1619 Project–Further Reading

On Sunday August 18 the New York Times launched The 1619 Project, an initiative whose purpose, in the words of editor Jake Silverstein, is to “reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 [the date of the first arrival of slaves on the North American continent] as our birth year. Doing so requires us to put the consequences of slavery and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”

Although scholarship on slavery and its consequences has not been a singular focus of Representations, we have been publishing on the topic steadily over nearly four decades, and our archives reveal a surprisingly relevant cross section of critical readings on the subject. We highlight a few of them here in endorsement of The 1619 Project (all available free of charge through the end of September):

Neither Lost nor Found: Slavery and the Visual Archive
by Stephen Best

Love and Theft: The Racial Unconscious of Blackface Minstrelsy
Eric Lott

“Democracy and Burnt Cork”: The End of Blackface, the Beginning of Civil Rights
by Michael Rogin

The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black
by Henry Louis Gates Jr

Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects
by Huey Copeland

The Accursed Share: Genealogy, Temporality, and the Problem of Value in Black Reparations Discourse
by Robert Wesley

Fugitive Justice
by Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman

When Did the Confederate States of America Free the Slaves?
by Catherine Gallagher

Disarmed and Dangerous: The Strange Career of Bras-Coupéé
by Bryan Wagner

Legal Terrors
by Colin Dyan

Plus: the special issues New World Slavery and the Matter of the Visual, edited by Huey Copeland, Krista Thompson, and Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby and Redress, edited by Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman

 

Good Pain?

“No Pain, No Gain” and the History of Presence

by Shigehisa Kuriyama

The essay begins:

If you think about it, “No pain, no gain” is a very strange saying. It exhorts us actively to embrace what we ordinarily abhor and are desperate to avoid. Pain is arguably the barest, most primal experience of the bad; and yet “No pain, no gain!” enthusiastically lauds pain as a good to be actively pursued, promoting it even, as the sole source of the good. Which seems not only odd and paradoxical, but also almost willfully perverse—and makes us wonder how such a saying came to be so widely recited as common sense.

Bodybuilders in 1970s America were among its earliest champions. “No pain, no gain” became known as the motto of the celebrated muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger and appeared regularly in advertisements, as the catchphrase, for example, of Soloflex weight training machines. But the saying soon spread beyond devotees of muscle sculpting and was adopted by countless other Americans aspiring just to be healthy and fit. For vast legions of joggers and exercise enthusiasts, the “No pain, no gain” motto voiced a diffuse but earnest faith in the need for a certain strenuousness. Any exercise worthy of the name, any truly effective workout, had to hurt a bit. “Feel the burn!” Jane Fonda urged the sweating and panting followers of her popular aerobics videos. “No pain, no gain!”

There were critics, to be sure. Although “No pain, no gain” was championed as a mantra of fitness, it had scarcely caught hold when it was denounced, intriguingly, by precisely those experts who knew the body best. Physicians called it a foolish misconception, “macho nonsense.” “Physical pain,” one doctor wrote, “is the body’s way of saying that what you are doing goes beyond its limits.” It was a message, nature’s warning against harm, and by ignoring pain aspirants to fitness actually risked serious injury.

Athletic trainers, too, were critical. “Learn to listen to the body,” one counseled:

The “no pain no gain” philosophy is wrong and suited only to masochists. If any activity causes pain, reduce the intensity of the workout or stop the activity altogether, at least for a while.

To ignore pain is foolish, to embrace it is a perversion. The belief that gain demanded pain, that one could enhance the body only by making it hurt, declared a trainer in 1986, was “the most damaging myth in athletics and fitness.” Articles debunking the myth were common, and “No pain, no gain” was cited far more often in condemnation than in praise.

And yet, the belief persisted—and still persists, as witnessed by the criticisms, which also persist. This is what is strangest. Although doctors and athletic trainers regularly attacked “No pain, no gain” as dangerous folly, their need to keep repeating their attacks bespoke the appeal and resilience of the idea. “No pain, no gain” is one of those primordial certainties that mere science cannot easily shake. The arguments against overexertion—the need to heed pain as a warning and the wisdom of moderation—all sound sensible and are backed by expert opinion. But they somehow fail to reach the roots of conviction. Somehow, the tie between pain and gain just feels true, despite the ostensible oddity of seeking the good in the bad, despite the risk of lasting bodily harm.

