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History TV and Popular Memory Steve Anderson A remarkable and misguided consensus exists among both historians and media critics regarding television's unsuitability for the construction of history . Notwithstanding The History Channel's promise to provide access to "All of History—All in One Place," Television viewers are often characterized as victims in an epidemic of cultural amnesia for which television is both disease and carrier. TV, so the argument goes, can produce no lasting sense of history; at worst, it actually impedes viewers' ability to receive, process , or remember information about the past. Raymond Williams's theorization ofthe "flow" oftelevisual discourse is invoked to argue that the contents of television simply rush by like answers on theJeopardy! board without context or opportunity for retention. Film theorist Stephen Heath agrees, proposing that television "produces forgetfulness, not memory,flow,not history. If there is history, it is congealed, already past and distant and forgotten other than as television archive material, images that can be repeated to be forgotten again."1 And according to Mary Ann Doane, "Television thrives on its own forgetability," relying upon "the annihilation of memory, and consequently of history, in its continual stress upon the 'nowness' of its own discourse."2 These arguments are rooted in Fredric Jameson's contention that in postmodern culture, TV and other visual media have fostered an increasingly "derealized" sense of presence, identity, and history. According to Jameson, history has been supplanted by a proliferation of stylistic pastiche and nostalgia symptomatic of a culture that still desires history, but is capable only of randomly cannibalizing styles and images from the past. Al- 20 | Steve Anderson though Jameson rarely targets television as the cause of this affliction, its implication in the visual and industrial culture of late capitalism is unmistakable . Many theorists have characterized TV as a product of its own ideology of liveness and the culture of amnesia in which it exists.3 In spite of the old-fashioned, TV-hating prejudices that still underpin much of the writing about television and the widespread persistence of suspicion toward visual media for the construction of history, it can be argued that TV has modeled highly stylized and creative modes of interaction with the past. Although these modes of interaction are subversive of many of the implicit goals of academic history, they play a significant role in cultural memory and the popular negotiation of the past. With the erosion of confidence in scientific historiography in recent decades , it has become increasingly acceptable to view cultural relations to the past as overdetermined by the needs of the present, the desires of historians, and the ideological contexts of historical research. Once-solid borderlines separating empiricist history from the idiosyncratic realms of individual and cultural memory now appear dynamic and permeable. Arguments for the inclusion of visual media in historical discourse have developed a certain degree of credibility, even if the precise function and limitations of these media remain open for debate. Though still disparaged for its commercialism and reputed "banalization"4 of significant events, television is likewise no longer simply dismissible as a bad object that is irrelevant to the development of historical consciousness. This essay proceeds from these conceptions ofTV and history to argue that since its inception, American television has sustained an extremely active and nuanced engagement with the construction of history and has played a crucial role in the shaping of cultural memory. Reconsidering Cultural Amnesia Long a troublesome (or, more frequently, dismissed) concept for historians, memory—whether individual or collective—provides a key to theorizing the role of television in contemporary historiography. As theorists of popular memory have argued, history does not end with the production of documents , narratives, or analyses. People consume and process written, filmed, or televised histories within a web of individual and cultural forces that influence their reception and the uses to which they are put.5 Further, historical meanings evolve over time, reflecting, among other things, the extent to which our relation to the past is conditioned by present circumstances. As reception studies of television have questioned assumptions about the passive spectatorship ofTV viewers, memory studies provide a way of looking at his- History TV and Popular Memory | 21 torical reception, what people remember of history, and the ways it is made useful in their lives. Like history, cultural memories are produced and must be understood in relation to an array of cultural and ideological forces. As Michael Bommes and Patrick Wright claim, "Memory has a texture which...


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