English and Film Studies

ENGL 578 A1: Revisions of the Past: Visual Evidence, the Archive, and the Representation of History

J. Baron

In this graduate seminar, we will examine the various ways in which existing archival materials have been drawn upon to represent historical events, whether in the form of written accounts, still photographs, film and video footage, or other evidentiary documents. For example, films often draw on archival materials in order to bolster their claims to authority and authenticity, promoting the idea that such materials offer us direct access to historical truth. In the past several decades, however, theorists of history have called into question the notion that historians can represent an objective, “correct” history and have suggested that every representation of history is structured according to particular logics that actively shape how we understand past events. While some films reinforce the idea that history can be accurately represented through a linear narrative, others undermine this certainty. In this course, focusing specifically on the (re)use of archival materials in such films, we will be asking: What is history? What constitutes historical evidence, particularly visual evidence? What is “the archive” and what are archival materials? Who controls the preservation of audiovisual traces of the past and who decides how a given history is narrated? The answers to these questions are shifting as digital media is produced, uploaded, downloaded and re-purposed by users across the globe. Through watching and analyzing numerous films, we will engage the question of how films have represented the past using archival traces and have helped shape what we understand and accept as history. In an era when the cry of “fake news” seeks to discredit anything that does not fit the speaker’s ideological viewpoint, what is at stake in this examination is the very possibility of knowing and encountering the past through the archival materials that have been left behind.