I want to excavate the archaeology of this deeply felt truth. Once a saying gains common currency, we often cease to reflect on how or why it became common, or even what it really means. Yet if ever there was a notion that called for serious reflection, it is surely the idea of good pain. Few of us would claim that all pain is good, and most of us would probably agree that most pain is bad. But the popularity of “No pain, no gain” suggests that there is a special kind of pain that is widely considered a definite and necessary good. I want to probe the nature of this exception, and trace the history of how and why this pain became special. Continue reading …

“No pain, no gain” exhorts us actively to embrace what we ordinarily abhor and are desperate to avoid. It promotes the idea of good pain. In this essay, cultural historian Shigehisa Kuriyama excavates the historical and metaphysical roots of the idea of good pain and situates the modern slogan in the context of a profound change in the experience of presence.

SHIGEHISA KURIYAMA is Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History at Harvard University. His book The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (1999) received the 2001 William H. Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine. His recent work includes studies on the history of distraction, the happiness of happenings, the transformation of money into a palpable humor, hiddenness in traditional Chinese medicine, and the web of connections binding ginseng, opium, tea, silver, and MSG.

The Embodied Habitus

Pain and Memory in the Formation of Early Modern Habitus

by Mitchell Merback

The essay begins:

No amount of contextualizing or revision, it seems, will ever free the European Middle Ages from its reputation as an era overcome by social and religious violence, riven by conflicts and cruelties, accustomed to the sight of death, poor in hygiene and other forms of self-care, and possessed of a devotional culture deliriously intimate with pain. Long central to the idea of the premodern as Other, this dreamlike historical image was once dubbed by Umberto Eco the “shaggy” Middle Ages. Its leitmotifs are the presumed plenitudes of violence and pain as well as contemporary attitudes toward them. Inhabitants of this medium aevum, the “shaggy” narrative tells us, did not labor under the neurotic need to eliminate bodily pain but accepted it as a fact of life and, indeed, celebrated it as useful on the path to salvation. Physicians and confessors alike understood pain in this way—as essentially therapeutic—so medieval culture in general, we hear, was not pain-averse but quite the opposite, “philopassianic,” to use a recent scholarly coinage.

As far as medieval-modern comparisons go, this one concerning attitudes toward pain is probably as good as any other; but to take it any further requires making two fundamental distinctions, both of which will be important to the theme of this paper, which is the interdependence of memory training and pain in the formation of an early modern habitus. The first of these is the distinction between pain thresholds and pain tolerances. Pain thresholds are best regarded as neurobiological facts of the species, part of a “hardwiring” that changes little over time (early in the twentieth century, for instance, Charles Sherrington defined pain experiences in terms of nociception, as the “psychical adjunct of a protective reflex”). Pain tolerances are something far closer to cultural products, variable and largely determined by group values and narratives, cultural practices, and the whole ecology of social life. We can be fairly certain that the majority of medieval people, living under conditions that produced an array of ailments and physical discomforts, developed pain tolerances higher than ours in the modern era. Accounting for this difference requires that we attend to the complex conceptualization of pain as both a primary “sensation”—if not the paradigmatic form of individual sensation—and a “hybrid emotion,” that is, an emotion that merges otherwise distinct affective states and modalities of response. And that, in turn, requires us to think in terms of the symbolic significance of human suffering wherein it holds to a positive purpose or end, as well as the degree to which it then stands open to whatever agencies of consolation, therapy, and cure a culture can make available to its members at a given time. Viewed in this biocultural light, medieval Christians appear to have approached pain as any other stratified cultural group would do: they attended to it, worked to alleviate its excesses, and furnished certain members with codes for conceptualizing and communicating what would otherwise be a wholly subjective, internal experience. Such codes and norms translated into more or less conventionalized “scripts” for pain behavior. Through such cultural conventions medieval culture succeeded, at least notionally, in stabilizing pain’s significance—taming and harnessing its uniquely “world-destroying” powers—thus rendering it productive for individuals and groups.

