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The Pleasures and Profits of a Postmodern Film Historiography

Janet Staiger is Professor at the Department of Radio-Television-Film, University of Texas, Austin

No longer can history writers believe themselves to be on the scene of the Real, writing Truth. Instead of regretting this, the article celebrates the freedom of the new situation. More issues than before are allowed historical treatment, and history can be written in numerous ways. But because histories create and have effect, the performers of history-writing are obliged to perform it ethically, and the article includes proposals on how this can be done.

If we, as philosophers describing the postmodern conditions claim, are denied access to the real, how can historical research actually be executed? Historical studies are traditionally seen to build on traces of the past. Being empirical studies, they combine different sources to form a discourse that tells 'how it really was'. How can postmodern history be written?

The winner of the 1995 Academy Awards for Best Picture in the United States was the sentimental film, Forrest Gump. A tale about a just-below-åverage American boy, the movie is the fictional biography of Gump, who is now perhaps best known in US popular culture for the witticism passed down from his mother: 'life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you will get.'

Gump-the-film is also known for its playful appropriation of history. Modern special effects technologies permit the hero to appear with several famous American celebrities, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Yet, unlike the case with Oliver Stone's recent film about the assassination of JFK, the film Forrest Gump received no resounding rebukes by The New York Times or other major media powers for its distortion of the real. Instead, its populism was widely celebrated.

As scholars interested in the interpretation and reception of history and of movies, we might want to ask why that was. Three reasons exist, I think, to account for this. For one thing, this device of placing fictional cinematic heroes within a real historical mise-en-scene is now rather old. Woody Allen did it in Zelig; Orson Welles did it in Citizen Kane (when Kane stands on a balcony with Mussolini). Although D. W. Griffith used actors rather than playing with documentary footage as did Allen and Welles, in The Birth of a Nation Griffith places his protagonists in the Ford Theater to witness the shooting of President Abraham Lincoln.

In fact, in prose fiction the device is even older than that. Think of all the historical romances set against the events of the day. Perhaps it is inherent in the device, but in each of these cases, the goal of the device is to suggest the impact of a political history on the individual. This is something of a 'great men's history' meets the popular. The fact that this history is real and the individual is fiction is probably very important in permitting this device to function without rebuke.

Another reason why no controversy developed over Gump is that it is a movie of conservative ideology. I shall not try to defend that assessment here, since my points are elsewhere. I shall simply make the observation that a film in which the everyday man is rewarded with a miracle boy-child while his fantasy hippie-woman dies to an unnamed AIDS-like disease would have a tough time claiming to me that it supported progressive gender and political views.

The third reason for no controversy is for me, however, the most salient. The film does not breach the boundary between the fictional and the real. Clearly created for mass entertainment and profit maximization, Gump creates no threat to an established order of American history. We know that the movie is only playing games. It is not really claiming to be arguing a proposition that Gump actually was the person who noticed the burglars in the Watergate hotel, creating President Richard Nixon's eventual resignation in disgrace. Rather, the film's address is to fantasy, to our desire, perhaps, to imagine ourselves in the scene of the great white (now dead) men's presence.

It is, I would argue, just the same address to fantasy that we used to have when we wrote history before postmodern theory. And that is more to the point of my contribution to our thinking here. I have entitled my essay, 'The Pleasures and Profits of a Postmodern Film Historiography. ' I have done so not because I think we need to be reminded that we are now writing in a postmodern paradigm, but because at times I believe we do so with anxiety, fear, and dread. I would like to return to history-writing the pleasures that once existed when we believed that we were on the scene of the Real, in the presence of Great White Men, writing Truth. Or rather, I desire to create new pleasures appropriate to postmodern theory. To make this contribution, I need to define what I mean by postmodern historiography and then to describe how we might take pleasures and profits from its authentic performance in the writing of film and media history.


In Linda Hutcheon's The Politics of Postmodernism (1989), she argues that the postmodern theories of Hal Foster, Fredric Jameson, and Jean-François Lyotard sketch out a history divided by a triparte rhetorical address: Realism assumes the transparency of representation; modernism argues the reflectivity and autonomy of art; but postmodernism denaturalizes both, criticizing any attempt to provide a mastery or totalization of representation as either transparent mirror of the real or aesthetic act isolated from history.

