Saturday, November 14, 2009

Quato to Quade: "A Man Is Defined By His Actions, Not His Memories."

I REMEMBER THE MOMENT Princess Diana died. I was watching television late at night when the newsflash came across the screen. Tailed by paparazzi, her car slammed into a wall. I knew it was a huge story, so I decided right then that I would have to document the funeral.

The next day, however, I had to photograph the Eagles playing the Giants at the Meadowlands. I remember walking down the tunnel to the field. The fans leaning over the railings - waiting for the players - saw me and a few other photographers with our long lenses and multiple cameras. Then somebody yelled, "There's the guys who killed the princess!"

It was unexpected, to say the least. People were aware of and cared about Diana. At a football game. In America. But that doesn't justify the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia holding a Princess Diana exhibit in 2009.

After reading Alison Landsberg's Prosthetic Memory and Jay Winter's essay on memory, I can't help but think the NCC's decision to run the exhibit is purely financial.

People's lives are so disconnected from their traditional, familial past that they cling to histories created by the mass media, Landsberg writes. And they take those collective histories and place themselves within the context of that history. She says that the phenomena usually surrounds larger, traumatic events - she specifically cites the Holocaust, the early 20th century mass immigration of Eastern Europeans, and slavery. Because of mass media, we identify ourselves within the context of these events.

The problem, I think, is that as history becomes more and more commodified, the history that we are presented are events that have greater appeal to a wider audience. Maybe it's just the history as presented in the mass media but that history aspires to be popular.

Landsberg believes that the commodification can be used for progressive agendas - the loosening of traditional narratives, the establishment of tight, yet diverse communities. I think her book doesn't satisfactorily take into account the power of the Internet. As people have the ability to completely tailor their media (and historical) intake, we have less and less in common with each other. In 50 years, I can't help but wonder what we will consider the massive traumatic events of our time. Already, the attacks of 9/11 seem like they occurred so long ago.

Is the creation of a prosthetic memory an over-simplification of history? Is there a problem with creating a false sense of shared authority? Is there such a thing as a privately held public memory? I don't know.

I'll never forget how quiet London was on the day of Diana's funeral. There were millions of people around Kensington Palace, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and everywhere in between. No one spoke above a whisper. It was an experience - one that could only be fully appreciated by someone who was there.

Does that personal experience of a public event count as history? Does it only become history when it is recalled as memory, or presented as memory in the mass media?

How can you trust memory when it is so altered by the context of the present? Because I've told the story dozens of times and each time, London gets more and more quiet.

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