Trying to understand pain tolerances as a symptom of culture already gets us entangled in a second distinction: that between pain experiences and pain expressions. Here we enter upon a field of investigation in which the historian of art feels right at home, since questions surrounding the representation of pain in the visual arts have always been part and parcel of imitative art’s charge to represent psychic states and moral virtues—or their opposites—through coded bodily movements, gestures, and physiognomic signs. But questions of pathetic naturalism only get us so far in explaining why, for example, the famous clenched brow of the Trojan priest Laocoön in the eponymous figure group in Rome, as a physiognomic token of pain, communicated to its beholders a “pain-experience” so different from the one conveyed by its counterpart in the Master of Flémalle’s image of a Crucified Thief. We could rehearse the clichéd contrast between heroic death in pagan tragedy and sacrificial suffering in Christian theology to see that distinct narratives of human suffering and conflict are what drive the transferences between pain experiences, pain representations, and pain perceptions. Would we find that it is the very possibility of narrative that makes pain culturally intelligible in the first place? What’s clear is that the full implications of a culture’s narrative-ideological meanings for pain expression in the visual arts would be lost if we failed to attend to the situated functions of images, the peculiar agency they are granted to enlist the beholder’s effort in realizing their effects and completing their meanings in historically specific situations of use. Something of the logic of that agency can be recovered and measured by the forms of response demanded and structured by the image. We may begin, then, with one kind of image that, in portraying the very response it demands, tells us something about the peculiar way spectacular pain expressions registered in late medieval culture. Continue reading …

Describing the essay, the author writes: “Between the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, pain and memory became interdependent in three domains of social and religious life: religious devotion, education, and criminal justice. The grounds for this affiliation were prepared by a training of individuals in the control of affect and the acceptance of memory training as a regimen of virtual self-wounding, often facilitated by violent imagery. Across the three domains examined here, Christian subjectivity was quietly reformed and an embodied habitus inculcated to meet the demands of an age no longer anchored in unquestioned truths.”

MITCHELL MERBACK is the Arnell and Everett Land Professor in the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I” (Zone Books, 2017). Current projects include a reevaluation of the European tradition of the identification portrait and a study of tragic recognition as theme and metatheme in Christian art before 1500.

Legacies of Pain

A Finger in the Wound: On Pain, Scars, and Suffering

by Nancy Scheper-Hughes

from the section “The Embodiment of Pain”:

Margaret Lock’s and my 1987 essay, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology,” emerged out of our profound dissatisfaction with the limitations of our discipline and field of inquiry. What good, after all, was a medical anthropology that was simply a convenient application of anthropological ideas and methods to clinical models of illness, pain, suffering, and healing? We wanted our field to be transformative, both theoretically and in terms of praxis. So we began to sketch a framework suggesting what medical anthropology could do beyond an empathic handholding of doctors and patients. We questioned the body as a cultural, historical, medicalized, naturalized, and universal object. We introduced the notion of embodiment, or how people, individually and collectively, live in and experience the body-self. We devised a tripartite framework of the “three bodies”: the individual body/the body self; the social body; and the political body or the body politic. The three bodies represent, then, three different but overlapping levels of analysis and theory: the existential/phenomenological/ontological individual body; the social structural/symbolic (the social body); and the feminist/neo-Marxist, Foucauldian body as a site of power/knowledge (the political body).

The individual body is a given, biopsychological, existential reality. It refers to the processes of becoming and being a person, an embodied self. In this instance, the body is seen as unique, singular, individual, and personally experienced. At the same time, this “individual” body—conceived as the center of the perceiving, experiencing, thinking world—is always mediated through collective cultural meanings. The self-evident yet contradictory proposition is that humans both have and are bodies. Our bodies are simultaneously objects of and subject to our “selves.” We could say that we are at one and the same time insiders and outsiders to ourselves. The message of the American wellness movement at the time we were writing was rather crude: “It’s your body. Take care of it.” The concept of the body as property means that you own it and you have the responsibility to take care of it. But on a deeper level, the body is proof of one’s existence. It is through the body and its sensory and perceptual circuits that we are able to experience and differentiate among other objects and things in the world. The body, wrote Marcel Mauss, is the “first and most natural tool” of humans. But here’s the rub: how can one simultaneously be it and own it?

In his classic work The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued that although humans are not unique in being embodied, they might be the only species that is en-selved, endowed with self-consciousness, self-awareness, and self-reflection. While primates and other animals grieve the death of their loved ones, only humans are painfully conscious of the limits of their being-in-the-world. Ludwig Binswanger, drawing on Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, writes of “thrownness”: the idea that individual bodies are “thrown” into a particular world, place, history, and existence without their choosing. Our genetic inheritance, generation, environment, and society; our family, race, culture, and history are thrown at us, as the raw materials out of which to create a life.

