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40 Historically Speaking · April 2003 COMPUTERS,VlSUALIZATION,ANDTHE REPRESENTATION OF HlSTORY DavidJ. Staley For academic historians, serious history iswritten history. Butwhycan't the past be depicted visually? Manyvisual representational forms exist already: film, museums , Chautauqua presentations, dramatic recreations. Academic historians, ifthey consider these other representations ofthe past atall, tend to confine them to the background of our discipline. These might be fine for schoolchildren or museum patrons or history buffe, buta professionalhistorianwouldnever design one ofthese visual displays as a substitute for a conference presentation, a journal article, or a monograph. Ofcourse there are manyhistorianswho are interested in the representation ofthe past on film. Hayden White even coined a term for such a visual history: historiophoty. Indeed, some historians have appeared in documentaries and have written elegant critical and theoretical essays about historical films. However, academic historians tend not to direct their own films. And even White was forced to concede that historians tend to use images only to supplement their words.1 I have yet to discover any philosopher of historywho directlyexplainswhyserious history must be written history. Instead, many philosophers ofhistory—if they discuss the issue at all—equate serious historywith written historyas an axiom, a firstprinciple upon which the restofthe edifice ofour discipline is built. The philosopher and historian Michael Stanford has been perhaps the most eloquent about this assumption. In The NatureofHistoricalKnowledge Stanfordwrites that "history, like poetry and song, is a way ofusing language." In an otherwise insightful analysis ofhistorical methods, Stanford provides no other explanation forwhythis is so. "Whetherspoken orwritten," he argues, a historical work "is a construction in words."2 Stanford does not explain why history is a constructioninwords; hejustassertsthatitis. Our reasons for preferring writing over visual representation are rooted in the same cultural assumptions that have undergirded much ofmodern Western thought, assumptions that historians have had little occasion to question: we believe that words and writing represent the highest form ofthought. The arrival ofthe printingpresshastened the creation ofthe "Gutenberg Galaxy," a cultural environmentwhereinthe abilitytowrite and read the printed word became the hallmarkofscholarship and the educated person. The modern discipline ofhistorywas forged duringthis "Gutenberg" period. Longbefore Ranke established ourcurrentpractices, history was viewed as a branch ofliterature. As Francis Haskell has chronicled, while visual images such as paintings, sculpture, and monuments were at one time a common method for representing the past, modern historians after the Renaissance dismissed these, confining them to the ranks ofantiquarians.3 In establishingthe professional discipline ofhistory , Ranke emphasized immersion in the sources, meaning the written documents found in the state archives. Thatwritingwas associated with science, scholarship, and the highestlevel ofthoughtwould probablyhave been self-evident to any 19th-century historian . This attitude persists among historians at the beginning ofthe 21st century. While ours is a culture awash in images—from television, magazines, cinema, billboards, newspapers, video games, and now the Internet—historians continue to remain committed to the written word. Our educational institutions enshrine these beliefs. One need only note that reading and writing are considered core cognitive competencies, whereas facilitywith images is deemed an enrichmentexperience, something that can be easily cutwhen budgets gettootight. If"Johnnycan'tread," politicians , business leaders, and concerned parents lament the state of our schools and fret aboutJohnny's competitiveness in the marketplace . If"Johnnycan'tdraw," no one bats an eye. Perhaps it is the very ubiquity of imagesthatexplainsthis attitude: thatimages are associated with mass culture and a "dumbed down" society. Images are something little kids look at before they learn to read the words. Wayward teenagers avoid reading the novel byseeking out "the movie version."In emphasizinggraphics overprose, newspapers such as USA Today appeal to the lowestcommon denominator. These largely unexamined cultural assumptions might explainwhyhistorians insist historymust be written. While it is true that some historians studyimages—such as art historians and historians of popular culture—and while it is true thatvisual primarysourcesare becoming increasingly common in historical scholarship , we writeaboutimages. Historians do not choose to communicate through images. Historians uncriticallyadhere to thewritten word despite the limitations of that medium of communication. While I have foundno definitive statementfrom a philosopher ofhistory concerning the necessity of writing, I have found more direct evidence for the problems ofwriting as a medium for representing the past. In an early 19th-centuryessay...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 40-42
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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