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Tumblr, History, and the Memefication of the Past

May 28, 2013 by in Blog


The recent history meme, with its aestheticization of horrific historical events and the reduction of wars and massacres and natural disasters to a series of stylized images, flattened and filtered, is seriously unsettling this historian. I’m frequently disturbed by the fetishization of monarchy and imperialism on Tumblr’s constellation of nostalgic history blogs, their uncritical enshrinement of all of the splendor of being wealthy, white, and landed. I do reblog some of this stuff without critical engagement because I like pretty historical images, although I do try to find “normal” people (although almost inherently anyone in a historical photograph—who isn’t being objectified or reduced to an anthropological specimen for gawking—is likely in a position of power and privilege) and you will probably never see me reblog an image of royalty (although I may have in the past: my archives date back to 2009 and who knows what i was thinking then).

Being a historian on Tumblr is difficult—whether you’re generating original content or just reblogging— because you have to somehow strike a balance between assembling a curio cabinet of historical oddities and pretty things, documenting the historical events you think are important but maybe unsavory, and engaging critically with a brutal past, accessible only through documentation mostly produced by the oppressors.

I would worry people think I’m aesthicizing/forgiving imperialism if I posted images of overt, pith-helmeted imperialists and the populations they oppressed, even if I captioned it correctly (although captions are so easily stripped from posts), even if my intention was just to acknowledge that history or shove a bit of reality in the sepia, “sun never sets on the British Empire” splendor of the history tag. (I likely wouldn’t post something like this because of that risk, although I was tempted to on the UK’s bullshit ”Empire Day” on May 24.) As another example specific to my academic work, I’m fascinated by the portrayal of wounded veterans and prostitutes in Otto Dix’s Der Krieg and contemporaneous works, their figuring as critiques of capitalism and militarism and unapologetic displays of the disabled and impoverished body the Weimar rehabilitative programme tried to “fix” or efface. I’m interested in the assertion of “unfixable” mutilation to make a point about warfare and welfare and the gendered dynamics of these images (the passive, emasculated veteran; the diseased, voluptuous prostitute). These images are inherently misogynist and ableist: they portray of sex workers and the disabled as grotesque, as perverse. They’re useful as points of access to contemporary constructions of gender and the able body (more about the use of “problematic” sources later) but as something to reblog? Without context or critical engagement they just seem exploitative and gross. Being a historian means dealing with oppressive, brutal pasts and the texts and images left behind by those in power but Tumblr, where reblogs mean endorsements and themes slough off your commentary in favor of the images, you really can’t do that without appearing to aestheticize, trivialize, or even glorify those things. (I tell my friends I want a note to stick to the back of my laptop that says “I’m a historian, not an enthusiast!” for when I’m sitting in a London cafe with eight books on Fascism stacked at my desk. But I don’t think that distinction between critical historian and “fan” is achievable on Tumblr.)

There’s historic value in “problematic” sources, photographs taken by gawking anthropologists/imperialists (when those words always meant the same thing), in etchings of women and the disabled produced by able-bodied man, in Nazi propaganda, in court cases where people were unfairly accused and tried. It’s through these sources we access the opinions of those in power, the (il)logic and anxieties and dissonances behind their constructions of race, gender, the able body, empire, etc. It’s also through these sources, through resistance reading techniques pioneered by feminist and post-colonial scholars, we can access ‘impressions’ of the disadvantaged: absences in presences, slippages and inconsistencies in the dominant discourse, the rare cases where they’re able to speak into the record (perhaps in a trial)—and how what they said may have been mediated by circumstance and audience or transcribed with deliberate or accidental error.

Ultimately, these sources are very often all we have. “History is written by the victors” is trite and reductive. History is produced and foreclosed by the oppressors, by those who had libraries and bureaucracies, who operated the courts, ran the police, printed newspapers, determined whose thoughts were “worthy” of circulation and preservation, and who stash all theirs in organized, secure archives. They not only wrote the story, they wrote most of the documents we’ll have to base any revisionist stories off of. The good news is that they left a paper trail of their atrocities and justifying ideologies, texts (written or visual) that can be “read against the grain.”

But again, Tumblr doesn’t accommodation critical engagement with “problematic” things. You can’t deconstruct sources in an image post or seek the inscriptions of ideology or signs of negotiated agency in a historical text. Tumblr is for fandom and for shrines of beautiful things and for quick, scrolling judgments.

I’m arguing for the validity of “problematic” texts (including photos) in historical analysis, but contending that Tumblr, as it is now, can’t really accomodate them. It’s little wonder than that Tumblr history blogs don’t tackle the “tough stuff” at all and stick to the luxurious and the unqualified. There’s a racism and a classism underlying many Tumblr history shrines that’s undeniable. But if you wanted to be a conscious, inclusive history blogger, if you wanted to document the horrors of oppressive imperialist, capitalist system that undergirded all the aristocratic luxury, if you wanted to, say, show the brutality of the serf system—and later, rural poverty—that supported that Romanov splendor  for which Tumblr has such a nostalgic hard on (example chosen because for fuck’s sake, stop with the Romanovs, Tumblr!), you’d a.) likely be forced to rely on texts created and preserved by the oppressors, and then b.) be unable, within the space of Tumblr, to deconstruct them. I’ve seen people do this occasionally, but it’s always open for misinterpretation, or the stripping of their commentary.

I don’t know if we can change the difficulties of tackling history on Tumblr: it would probably require a recalibration of the way we think about “pretty blogs,” the way we conceive of Tumblr as a public cork board of what we “like” and arguments about what we “hate.” I don’t think historical analysis is limited to people who can use the fancy words and flaunt the methods. That’s elitist bullshit. But I think that Tumblr is as a platform, and particularly as an image stream and bully pulpit, would have difficulty accommodating engagement with historical sources, particularly images.

Obviously there are difficulties of being a literary critic or anthropologist or just engaging with those fields and others on platform like Tumblr but the past is so riddled with atrocity and prejudice, history is so politicized—and it’s so alluring when reduced to a stream of black and white photographs. And history has been the focus of this recent meme.

So back to the meme. Problematic sources are historically useful, for reasons outlined above, even if they maybe they can’t be shared with the proper deconstruction on Tumblr. But this graphic meme, calling for aestheticized images of wars, natural disasters, and “moments,” (loosely enough that in the first few pages I saw he Liberation of Auschwitz the Jonestown Massacre, and The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire) is not only bypassing any critical engagement with these events and images from them: it’s outright aestheticizing them. Excuse me? Pretty, filtered graphics, the type you’d use to document scenic beauty in a film, of Hurricane Katrina, the Bosnian War, the Holocaust?  I even saw one version documenting “four genocides” in graphic form.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with discussing these pasts. In fact, we have to discuss them, we have to circulate images of them around because we can’t erase or conveniently forget of horrific and oppressive pasts. But for primary source images and texts of these events, often produced by the oppressors, often produced in a way that’s exploitative or demeaning of the oppressed or the victims, we have to be very careful. We shouldn’t be making these things graphically beautiful, we shoudln’t be making them to show off how great we are with Photoshop, we shouldn’t be producing them as part of a meme that requires we reduce devastating wars and natural disasters—to a set of images. Stop memefying horrific pasts. Go ahead and push the boundaries of history on Tumblr. Show things that aren’t shown in nostalgic blogs, but do it with critical engagement you’re sure won’t be erased or ignored and don’t do it as part of a jazzed up graphic set or a meme.

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