Thursday, June 3, 2010

Letting History Speak for Itself; Or Why I hate Ken Burns, pt. 2: Theories of History

In my last post, I criticized filmmaker Ken Burns for what I thought were glaring omissions in his series on the national parks in the United States. To be honest, I have trouble with all of his output as a historian and a teacher (full disclosure: my frustration of him was cemented when he came to a college where I used to teach and arrogantly dismissed my students' solid questions and criticisms. At one point he denied that he was a historian, instead, claiming that he just told stories and that all of his films were "just about love." I still don't know what that means). So, if Burns is a bit dismissive of the past -- the facts of history -- he also hates History: the habits of mind and critical thinking skills taught by historians as tools to understand the past and the world around us. To demonstrate, I'd like to look at his two most recent film, The National Parks, and The War.

The National Parks: The Worst Decision?
Let's start where we left off, with The National Parks: American's Best Decision. First, a caveat: clearly, the series was a pointed political jab at conservative criticism of overreaching federal power. The parks were part of a larger explosion in federal power and administrative authority during the "Progressive" era, a term conservative pundits lately have been trying to load with hatred almost equally insidiousness as their smear campaign against "socialism" and "liberal." It seems obvious too that in an era of global warming skeptics and the general dismissal of the environmental movement in particular, the documentary also acts as a defense of environmentalism and stewardship. Politically, I'm with Burns on these fronts. But historiographically, I'm appalled. 

What do I mean by this? Burns makes analytical choices and historical assumptions (no problem here all historians do that; they call them arguments), and then he turns around and denies that he does so. Burns refuses take ownership of his authorship. Take for example the fundamental premise of the parks documentary -- the parks were, like America, inherently democratic. All right, let's ignore for now that there is a question about whether or not the U.S. was an experiment in democracy (democracy being something of a four-letter word to many of the founders who linked it to notions of mob-rule; the constitution being, in some ways, a solution to the overly-democratic exuberance of some Americans following independence and peace with Britain). This is a huge debate among historians. It is by no means settled, but no where does Burns acknowledge this.

What's more, Burns completely hides the fact that recent historians of the parks have interpreted the parks (radically) differently. Indeed, to watch all 12 hours of this documentary (did anyone?) you wouldn't even know that he's engaged in an argument. This is because for Burns, history is not interpretation, it is fact. It is The Past, unmediated. Historians, according to Burns's logic, contort the past while he simply reports it. Hence, he's not really even a story-teller. Or, rather, the story's he tells are not written by him. That's disingenuous.

But Burns's obsessive singularity and simplified sense of the continuity of the American past runs roughshod over more than just debates about the democratic leanings of the founders or the exclusionary policies of the early Park Service. For him, democracy itself is an unchanging, universal platonic value. It, obviously, has no history (I wonder if Burns knows that he's marching lockstep with conservative thinker Francis Fukuyama?). We see this at the beginning of the National Parks when Burns deploys Teddy Roosevelt's words about the parks -- that they are democratic -- as if that's the whole story.

Yet, when I hear Roosevelt declare that the parks are essentially democratic, the historian in me wonders what made him utter those words? In what forum did he say this? Who was his intended audience? What were others saying about them at the time? Indeed, when did he say this? During the fight to start the park service? At the end of his life? What did democracy means to Roosevelt's generation at that time? We don't know, but these questions are important historical questions (historians never take people's explanations for the past at face value; we're not that naive).

The parks were part and parcel of a revolution in the federal government's land management bureaucracy. They were part of a larger conflict between power at the state level vs. federal authority. They also helped redefine the nature of the public domain and private property at the turn of the century. In light of these (and a host of other historical developments, it's important to contextualize Roosevelt. Burn's isn't interested in that.

Directly following, Burns marshals a number of other voices to beat the drum of  parks-as-democracy-in-action. As if the nature of democracy or Americans' understanding of it has gone unchanged since the inception of the republic, Sierra Club director Carl Pope chimes in to reinforce Roosevelt, as if they were contemporaries of each other and of Thomas Jefferson. But given the radical shift the word democracy has undergone since the founding (not to mention since the Greeks used it a millennium ago), are Pope and Roosevelt even saying the same thing? Who's in, who's out. Who's a citizen, who's an other. What is democracy good at, where does it fail? All these notions have changed over time. They have a history, but Burns's film denies that, because Burns himself denies history.

Burns's denial of History is part of a larger denial of himself as an author of histories. Teddy Roosevelt, important in creating the parks, told us that they were democratic. It must be so. Then he uses Pope to corroborate. Pope's long career in the environmental movement makes him a better subject of this history than an author of it. But this is a common tactic of Burns who claims that his stories emerge from the past unadulterated by analysis. The facts, he seems to say, speak for themselves. Covering his own narrative hand, disavowing any authorial intent or even decision, allows Burns to make these claims that his stories are somehow above the petty squabbles of academics. We can trust that his history is simply, the truth.

