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Historical Reenactment : From Realism to the Affective Turn

Ort: Houndmills
Verlag: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd.
Jahr: 2010
Herausgeber: Iain McCalman, Paul A. Pickering
Autor der Rezension: Wolfgang Hochbruck
ISBN: 9780230576124
Umfang / Preis: 248 pages / PND 55.00

While the reenacting world was looking to the U.S. and waiting for the 25th anniversary reenactment-sequel to Jay Anderson's Time Machines, a group of scholars, most of them from 'down under', launched a new series with Palgrave Macmillan called – but of course – Reenactment History. The first two volumes, Settler and Creole Reenactment, edited by series editors Vanessa Agnew and Jonathan Lamb, and to be reviewed here by my co-worker Victoria Tafferner, and the present volume, edited by the third series editor Iain MCalman (U. of Sydney) and Paul A. Pickering (Australian National University), set the standard and the pace for future research in the field.
At the same time, neither of these volumes makes an attempt at providing a basis or theoretical framework to replace the time-machine worn initial typologies from the 1980s. Instead, they immediately launch into highly specialised discussions that are entirely fascinating and highly enlightening to the specialist, even though they may be aiming over the heads of the majority of the scholarly community. Also, a lot of what McCalman, Pickering and their carefully selected group of contributors blithely take for granted will still send traditional historians into paroxysms. However, it is not as if the volume was an advertisement for living histories. On the contrary. Notably the introduction entitled "From Realism to the Affective Turn: An Agenda" is steeped in scepticism. Most of this scepticism has to do with the "affective" element which indeed forms one of the basic problems in the field. Lauren Berlant's fear, voiced in 1997 and quoted in the introduction, that the "politics of intimacy, riding on the back of the 'affective turn' has usurped the public sphere as a space for social antagonism and struggle, reducing citizenship to personal acts and values" (p. 5) is not without a tangible foundation. What is missing here, however, is the fact that the politics of nationalist identities has been using pageantry and military spectacle for the past 250 years to construct an affective bond between the governed and their alleged 'history' regardless of social antagonisms.
A more subtle and detailed analysis of how and why the affective turn in the presentation and 'experience' of history may be detrimental to the point of a downright dangerous revisionism is laid out by Anja Schwarz in her excellent and carefully written contribution on the Outback House historical docudrama: while Stephen Gapps ("On Being a Mobile Monument") is absolutely correct in pointing out how different, as an experience, it is to wear "the contents of your research as costume" (53), the "privileging of corporeal experience over historical scholarship" (20) Schwarz sees in both the series and the widely read novels of Kate Grenville points to the problematic of historical 'knowledge' that seems to be available with the ease of switching on the TV and re-living colonial experience as personalised show-time.
The problems Stephen Gapps encountered in the re-staging of the 'Battle of Vinegar Hill', an event from the sidelines of Australian history, are typical: first, there was a drive towards monumentalisation, then that monument became one of many typical lieu de memoire in so far as the monument(s) are also standing there when there is no official commemoration ceremony on, but nobody really sees them for what they are standing for. The re-enactment in this case was not a pageantric ceremony involving the monument, but a re-imagination following an early 19th century painting – with the spontaneous deviation from the programme that the Irish convict reenactors tried to balance the score of the original fight between 'them' and the New South Wales Corps soldiers and has to be restrained (59) – a motif all too familiar for somebody re-enacting f. i. the American Civil War, where the most dangerous specimen encountered in Southern fields apart from the ubiquitous, lyme disease carrying ticks, is the ancestor-worshipping Southron who is trying to win the fight this time.
James Walvin asks what should be done about slavery, and brings in examples from Britain, the Carribean, and the U.S. South, but seems to be unfamiliar with the new programme in Colonial Williamsburg where the Africamerican interpretation department has been desegregated – a somewhat unsettling experience at first, and a humiliating one upon second thought. Similarly dealing with themed forms of re-enactment / living history interpretation are Paul A. Pickering (on the various theatrical and filmic re-stagings of the Ned Kelly story), and Ruth B. Phillips and Trudy Nicks on Esther [Princess White] Deer's costumed fight against the legislated erasure of Native North American cultures during the last decades of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Her renegotiations of 'Indianness' and authoritative claim to cultural identity are something that is obviously not covered by anything even vaguely like the 'authenticity' today's reenactors strive for – a fascinating case study and in many ways a missing link between pre-reenactmental historical formations like the ones Simon During and Iain McCalman investigate in their contributions. While McCalman focuses on the theatrical re-stagings of historical events in late 18th c. British theatres, During makes a dab already at what the editors invited for future volumes (8): he offers a definition of the term "historical re-enactment":
