SOME NOTES ON READING
Tessa Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us
Fifty years ago, historians were somewhat embarrassed about drawing too heavily on popular culture materials, which were basically seen as not respectable. Just as literary scholars, though, recognize the importance of genre materials (Westerns, detective stories, romance fiction, etc) so historians have realized just how critically important pop culture sources can be. After all, if they are truly “popular”, they are reaching a mass audience and forming opinion in a way that a sober academic tome cannot possibly do. They are also essential to understanding the once undervalued areas of “social history” -which was once defined, outrageously, as “history with the politics taken out”! As feminists will be the first to remind us, there is in fact an enormous amount of political content in social history – and in seemingly innocuous popular culture documents.
Even so, taking account of pop culture still leaves some thorny areas, above all in the visual arts, though in fact, cartoons and illustrations can be among the most evocative sources for understanding popular attitudes. If I say “September 11”, your first thoughts would unquestionably be visual, of moments caught and endlessly reproduced – the explosion at the South Tower, firefighters raising the flag, etc. You won’t primarily be thinking of a great essay you read about the event in FOREIGN AFFAIRS or NEW REPUBLIC. And can one really understand anything about popular attitudes in twentieth century society without thinking first about film?
All of which brings us to Tessa Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us. To read about her personally, and her career, check out http://rspas.anu.edu.au/people/personal/morrt_pah.php
She confronts the charge that history is in effect dying, due in part to “stunning problems of shrinking attention spans and lack of historical consciousness”. To the contrary, she believes that the historical past is as alive as ever, and in manifested through popular culture representations.
Tell me some of the areas where history, and its commemoration, is a critical element of political divisions today. Though you can think of many instances, tell me about how history is debated in East Asia, in nations such as China, Korea and Japan. Check out for instance the issue of the Yasakuni shrine:
Also look at materials in sites such as
What are the dilemmas Morris-Suzuki identifies in popular treatments of history? How does she approach topics such as Saving Private Ryan or JFK?
Hopw novel is it for such works to mix historical and fictional documents and materials? What recent cases or scandals have arisen from such mix’n’match activities? (SEE MY ATTACHMENT ON “FAKE HISTORY”)
When people criticize such “mixed” works, are they making unrealistic claims about the strictly pure and honest quality of “straight” history? Does the act of interpretation always introduce an element of fiction? Or is that too cynical?
What importance does she attach to the historical novel? Why was this genre so important at particular historical eras? Are there modern equivalents to such works, whether in literature or film? What about Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary series in this regard?
Some possible candidates – or are they? – Braveheart; Schindler’s List; Three Kings, United 93; Atonement (ie the book, not the film); ….. Think of your own candidates.
How and why does the historical novel contribute to the shaping of national consciousness?
What does she say about the power of historical photographs? How have modern states, including the United States, tried to discourage the use of particular images during time of war and national emergency? Think what visual images come to mind most strongly of such events, from Desert Storm and Oklahoma City onwards.
What does she argue about the use and power of historical cinema? Do her arguments work for Amistad? Think of some other films for which they might work better or worse.
How are all these trends affected by the rise of the Internet, especially the difficulty of controlling it officially?
In the modern US, what are some of the unspeakable or taboo topics that authors or film-makers would be very scared to address? To take a couple of examples, see the debate over the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie at
A question I have asked before: give me a couple of examples of individuals, events or stories that really struck you, that really reinforced the point she was trying to make. Which of the documents or (particularly) the illustrations had a particular impact on you? Give me also a couple of examples that do NOT work for her story, where you think she might be working too hard to make her point?
Usual question: What other praise or criticism would you have of this work? What other questions might you ask of her material? What other interpretations might you offer?
Also, do check out her related piece on “Free Speech - Silenced Voices: The Japanese Media, the Comfort Women Tribunal, and the NHK Affair,” at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=8514