Short Thoughts About Public History

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.

Inertia to momentum

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

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.

Johan and Garry

Johan and Garry

Two men passed away today. They were in completely different fields but both were influential in my life.

My grandfather’s house was a house of football. In the back of the house, by the pit in the back garden where my grandmother hung clothes to dry and, on the other side, a cavernous garage that I’m not sure was ever used to house a car but was always full, sat a washing room with two washing machines and more football jerseys than I ever knew what to do with. One wall was full of boots. We visited once and my father signed me up for the team, we went into the room and came out with boots and a jersey, and I was a registered player with Regional AFC in Limerick city. The family seemed to breathe the sport.

The living room in his house had a piano on one end and a television on the other, and the shelf above the television was full of VHS tapes. My grandfather and various combinations of his sons recorded match after match of football. There were documentaries there, reviews of compilations of games or eras as a whole, and what felt like every World Cup match from 1974 through 1986. I would sit and watch these videos one after the other. That’s how I discovered Johan Cruyff.

The videos didn’t talk about his tendency to become embroiled in controversy or his occasional difficulty in getting on with others (this wasn’t unique in the Dutch national side of the 1970s), his failure to show up in 1978 merely mentioned in passing as one of the reasons the Dutch failed, again, to win it all. The videos instead created in my mind the legend of Dutch football, Total Football, a legend that simply doesn’t work without Cruyff at its centre. It showed me all these things, and it showed the famous turn.

I spent hours in my grandfather’s garden practicing the turn. It was more of a field, really, at the side of the house. A couple of boys a little older than me, passing by on their way somewhere further in towards town, interrupted to mock me. From a distance it must have looked odd, a boy on his own basically dancing over a mostly stationary ball. I was embarrassed, in part because I was always embarrassed when other children tried to communicate with me, but I was also perplexed. Couldn’t he tell I was teaching myself the Cruyff turn? Didn’t everyone want to know how to do that?

I was never all that good at football and so there were very few occasions on which I pulled it off. It was a pale copy of the original even when I did, of course. Cruyff was that great team personified: its arrogance, its grace, its football nothing less than a gift to mere mortals. I didn’t adore Cruyff as I did Maradona; he was too complex for me. I watched his matches and he just seemed to reach out and hold the field gently, allowing the others to play alongside him until it was time to show them all up. Maradona was a series of eruptions, something from another planet sent to torment men. Cruyff was one of us, but still simply better than everyone else in mind and body.

A handful of years later I sat in a friend’s room and watched The Larry Sanders Show for the first time. It was something else, something different from the blockbuster comedies coming to Irish televisions from across the sea. It was slow without treading water, a deliberate thing. Larry Sanders was amazing in ways that I didn’t expect, not because it was something completely new but because it was so adept at elevating something I thought was familiar. I had seen This is Spinal Tap but this was something more. Spinal Tap elevated spoofery to an art form, but that’s not what Larry Sanders was about. It was something more than that. I’m still struck by the show’s finale, at how successfully it mixes pathos with its comedic goals and how utterly, utterly faithful it is to the series as a whole. The DVD set is one of my most favourite received gifts (courtesy of my wife). It’s simply wonderful.

Both men had talent, and both men encouraged me to think. Cruyff and Shandling both had talent, tons of it, talent to spare; they could do things other people in their field simply couldn’t do. Their excellence came from how they used their minds to elevate their craft. Cruyff, first as a midfielder with a “free role” a long time before that became a standard term and later as a coach, and Shandling as the architect and star of a show that would seem ahead of its time if only we’d ever actually caught up. Their bodies of work are both emblematic of the need to work hard and to reach beyond and to push regardless of how far your talent brings you to begin with. I admire them greatly for that, and I am grateful to them both for the wonderful moments they have brought me in my life.

Rest in peace.

 

Super Mario Bros.

Episode Fifty Eight: Super Mario Bros. (1993)

We take on Super Mario Bros., not exactly a classic and frequently disavowed by almost everyone involved with it... so perhaps it's ripe for a re-examination? Not quite. Mostly we wonder at the extraordinary poor fortune of trying and failing to make a video game adaptation both child-friendly and edgy, deciding to release a dinosaur-themed movie in 1993, and Bob Hoskin's accent.

Masters of the Universe

Episode Fifty Seven: Masters of the Universe (1987)

We talk about that classic from our youths, Masters of the Universe, featuring a terrifyingly buff Dolph Lundgren, and admirably motivated Frank Langella, and a lot of apparently confused people doing their best to make something of this thing.