Indeed, the category 'historical reenactment' covers a variety of subgenres including (1) the organised recreational imitation of a historical event by hobbyists … television.
This definition points at one of the main problems in the discussion of living history theatre (Geschichtstheater), that of typological differentiation. While the first use of the term 'reenactment' in the above quotation can remain undisputed even though it sounds dismissive, the second one does not describe reenactment but is closer to the pageantric (cf. also the awkward use of that term by the editors, 11), and the fact that the term 'reenactment' is used by TV-crews for the typical form in which reenactors are supposed to prop up the truth claims of historical documentaries (Gapps, 53), is particularly unfortunate since this use signals an format entirely different from that reenactment which "is at the cutting edge of … democratic history," as Stephen Gapps – the practitioner – points out, because at least potentially reenactors "negotiate questions of historical representation and method" (52). The German discussion has advanced a bit further in this direction, but as might be expected it has not really made the rounds yet – not among historians in its own country, and not across languages. Speaking of which: that John Brewer confuses "heimlich" (secretive) and "heimelig" (comfortable) (83) is excusable, and he has a number of interesting things to say, including one of the central misunderstandings of reenacting as time-travel, which can be turned into one of its assets as a method open for scholarly use:
Indeed, I see claims of distance elimination as inevitably and invariably false, illusory even when claimed by the re-enactor to be subjectively authentic. Distance, I want to suggest is something we should work with rather than seek to remove. Once we recognize that it inevitably is there, we can do other things with it apart from seeking its elimination (84.)
The idea of full visitor immersion in a 'presented' past as advertised by theme parks, restaurants, and even – unfortunately – by some living history museums, I would claim is part of the disneyfication of the present, whereas the (re-)negotiation of history takes place in the interstices between documentation and reproduction. In a similar vein, Jonathan Walker shows how the anachronistic can be put to use to gain reflective insights into that which is represented, in this case in films and comics.
The issue of re-enacting historical music is yet another field in which several paths of historical approaches and present performances cross, interact, and sometimes clash, as Kate Bowan is able to show very lucidly. This is also the field in which most of the money that is earned in the 'mediaeval' scene comes from, and where the most openly heterotypical and eclectic formations are successful.
Katie Kitamura's article on Jeremy Deller's 2001 Battle of Orgreave is the most original and the least accessible. Sham battle reenactments involving original participants are not a novel thing; as Gordon Jones has shown in his lamentably unpublished doctoral dissertation [1] (wouldn't this thesis, like Stephen Gapps', be a suitable candidate for the series?), American Civil War veterans staged the first modern re-enactments of their own fighting in the 1880s. Now these events were hardly comparable to Deller's after all unique installation, but shouldn't they have been mentioned? Not that Katie Kitamura doesn't have a lot of intelligent things to say – her observations on relational aesthetics, for instance, are insightful and valid. It would have been beneficial, however, if these insights had been camouflaged in a less Derridadaesque jargon.
Originality is something reenactors usually do not aim for – quite the contrary: the idea is very often an open-air theatrical heritage cinema in real time and 3 D. This weekend-warrior format of re-enactment should not be confused with the living history interpretation provided by groups like Mark Wallis' Past Pleasures or the interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. But even if most of the essays in this volume are not strong on typology and differentiation, each one in their own right provide lots of valuable insights, and food for thought. A highly stimulating and therefore recommendable volume that has boldly advanced scholarship in the field to new positions.

Wolfgang Hochbruck (Universität Freiburg)

[1] Gordon L. Jones, "Gut History:" Civil War Reenacting and the Making of an American Past. (Ph.D. Diss., Emory U., 2007)

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Diese Nachricht wurde redaktionell betreut von Jo Jonas.
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Erstellt am: 12.10.2010