Geoff Gillian, 'Multimedia History and its Hisoriographical Precursors': Paper for Virtual Histories, Real Time Challenges Seminar

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© Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History

Multimedia History and its Historiographical Precursors

Geoff Gillan

University of Wollongong

According to the great Argentinean fabulist Jorge Luis Borges ‘every writer creates his own precursors’[the emphasis is his]. This is the spirit in which I conduct my interrogation into and examination of multimedia and historiography. I hope by doing this I might synthesise earlier discourse on historiography and examine it for what it might reveal about our new subject, multimedia, and what, in turn, multimedia might reveal about facets of that previous discourse.

A large body of historiographical thought can be found pertaining to time and chronology, narrative, pictorial reproductions, documentary representations, film and history, museums and non-textual histories, and non-western modes of historical representation that break down the classic narrative/text approach. This body of work has direct impact on how we might view multimedia, which is, after all the technological jargon has been abandoned, merely a tool for representations of history.

I think then it is pertinent to ask where the intersections might occur between the peculiarities of the multimedia environment and general historiography. Questions of event-based narrative, structuralism, total history, quantitative history (as a tool rather than an end in itself) and counterfactual history assume new dimensions themselves, and are useful in an orientation around the particular strengths and weaknesses of multimedia history.

Discussing multimedia does require different emphasis, but not an entirely different grid of references. Early historiographical considerations became charged with new meaning when placed in this new context. To abandon this context entirely, to think that multimedia in history is so new it cannot be talked about by using current historiographical tools, is to fall victim to the worst kind of technological determinism. Certainly the way in which computer technology develops and the sophistication of the representations therein will have some impact on what historians decide it is possible to do. But the impetus for new kinds of history will not come simply because the computer is there to allow it. I would like then to apply this method of enquiry I have been outlining to two brief examples: structuralism in history, and the historical atlas.

Braudel and Structuralism

Structuralism is a history that is considered submerged beneath the history of events, what Braudel calls ‘little touched by the obstinate erosion of time’. Braudel is especially useful in this example because of his solutions to the problems of representing structuralist history in a textual form. This is not because other structuralist historians are using an intrinsically different approach to Braudel; it is because the specificity and the articulation of Braudel’s literalising approach mean these solutions can be applied more clearly to multimedia. Nor is it to say Braudel solves the representative problems of structuralism, simply that his efforts to find a solution that satisfies the theoretical and methodological demands of structuralism are enormously suggestive and useful.

Braudel’s solution is to arrange and order his material in a specific way, defying the traditional organisation of histories into chronological periods, or other kinds of chronological narrative flow. In The Mediterranean he divides the book into what he calls ‘three conceptions of time’. The conceptions divide that which was hitherto considered historical time into geographical, social and individual time, each corresponding with one section of a triptych.

Braudel, however, does not compile a consecutive or even chronological narrative but tries to undermine them. The sections of his triptych however do not exist in isolation from one another, so could be said to have accumulative weight. But Braudel does not totally eschew conventional narrative history seeking instead to simultaneously depict conventional and structural history in the one text, believing history to be capable of ‘multidimensional explanations’.

This drive to encompass everything that might have had pertinence to the depiction of historical reality is at least partially hampered by the technological limitations of the production of text. The obvious solution may be hypertext, but just as suggestive is the notion of game-based simulation, with its ability to monitor a number of computer-determined processes through one single interface, ‘the game’. Further, Braudel’s notion of time, as opposed to mere chronology, is one of an inescapable duration. This also places Braudel’s structures as a explicit part of reality, rather than one predicated on the idea of structuralism within human cognition, like Levi-Strauss. Yet the Braudelian concept of conjuncture, the medium term for Braudel’s discussion of temporality, allows him to place within an understanding of time simultaneously the long and short duration: in other words, structural process and event. This creates the notion of continuity of short and long duration embedded within the structure. Such a continuity needs a simultaneous representation if it is to be successful in representing anything other than a discontinuity. Again, such simultaneous representations would seem to be well within the parameters of multimedia history.

A simple structure-event dichotomy has been problematized by Sahlins who critiques the absence of the role of culture in structuralism. Sahlins believes that the structuralist mode of history is both important and useful, but that somehow the activity of culture must be reconciled to it. Friedman believes Sahlins reduces everything to culture, both overextending the role of structures and overemphasising culture to the point of both cultural determinism and cultural reductionism. This also creates a certain kind of historical discourse, one Friedman states is objectivist, able to determine understanding of other cultures’ history from outside.

One of the ways in which we could be break down this objectivism is to provide points of view that are not directly authorial. Sahlins seeks a synthesis of the Western distinctions of history and structure and stability and change, but also of what he calls the “pernicious distinction” of structure and event. By allowing the assimilation of multiple viewpoints through some other than the uni-directional mode of standard authorship (as hypermedia does), multimedia seems to suggest one place where some of the distinctions might more successfully be synthesised and made less objectivist than in a straight-forward narrative account. Further, if the relation between cultures is allowed to be played out, across the vast canvas of historical simulation on even a semi-structuralist model, the readers themselves, by choosing the way in which the material is encountered, might be the ones who break down the culturally-determinist role that culture in the structural process of history can be made to assume. It well could be that creating and identifying the specific synthesis becomes the role of the reader of the history, a more active role than previously possible.

D. R. Hopkin asserts that multimedia allows for a breaking out of old categories, be they chronological or geographical. While this suggests a far too simple view of either category and their roles both within history and potential multimedia histories, such a comment does suggest that multimedia may be useful in a debate such as the cultural-structural one, where an attempt to juggle these categories within the parameters of a single explanation of history in a text, narrative or otherwise, can become more prohibitive and restrictive than the categories themselves deserve.