I mentioned two articles from HitFix in this episode, and you can find them here and here. They are worth checking out!

Don't Starve

My Week in Games

These posts are drifting further and further into the following week. This is ostensibly a post about the games I played last week, but hey, whatever. Here we are.

Not included: the game I’m currently gathering footage from for the next episode of History Respawned, and Civilization V, which I am currently running through a short playthrough for the streaming episodes of History Respawned. I guess I can say those don’t count, but really, are we ever not playing Civilization? Think about it.

Heroes of the Storm

I haven’t played as much as I would like this week, though this game is very much on the verge of me just writing “everyone assume I’m playing HotS, I won’t write about it every single time.” I’m actually a bit frustrated, because silly things like spending quality time with my wife have deprived me of the opportunity to keep at least one of those quest spots clear at the start of each day. I joke, but the truth is this is bothering me a little bit. Damn you, Blizzard.

Rocket League

I briefly thought I had gotten really good at Rocket League thanks to my son’s obsession with the game, but it turns out that I had read the rankings incorrectly and I am basically a little bit better than I thought I was. If you’re reading this and thinking about ranked play, I’ll say this: I’m as good as I could reasonably expect to be at this point having played a fair bit but remained casual throughout, I can pull off basic flying (I can’t change direction in flight) and I can hold my own in a game against a bunch of flying lunatics. I am in the bottom tier of ranked play. Hence the mistake of thinking I had gotten really good. Ah well.

Broken Age

I have only just started this game, but games like this are exactly why I love the Humble Monthly Bundle. It does make me worry a little bit that I should perhaps be supporting games like this (particularly adventure games) more directly with my wallet, but to be perfectly frank there’s no way I could gather the collection I am slowly amassing without the Humble Monthly Bundle.

Well, that’s not entirely true; I could, I just don’t. There’s a longer blog post in there somewhere, but the Humble Monthly Bundle is filling out my collection with games that I never quite buy but am thrilled to see in my collection once the bundle is announced. Broken Age is a great example; it’s controversial in some circles but I come to it months later with no baggage whatsoever and little expectation. I just want to see what the game does. I haven’t really had a chance to get into it yet but so far all the things that look great from the trailers are there: a lovely art style, an interesting world built for the player. Let’s see where it takes me next.

Satellite Reign

Satellite Reign is pretty great. You should probably play it.

Three Moves Ahead had a nice podcast episode about the game where Rob Zacny invited Austin Walker to come in and talk about it and they make some nice points about how this game functions as a cyberpunk game and the extent to which it does or does not follow up on Syndicate (1993). Their case is that, despite the promises implied in the game’s crowdfunding campaign, this game is not a revamped, rebooted, re-choose your own word Syndicate. I would agree with that, but I do feel that the game scratches my Syndicate itch a lot better than I anticipated.

Yet another contender for a longer post, my feelings for Syndicate are long-lasting and I have been waiting for years for a game to come along and become my new Syndicate. Or my old Syndicate. I’m not sure. I’m a bit confused. The actual, original Syndicate doesn’t really work according to these elevated expectations, so I’m very grateful for Satellite Reign. Not that this game works against those expectations either, failing to have the impact on my mid-30s brain the original had on my 12 year old one. That’s probably a good thing.

Don’t Starve

Damn this game.

I was, weirdly, turned off by the art style for this game for a long time. I say weirdly because it seems that was a draw for most people. I like the art style, don’t get me wrong, it just wasn’t something I saw myself wanting to spend a lot of time with. Here I am.

Don’t Starve is a no-brainer for my particular habits. I am often in a position where I can steal a twenty minute session before turning the computer off, and Don’t Starve is a great choice for that. I have a habit of taking those short session games and playing them for two hours instead of the game I spent two days waiting for a decent amount of time to play (hello again, Rocket League!). I have no compunction whatsoever about my hand being held to a certain extent, especially when I realize my hand isn’t being held at all, really. Finally, I enjoy building imaginary objects in an imaginary world.

This game works much better than I anticipated. The balance between tramping around gathering resources and avoiding danger is pretty good, and the advances needed for moving on to the next step of the technology tree are enticing until you achieve them and start yearning for the next one. I’ll have to see how it goes further on but I hear so many good things about this game. Most telling of all so far? I die (either stupidly or unfortunately) and more or less immediately start up a new game. Damn it.