To explicate the differences between realism, modernism, and postmodernism, Hutcheon goes on to apply the description of postmodernism to postmodern fiction. She writes that postmodern fiction

…foregrounds and thus contests the conventionality and unacknowledged ideology of that assumption of seamlessness (in realist narrative) and asks its readers to question the processes by which we represent our selves and our world to our selves and to become aware of the means by which we make sense of and construct order out of experience in our particular culture. We cannot avoid representation. We can try to avoid fixing our notion of it and assuming it to be transhistorical and transcultural (Hutcheon 1989:53-54).

If such a definition and ethics applies to postmodern fictional strategies, the moves of the past twenty-five years toward recognizing that histories are representations produced from situated perspectives with symbiotic rhetorical strategies are evidence of a similar denaturalization of writing history. Witness the consequences of Hayden White's application of Northrop Frye's quartet of genres (the romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire) to the narrative construction of histories, with each genre emphasizing rhetorical tropes of metaphor, synchedoche, metonymy, and irony (White 1978:51-80). Witness the moves in anthropology and ethnography to factor into thick descriptions meanings of events not as the outsider perceives them but as the participants do. Witness the current discussion that even rhetoric as the discipline studying communicating looks different whether rhetoric is metaphorically considered as argument, epistemology, communicative action, conversation, or therapy.1

Recognizing that knowledge once assumed separated from the observer is now understood as attached knowledge does not, however, mean that a postmodern knowledge is irrational, only that it is non-rational, that now postmodern knowledge is also constructive. Recognizing that histories are rhetorical does not justify accusing postmodern historiography of implying no boundaries exist between the fictional and the real, but rather emphasizes that communicating history is not a transparent, objective act (as a realist historiography might assume) and communicating history is not an autonomous fiction (as a modernist historiography might assume) but communicating history is effective. It makes a difference. Recognizing that histories are written subjectively does not mean they are to be written irresponsibly. Just the contrary: ethics are even more significant when guarantees of Truth are gone.

Here I would borrow from Jerome Bruner's discussion of narratives as cultural tool kits. Bruner argues that narratives (and I would broaden this to include all organizational strategies for communicating) are one of the means by which we build cultures. Moreover, as Bruner notes, accrual of narratives and organizational strategies is essential to create commonality. These representations are how we create our social history, our selves, our identities. They are our sense of belonging to the past. They are how we construct solidarity. Bruner writes, narratives are 'a major prophylactic against alienation.' (Bruner 1991: 1-20). So we might add 'prophylactic' to our list of metaphors for understanding the rhetoric of communicating.

But any of these metaphors imply effect. Representations are effective, as argument, epistemology, communicative action, conversation, therapy, or prophylactic. And that to me is the major point to consider for a postmodern historiography. I would then ask: What pleasurable and profitable effects can result from the recognition that writing history is neither a transparent nor an autonomous art but a constructive act?


I use the word performance (de Certeau 1975) to acknowledge to you and to myself that writing history is taking up the role of a producer of a cultural tool kit, within a space and time (performances start at 7:30pm, they end when the three acts are done), and that the role I take up is an identity, not equal to my self as a contradictory and conflicted subject.

This is a useful metaphor, especially since I am arguing here that in writing film history I wish to produce a scene, a pleasurable fantasy that will benefit my self and others. The fantasy that I wish to create is one of empowerment for myself, but not empowerment over others. Rather the scene is an empowerment of my self within an equitable, communicating social organization. Such an empowerment implies freedoms, and I shall list four that I seek. It also requires responsibility to other people.

Yet one other term must be introduced, and that is the notion of authenticity. I shall also speak about ethics. My performance must be authentic to be empowering to me. To assume the role of another is a fictional performance. Finding my voices, my identities to enact is what I mean by an authentic performance of a postmodern historiography.


The first two freedoms are escapes; the second two are approaches toward.

1 The Freedom from Truth

The first freedom a postmodern historiography permits is freedom from Truth (Truth with the capital T). A postmodern historiography does not pretend to provide a universal transcendental version of the past, but a situated perspective onto that past. To write against writing Truth is not to argue that no Real exists. It is not to advocate violating socially agreed upon protocols of writing history. It is not to advocate falsification of material or deletion of counter-evidence to the view one has of the subject matter.

