The Media in History and History in the Media, 20th-21st March 2014 (Part 2)

by Alex Campsie

Alex Campsie is a PhD student in modern British political and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

The first half of the conference (read Part 1 here), stylishly opened by Professor David Reynolds and the able presenters of panel one, raised a number of important questions for further discussion. What are the media processes which enable cultural formation and the diffusion of information? Who can claim to control the means of cultural production? In what ways have instruments of the media been used and abused throughout history? And how our modes of communicating with each other changed across the centuries?

The second panel of speakers bravely attempted to synthesise these weighty themes, whilst taking on some of the theses put forward by the redoubtable Jurgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (a particular favourite of DHP éminence grise Bernhard Fulda, who loves tormenting his undergraduate students with its characteristically torturous Frankfurt School prose). [1] Florian Wagner (EUI Florence), Louisa Rechstetter (Jena), and Dean Vuletic (Vienna) rigorously and inventively assessed the changing role of the media within Western society since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution; a period which Habermas argued witnessed the ‘transformation’ of communication and the birth of a new literate ‘public sphere’.

As much as the examples at hand differed quite strikingly, from Louisa’s study of the role of satiric journalism in ‘the long 19th century’, Dean’s close reading of the meanings of the Eurovision song contest, and Florian’s discussion of media conspiracies under French colonial rule, all touched upon the enduring importance of the mediatised ‘spectacle’, and the spectacular, within history; a way of inculcating ‘bread and circuses’-style social control yes, but also, as the French philosopher Guy Debord provocatively argued, a means for ordinary people to carve out space within capitalist society to make their voices heard.[2]

Our concluding panel was more eclectic in make-up, with participants invited to suggest ways in which new media technologies may have impacted upon the contemporary practice of history. Robert Houghton (St Andrews) provided a stimulating illumination of how computer games can be used as teaching aids; Doing History in Public’s own Janine Noack and Tiia Sahrakorpi discussed how historical narratives have been portrayed in film and popular culture, perfectly showcasing the work of the Project; and Moritz Hoffman (Heidelberg) gave an imaginative overview of the ways in which Twitter might be used to relate or recollect historical events.

The ‘take-away’ was the beguiling ways in which the dialogic structures of social media and mass communication forms have decentred historical narratives, ‘opening’ them up in surprising new ways- across formats, transcending disciplines, and breaking down the cloistered confines of academia. This risks ‘dumbing-down’ or losing nuance of course, but it also presents opportunities to the historian; to tap into unexplored bodies of sources, to engage in even more creative intellectual dialogue with new audiences, and ultimately to help forge the truly participatory public culture of the 21st century which someone like Jurgen Habermas dreamed of when writing Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and which Professor Reynolds nudged at when discussing the recent public debates over the legacy of the First World War.

If it is too much to suggest that our conference may have helped contribute to this rather grandiose project in some small way, then at least it was incredibly rewarding and a great privilege to meet such a broad range of people and be able to listen to a rich and stimulating array of papers. I’d like to thank everyone who helped in the conference’s organisation and smooth running (they know who they are), but, in the spirit of these radical democratic hopes, to most of all thank all of those who spoke, came to listen and discuss, and who participated in the debate on Twitter and on the DHP Facebook page. It was a great opportunity to exchange ideas and to reflect on historical practice, which had been the practical hope at the heart of the conference’s initial setting-up, but which also emerged (neatly), as its key intellectual theme. May the dialogue continue on!

[1] Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, translated by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: Polity, 1989).

[2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, English edn., (Detroit, Black and Red, 1970).


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