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  • Engaging the Past: Mass Culture and the Production of Historical Knowledge by Alison Landsberg
  • Rebecca Weeks
Engaging the Past: Mass Culture and the Production of Historical Knowledge, Alison Landsberg, New York, Columbia University Press, 2015.

In her new book, Alison Landsberg points out it that would be remiss to ignore the role that popular audiovisual media "have played in shaping the way people in the present visualize, come to understand, and ultimately feel invested in history" (2). Most current scholarship focuses on feature film but Landsberg highlights the importance of expanding the field to look at other popular mediums, including serialized television dramas, reality history TV, and virtual history exhibits. Each of these, along with film, is the focal point of one of the book's chapters. Landsberg contends that aspects of the history on screen experience regularly criticized by scholars – namely identification and emotion – can, in fact, work to produce complex historical insights. Engaging the Past demonstrates that audiovisual history should not be dismissed as simply affective, drawing viewers into a narrative and making them identify unquestioningly with the past on screen. Rather, affective engagement can lead to rational understanding.

The introductory chapter argues for the importance of understanding how history functions in popular culture and is split into three subsections mapping out what affective engagement is and what it means to the study of history and the acquisition of historical knowledge. The most informative of these is 'History as Reenactment' for which Landsberg draws heavily upon the mid-twentieth century historian R.J. Collingwood and his idea of historical reenactment, which is crucial to the central thesis of the book. To enable 'historical thinking,' Collingswood maintains, one must contextualize information and perform a kind of mental reenactment. This 'experiential mode' of history is about more than simply viewing and listening to representations of the past and responding in a bodily way to them. What is crucial for Collingwood and Landsberg is this endeavor's self-reflexive component. "In order for real historical knowledge to be produced," Landsberg argues, "the affective engagements that draw the viewer in must be coupled with other modes that assert the alien nature of the past and the viewer's fundamental distance from it" (10). How an audiovisual text is constructed – formal and stylistic choices – can prompt self-reflective historical thinking rather than facile overidentification.

The issue of identification versus affective engagement is taken up fully in the next chapter on feature film, which opens with a brief review of the history on film debate. It is not through identification with characters that history on screen produces historical knowledge, but rather through interruption of the narrative and the creation of distance between the viewer and the characters on screen. "The oscillation between proximity and distance, alienation and intimacy," Landsberg states, "provokes analytical or cognitive processing and meaning making" (29). Landsberg clarifies his ideas in the latter part of the chapter as he applies them to specific historical films: Milk (2008), Hotel Rwanda (2004, not 1994 as cited twice in the book), and Good Night and Good Luck (2005). The section on Milk clearly illuminates Landsberg's argument through close-reading and analysis of individual scenes. She concludes that films that layer different types of film footage, foreground mediation, and prevent the audience from losing themselves [End Page 80] fully in the illusion of the movie, have the greatest potential to produce historical knowledge. While this is certainly a start, application (and adaptation) of Landsberg's ideas to a wider range of films will undoubtedly reveal even greater potential and possibilities in the future.

'Waking the Past: The Historically Conscious Television Drama' takes the ideas of the previous chapter and applies them to cable dramas Deadwood (2004–2006), Mad Men (2007–2015) and Rome (2005–2007). All three are examples of what Landsberg describes as "historically conscious dramas" not necessarily based on a documented event or historical figure. Instead, these series function more like a social history experiment, revealing what life may have been like for similar groups of people during these particular periods. As she notes in her brief literature review, history on TV is becoming increasingly popular, but most of the...


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pp. 80-82
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