On the one hand, then, our bodies are the “tools” with which we perceive, think, and act in and on the world; on the other, bodies can seem to betray us, to defeat us. In extreme situations, our bodies can even seem to be obstacles to our freedom. Bodies can frustrate our basic needs and deepest desires. The suffering of transgender people is just one example of a body betrayed. One might, like Albie Sachs, an anti-apartheid hero, lose a limb in a political attack on one’s life. Albie’s suffering during a long recovery eventually shaped him into a more open and compassionate human and an even better ANC (African National Congress) warrior. Albie was proud of his missing limb and refused to wear a prosthesis. He would wave his empty sleeve as if it were his flag of liberty, which I thought it was. Or, like Diane DeVries, one could be born without any limbs at all and refuse the sometimes very painful attempts to navigate on the remaining stumps. The pain was worth her self-perception as a unique beauty, an American Venus de Milo. Continue reading …

Pain is a deeply subjective experience that includes sensory, emotional, social, historical, and cultural components. The presence of suffering in the idiom of pain exposes the gap between individual bodies that refuse to suffer quietly and the violence of indifferent social, economic, and political orders. In this essay Nancy Scheper-Hughes describes the existential suffering of Brazilian sugarcane cutters who transform the unbearable shame of hunger into a more acceptable bodily syndrome of nervous rage. Who, after all, wants to suffer and die like a dog? Her second example of the precariousness of pain is the muted suffering and longing of impoverished kidney sellers in Moldova who suffer a missing kidney that they experience as an angry and ghostly organ that will not allow the sellers to forget what they have done to themselves.

NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES is Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology and Professor of the Graduate School at UC Berkeley. She is the author of many books, including Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Ireland (1979, 2001), and Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (1993). As founding director of Organs Watch, she is a consultant on human trafficking of organs for the EU, Interpol, the UN Office on Human Trafficking, and the Vatican. Her forthcoming books are The Ghosts of Colonia Montes de Oca: A Hidden Subtext of Argentina’s Dirty War and Kidney Hunter: Trafficking with the Organs Traffickers.

Torture and Truth

Is There Truth in Pain?

by Darius Rejali

The essay begins:

The general problem is one familiar to many scholars whose careful work founders on public resistance. The particular form that interests me concerns scholarly work on torture. Many scholars feel there is truth to be discovered in pain, and therefore torture reveals or extracts truths, at least sometimes. I’m interested in reflecting on this disposition.

Scholarly work in this area seems to break repeatedly on the rocks of what Aristotle calls endoxa, items of thought that might be based on empirical observations, perceptual evidence, or things that we might not call observations at all—such as propositions that strike people as true or commonly said or believed. For Aristotle, these include common dispositions like “the many are wiser than the few” or “the fewer are wiser than the many” or, as he discusses in the Rhetoric, the belief that “torture works.”

Some scholars also argue sincerely that torture “works,” and they make arguments in service of their political or moral views. These scholars don’t concern me here. They share in a community of reason, where their arguments and evidence can be evaluated. What interests me instead is how many people simply don’t care about these pro-torture arguments. They don’t cite the pro-torture scholars, nor do they pay them much attention. They already know that torture works to produce truth. They believe pain yields truth, and thus torture works. Maybe not always, but torture works sometimes, they say. Even people who oppose torture sometimes privately confess: I would have confessed the truth under torture even if you say it won’t work. Secretly, they feel that pain and discovering the truth are related.

I find this curious. So in 2008 I began to itemize the cultural elements that subtly, in their own way, support the belief that there is truth in pain. In this paper, I’m going to talk about four endoxa. For three of them, I can’t claim any originality; they are well known—all I do is link them to torture specifically. I will not endeavor to offer their genealogies—though I will gesture to their necessary components. The fourth, the story of Zahra and the saints, arises from my own research in the psychiatric files of torture victims.

In what follows, I speak of torture. For my purposes, I don’t think it matters whether we are talking about torture for confessions or information, or as a means of deterrence—in fact, the endoxa I identify cloud the distinction and merge them by various means. Likewise, I would argue that one reason the definition of torture is hazy and contested is because these endoxa blur the edges between what we do publicly and privately, between what is true of us and true of others, between torture and other ordinary activities. Continue reading …

In this essay Darius Rejali explores four ways in which we believe truth can be found in painful experiences, even among those people who doubt that torture “works.” These endoxa, or commonplace beliefs, tap into deep human anxieties—about manhood, the maintenance of a just world, the meaning of suffering, and the possibility of transcending injustice. As such, they make it difficult for people to hear arguments against torture, including coerced interrogation. The essay suggests alternative ways of engaging these beliefs while acknowledging the challenge of dislodging them.

