Short Thoughts About Public History

I’m reading John Dower’s Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering and thinking about conceptions of public history. Dower, writing specifically on the controversy centered on the 1995 Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian debating how to present the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in terms of aftermath and context (or lack thereof), presents the importance of public history as part of an obligation on the part of historians to participate in a fuller exploration of our mission in informing the public. For Dower, reactionary positions on the exhibit decrying a focus on the suffering endured as a result of the bombings open the United States offered evidence of clear limitations on public discussion. The conflict here is both inherently and explicitly political. Whether somewhat illusory in form, such as broad popular narratives on the good and bad of American involvement in World War II, or delivered with more clarity, as in the case of the American Congress’ squaring up to the Smithsonian in 1994 and 1995, such limitations bear clear warnings for our democracy.

One would find it difficult to disagree with Dower. Certainly, it brings to mind for me a central focus in attempts to engage in public history. What exactly are we doing? What are the objectives and what means do we have to get there? As an instructor who dreams of handing his undergraduates a prompt that states, simply and clearly, “write an essay” (and very little else; maybe “don’t use Google in your research”) I am very much in support of a broad ranging focus, many fields of fire launched against the drafted soldiers often unwittingly manning the frontiers of ignorance. Thusly, work such as that of my colleague Bob Whitaker and myself in reaching out to fans of video games and offering more ideas from the academy finds itself, broadly speaking, in the same field as nationally recognized public exhibits. That is, if we are saying public history is a field.

I’m not even sure that we can take that as read, either. Plenty of people doing great work would see public history and academic work as being separate disciplines, but  public history is a field of the discipline of History, in the broader sense. So much of what we do when attempting to engage with public history represents the broader tenets of historical work, but I increasingly fear that we are working harder at bridging a gap than we would like to be. I, and many other historians, would prefer that the bridge linking the work being done in historical research in the academy and popular perceptions of history be both structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing. A gleaming bridge covered with stalls manned by historians offering their work to the streams of humanity passing by on their way from one land to the other. Some days I feel the bridge is in such disrepair that no one dares place much of a stall upon it and there is not much foot traffic anyhow. At other times it seems to me that we’re still trying to build the bridge in the first place.

It begs the question, if there is no such (metaphorical) bridge, how do ideas get from one land to the other? In batches of textbooks tied to rafts launched across the water? The occasional snippet of a conversation on television or radio with a member of the academy? It seems to me that ideas travel across this divide in sporadic raids from one side to the other, and usually from one side, with brave souls from the land of popular imagination raiding the vaults of the academy. This causes much concern for historians, but in many ways we have ourselves to blame: those who swim over to the popular side often struggle to speak in the local language. It can be frustrating when problematic statements in the local tongue can be so commonplace.

Thus enters the idea of public history, perhaps not as a bridge but as a motley flotilla of different ideas. Many of these boats come in the form of blogs or, in even more fragile condition, individual blog posts like this one. Certain university presses manage fleets of their own, with larger ships and some established bases on the other side, but we’re all here navigating. More of us still are standing on the shore and talking about how great it would be to get over there. Therein lies the problem really, though I take heart from what seems a general sense among my fellow historians that there indeed sits an audience across the way just waiting for us. I am also increasingly encouraged by the variety of forms which public history may take, from museum exhibits such as that mentioned at the beginning of this post to… well, to blog posts like this one. Admittedly, this post is really only a work of public history if we expand such definitions broadly to get meta. Let’s do that. Let’s get meta.

The slow, slow move from inertia to momentum

A quick word about reviving blogs:

I hate writing posts like this, but I still write them, compulsively. It’s terrible, making a promise I suspect I won’t keep, for no real concrete reason beyond the numerous times I have broken similar promises. The central argument in favour of such posts is essentially that it creates a precedent that must be sustained, but that’s not why I write these; really, I’m trying to give that boulder a really hard shove, and if I can get the bloody thing to tremble just a little bit I could have it moving in a few days.

