History [Out] In [Of] Context


The process of creating a functioning website as a means of interrogating a fairly abstract, yet socially ingrained, understanding of history has certainly proved to be a unique and transformative one. What began as a project intent on challenging the notion of fixed histories through recontextualization quickly transformed into a meditation on both the impossibility of truly cohesive histories, but also on the limitations of the digital database model itself. These two aspects, as I will argue, are fundamentally linked, but it was only in the construction and operation of this website, Historio.org, where the true extent of their connectedness became apparent to me. By briefly analyzing the content, creation, and operation of the Historio.org website, I hope to illustrate how, paradoxically, challenging the idea of fixed historical narratives through the digital database or archive, simultaneously points to the impossibility of creating a truly democratic and inclusive container of histories (website, physical archive, etc).

To illustrate precisely how this evolution in understanding took place, it is necessary to give some background on exactly what the original intent of the project was and the ways in which I expected to achieve this end goal. The project began with the hope that through recontextualizing historical sound bites (primarily extracted from political speeches), I could conceivably illustrate both the existent range of meaning resulting from the interaction of personal and collective histories while simultaneously pointing to the ways in which larger structures of feeling can fundamentally (re)shape an artifact seemingly fixed in the past. This project was in many ways influenced by Steve Anderson’s work, Technologies of History. Rather than beginning with a shared and generated reimagining of history, Historio would focus on individual, crowdsourced, contributions that, in theory, would lead to the emergence of larger historical narratives based on the interconnections of micro-histories existing in the database. In essence, by removing historical fragments from teleological “grand narratives” and repositioning them within personal or collective histories, their function or meaning is challenged or changed entirely. What is important to remember is that this process of recombination is not simply a one-way engagement but rather this recontextualization points backwards at the crafter of this new meaning and the social, political, cultural, and even personal issues affecting her/his subjectivity at the moment of creation.

One video post on Historio.org that illustrates this is “Agnew Protest” submitted by Brian. Spiro Agnew’s sound bite criticizing protesters plays back under video of Black Lives Matter protesters disrupting traffic. What at first begins as a seemingly reactionary commentary in which one can read Agnew’s disparaging comments as targeting BLM protesters is problematized by the fact that the way in which the protesters march seems at odds with Agnew’s scathing, conservative rhetoric. In an interesting inversion, the peaceful protests on screen give way to a montage of police brutality, which seems more appropriate as the target of Agnew’s speech. Emphasizing images of police brutality alongside Agnew’s speech foregrounds the absurdity of Agnew’s (and many contemporary political and popular figures’) rhetoric and attempts to invert and challenge his (their) central arguments. In effect, this process of appropriating and refiguring Agnew’s words functions both as a means of challenging the very notion and importance of historical specificity (as past and present are dialogically linked) but also brings to the fore contemporary sociopolitical issues in need of address.

This example points to another important aspect of the project. The “remixer” need not have any direct experience with the original historical fragment in order to create pertinent and significant recombinant meanings. Of course one could find this problematic but, rather than understand this historical distance as an issue affecting the veracity of the interpretive project (video, animation, etc.) it should instead be considered an important way to illustrate the dialogical and ever-changing relationship between past and present based on fluctuating ways of seeing. In essence, while the database can indeed be conceived of as a social mnemonic tool where people can contribute memories or first hand experience of the historical fragment itself, it need not be grounded in a collective memory of the historical fragment (speech in this case) alone but should additionally be understood as a means of understanding, documenting, and collectively “remembering” contemporary structures of feeling while hopefully shining a light on particular histories in the making.

While some goals of the project have indeed been achieved (the aforementioned video is illustrative of this), new problems emerged in the creation of the website itself. One specifically vexing problem began purely as a technological issue and quickly developed into a more theoretical dilemma. If the digital database functions as a challenge to grand historical narratives by allowing disparate reconfigurations of the historical moment in question to be visible, the underlying problem of exactly whose histories are allowed to surface remains problematic. This seemingly obvious problem is really one that is central to this particular project in that contributors must have at least some basic understanding of video editing as well as the technological tools to complete the task. This, of course, is the nature of the website and a problem that I presumed would surface based on the demands of this particular project. However, lack of editing knowledge and software can be seen as a specific manifestation of a larger problem when attempting to create a digital archive of personal and social histories, namely, the impossibility of including all histories. Complete inclusion admittedly seems like a fools errand, but simply discarding this conception as too grand a goal ignores the bigger problem with digital archives and crowdsourced projects. Because of the size of these digital databases and their attempt at complete inclusiveness, those voices, histories, and lives that cannot participate are largely ignored, or, more likely, assumed to have a representative counterpart already active within the database. As grand historical narratives are further challenged by myriad micro-histories, the true task is recognizing that the structure of the database itself becomes a tool for exclusion, yet one shrouded in a democratic cloak. It is the myth of a total archive then that, paradoxically, becomes a tool for further and more problematic forms of exclusion. One can easily spot the exclusionary faults of a large and embedded history, but seemingly endless database histories suggest the illusion of a totalizing collection of histories thus allowing one to easily ignore those versions of history that are not represented.

What was perhaps the most significant aspect of creating this project was the recognition of this fact, which, I would argue, was made abundantly clear based on experiencing the growth of this database from its inception. I’ve already confronted many users who have asked for additional editing resources as they either do not have the experience or equipment to produce their own remixed history. Moreover, in creating the website layout itself, I have been challenged by issues of accessibility. How can I make the project’s mission clear? Where do I place specific links? How can I streamline the process for users? These basic questions also point back to the very real limitations that can be imposed at the point of a database’s production. Like the missing histories that are lost in obscurity based on shear size of the archive they inhabit, the histories that are made visible are also very much shaped by how specific digital databases are fashioned internally. Thus, web design becomes a critical aspect in this process of historical democratization and visibility.

Finding solutions to these problems is certainly something I will be focused on as the website evolves. I am hopeful that as I learn more of the tools needed to manage and operate a site of this kind I will simultaneously find new ways of addressing these issues. Overall, the personal value in this project came from following it through from inception to completion (at least in the sense that it is operational). The process in and of itself added considerably to my understanding of the pitfalls of crowdsourcing and the digital database yet, conversely, it also reaffirmed some of the more positive elements. Even if the website itself is not yet generating much thoughtful commentary, I’d like to think that those who have taken the time to navigate the site will at the very least consider the perhaps unsettling notion that even the past is uncertain and always in dialogue with the present.

Works Cited

Anderson, Steve. “Past Indiscretions: Digital Archives and Recombinant History.” Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, the Arts, and the Humanities. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. 100-114. Print.

Berger, John. “From Ways of Seeing.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Eds. Corrigan, Timothy & Patricia White & Meta Mazaj. New York: St. Martin’s, 2011. 114-124. Print.

Brian. “Agnew Protest.” Historio.org. Web. 3 May 2016.