Ken Burns's War on History
The apotheosis of this denial isn't so much The National Parks, for at least that documentary includes historians (though at one point Burns calls Lee Stetson a "John Muir Scholar." Stetson is an actor who does a John Muir show at Yosemite, and does the voiceover for Muir in the documentary. Though a fan of John Muir, it's unclear what makes him a "scholar"). Burns is at his history hating most in his 2007 multi-part documentary, The War.

The fundamental historiographic premise of The War is that World War II is best told and understood through the recollections of veterans. The constant cry from Burns's media machine about The War was that the 15 hour documentary presents history as it really was, “unmediated.” In one interview Burns told Jon Stewart that he wanted to do "bottom up history," not the history of generals and weapons and tactics. This line was picked up and parroted by every sycophantic reviewer. As one critic from Alabama wrote, The War was
authentic social history, since Burns uses only firsthand accounts of experiences by the troops on the ground (as opposed to the generals and military experts) and interviews people from all facets of life (rather than historians and experts). Only those who were alive during World War II tell stories; there is no secondhand, hindsight analysis by telegenic historians or academic talking heads. There are no celebrated intellectuals to tell us what it all means.
This vision of an objective knowable past posits historical sources, especially the “unmediated” recollections of those involved (Burns refuses to acknowledge the possibility that the 50 years since the war do anything to those recollections) that give us an unmediated access to the past. With the authority of his unimpeachable sources in tact, Burns can then claim to not being a narrator in the traditional sense, but one who simply recounts what really happened.

The payoff for his denial of authorship is that any criticism of his narrative choices simply hits a wall of denial. His narrative choices, it turns out, weren’t his choices. That’s just how the past played out (The War was heavily criticized for documenting only white soldiers.

The genius of the film was its ability to translate recollections into facts. Burns listed no historians (There is a whole politics to how Burns labels those who appear in his films: there were veterans who spoke who were historians, but Burns chose not to label them as such). Because there are no experts, indeed, no consciousness (or at least no explicit acknowledgment that what we are seeing is constructed) of the constructed aspects of the story, what we hear becomes what actually was. Burns's narrator has no more authority than the individual veterans. For Burns, history from the bottom up is not simply how the ground understands the past, but that understanding is the truth of the past.

Just as Burns is unwilling to acknowledge memory in his work, so to is he unable to acknowledge how memory functions as (or even complicates) his “evidence.” The result is that Burns’s War keeps us from understanding the why and how of the war, the elements of historical analysis. Instead, his description hides itself as analysis, but does not come to terms with that analysis. It is inherently deceitful because description, or reportage does not allow for critical engagement: description comes off as that which simply is, it is the essence of Roland Barthes’s evacuation of contingency. Thus, we are left with a popular vision of the war, its causes, and its complications, that Burns rewrites into historical truth.

In other words, Burns presents the words of the veterans as fact. They are never analyzed them or put into context. One particularly insane moment comes when a veteran explains that at first, the men didn’t believe the way the government portrayed the Axis. But then, as they start fighting the war, that propaganda becomes real to him (and to us as an audience). This happens, right after a rare black veteran opens up the question of the hypocrisy of fighting a war for democracy in a profoundly undemocratic nation. Thus the one open space where the contradictions of the past can be confronted and at least analyzed, Burns immediately closes by laying over a soundtrack of propaganda about this war being for freedom and against (what else but) slavery that white veterans then affirm.

Burns denial of his own authorship as a historian ultimately serves his primary goal: popularity. Many commentators have tried to explain Burns's immense popularity, so let me enter the fray. My bid for  Burns's undeniable success: he tells stories that Americans already know. Burns refuses to make Americans uncomfortable with his history. Instead, he would rather reassure them that what they think about the past is true. His documentaries are largely documentary versions of the popular myths of history. He is unabashedly universal in his themes and speaks often about human experience that make us all the same. When he came to my school, he spoke repeatedly of the "universal experience of battle." That was what constituted a historical subject. What that meant for women or those who have not experienced war (and whether or not they contributed to history or were indeed even part of humanity), he refused to say. In fact he dodged the question.

Long ago academic historians gave up on the idea that human beings and the societies they create are essentially the same over time. Some romantic historians of the nineteenth century liked to see humankind in this way. Historians of the twenty-first century (even the twentieth century) believe the opposite. History is not supposed to make us feel comfortable, to justify where we're at, to explain our present moment as the inevitable conclusion to a past that is prelude. No, by showing us the near infinite variety of human experience over time and space, the perspective of history is a profoundly uncomfortable position.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My in-laws gave me both "How the Scots Invented the Modern World" etc. and the National Parks documentary for Christmas last year. I was deeply unimpressed and then profoundly annoyed by the first one, which I did manage to finish. Now I am not really looking forward to cracking open that documentary.