Stone problematises the term narrative by considering it not merely one but a broad group of approaches to historical discourse. In this he suggests that narrative is indeed inescapable since it contains elements of other discourse. However multimedia is also this kind of conglomeration of historical discourse and methodology that Stone would consider is narrative, provided of course that form of multimedia can present argument. Yet there are clearly problems in determining it as simply a narrative vehicle. Hobsbawm points the way to this (as in so much else) when in answer to Stone he states that these techniques are ‘attempts to solve problems of presentation’. One of these attempts, he concedes, may well include audio-visual media. Thus even if narrative is broadened to include definitions that are non-linear, it must then concede to exist in the paradigm of a more random and chaotic discourse, of many-possibilities.

Historical Atlas

To briefly explore some of the methodological and theoretical dimensions of the historical atlas (and historical geography in a western historical context) I have chosen the early debate around the assembly of 1988’s Bicentennial Historical Atlas Project. This became, on publication, Volume 9 of the series, Australians: A Bicentennial History. The formative stage of the debate is highlighted mainly in the journal, Australian Historical Geography and in a small part in the Bulletins for Australia 1888.

The Australian Historical Atlas explodes the rigid concept of an atlas as a tool for displaying geographic landscapes alone. It casts its methodological net over areas like the cultural, social and economic, which was very early in its development, the intention of its editors and authors. It was hoped the atlas would reveal ‘all facets of spatial organisation and the associated range of relationships between society and environment.’ One of the major forms of constructing a multimedia interface is the map. Because of the atlas’ sophisticated use of the idea of what a map is, as well as the articulation by its authors of some of the problems of the book’s construction, the development of the Australian Historical Atlas offers an opportunity for historians of multimedia that seems unparalleled.

One suggested methodological approach was the ‘slice’. This followed the ideas of E. W. Gilbert in 1932 that historical geographers reconstruct the past in cross sections of time. Any given point in time might be subject then to a detailed examination; rather than a sense of ‘continuous time’, such a methodology could be said to replace temporal or narrative frameworks with what would amount to a Geertzian ‘thick description’ of that historical moment. One clear problem with this method is that it makes difficult descriptions of process through time. The problem therefore is one of ‘reading process through pattern’ in which too great a sense of historical change needs to be inferred. Also processes which are alike need not necessarily produce alike patterns. Nor need these processes be an immediate result of the individual ‘sliced’ phenomena: time lags and alternating periods of either stasis or change make the selection of the slice a difficult one.

One way in which Webb proposes overcoming these problems is in displaying individual cross-section descriptions which co-exist with others to form a new kind of narrative structure. The tool with which he hopes to forge this new form is the map. He defines the map as being, despite its two-dimensional qualities, about ‘co-existence and correlation’. Another representational facet of the map he sees is through the superimposition of map over map, allowing for an essentially non-narrative causal display. Harley sees this as representing the map’s role as text with the atlas as a specifically narrative form. It should, however, be noted that this does not mean the map as representative tool is without problem nor should be used naively. Maps carry their own set of values, symbols and require the need for what Harley terms ‘carto-literacy’. However these criticisms do not refute the claim that maps are one device capable of clearly demonstrating the connectedness and relations between different kinds of individualised historical phenomena.

Multimedia depiction has strong ties to this method, even embellishing on it. The animation of maps in multimedia allows for more dynamic representation of spatial information through this and what is called non-immersive virtual reality (Virtual reality-styled simulations without need of gloves and headpiece). By positioning itself within the time-slice historiographical paradigm these specific uses of new media mapping become charged with meaning.

Cloher’s answering model is the ‘block’, which manipulates categories of space-time to depict both specific phenomena in history as well as its process. This follows the pattern of cross-sectional maps of different phenomena or individuals within a given structure of society. Cloher does not however solve some of the representative problems of the model which would seem to require a very dense imagery. It was noted for instance by the Australian Atlas team when it viewed the Historical Atlas of Canada project, that when too much surface information is crowded into a map it becomes confusing and ‘noisey’.

The finished Atlas itself solves this problem in a distinctive fusion between both time-slice and block models. It presents a complex and interconnected series of historical data displayed via the map, but always placed in a textual context. Further a processional flow of maps highlighting various phenomena like, for instance, the Great Depression, allows both the cross-sectional and the atlas-as-narrative approach to be displayed within the same volume. This allows both a thematic approach, but a temporal one, when the themes are highlighted using common years. This combination of methodologies and display forms is impressive when the limitations of print media are considered. The forging of these forms, and the articulation of their individual problematic, is inherently pertinent to any burgeoning discourse of multimedia representations. Thus this debate and its solutions provides a unique forum for considerations of the methodology of non-textual representation and its role as embedded in a larger context like book or atlas, that is fundamentally germane to multimedia and its own historiography.

One final thing should perhaps be made clear: that finding a definitive answer to the question of whether multimedia history is useful for writing academic historical works is impossible in the short term. It is in the ongoing practical use that historians will make of multimedia that will prove its ultimate fate. But the asking of pertinent and considered questions about the media and its place in historiography is still a valuable undertaking, never more so than now, when it is being considered by more and more historians as an alternative to text-based historical works. Identifying these questions and finding ways in which they can be framed is both an achievable undertaking and arguably a more important one than answering them too easily and too quickly, and with simple certitude. And all of these responses are preferable to the most problematic position, remaining unaware of the need to ask questions like these at all.