History and the Art of Storytelling


Photo From Wikimedia Commons

By Michael Portlock

A [Paul] Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940).[1]

We love stories.

We like all kinds of stories: Movies, TV, books, comics, news articles, obituaries. We like stories made by others, and we like to make up our own stories.

We tell stories about love and war. We tell stories about what our relatives are doing and what our neighbors might be up to. We tell stories about how we had, like, four tequila slammers and played Kings back at Dave’s pad, which is why we only remembered the “No Pets” rule after we picked up that sweet little stray raccoon. (We miss you, Hamburglar.)

We like the truth and we love to be lied to, and the latter’s why we love history so much.

And we really do love history. We know that history is incredibly important. We know that “history is all around us.” We love to learn about history and why it happened.

But history didn’t happen. History is happening.

All stories are finite. Stories have shape and structure, beginnings and endings. Stories have heroes and villains, thrills and chills, laughs and romance. We laugh at the jokes, we gasp at the plot twists, and we cry when the dog dies. (“It’s really nothing. I’m just allergic to harrowing sadness.”) And when it ends we brush the popcorn crumbs off our shirts and go home. Why wouldn’t we? Show’s over.

We often assume history is one big story with a few notable characters, with the rest of us just extras wandering absently in the background. We think our own stories are entirely separate from the one big story, because the one big story is done: It’s history.

But history’s never done. We realize intellectually that history is happening right now, but we think it’s being made somewhere else by someone else. We think horse-riding geezers with hippo-tooth dentures and stupid hats wrote the one big story a long time ago, and what’s going on now is an epilogue. The last word’s been had. (Until the reboot, anyway.)

One really great thing about stories is that once they’re over, you can forget them. You can return a book to the library. You can close your Netflix tab. You can stop skimming the police blotter looking for people you went to high school with. (“Yeah, Brad would get a DUI.”) And then you can say “I liked that” or “I didn’t like that” or “Dumb bastard got what he deserved,” because you know how you feel about it, because it’s over.

History isn’t one big story.

It’s more like one big pile.

History is billions of stories colliding and accumulating into one big pile. We live in the pile, and everything we do is covered in history. History sticks, so we get used to it. We often don’t notice when some obvious bull history gets stored in our minds as a misconception. When history happens, we think it’s some hot, fresh, new history, when it’s just the same old history all over again.

It’s one big pile of history, and everything we make comes from it: Movies, TV, books, and whatever else we said up top.

We think we grow up as time goes on, but we really don’t. We too often think we’re above history when we’re suffocating under it. And we don’t realize that when we foolishly pretend like history doesn’t bother us, doesn’t empower us, and doesn’t affect everything we do, our history stinks.

When we talk about history, we make up stories about protagonists who overcome obstacles at specific times. Hannibal crossed the Alps (on elephants!) to establish a base against the Roman Army, 218 BCE. Washington beat the Hessians at Trenton the day after Christmas, 1776, presumably with a hangover. The Americans beat the Soviets for the gold medal in ice hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, proving beyond a doubt that Americans will always care about hockey. (“Hockey’s fine, but it’s just so boring compared to the overwhelming excitement of baseball.”)

It goes the other way, too: History runs downhill. Every story is contaminated with at least a small dab of history. Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious and heavy-handed, like Avatar’s general allegory about the Columbian Exchange, the Iraq War, and basically everything the U.S. military did between 1880 and the First World War. Sometimes it’s much more subtle, like The Big Lebowski’s dark and brilliant dumb show about Neo-conservatism and the first Bush presidency. (“This aggression will not stand, man.”) Sometimes it’s entirely unintentional but still worth thinking about for a bit, like the idea that Star Wars is a loosely-bound comment on post-fascist imperialism and Cold War politics. Even those dreaded prequels (yeah, the ones that soiled your immaculate childhood which was defined primarily by pop culture) have some insight about third-world politics. Go ahead and shit on the incredibly important dialogue for which the Star Wars franchise was once widely-acclaimed, but considering all the time and effort people spend screencapping frames from lightsaber fights in Final Cut Pro, you’d be surprised how few people overanalyze the implicit political themes and motifs.

And that’s what we’re here to do.

If there’s anything we can be serious about, it’s how ubiquitous history is around us, and how we are responsible for it. We make history every day of our lives. Every choice we make, no matter how practically insignificant, is determined by an incomprehensibly complex system of economic, political, and cultural forces which propel us through time and collectively drop one massive, steaming pile of history all over us.

We can pick just about anything around us and mine it for history. Take sitcoms: Seinfeld laments and celebrates perceived banality in everyday American life as the characters magnify trite inconveniences to emotional and intellectual extremes. When George takes the audience on a rollercoaster of personal economics and flexible ethics when he doesn’t get credit for altruistically buying Elaine a salad, we can perfectly follow his misguided, misanthropic logic. (Well, it was “the big salad.”)[2]. Friends betrays our cultural expectations of youthful self-sufficiency which emerged as a prominent trend in American culture as young (white) G.I.s returned from the Second World War into a thriving economy that afforded them prominent economic voice and ample luxury along with it. (Yeah, you can totally afford West Village digs on a waitress’s pay scale, after all.) The Big Bang Theory is based on our society’s collective assumptions about gender roles and norms in a STEM-based service economy, as well as our collective assumptions about what differentiates a sitcom script from a half-assed Mad-Lib. (Apparently, not much.)

In this ongoing (and somewhat loosely-defined) series, we will bring you critical analyses and historical context to those pieces of modern life we far too often write off as insignificant or trivial. We crave history more than anything, and we’ll rip our most beloved cultural artifacts to shreds in search of it: We’ll look at how Lord of the Rings serves a metaphor for the European Theater of the Second World War, how Serial reflects our obsession with transparency in criminal justice and media authenticity, and how McDonald’s is, for better or for worse, a paragon of global agribusiness. (Not to mention an advertising powerhouse: Come on, would you name a raccoon “Burger King?” I mean, really. We bet it would never even cross your mind. It certainly never crossed ours.)

We’ll be picking apart movies, TV, books, comics, news articles, and obituaries. (Actually, maybe not that last one so much.) We’ll be looking at fine art, cuisine, transportation, architecture, infrastructure, racism, sexism, cultural exchange, imperialism, colonialism, famine, disease, partisan politics, consumer goods, holidays, everyday social interactions, and all the awkward silences between them. We’ll be examining everything, then everything that’s between everything, all to learn even a bit of history.

The only thing we hold sacred here is historicity. We don’t care what it is — we believe it can teach us something. We don’t care what we put our critical eye to, so long as we can learn something about from where it came. We don’t care if we overanalyze something beyond all recognition, so long as we can learn something about ourselves in the process. We don’t care how far back in time or how far around the world that analysis takes us, so long as we can look back and have a more complete understanding of just where we stand in the one big pile.

We love history, so we want to find it wherever we go. We like the truth — and we love to be lied to, so we look for knowledge and information in everything we’re presented with, and we mean everything. We want to bring some light to the billions of individual stories that make up that one big story which we’re so anxious to tell ourselves. We want to augment our view of the world with what small bits of history we can find in our everyday lives. Why?

Because we love stories.

[1] English translation from the German by Harry Zohn, 1968. Taken from Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (2007) by Walter Benjamin (ed. Harrah Arendt).

[2] One of many instances of economic teaching points in Seinfeld, as aggregated and explained on the wonderful www.yadayadayadaecon.com. (For the specific relevant entry, you can follow this link: http://yadayadayadaecon.com/clip/98/).


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