History, History, History / Thinking in Public

In my book Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission I used the symbol P <– P –> F to demarcate how our the invocation of the ‘past’, ‘present’ or ‘future’ spatially encloses the unruly everywhere of historicity. P <– P –> F is shorthand for how the past can only be accessed backwards, while the future is reached through a projective movement forward that transcends the reality of ‘the present.’ Within the framework of the P <– P –> F the present is really a nowhere place/time, sandwiched between the known and the unknown, between the sense of embarrassment or even shame of what has happened before, and a unrealistic hope that things will be better in a time to come. As a triad, it offers very little historical orientation. I also used the P <– P –> F in my book so that I didn’t have to allude to these categories in any way, whatsoever. I literally didn’t want to clutter my text with their loaded baggage, and I wanted other concepts and possibilities to emerge.

I haven’t thought much about the P <– P –> F since the book came out last October. Yet I was reminded of the P <– P –> F Friday night, while watching Deborah Pearson’s brilliant History, History, History at the Cube in Bristol. Pearson’s performance was a tender and intelligent engagement with her family history and personal identity, told through the histories of a 1956 Hungarian Football comedy. History, History History sweeps up all the postmodern tropes about the existence of multiple historical truths, and the blurring of fact and fiction in historical narrative, but plays them back without a shred of irony or relativism.

Pearson offered me these familiar ideas (it is possible she did not offer them to everyone in the room, I guess it depends on what books they have read) through a filter of historical excess which transformed their interpretive and performative clarity, and (re)opened up a relationship with history that I, for one, deeply desire. It was why I was sat there, of course, hankering after history, history, history, but I don’t think such feelings were the result of my projection, solely. Pearson’s performance suggested that History is something we all own, and from its relentless remains—history, history, history—we are fashioned. The threads are infinite, yet (fundamentally) elusive. There is always more than we can understand; that is both the beauty and the peril of trying to grasp it.

History, History, History should really be written

History

History

History

because of the intricate way Pearson layers different, interrelated histories in the work. The Hungarian film industry, the emergent revolution, the architecture of Budapest and the story of how Pearson’s grandfather, grandmother and mother became refugees and sought sanctuary in Halifax, Canada, are slowly revealed during the course of the performance. A constant of History, History, History is the 1956 film that is played back on a small screen that faces the audience. At key moments the film is projected onto the larger, cinema screen, an action that draws attention to the rhythmic cutting of film editing and the (illusory) synthesis of historical events.

History, History, History is a performance ‘about’ different kinds of translation. Subtitles are therefore an important device, and Pearson uses them to gently unsettle the viewer, encouraging them to question the authority or ‘truth’ of what they are seeing, evoking the idea of the translator-as-traitor, employed by Trinh T. Minh-Ha in Surname Viet Given Name Nam. Pearson’s subtitles were both a tender re-appropriation of the film’s moving images for the purposes of alternative story—and history—telling, and a means to project an irreverent and childlike dissatisfaction with the barriers of the Hungarian language. At other times in the performance the failure of translation was hyperbolic: Pearson’s mother’s hurried, nervous and improvised translations of the film dialogue reduced entertaining phrases to short statements and minimal description, over-emphasising how translation can be elliptical, yet still, through absences, transmit meaning.

These layers of translations were framed by the epic failure of historical translation itself, especially when smothered by the conceptual enclosure of P <– P –> F: the excesses of history and historical lives, and the many twists and turns of historical events that cannot be subsumed into the coherent frame. Such excess, Pearson emphasised, stands in stark contrast to the film that is sealed, self-referential, with a beginning, middle and end, a P <– P –> F. Buried in Pearson’s performance was also an appeal to the weird repetitious presences that haunt the 21st century’s historical imaginary. Audio visual technologies are prominent in the performance, and they enable Pearson and her grandfather to share a stage: one frozen in time, but still moving in the time-image, the other an unmistakable presence before the audience, yet both are alive within the context—and for the duration of—the performance.

Oral testimonies are another important facet of History, History, History. We hear Pearson’s Grandmother discuss her memories of Hungarian revolution. Pearson asks insistently whether these significant events, that would change the course of Hungarian history, but also the lives of her family, were planned or spontaneous, and what it felt like to witness them. In memories of Pearson’s Grandmother, at least, the revolution was an unanticipated and spontaneous event. This observation was the moment in the performance I began to think about the P <– P –> F. It made me remember that in this historical context, i.e., in 2016, there is a need to construct alternative categories that can interpret the condition of historical possibility, or what we might call historicity, after postmodern relativism, after irony and within a hyper-connected, digitised world.