DARIUS REJALI is Professor of Political Science at Reed College and the author of the award-winning book Torture and Democracy (2007). Interviewed widely, Rejali is an internationally recognized expert on government torture and interrogation, and he has submitted testimony for Guantanamo- and Abu Ghraib-related cases.

New Special Issue: THE SOCIAL LIFE OF PAIN

NOW AVAILABLE!

Number 146, Spring 2019

Special Issue: The Social Life of Pain
Edited by Rachel Ablow

“The essays collected here counter [the] fantasy of pain as a knowable sensation that lies within that is then represented, or misrepresented, in language. Instead, they consider pain as always already enmeshed in social life, and representation as the means through which we can engage this imbrication. In so doing, they demonstrate the importance of bringing together two approaches to the problem of pain that have often been kept distinct. The first is the anthropological insight that pain behavior constitutes a mode of social engagement and, hence, that suffering is necessarily bound up with shifting, often unpredictable, cultural, familial, and interpersonal dynamics. The second involves a historical and literary-critical account of representation’s complex and productive relations to both experience and culture.” –from the editor’s introduction

RACHEL ABLOW
The Social Life of Pain

DARIUS REJALI
Is There Truth in Pain?

NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES
A Finger in the Wound: On Pain, Scars, and Suffering

MITCHELL MERBACK
Pain and Memory in the Formation of Early Modern Habitus

SHIGEHISA KURIYAMA
‘‘No Pain, No Gain’’ and the History of Presence

RACHEL ABLOW
An Interview with ELAINE SCARRY

Hollywood’s Bible

The Accent of Truth: The Hollywood Research Bible and the Republic of Images

by Aaron Rich

The essay begins:

Pollice Verso by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Despite decades of being considered quite conventional, the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme has recently enjoyed a renewal of interest. The 2010 exhibition The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, in its catalog and in an accompanying collection of essays, argued that Gérôme was in fact a pioneer of modern painting. The exhibition and its publications make the case that Gérôme’s work is in fact protocinematic—in its engagement with subjects of large-scale spectacle, its circulation in secondary formats such as prints and photographs, and its use of strategies of duration and anticipation. While several authors discussed a few of his Roman paintings, such as Hail, Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You (1859), The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1862–83), and Pollice Verso (1872), missing from their discussions was the fact that Hollywood studios actually used copies of these paintings in their background research for productions of films set in ancient Rome. An examination of the materials used as visual guidance for the 1951 production by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) of the Roman melodrama Quo Vadis, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, makes it clear that Gérôme’s paintings of the Circus Maximus, along with many other images of the ancient city by academic artists including Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Thomas Couture, and hundreds of popular illustrations and photographs of ancient sites, were used by Hollywood studios to understand and recreate the look and material culture of antiquity in a way the audience would recognize and enjoy.

Still from Quo Vadis

By the mid-1920s, nearly every Hollywood studio had already established a research library where extensive collections of visual materials, including illustrated books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as photographs, postcards, cartes de visite, stereo-view slides, maps, building blueprints, technical manuals, prints of paintings, and drawings were housed and managed. Their staff compiled these images into what they called “research bibles,” scrapbooks of thematically organized images. To obtain images that might help suggest a design for a prop or set, researchers scoured their own libraries; those of other studios; outside picture collections in the public libraries of Los Angeles, New York, London, and Paris; the Huntington Library; the libraries of the major universities of Los Angeles; the picture and photo collections of many state historical libraries; and the collections of other film services, such as Western Costume Company, the film industry’s largest costume maker. Research bibles helped film workers in managerial and craft departments—including producers, directors, writers, art directors, costume designers, hair and makeup designers, set decorators, and prop builders—visualize all sorts of mundane details, whether they were bowls, tables, and lamps or more exotic items like chariots, military uniforms, and fountains, to create believable cinematic environments. These multivolume collections could be reproduced, allowing every department to use the same visual sources simultaneously. The art department would see images of costumes, and the props department would see images of hair and makeup; all of a film’s creative crew had access to the same visual field. As a typical example, the Quo Vadis research bible contained five volumes, each focusing on a different element of the production: locations, costumes, sets, props, and sculpture from the ancient world.