To have freedom from Truth is to recognize that authentically performing the writing of postmodern history is to enact an advocacy, to enter into a social dialogue, and to speak not as God but as one subjective person. It means accepting that a Real exists, but becoming humble before it. Moreover, writing postmodern history also means accepting that social groups that one participates within have arranged judgments about that Real into representations called facts. But, finally, writing postmodern history means accepting that Truths, clear and unequivocal statements about the relations among those facts, may not exist universally and eternally.

2 The Freedom from Anxiety

The freedom from Truth should thus engender freedom from Anxiety. I might provide a psychoanalytical explication of the sources of Anxiety, but here I wish only to work toward pointing out that a postmodern historiography should free us from the demands of the superego requesting the production of a total, forever version of the past. Giving up immortality is important; recognizing and accepting loss and death are necessary. We may for a while mourn the loss of Truth, the Law, Mastery, Immortality, Universality. Perhaps, because so many of those terms are connected to a patriarchal culture, I am more willing than others to let them go. But in giving them up, we might find a valuable alternative, the common humanity and frailty of every other person. Acknowledging limitations of our Selves, and finding in others the parts missing or different from our views, seems a necessary, a valuable action at this moment in our global community. It seems to me a momentuous ethical necessity.

3 The Freedom to write the history of the everyday

A postmodern historiography has made every event of the past worthy of writing about. No longer do I need only to refine the authorship of Ingmar Bergman. Now I can see the pleasure in discovering how Norwegian melodramas of the 1920s enacted a cultural tension between classes and notions of the nation. No longer do I need to see the power of a studio producer in making a film project reflect his vision. Now I can appreciate the influence of municipal cinema systems as one fact in creating what is or is not seen on the movie screen. Or how American and Norwegian stars are presented to fans in movie magazines. We've written the history of the generals; now we can write the history of the peoples.2

4 The Freedom to write (or not to write) narratives

The great historian Jay Leyda once told me that he thought that history was about revenge. Since the major two works that he composed were about Russian/Soviet cinema and Chinese cinema, perhaps those histories were best told as revenge plots. In re-examining my early work on the U.S. film industry, I think I wrote histories of inevitabilities. Given capitalism, such and such was nearly fated, etc.

Such histories may be true from the perspective of capitalism but are too pessimistic and self-defeating. Lately, I have been trying to write about optimistic possibilities. Where hope might exist and change might be encountered. That is, I think, more true to my Self, and more constructive to my world at this moment.

I write more and more in narrative, although my narratives, like Aesop's fables, are embedded within a proposition that progressive change is possible. The fantasies mobilized and dealt with through narrative, and the potential to build communities of individuals through accruals of those narratives, are empowering possibilities for the selves that have been denied narrative pleasures in realist or modernist histories. Rather than reject the writing of narrative as a consequence of recognizing its construction, postmodern historiography performs narrative to effects valuable to individuals previously denied roles in earlier histories. Indeed, perhaps the reason for Forrest Gump's popular success is that many of us were on the scene or made the scene of the U.S. in the 1960s, and it is now our turn to have our histories on the screen. To perform a historiography that narrativizes the places of all the selves in this world might be contradictory, but constructive to each of us and to all of us.


I cannot argue that many examples of a postmodern historiography exist within film and media studies, but some do. One example of what I am calling postmodern film historiography is a recent essay by Andy Medhurst (1991): That special thrill: Brief Encounter, homosexuality and authorship.' Medhurst presents the conflict between the recognition that locating authorship in a romantic notion of human agency has been rightly criticized and the hope that finding homosexual authorship, a 'gay authorship,' was good for the politics of a gay culture (: 198). Medhurst's specific historical case is the critical reception of the film Brief Encounter. Whereas critics originally allocated the authorship of the film to the screenwriter Noel Coward, when Coward's theatrical work is attacked in the mid-1950s from a strong antihomosexual position, critical discussion of the film shifts to making the director David Lean the (heterosexual) 'auteur'.

