Follow Harriet on Twitter
I now think of celebrity in America as a form of historical painting. One of the reasons we have traditionally needed the famous is so that their acts (a.k.a., “deeds”) might become events. The contemporary celebrity is an image-based entity, of course; it consists less of action than of visual material made at once experiential and monumental, commemorative. Here history is replaced by a populist pictorial complex, a list of images sourced from various points of view, each of which points allegorically away. Celebrity is massive and yet an indexical logic: a hair, the iceberg’s tip. The image of celebrity is in fact a slender way into a broader slew of information about how significant living is undertaken in the present—and usually in the first world. The meaning of the celebrity is not his or her private life, who he or she “really is,” but rather some quantity we have no access to, a story we the audience have collectively agreed to agree is significantly withheld.
Roland Barthes, re: the spectacle of historical painting, pauses over the “scandal of those exaggeratedly rearing horses, of the Emperor frozen in an impossible gesture.” The “scandal” is the shocking irrelevance of these visual details. Fastened, for example, to the meticulous surface of a canvas by Emmanuel Leutze showing Washington crossing the Delaware, anyone would ignore time’s depth. The viewer of the historical painting proceeds laterally, enjoying the figurative view. The kind of memory implied by historical painting is immediate, confrontational, lush. Like the symmetrical faces of celebrities, such paintings summon and transfix memory while simultaneously brushing aside historical data. There is no content in a painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware. Similarly, there is no content in a JPEG of Lindsay Lohan asleep in an SUV. These two kinds of images play on fame in a more or less analogous way, even if they otherwise diverge wildly and one is likely to far outlast the other.
Celebrity brings together two favorite bugbears of the present: compression and irony. This is to say: Memory is now not just false or unreliable, but crowd-sourced and “lossy.” (We are familiar with the infidelity of compressed digital files—and I’m hardly the first to make a comparison between digital assets and stored contents of the mind!) Ideally, the data discarded in compression isn’t noticeable. Still, the Internet is littered with blocky images we sometimes refer to as “photographs,” as if it doesn’t matter that clouds aren’t square. The obviousness of the loss of information in many of our most commonly employed commemorative formats is where the irony inheres; we’ve learned to include it, like a drooling Lindsay, in our jokes. Poets, too, are exploring this aesthetic. To me it feels like a kind of historical wash over contemporary language: commercial, fascinating; exceedingly relevant and yet fact-free.
Of course, we have to believe that somewhere someone (Robert Caro?) is keeping up with reality—and that in professional circles history is still a social science tied to the concrete, is very hard work, and keeps for itself the quality of being professedly true.
Anyway, here I can only speak for literary pursuits. And when a writer is feeling more serious and therefore more strictly historical, it is likely that she values the work of noticing—and, in particular, the work of noticing the exemplary, telling detail. The kinds of truth we feel most at home with in modernity are contingent, i.e., evidentiary, clue-like. We mostly read materiality in the place of heroes and celebs when attempting to be serious, historical. Perhaps, then, history is no longer even written, but rather read, gleaned. The excluded and the insignificant are inherently more eloquent than the well-known narrative or figure. It makes a kind of common sense: Fragments, chance information, minor objects and errant facts afford access to something like the unconscious of events, a real that’s more real than what we really believe to—ex post facto—be the case. Here history is all that theory (Benjamin, Foucault, for starters) said it would be: a mystery with symptoms, a morass of paperwork, a field covered in tiny pieces of trash over which an army has just trampled…
Perhaps, too, the sleuthy approach is very American? Certainly it has to do with American poetry. I think, predictably, of Ezra Pound, so seriously gathering up the “limbs of Osiris,” lest the twentieth century be shrouded in misty colloquialism and finance; his long poem “including history” vacillates between recounting minutia of personal experience (café society, disappointing girlfriends, the time he saw an ant) and championing an imaginary imperial regime that seems to have as one goal a Fukuyama-like conclusion of history. For this reason, Pound’s depiction might be viewed with some suspicion; other American poets have been a bit more antinomian, of course! But we still see the sifting, the search for a documentary edge: I think of Muriel Rukeyser’s discussion of coal mining and silicosis, for example; Susan Howe and M. NourbeSe Philip’s charged inscriptions; the records of migration and transliteration proposed by Myung Mi Kim.
Few professional historians would want to make a claim for a divinatory capacity of writing (much as few poets have been as ectoplasmic as Victor Hugo!) Yet the possibility of “access” to something gone or past or simply not present by means of writing remains a not entirely unconvincing proposition. I sometimes think that in contemporary poetry what is most interesting is not the question of knowledge—of producing something that might strictly be termed knowledge—but rather the question of what might or could become tangible to us, palpable, such that the historical fact not remain merely useful or abstract but instead arrive as another kind of experience. Here we might find ourselves thinking of work in prose that has a speculative valence, Renee Gladman’s nation of Ravicka or Jon Leon’s stressful nightclubs. The otherness, the otherworldliness of what might be termed history could also be compellingly rendered as an elsewhere, an otherwise with certain heightened qualities: a dis- or utopia. Of course at this point, it might no longer be strictly historical…
Here I want to return to the question of the patently fake—the monument, the celebrity, the historical painting—since history also pertains to the not-insignificant labor of making something that is not a representation (an event, a population) into a representation. In this sense, history is not just a style, topic, or theme to be borrowed for literary experiment, but a surprisingly useful metric for considering what exactly one is doing when one is making things up. The pressure we bring to bear when it comes to the historical fact twists and turns interestingly if directed toward “poetry.” I don’t suppose I will get anything true from a poem—and yet I’m at the same time far from convinced that it will be impossible to think or know or learn anything true, while reading a poem, regarding the past.
The painstaking process of reconstructing—artificially if not expressly falsely—what could not be experienced first hand brings us back to the notion of compression. Writing itself provides an appealing material difference: Writing is experiential, much as it depicts. Writing requires time. Writing is also made of discrete letters, a syllabary or alphabet, and in this sense wrtng is nt a vry gd cnddte fr lssy cmprssn. Thus, the kind of commemoration writing promises might at best be fairly minor, offering less a vision of an era than a glimpse at the plodding, formal, and apparently incidental fact that someone or something has written (or been programmed to write) and has, therefore, chosen letters and words over other letters and words. Yet from such minor facts we may derive a sense that experience itself is not discrete, even if consciousness is. A written thing, anyhow, is basically a document. In the impossible task of saying anything true about history I don’t want to preclude the possibility that we have occasionally, perhaps accidentally and in spite of ourselves, foregone interpretation and somehow managed to write events “in themselves.”