Hollywood studio films made through the 1960s were part of a much larger “republic of images.” The depictions of the world, its people, and its material culture found in films circulated within a larger system of modern visual media that included illustrated books, the pictorial press, and other image-based materials. Much like the Republic of Letters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, within which ideas and essays circulated among a class of learned people throughout Europe and North America, this twentieth-century visual network allowed for the wide dissemination of knowledge about the ancient and modern world throughout a broad, decentralized area. When producing movies, filmmakers were inspired by images gathered from a diverse set of illustrated sources that were recognizable to viewers precisely because such pictures were already circulating throughout many popular forms of media.

Scholarship regarding the research undertaken for Hollywood films has for the most part focused on issues of historical accuracy. In so doing, historians have often assumed that the films in question were simply renarrating written historical discourse, emphasizing the attention filmmakers showed to how these narratives were previously presented in literature, rather than considering how Hollywood cinema has recirculated a body of visual knowledge of the world of the past. Such scholarship has largely overlooked the fact that film research was largely picture-centered, using methods related to earlier visual practices from the centuries before the advent of cinema, and that Hollywood research departments were less concerned with accuracy than with gathering a large quantity of visual media about a time and place. It did not matter, for example, that statuary in antiquity was frequently polychromatic, richly decorated in bright colors; by the twentieth century, the film audience familiar with printed and projected depictions of ancient Rome would have assumed that the white marble sculpture most often depicted was historically accurate.

Stephen Bann has explained how inauthentic historical narratives and objects were popular with scholars and audiences alike from 1750 through the late nineteenth century. “The critical preoccupation with authenticity and the transgressive wish to simulate authenticity are, in a certain sense, two sides of the same coin,” he explained. But in Hollywood, all materials relating to a film’s subject, time period, characters, and material culture were considered when creating a film; authenticity was merely a marketing flourish. Standard practice in the industry involved visual research that considered a tremendous range of illustrated media from popular and scholarly sources, which together contributed to what Bann has called “historical poetics.” Such a practice combined historical details with entertainment and spectacle, often with a tinge of irony, to interest, amuse, and educate the audience. This heterogeneous mix of source materials also structured history museums, dioramas, panoramas, historical literature, and historical painting in the nineteenth century, and it is the most common way modern people have experienced history for the past three centuries. In this way, the question of whether or not a film presents an authentic historical narrative misses the point; Hollywood filmmakers were much more interested in presenting familiar images that the audience would recognize from many earlier and well-circulated depictions of the past, regardless of their historical validity.

In the case of Quo Vadis, the film narrative contains true historical events, such as Nero’s setting fire to Rome in 64 CE or the spectacle of the crucifixions of early Christians. But the film also refers to thousands of images and elements from visual depictions of the city created, for the most part, not from the first century but from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Anne Friedberg, referring to the late twentieth-century point of view, explains that history is “inexorably bound with images of a constructed past: a confusing blur of ‘simulated’ and ‘real.’” Through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century depictions of ancient Rome that were widely circulated in prints and illustrated journals, the modern understanding of the city changed to fit those images, and in turn, twentieth-century films were designed to echo those earlier images, using them as inspiration for their recreations of the ancient capital.

Likewise, nineteenth-century academic painters looked to earlier depictions of the past, including earlier narrative paintings and antiquarian images, to find visual inspiration for invented details. Gérôme, for example, gathered a tremendous volume of visual materials and pioneered the use of photographs to help him to recreate the material culture of the distant lands that were frequently his subject. He claimed that his Roman painting Pollice Verso was a depiction of gladiators in the Circus Maximus superior to his earlier Hail, Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You because he had done more research on the armor and appearance of gladiators for the later picture. He explained that the accumulation of so many details helped to create an “accent of truth” that the audience would understand. Continue reading …

In this essay Aaron Rich shows describes the process by which Hollywood studio film productions through the 1960s used research to develop depictions of the past that would show audiences representations they would recognize and believe. He situates this research as part of a much larger and more complex republic of images through which pictures of the world, its people, and its material culture circulated within a system of modern media, including illustrated books, the pictorial press, and other image-based materials of which movies were a part. Rich then makes the case that Hollywood cinema should be reconsidered an essential part of the twentieth-century perception of history, regardless of the accuracy of its depictions.

