Film, Historiography, and Immersion

The field of media studies offers excellent concepts to grasp the nature of this provocation. Historians appear to react particularly forcefully to the film dis- positif’s ability to trigger an experience of immersion and presence on the part of the movie audience. Immersion is defined as a degree of emotional and psychological involvement in a given media product that prompts media consumers to screen out other stimuli emanating from their environment, especially familiar stimuli of normal intensity. The state of immersion can lead to a veritable paradox. Given the right circumstances, viewers may temporar?ily perceive film experience as extra-filmic reality. Put differently, the sights and sounds of the film apparatus help generate a media-induced experience of non-mediation (Bolter & Grusin, 1999; McMahon, 2003). The immersive conflation of representation and reality has historically occurred in all kinds of media settings (Wolf, Bernhart, & Mahler, 2013). Immersion has also been an important element of reading cultures. But for most of the twentieth century the multi-sensory media of film and television have been particularly successful at drawing audiences into their narrative worlds. As a result, media consumers have frequently developed a sense of co-presence with objects and figures that populate these worlds. The sense of companionship with the figures on the screen can arise during the viewing process, is easily recognized as an emotional illusion after the show, but may surreptitiously return in powerful ways long after the screening has ceased because film and television, unlike historiography, play a decisive role in the construction of collective memories. Contemporaries all across the globe develop their individual and collective sense of self through participation in media routines. They imagine events of their own lifetime as well more distant history with the help of aggregate collages of personal experiences and mediated images and narratives (Garde-Hansen, 2011; Neiger, Meyers, & Zandberg, 2011). It does not matter in this context that viewers might be perfectly able to distinguish between reality and representation—cer- tainly when they are prompted on the spot to make that differentiation, for instance in the movie theater or on their living room couch. With hindsight, however, the constantly shifting perceptions of the past integrate all kinds of story elements without keeping track of the origin and epistemological status of the theme, mood, and subject matter under realignment. As a result, collective memories comprise dynamic composites of real life actors and fictitious and non-fictitious media figures creatively imagined within highly flexible standards of truth and authenticity and crafted in response to changing emotional needs and strategic goals. Film and television are structurally unsuitable for the reproduction of academic history but they offer superb platforms for the invention of social memory (cf. also Crane, 2012).

Incidentally, historians are very familiar with the experience of immersion but in professional history writing that experience takes place on the side of production not reception. There are plenty of academic historians who feel intimately related to their subject matter having spent a lifetime exploring one topic, era, or person from various angles and through extensive archival studies. They feel more at home in the past than the present. But their feelings of immersion derive from years of professionalization and research which might explain why many academics are so critical of the instantaneous immersive qualities of film and television. Academic history and media history are two radically different and incompatible ways of mimetically approaching the past and acquiring a sense of history as second nature. In historiography, immersion is an important tool of the trade and a key element of the professional ethos. Immersion into the past via authentic documents and official archives allows researchers to develop an empathetic relationship to past actors and events and attempt to grasp what really happened from the vantage point of the past not the present (e.g. Davis, 1987; Farge, 2015). Yet, in the aftermath of the often mythologized rite of passage in the archives, historian spent a great deal of time and effort to cast their archival encounters with the past into objectifying prose that systematically reduces rather than enhances the readership’s opportunity for emotionally engaging with history. As intellectual processes, film history and academic history appear to unfold in opposite directions. In film and TV culture, a highly professionalized team of experts converts a basic story idea, often gleaned from academic writing, into a mimetically seductive and sensually and emotionally engaging simulation of the past fit for popular consumption. In contrast, historiographical culture transforms a highly subjective, often passionate, and lonesome encounter with remnants of the past into an intellectually overdetermined and emotionally underdetermined product adapted to the communication habits of a miniscule, highly specialized audience of peers. Film moves from intellectual reflection to immersion; academia from immersion to intellectual reflection. No wonder then that the two cultures have problems finding common ground despite their many points of contact (Schwarz, 2008; Treacey, 2016).

Teachers using film and television in the classroom are caught in the crossfire between academic and popular culture. Moreover and more important, if they are trying to teach students about professional historiography by way of exposure to historical film they commit a significant category mistake. It makes little sense to seek to explain the anti-immersive intellectual impetus of academic history by way of the hyper-immersive cultural codes of historical film. It is also not immediately obvious why a given group of students should be introduced to the highly idiosyncratic rituals and tastes of an academic culture with which they will likely never interact. But it makes a great deal of sense to reflect self-critically about the predilections and lacunae of past and present memory cultures by way of analyzing film and other visual narratives, especially if one confronts students with competing visions of the same topic or set of events. Film is particularly useful for memory education because the heyday of cinema culture has passed. For today’s students film is an outdated communication technology, both alienating and sufficiently intriguing to extract them temporarily from their social media environments and involve them in a dialogue about visual literacy, cultural immersion, and the ethics of their collective memories.

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