History, History, History resonated so strongly with me because it spoke to my creative and historically situated struggles. I had been grappling, that very day, with writing the text panels for the forthcoming exhibition Emergenc(i)es, which is opening in a couple of weeks. It is hard to write exhibition text because you have to be very exact and clear. It is difficult, also, to translate theoretical ideas into ‘public’ contexts where they may be useful to people. A further challenge is to write an introductory panel for an exhibition which is essentially about the ‘history of now.’ How do we, in common parlance, talk about now as history? Especially a history which risks losing its history, or history, history, history.

By this I mean that our world today is losing its conditions of historical emergence, or risks losing the conditions of historical emergence. Largely this is due to the gradual infiltration of digital infrastructures and smart technologies within our intimate and public environments. These technologies are designed to organise the social—whether that be your social relationships, as in twitter, facebook, etc—or social services, such as traffic management, the rubbish, recycling—within a logics of anticipation, prediction and adaption. Now this may sound like a bit of a leap, but the smart city—a key issue in Bristol—is the environment, or what Yuk Hui calls digital milieu, from which our historicity emerges. The smart city is, and will become in far more exaggerated ways in ‘the future’, the condition of our historicity.

Perhaps you can ask yourself: would the Hungarian revolution have happened in a smart city, or would its condition of historical emergence be anticipated—and therefore controlled—by the governing, technological infrastructure? What Rob Kitchin calls the ‘deluge of continuous (real-time), varied, exhaustive, fine-grained and often indexical, relational, flexible and extensional data’ that will be collected in smart cities, when ‘taken to their logical conclusion form the perfect socio-technical assemblage for a totalitarian state—an all-seeing, all-tracking, all-reacting system that stifles dissent before it has chance to organize.’ History, of course, still ‘happens’ in totalitarian contexts, and revolutions are obviously exceptional events. Let us scale the example of the Hungarian revolution down to pretty much every action as it will potentially unfold in smart city of ‘the future’. The result, largely, is that the future lived environment, due its infrastructural design, loses its conditions of historicity—if we understand these to reside within conditions of emergence. This is what is historically unique to our historical context, and did not feature in other technological epochs, and must be taken very seriously. What is at stake is not ‘the future’, but the very emergence of other historical worlds and possibilities.

So, my modest proposal—and I think this is essentially what Emergenc(i)es is ‘about’—is that in order to access the conditions of historicity it is better to dispense P <– P –> F and mobilise the concepts ‘emergence’ and ‘inheritance’ instead. Emergence is useful because it explores the conditions of possibility from which events, what are always already historical, emerge, or don’t emerge. It doesn’t get wrapped up in a future vision—a digitised anticipation—which attempts to control the path of events accordingly, in a measured, and metric manner. Emergence remains firmly within historical conditions and demands that their historicities are grappled with. Yet emergence, as a historical quality, is also a process that is worth struggling for, unlike the future, which has been brutally consumed by the digital infrastructure of surveillance capitalism.

‘Inheritance’, on the other hand, points to the on-going effects of historical events, and how they shape our conditions of emergence. As I have argued elsewhere (following Stiegler), inheritance is a technical process of artificial selection. The varied fields of inheritances used to make sense of personal or family identities—as demonstrated clearly in Pearson’s performance—and wider community formations, are sites of struggle related to access (where and how historical knowledge circulates), meaning (loss of historical specificity or issues of translation) and interpretation (questions of power, influence, knowledge and distribution). I prefer the terms ‘emergence’ and ‘inheritance’ because they can refer more clearly to historicised processes, unlike the P <– P –> F, which appears flat in comparison. The P <– P –> fashions historical sensibility after the fact or in advance, and it doesn’t actually tell us much about history, its lived experiences that always exceed containment.

All these thoughts rolled under my conscious awareness as I watched Pearson present History, History, History, a performance that reflects, implicitly, on the emergence of historical possibility as a creative, personal and collective process. It demonstrates the necessity of historical relationships, or relationship with histories, as a way to orient within and engage with the world.

Perhaps most importantly, the show is really funny, sweet and entertaining too. Bravo!

 

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