AARON RICH is a PhD candidate in the division of Cinema and Media Studies in the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. His dissertation, “The Hollywood Research Library: Visual Knowledge in the Republic of Images,” focuses on studio research departments that gathered images from popular media to guide craft departments in recreating the world and investigates how these picture collections emerge from a Western tradition of understanding and appreciating the past and present visually.

Ur: Empire, Modernity, and the Visualization of Antiquity Between the Two World Wars

by Billie Melman

The essay begins:

No one could have grasped the relationship between the discovery of civilizations of the remote past, the visualization of their antiquity, and modernity better than Charles Leonard Woolley. One of the most eminent archaeologists of the first half of the twentieth century, Woolley was a doyen of Near-Eastern ancient history, a manipulator of newly developed media, and a celebrity, who noted that “an appeal to the eye is the best way of awakening interest in a new form of knowledge” (that is, archaeology). His observation about the accessibility to mass audiences of a past that had hitherto been largely known only through texts, that had barely existed as a materiality, and that had to be literally dug up to be envisioned, is to be found in his popular manual, Digging Up the Past, which was based on a series of six talks broadcast on the BBC and first published in 1930. By that time Woolley had already written Ur of the Chaldees, which aimed at a popular reading public; had begun publishing the multivolume Excavations at Ur, for professionals; had regularly contributed to the British and North American press; and had toured Britain. As numerous British and American reviewers of the booklet remarked, it proved that archaeology “concerned everyone. Its subject is modern man.”

By 1930 Woolley had acquired a public presence and his imperial persona was that of both a discoverer of the material cultures of ancient Mesopotamia and representative of the British Museum working in a territory that was now, after the First World War, part of a new Middle-Eastern imperial order. His observation highlights a web that connected modern empires, the visions of the past that had evolved in them, the forms and technologies of the visual, and the era historians have come to designate “late modernity.” Of course visual representations and spectacles of antiquity and their consumption evolved before late modernity and the beginning of the twentieth century. As far back as antiquity itself, the Greeks and Romans were displaying ancient Egyptian monuments, which again became popular during the Renaissance, and throughout the eighteenth and long nineteenth centuries Egyptomania has had multiple incarnations. In Britain, North America, and France a craze for the Assyrian Empire followed the discovery of its material civilizations in the 1840s and 1850s. As Gábor Klaniczay and Michael Werner have observed, “multiple antiquities”—that is, numerous and sometimes contradictory images and representations of the ancient past—have evolved in “multiple modernities” in order to mobilize the ancient world for national and imperial ends.

Between the outbreak of the First World War and the end of the Second, antiquity was reconceived and redefined in substantive and temporal terms; it was experienced and represented in new ways by international organizations, colonial administrators, archaeologists, and travelers. New forms, repertoires, and technologies of visualizing the distant past developed in tandem with new meanings of “the ancient” and particularly of “antiquities,” which at the time acquired unified legal definitions that were articulated in an international complex of agreements, institutions, and practices. The access of experts and varied publics to the remote past embodied in such antiquities was regulated by new colonial administrative apparatuses and mechanisms that monitored the study of ancient history; the circulation of knowledge about it; and the exposure, preservation, and display of its physical remains. Moreover, during this period, representation and display of the ancient past, how it was experienced—not least the manner and conditions under which it was actually seen—were dramatically affected by globalized technologies of transport and communication. These ranged from a commercially realigned press to new technologies of transport and documentation that combined speed and surveying capabilities, such as mechanized desert travel and aviation, particularly aerial photography.

This complex of definitions, representations, and displays of the remote past and the technologies implemented to discover it developed in a new world order, an order formulated in the peace treaties and agreements following the First World War whose crux was a new imperial regime based upon the mandates system. This system, based on hierarchical civilizational notions and the idea of rule as guardianship under international oversight, evolved in the territories that passed from the empires that had lost the war to its victors, mainly Britain (and its settler territories) and France. Within the mandate empires it was the Near-Eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire, now Class A mandates, ruled by the two victors under the League of Nations’ oversight, that became the crucible of what League of Nations’ internationalists described as “the new regime of antiquities.”