No Else Heart.Break() this week. Don’t judge me. My character is at a party with a cool DJ and a girl he fancies. He’s doing just fine.

cobra

Episode Fifty Six: Cobra (1986)

 

This week we discuss the mangled cut of Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra, a film that reacts to the crime wave of the 1970s and early 1980s US pretty aggressively. Aviator sunglasses, a toothpick hanging from the lip and a poorly explained violent serial killer: Cobra has it all.

You can find the podcast episode by Movie Geeks United! mentioned in the cast, with Brian Thompson and Ric Waite, here.

A quick note: the gremlins got into our machines this week, and as a result we had some audio problems. I hope it isn't too distracting; we decided to soldier on!

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My Week in Games

A bit late again this week (I actually intended to write this last Friday), but I was pretty busy. Unfortunately I wasn’t busy playing games, at least not for the most part.

Rockpapershotgun’s “The Sunday Papers” linked to my post on European Truck Simulator 2, which was very cool. The release of American Truck Simulator has been teasing me, but I might cheat and go back and play the previous game. As much as I enjoyed it, I really only scratched the surface. I, too, dream of building a trucking empire from Sheffield to Rotterdam.

The latest Humble Monthly Bundle came out and it was pretty good. I, yet again, already owned the “big” game (Alien: Isolation) but yet again I still feel comfortable I got a good deal out of the bundle. I’m going to stick with it despite already owning the next game they are advertising as the “big” one (Ark: Survival Evolved).

This month’s bundle was a very cool assortment of games that I am very happy to own but might never have bought by myself (Broken Age, Dropsy, Penarium, Titan Souls, Volume). Increasingly, that’s what this bundle does for me, it beefs up my collection in a way that bends it away from my own esoteric fusion of the occasional Triple A title, indie games and anything involving space. Broken Age and Titan Souls in particular make me happy, and Dropsy got a great write-up by Jennegatron on Haywire Magazine, so I’m pleased overall.

As has been typical with my Humble Monthly Bundles, I haven’t got into those games straight away though. Instead I’ve been playing…

Heroes of the Storm

At some point in my life I will write the post I want to write about HoTS being a fantastic dad game. Until then, I’ll stop myself from repeating all the reasons I like the game for fitting into my life; let me instead talk about how I’ve actually been enjoying the game. Like other MOBAs I prefer to play support but unlike other MOBAs I’m happy to try on a different role, especially if it brings me that sweet, sweet imaginary currency that I refuse to spend. My hoarding of said currency is getting a bit silly at this point but that won’t deter me. It may be that I have completely misunderstood, on a fundamental level, how this whole thing works and that I am now taking the in-game balance as a sign of my worth when it… well, when it really isn’t any such thing. As Ian Bogost pointed out on Twitter yesterday, repetition offers a clear paradox at the centre of what makes games tick. My little increasing balance is right on the edge of that paradox, I feel.

Or maybe I’m just caught between spending a small amount of my fake currency on an anthropomorphic bull with an electric guitar and a wizard.

Else Heart.Break()

I didn’t play a lot of this game this week! Much to my own surprise. Else Heart.Break() falls into the same problem so many games I like do: I really, really want to be able to put aside some time to just enjoy the game but that time doesn’t currently exist. I can play HoTS for half an hour or maybe an hour and turn it off to do the dishes but I want to not have to worry about any of that when I play this game. It’s the same problem you face when you can’t commit two hours of your evening to a film but you watch four hours’ worth of television episodes instead.

I’ll have to break it, because this game… I fell in love with it quite quickly. It does something very difficult, which is to appear effortless in its fluent lo-fi aesthetic and storytelling. Going to a bar and talking to a girl, being ignored in a coffee shop; it’s difficult to make these kinds of interactions compelling but this game manages it rather well. In part this is because the protagonist clearly has a mind of his own but it rather reticent in providing it, his shyness preparing a canvass on which the player can sketch what s/he wants but remaining salient enough to clearly affect what colors must be used. Thus the interaction with a girl named Pixie is charming and touching when it could so easily have been cloying or just plain silly. I haven’t played this game in days because I’m due to meet her and her friends for a party at 6pm the next day and I want to make sure I can see where this goes in one play session.

The game also does a fantastic job of teasing out what I already know to be the game’s core mechanic. Meanwhile I get to put floppy disks into old computers and generally enjoy the fetishization of my childhood with little to no shame.

Jupiter Ascending

Episode Fifty Five: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

This week we try to get to the root of Jupiter Ascending; there’s no answer to the riddle of how this film ended up so disappointing perhaps, but we can still talk about how disappointing it turned out to be. Does the film have a future as a cult favorite or is it doomed to go down in history as a huge misstep?

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