Quantum Leap: The Postmodern Challenge of Television as History
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 30, Number 2, 2000
- pp. 41-49
- Additional Information
Television as Historian | Special In-Depth Section QUANTUMLEAP: THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE OF TELEVISION AS HISTORY by Robert Hanke, University of Toronto She Said: What is History? And he said: History is an Angel Being blown backwards into the future He said: History is a pile of debris And the Angel wants to go back and fix things To repair the things that have been broken But there is a storm blowing from paradise And the storm keeps blowing the angel Backwards into the future And the storm, this storm is called Progress — Laurie Anderson1 Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Accelerator. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past facing mirror images that were not his own and driven by an unknown fate to change history for the better. His only guide was Al, an observer from his own time, who appears as the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so, Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home. — voice-over from the opening title sequence of Quantum Leap Laurie Anderson's "The Dream Before," which recalls one of Walter Benjamin's theses on the philosophy of history, shall serve as apoint ofdepartureforthis essay,just as the "QuantumAccelerator " serves as Dr. Sam Beckett's point of departure in the television series Quantum Leap.2 This paper examines some possibilities for thinking about television as history. It considers what television studies could do to address television as remembered history, and how the notion of popular memory works as a supplementary to the main arguments advanced by histories of television. The agenda ofthis essay is three-fold. First, it describes the contours of the study of media history, Michel Foucault's remarks on popular memory, and the emergence of collective memory studies. Second, it suggests the usefulness ofWilliam Palmer's New Historicist holographic model of film history and criticism and applies it to Quantum Leap? It, moreover, argues that this model needs to be revised in light of memory studies and the rise of cultural history, as the "study of the construction of the subject."4 Finally, it briefly presents some theses on the philosophy of television as history. Television, History and Popular Memory Before the advent ofcritical historiography in the 1970s, traditional approaches to media history were satisfied to look backwards, like the angel in "The Dream Before," only to be blown into the future by visions of progress. Communication historians then began to take notice that traditional approaches produced a great (white, middle class) man, top-down, press and artifact-centered version of U.S. media history.5 Since then, a growing body of critical historiography has continued to challenge the traditional view and revise the practice of media history .6 In his critical history of the discipline, Hanno Hardt writes that communication studies must "recover its sense of history" and "recognize the relationship between history and theory."7 Recovering our sense of history will entail more than assembling all of the necessary facts and getting the story of U.S. media right. For one thing, it will require us to recognize how standard historical accounts function as cultural myths about the past. James Schwoch, Mimi White and Susan Reilly, for example, argue that television's view of its own "Golden Age" structures academic accounts ofthe "origins" of network television, valorizing "live" television production and severing television's develop- . . . Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) regularly operates mentfromeconomic,in- asasurrogatefortheviewerinQuantum^ StitUtional, cultural, and ln one episodehe twists withChubby Checker technological factors.8 as Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell) looks on. For another, television Vol. 30.2 (2000) I 41 Hanke | Quantum Leap has undergone massive technological and institutional changes since the 1980s, becoming part of a transnational media industry and a global mediascape. Consequently, "it has become impossible to treat [television] as a unitary phenomenon with a single line of history."9 Such acknowledgements, of course, resonate with the New Historicism, an intellectual challenge to antiquarianism that began in the 1960s and came to...