As historians of visual imperial cultures have noted, the study of empires and colonialism is still largely separate from studies of their visualization and display. To be sure, a number of art and cultural historians have repeatedly noted the imperial aspects of visual cultures, notably of British and French cultures but also of German and Ottoman. But these historians have focused mainly on the long nineteenth century. Moreover, studies of the orientalist recovery of an ancient Near-Eastern past have been somewhat narrowly compartmentalized, usually emphasizing just one aspect, such as literature, painting, cartography, museums, colonial expositions, or the theater. Such studies have been somewhat cut off from research on fields of inquiry that emerged and expanded during the long nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth and produced knowledge about antiquity itself—from Assyriology and Egyptology to physical anthropology, paleontology, and geology, all of which offered historical narratives and analyses that were based on the practice of excavation. But most important, the study of new forms of looking at the remote past, despite its increasing attention to colonialism, has been largely shaped by a certain “methodological nationalism,” placing imperial visual culture within national frameworks. The nation or national state, whether it was the imperial state controlling colonial territories or the fledgling anticolonial national movements that emerged in India, Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere, served historians of nationalism and archaeology, as well as art, not only as a thematic and geographical unit but also as an analytical tool to explain continuities and change in attitudes to the past.

My focus on the mandates era and the new interwar imperial order proposes an “entangled” visual history. Empires, and particularly modern empires, were characterized by the movement of people, goods, ideas and knowledge—and, we should add, by the circulation of objects, images, and repertoires of recounting and viewing the past. I propose to look at the interwar complex of the modern culture of antiquity from the metropolitan perspective, that of international institutions and organizations regulating excavation and exposure of antiquities to users and consumers throughout the British Empire and, finally, from the ground and even underground level—that is, from beneath the surface of excavation sites, the excavators’ point of view. Continue reading …

In this article historian Billie Melman explores the multiple visual presences of antiquity in the first half of the twentieth century and connects visual histories to the history of empires. She shows how archaeology mediated between the newly discovered material civilizations of the ancient Mesopotamian empires and experiences of modernity in the British Empire. Focusing on the spectacular archaeological discoveries at Ur, Tell Al-Muqayyar, in Southern Iraq, Melman demonstrates how the materiality of antiquity enabled its visualization in a variety of forms, from illustrations through photography and three-dimensional museum reconstructions.  

BILLIE MELMAN is Professor of Modern History at Tel Aviv University. She has written extensively on colonialism and culture, orientalism, and cross-cultural relations in the age of modern empires. She is completing a book on modernity, the rediscovery of antiquity, and imperial crisis during the first half of the twentieth century.

Géricault and French Restoration Historiography

The Medium Is the Messagerie

by Allan Doyle

The essay begins:

A lithographic vignette by Théodore Géricault depicting William the Conqueror lying in state was displayed at the Paris Salon of 1824, the first such exhibition to devote a section to lithography. The impact of this morbid scene was undoubtedly heightened by the recent death of its maker who, like the Norman conqueror of England, had died following a riding accident. The print is an outlier within the oeuvre of the artist, who did not participate in the Romantic vogue for historical motifs. Baron Isidore Taylor commissioned the print for the second volume of his Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’ancienne France: Ancienne Normandie (1825). The artist also contributed to the same volume a second full-page print that depicted an interior view of Saint Nicolas, a deconsecrated Rouen church repurposed as a storage facility for a messagerie or carriage service.

Théodore Géricault, Église de Saint-Nicolas, 1824, Metropolitan Museum, New York

When viewed within the context of French cultural production during the Bourbon Restoration (1815–1830), Géricault’s prints for Taylor’s project reveal themselves to be commentaries on Restoration visual history as much as they are examples of it. Where his Saint Nicolas equates a carriage parked in a deconsecrated church with the manufacture and dissemination of picturesque lithographs of historical motifs, his William the Conqueror figures the national past as an uncannily preserved royal corpse, seemingly frozen in a state of nondecay. On the one hand, the artist provides an allegory of image production in which lithography is presented as an essentially mobile medium capable of transporting the viewer back in time and across geographic space; and, on the other hand, he gives an example of the Romantic and picturesque mode of visual history brought to a state of arrest, suspended between an unrecoverable past and a future placed in perpetual deferral. Continue reading …

In this essay Allan Doyle analyzes the contributions of Théodore Géricault to the second volume of Baron Isidore Taylor, Charles Nodier, and Alphonse de Cailleux’s Voyages pittoresques: Normandie (1820; 1825) within the context of French Restoration historiography. He argues that Géricault’s prints are allegorical commentaries on the production of visual history during this period as much as they are examples of it.

ALLAN DOYLE is an art historian whose research focuses on the representation of history in nineteenth-century French art and visual culture. He is currently finishing a book on the afterlife of Michelangelo Buonarroti in French Romantic painting.