgetting (K. Blamey and D. Pellauer, trans.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), Paul Ricoeur discusses the difficulty of gathering and evaluating testimony during the documentary phase of writing history:
The document sleeping in the archives is not just silent, it is an orphan. The testimonies it contains are detached from the authors who ‘gave birth’ to them. They are handed over to the care of those who are competent to question them and hence to defend them, by giving them aid and assistance. In our historical culture, the archive has assumed authority over those who consult it. We can speak, as I shall discuss further below, of a documentary revolution. In a period now taken to be outdated in historical research, work in the archives had the reputation of assuring the objectivity of historical knowledge, protected thereby from the historian’s subjectivity. For a less passive conception of consulting archives, the change in sign that turns an orphan text into one having authority is tied to the pairing of testimony with a heuristics of evidentiary proof. This pairing is common to testimony before a court and testimony gathered by the professional historian. The testimony is asked to prove itself. Thus it is testimony that brings aid and assistance to the orator or the historian who invokes it. As for what more specifically concerns history, the elevation of testimony to the rank of documentary proof will mark the high point of the reversal in the relationship of assistance that writing exercises in regard to ‘memory on crutches,’ that hupomnēmē, or artificial memory par excellence, to which myth grants only second place. Whatever may be the shifts in documentary history–positivism or not–the documentary frenzy too hold once and for all. Allow me to mention here from a more advanced phase of contemporary discourse (to be considered below), Yerulshalmi’s dread confronted with the archival swamp, and Pierre Nora’s exclamation, ‘Archive as much as you like: something will always be left out.’ (169)
Verifiability of testimony is a noted problem in historiography. But the rapid progress of technology has permanently changed the historiographical operation. Rather than searching through archives for a few documents on a person or event, we now have hundreds of thousands of Google hits to wade through. We used to be lucky if we had an eyewitness account of an ancient event; the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination didn’t put all doubt to rest. Now, most of the developed and much of the developing worlds are filled with camera- and video-phones, so literally seconds after the shooting started at Virginia Tech or the tsunami assaulted Japan’s coast, anyone with an internet connection can watch.
It is not inconceivable–as it would have been even eight years ago when the original French edition of Memory, History, Forgetting was published–to imagine a 24/7/365 video camera on every one of Earth’s seven billion people. Yes, it is unlikely and prohibitively expensive–but it is not beyond the realm of possibility: the hardware and storage space are cheap enough.
If we had video cameras on everyone, then, wouldn’t we capture every human event from every perspective? Historiography would still exist in the writing of narrative, which “adds its modes of intelligibility to those of explanation/understanding; in turn these figures of style can be recognized to be figures of thought capable of adding a specific dimension of exhibition to the readability belonging to narratives” (276). But disputes over simple documentary facts would be obsolete, right?
It would be quite naïve to think that, even if the problem of forged video “testimonies” could be solved, that human beings would care “what actually happened.” Even events for which we have easily accessible testimony are mis-remembered in the minds of the public. Was it Al Gore or Dan Quayle (or neither!) who actually said, “I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn’t study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people”? I’ve received e-mails to each effect, and I’m sure the sender in each case was fully convinced that the vice-presidential candidate of the other party was stupid enough to have said it.
Speaking of VP candidates, the realization that prompted this post was an internet search (settling a bet with a coworker) on one of Sarah Palin’s more infamous quotations. As “everyone” knows, she said that Alaska and Russia were so close that she could see Russia from her back porch.
What did Sarah Palin actually say in that 2008-campaign-season interview with Charlie Gibson?
GIBSON: But this is not just reforming a government. This is also running a government on the huge international stage in a very dangerous world. When I asked John McCain about your national security credentials, he cited the fact that you have commanded the Alaskan National Guard and that Alaska is close to Russia. Are those sufficient credentials?
PALIN: But it is about reform of government and it’s about putting government back on the side of the people, and that has much to do with foreign policy and national security issues Let me speak specifically about a credential that I do bring to this table, Charlie, and that’s with the energy independence that I’ve been working on for these years as the governor of this state that produces nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy, that I worked on as chairman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, overseeing the oil and gas development in our state to produce more for the United States.
GIBSON: Let’s start, because we are near Russia, let’s start with Russia and Georgia.
The administration has said we’ve got to maintain the territorial integrity of Georgia. Do you believe the United States should try to restore Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
PALIN: First off, we’re going to continue good relations with Saakashvili there. I was able to speak with him the other day and giving him my commitment, as John McCain’s running mate, that we will be committed to Georgia. And we’ve got to keep an eye on Russia. For Russia to have exerted such pressure in terms of invading a smaller democratic country, unprovoked, is unacceptable and we have to keep…
GIBSON: You believe unprovoked.
PALIN: I do believe unprovoked and we have got to keep our eyes on Russia, under the leadership there. I think it was unfortunate. That manifestation that we saw with that invasion of Georgia shows us some steps backwards that Russia has recently taken away from the race toward a more democratic nation with democratic ideals.That’s why we have to keep an eye on Russia.
And, Charlie, you’re in Alaska. We have that very narrow maritime border between the United States, and the 49th state, Alaska, and Russia. They are our next door neighbors.We need to have a good relationship with them. They’re very, very important to us and they are our next door neighbor.
GIBSON: What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?
PALIN: They’re our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.
GIBSON: What insight does that give you into what they’re doing in Georgia?
PALIN: Well, I’m giving you that perspective of how small our world is and how important it is that we work with our allies to keep good relation with all of these countries, especially Russia. We will not repeat a Cold War. We must have good relationship with our allies, pressuring, also, helping us to remind Russia that it’s in their benefit, also, a mutually beneficial relationship for us all to be getting along.
Quite different! Now, I’m no fan of Sarah Palin–I think she’s egotistical, bizarre, and not nearly as smart as she would like to believe. But in this context she’s not saying that she literally believes she and Russia are neighbors, only that the proximity gives her more foreign-relations cred than most governors can claim.
Where did the “Russia from my house” meme come from?
Again, let this not be construed as an endorsement of Palin or a criticism of Tina Fey–I love Tina. But it’s disturbing that a parody of a (quasi-)serious public figure is embedded in the public memory in place of the actual figure:
All the information in the world (or of the world) will be useless unless it is consulted, digested and presented. Once it is presented in popular culture (and usually in academic culture as well), it does not matter “what actually happened”–only what is part of the collective memory.
Ricoeur thus finishes the paragraph that I quoted earlier:
Once freed of its disgrace and allowed arrogance, has the pharmakon of the archived document become more a poison than a remedy? (169)