History as Truthiness

September 15, 2008

The “TrenchFever” blog by occasional blogger Dan Todman is one of those occasional blogs that never fails to make me think about important things. Around this time every year I wonder about my own personal “digital rememberances” of New York 9/11. In a couple of months I’ll remember 11/9 and the Berlin Wall coming down. People are always interested in my recollections of these “historical events” yet I still find it difficult to connect my stories with the broader historical narrative and perspectives – what Dan calls the “dominant discourse”.

Despite my own quite trivial “digital recollections” of “historical moments” – I am a big fan of this sort of grassroots history. However I have to admit that “little” people – even in large numbers don’t really add very much to the overarching “historical” narrative. Even the extra “colour” and “texture” they contribute is often of dubious quality and veracity –  despite that, these personal stories are often very engaging, entertaining and sometimes quite horrific – certainly it seems to be the mawkish details that tend to stick in my memory.

At the other extreme of digital history we have interactive timelines and animated maps.  I love playing with these things but I am afraid that they too fail to add much to the “big picture”. Colourful blocks of pixels sliding around certainly help clarify sequences of events and animated maps present a seductive view of history from “30,000 feet” – but  just like looking out of an Airbus window you actually see little of any real interest.

I recently found myself re-reading “Our Island Story” by H.E.Marshall and was surprised to find the grand sweep of British History quite clearly and amusingly articulated – despite using lots of “fairy-stories” as her primary sources and her desire not to teach “…but only to tell a story”. Maybe this is because her book has defined the “dominant narrative” as it is broadly understood by the ruling classes and referenced by popular culture and journalism? – which reminds me I ought to get to grips with Hyperreality.

(p.s: don’t miss the introduction to Truthiness on Colbert Nation).

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