What Medhurst states mid-way through the essay is an advocacy thesis about his writing of this history: 'a biographical approach has more political justification if the project being undertaken is one concerned with the cultural history of a marginalized group' (: 203). Medhurst goes on, arguing that 'knowing an author's homosexuality makes that decoding (of homologous structures of feeling) far easier'. (: 205) while also cautioning against creating an essentialist homosexual subject. He writes: 'There is a danger, though, that the kind of gay cultural archaeology described above (a sort of retrospective 'outing') can degenerate into the construction of an ahistorical 'gay sensibility" (: 205). Medhurst reasserts Gayatri Spivak's argument for a 'strategic essentialism, ' for a temporary assertion of identity by those who have not previously had one.

Medhurst's essay is postmodern historiography because he writes a history that does not claim a universal Truth nor does Medhurst assume his history is autonomous from its production from his personal subjectivity. He writes with grace, neither crucifying those who wrote the earlier histories of Brief Encounter nor vaunting his own version as impregnable or immortal. The purpose of this performance of history was for empowerment. As Medhurst expresses his desires, 'Authorship is identity in the textual sphere, and hence gay people, like all marginal groups, have, at present, a political stake in wanting to hold on to the Author despite her/his expulsion from prevailing postmodernist theories' (: 207).


In 1984, the University of Iowa hosted a conference entitled 'The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences'. Although already a well-established proposition the conference solidified the end of discourse as realist or modernist. Even rhetoricians gave this up. As Herbert Simons summarized the tone:

Against the objectivist ideal of the detached investigator who expresses timeless truths in discourse that is unambiguous, literal, shorn of stylistic devices of any kind, (participants)… presented a counter-image of the investigator as advocate, offering time-bound, context-bound, judgments in a language that is extra-factual, extra-logical, and adapted to audience and situation (Simons 1984:54).

Such an apparent relativism, however, has been the focus of debates within philosophy, especially in the work of Richard Rorty. Indeed, relativism is an issue, which is where, for me, ethics and responsibility enter. One useful metaphor for communication is not inquiry or epistemology, these imply Truth and eventually argumentation, but rather the metaphor of conversation. That metaphor has been supplied by Michael Oakeshott in a 1962 essay, The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind'. Oakeshott observes the following about conversation:

As I understand it, the excellence of this conversation … springs from a tension between seriousness and playfulness. Each voice represents a serious engagement … and without this seriousness the conversation would lack impetus. But in its participation in the conversation each voice learns to be playful, learns to understand itself conversationally and to recognize itself as a voice among voices. As with children, who are great conversationalists, the playfulness is serious and the seriousness in the end is only play (Oakeshott 1962:201-202).

Oakeshott wrote this before the worst days of the rioting between blacks and whites in the United States, before Vietnam, before the current atrocities committed in the name of religious and ethnic identity. I cannot accept the final emphasis on play. Rather, I need to employ an ethics that refuses a simple relativism.

Several years ago, I wrote an essay, 'The Politics of Film Canons' (Staiger 1985). In a follow-up dialogue with Gerald Mast and Dudley Andrew, I defended myself against the standard criticism that occurs when canons are criticized and propositions are made for opening the canon to alternative views, that I was following a party line of being politically correct. I also wrote, however, against a pluralism. I said then, and still believe:

The reason for rejecting pluralism develops out of my underlying assumption that a utopia would be a society in which no member had power or wished to have power over another. … The difficulty with a pluralist stance as it is practiced is that it often takes a 'neutral' or a 'wait and see' attitude, an attitude that has its own political consequences. If all members of a society held this philosophy in both thought and action, I would have less trouble with it. However, as we know, they do not. Rather some individuals wish to impose their beliefs on others and are willing to use violence to achieve this power. The pluralist, consequently, must tolerate, for example, fascism because those individuals who hold such a belief have a right to hold it. Or homophobics who harass gays and lesbians. Or pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics to stop what they consider to be murder (Staiger 1985 B: 61).

I would say the same thing to those who claim that the past or that facts about the past that have been agreed upon by social consensus and through protocols of historical research, such as the fact of the Holocaust, do not exist. Such a representation of the past has consequences and is an irresponsible representation at this time because it does not aid in the development of equality, community, and solidarity. It is a construction created for power for some, not empowerment to all.

