Visual Media: A Historian’s Black Sheep

Today I am going to share something very dear for me with you all. As you may know we are starting this month with our Cultural Studies theme. This means that I am allowed to be overenthusiastic about my research- HISTORY AND THE VISUAL MEDIA!

Lately I have been developing work and research on how we as a society represent the past- my case study is the Vikings, and particularly Old Norse Women- in our visual culture. By this I mean any image, in any way, shape or form, although my preferred sources are comic books and TV series. Why is this? Well, apart from the fact that I am a big fan of these media, I find fascinating how much information these sources provide about our own society as well as the one that is being evoked in them.

Since the beginning of time, people have communicated through images. Most cultures and civilizations developed icons and symbols before text. We perceive the world with our eyes: visions are real and 3D, while the alphabet is manmade. As historians we have text specialists and linguist decoding and interpreting our sources, yet we seem to have neglected these images, leaving it to other academics to discuss their importance. Already a decade ago both Jordanova and Burke stated how ill prepared we are as a researching community to deal with images. Art historians bury themselves in mastering the knowledge of the great artists, finding the underlying lay-motifs that glue together their careers and reflect their personal experiences, fears and dreams. They investigate the techniques and how they evolve. Some others do try to decode the images by the means of semiotics, but not very often all this information is regarded in the terms of the wider picture. More importantly, these considerations only seem apparent to what is usually classified as fine art, leaving a whole range of sources totally abandoned in the realms of oblivion without a story to tell. There is no surprise then to find out that the historiographical record regarding this area of study is nearly non-existent. Researchers have to find a way around it by pick and mixing methodologies and sources from different fields like if it was a candy bag in an old-fashioned sweet shop.

Then there is another big problem with visual resources, particularly comic books and films, which is the social stigma they have adhere to them. The harm done by the 50s publication Seduction of the Innocent by Wertham is still an issue in modern-day society. Culturally and socially speaking those that explore and engage with comic books are classified as nerds, socially inept, and for those that happen to be in college, “not cool”, outsiders, alternatives, etc… All these words make the subject a minefield, and the fans are nothing more than collateral damage. This does not apply so much to television series and films, but only because they are usually regarded as mass media and therefore acceptable and available to everyone. Yet, depending on the genre, the concepts I have just proposed about comics and their audience could easily apply- If it’s not mainstream, you’re doomed. Unfortunately, scholars and academics seem to have become victims of this double standard too. Most intellectuals outside the field of media and communication do not seem to see the need to legitimise this approach to culture. During my investigation, my main struggle was to produce a coherent bibliography and historiographical debate. It was simply not there. Perhaps the worst part is when academics engage with these kinds of media for the sake of accuracy. Why is the fact that the sandals from Gladiator are not exactly the same material and length than the real ones from Roman times so important? Does that affect the concept or our capability to understand that Roman fashion was different from ours, yet it has left a legacy behind?

These images are representations, not exact recreations! We cannot produce exactly the same things and elements in the past, because we are not there. We have a vantage viewpoint, which skews our own vision and makes it bias. Of course, we can try to be accurate for the sake of memory, and a better approach to the historical record, but it will never be 100% perfect. But, nor were the medieval images on the glass windows perfect neither, nor accurate. If that was the case every other woman from Christian Europe would have looked like the Virgin Mary, have a rather apathetic expression and more expensive clothes than they could probably afford. These images were codes, they represented ideas, and these were demonstrated through conventions. We cannot take them for granted, and thus nor we should take our visual productions for granted neither, but rather understand what they are trying to convey. Evoke. That is the key concept.

Of course, the zips of the dresses shown in the White Queen harm the attempt to recall the historical period represented. And for sure these representations need careful attention and consideration from all academics involved in the production. But there is a sound difference between zips, watches and cars appearing in any representation of the past (especially ancient or medieval), in comparison with the slightly off red colour of a cloak, the shine of the armour, and the horses used in a cavalry charge. The first totally distort and create a terrible sense of anachronism that is not justified and that only creates major confusion for the audience. The second, are details that in the bigger picture still transmit a coherent idea of the concept that is being represented. It would be ideal and great if these mistakes could be avoided, granted. But then again, most of these products are not created with the intention of educating. Perhaps if they were used for the transmission of knowledge in a more serious manner, these details would be scrutinised and handled in a better way. At the end of the day, it is our own abandonment of the subject as mediators of knowledge that is damaging it. It seems rather hypocritical to criticize and then not implement that criticism to evolve the field and make it of use.

According to Cubitt, representations are: ‘Cultural productions through which specific understanding of a collective past have been articulated at particular historical moments, and with exploring policies of these representational activities’. (Cubbit, 2007). This implies that representations are not static, they change with time and interpretation. This should be a call for historians to reach out to this field, to undertake different approaches, to connect with other areas of study and widen our horizons. The future of history brings changes and requires new areas of study for the future generations. The visual media is leaving already an immense record of sources that most history undergraduates would never consider to integrate in their research, apart from their portfolio header images and dissertation covers. Moreover, the everyday citizen could engage with a subject otherwise sometimes considered dull and boring if we were capable to put history in the right shape for them. Public history and its consumption is inevitable, either from a Marxist or a capitalist point of view: it is a product, people do reach out for knowledge. We might as well make it right, rather than moan about what was done wrong.

The blending of both disciplines can aid the understanding of cultural subjects, bringing differing yet equally valid perspectives. It is our duty as academics to make these connections possible and improve our fields for the sake of knowledge and prosperity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s