I’ve debated with myself what to do about this blog. Its purpose has shifted over the years I’ve maintained it, but as I now sit down and set myself a clear goal of writing more often, I’m happy for this website to become a repository of ideas. I’ll continue to write about popular culture things that interest me, including video games (ostensibly the impetus behind the site), but I will also talk about various other things, from the broad and universal to the particular and personal. I’ll write more short posts, of which this is the first. I’ll fire things down from time to time. I still want to write longer essays now and again. Hopefully people will stop by and they will like it.

I may even write about teaching occasionally. Stranger things have happened. I considered changing the name too, perhaps to reflect a move towards something more personal and more professional at the same time, but if anything the idea that we’re living through (and thriving in) a cultural apocalypse becomes ever more apt.

The Fidelity Wars

Hefner’s most appealing variety of weirdness, for me, was their willful, enthusiastic and deeply self-conscious embrace of the pathetic. The Fidelity Wars was a masterpiece for a heartbroken twenty-something, which is exactly what I was when I first discovered the album. Darren Hayman’s vocals were plaintive, the songs’ themes unabashedly bathed in the deep treacle of self-pity, the depth of the instrumentation stripped back to resemble talented lounge rockers in a large empty room; it’s a masterpiece designed for someone convinced with the alarming confidence of youth that their best days are now behind them in the wake of their first (or most recent) major failure in maintaining a romantic and sexual relationship with another human being.

I also love the album as a happily married man and dad, so, you know… this album works.

I didn’t need to wait fifteen years to convince myself The Fidelity Wars was an album deserving of praise. There’s an art to break-up music. The Smiths were masters at this, writing songs that swam down to sit beside you at the bottom of your sadness and were there for you on the nights it all felt like an old boring memory with that little key undertone of knowing you weren’t quite over it. Not yet. Hefner reached me in a way I wasn’t expecting: Hayman sings about sex, the illicit pleasure of secret assignations, the suspicion of your partner cheating on you feeling so real it must be true regardless of whether it is or not, the soaring certainty that two people need to be together, and the deeply sad realization that you don’t always get to be one of those two people.

This is remarkably difficult to do. Singing about drinking too much as part of a mostly malformed attempt at clumsy seduction opens one up to managing that horrific mixing together of the rococo, the overly earnest and the dizzyingly self-important. The Fidelity Wars instead successfully recreates the wonder and the fear of feeling your way through (what seemed at the time) the immensely complicated courting rituals of being in your twenties and beyond. Lyrical details betray the band’s British origins, it’s true, but lamentations over the growing awareness your partner is trying to build up the courage to leave you while you both do your best to pretend that’s not happening are universal in appeal. The celebration of the mundane on this album works because the importance of that to its songwriters is clearly not superficial. The result is a clear sense of place.

“Was it she who wrote porn is woman hatred on my overcoat? Christ, I need that coat.”

Finally, the key to this album lies in its ultimate celebration of victory. The women written into these songs serve as objects of adulation, desire, regret, shared pity; they’re human, but part of a broader metaphysical search for happiness denied. Hayman celebrates, begs, cajoles, and ultimately the album ends with a defiant, throaty yell in declaration of love, the embarrassment of being rejected and left alone consumed by the certainty that this romantic failure will endure as the defining characteristic of his existence from now until the end, whenever that finally gets here and whatever form it takes. He is ruined, and that ruination has become an inseparable part of the person he must now be.

“Who gave you the right to bruise my little heart?
You tore it right apart, I was saving it for art.
You knew just what to do, so who gave you the clue?
I love no one else, I love only you.”

It’s that embrace of defeat that endears this album to me, that deepens my connection to it beyond enjoying it as a great pop album.  The songs’ protagonist, ultimately, reached down into this defeat and found victory. There’s something sad about that of course; many who come out on the wrong side of a relationship ending find solace in this, using the comfort of permanency brought with certainty of that defeat’s finality, its comprehensive and unquestioned impact on the rest of your life. Hefner aren’t content with that. The album ends on a triumphant note, a rejection of the rejection, a celebration of the love denied, a proud declaration of love, at its most idealistic in the deliberate forgetting of its ending. It is Hefner’s capturing of that brazen emotional declaration and its essence that raises this album beyond sustenance for the broken up and makes it something classic: a break-up album that defines a meaningful genre.