I believe in rules for a postmodern historiography, rules developed from my assumptions about moral human relations. One valuable statement of such rules is the list presented by Donald McCloskey:

Don't lie; pay attention; don't sneer; cooperate; don't shout; let other people talk; be open-minded; explain yourself when asked; don't resort to violence or conspiracy in aid of your ideas (in Simons 1984: 55).

These rules about manners for a communicative dialogue seem to begin to supply what Rorty points out will be needed for an 'edifying philosophy'. An 'edifying philosophy' is one that keeps the conversation going, that avoids closing or 'freezing something into an universal' which would, for Rorty, 'dehumanize' humans. (Rorty 1979:377). That is because Rorty believes as Gadamer does that 'redescribing ourselves is the most important thing we can do' (Rorty 1979: 358- 359). Note redescribing. Rorty argues this because he envisions the function of representation to be, much as does Bruner, the way to solidarity. For Rorty, Gadamer's 'consciousness of the past which changes us' characterizes

… an attitude interested not so much in what is out there in the world, or in what happened in history, as in what we can get out of nature and history for our own uses. In this attitude, getting the facts right … is merely propaedeutic to finding a new and more interesting way of expressing ourselves, and thus of coping with the world (ibid).

Another rule for this conversation, for me at this time, is to breach the artificial barrier between the academic and the public at large. World politics, and the place of media in creating that world and its politics, are too fragile at this time to any longer justify abstention from other conversations. The job of the intellectual in the public sphere is to effect public memory, to connect and create context for public policy. For film and media scholars, a particular opportunity awaits the postmodern historian.

I know this may sound dangerous. But I emphasize that postmodern historiography does not deny the past or assume no facts exist. As Hutcheon writes, 'the past is not something to be escaped, avoided, or controlled … The past is something with which we must come to terms and such a confrontation involves an acknowledgement of limitation as well as power' (Hutcheon 1989:58). Those limitations are also empowerments, not powers, if they become the freedoms I have mentioned above, the freedom from Truth and Anxiety, the freedom to write about everyone and in narratives as well as other organizational strategies. Those freedoms do require social responsibility in performance and personal authenticity in voice.

Postmodern historiography denaturalizes the transparency and autonomy of writing histories. Histories create, and have effect. Thus, when we perform history-writing, we have an obligation, at least I think so, to perform it ethically. That ethics means respecting the voices of others in the conversation, not to lie or sneer or resort to violence, but to perform historiography authentically. To do this, I hope, will make postmodern history-writing both pleasurable and profitable to all those who engage in this conversation.

The author wishes especially to thank Bjørn Sørenssen for his wise advice about an earlier draft of this essay and in general for his pleasure in film and television studies, and thanks as well the stimulating questioners of the public presentation of the paper at the 1995 meeting of the Norwegian Association for Media Researchers


Bruner, Jerome (1991) 'The Narrative Construction of Reality' in Critical Inquiry18, no. 1:1-20.

Certeau, Michel de (1975) The Writing of History.

Hutcheon, Linda (1989) The Politics of Postmodernism.New York:Routledge

Medhurst, Andy (1991) 'That special thrill: Brief Encounter, homosexuality and authorship' in Screen 32, no. 2:197-208.

Oakeshott, Michael (1962) 'The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind' in Rationalism in Politics and other Essays.New York:Basic Books.

Rorty, Richard (1979) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press

Simons, Herbert W. (1985) 'Chronicle and Critique of a Conference', in Quarterly Journal of Speech 71,no. 1:52-64.

Staiger, Janet (1985 A) 'The Politics of Film Canons' in Cinema Journal 24,no. 3.

Staiger, Janet (1985 B) 'Response' in Cinema Journal 25,no. 1.

White, Hayden (1978) Tropics of Discourse.Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

1See Herbert W. Simons (1985): On the metaphors, for communicative action, see Jürgen Habermas; conversation, see Michael Oakeshott (1962) and therapy, see David Payne, Copying with Failure: The Therapeutic Uses of Rhetoric.
2Certainly the Annales school and the social histories of the past few decades have shown us the way here. What postmodern historiography contributes is, again, a move away from asserting an objective recital of obvious Truths.

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