Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Weekend Muse: Reaching for the Past, pt 1

A confluence of circumstances this past week, yet another round of name calling over the conflict between “stitch counters” and “regular hobbyist folk”, and reading Stacy Roth’s “Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation”, lead this week’s Muse into a couple of parallel but related reflections.

How do we understand our “role” or interest in historical interpretation and reenacting (this week)? And,

To what extent does our modern “mind-set” influence our understanding of the Past, or perhaps “change” history (next week)?

The first seems at first glance to be the more practical and straightforward question. The second perhaps seems too abstract and, to some, not worth the time for consideration. But I would argue that they are both critical. They underline the difference in paradigms, the way we view and understand something, under which “stitch-counters” and “hobbyists” operate. The questions, especially the second, whether considered or not impact our attitude toward the Past, our relation to the Past, and our self-awareness as interpreters of the Past.

Roth, I think, sums up the dichotomy present among historical reenactors, or history simulators as she terms them, in her introduction. Her presentation is tailored to the “dedicated” interpreter, the first person interpreter from her title, but I think applies to all who wish to understand their “role in history interpretation.

Roth notes that simulation of the Past has been carried on since, well, since the Past was the Past. Goethe celebrated Roman spectacle and costume. British officers, during the Revolutionary War, dressed as medieval knights for a farewell party. Throughout our (U.S.) history we have marked the commemoration of historical events through pageant with historical costuming.

The difference, Roth writes, is that modern simulators are much more technical in concern for “authentic detail, fidelity to documentation, and the appropriate application of research”. Modern simulators are motivated “by an academic thirst to unlock the secrets of the past and a search for personal identification and deeper meaning.” (p.2)

There is a range, I think, in the extent to which one chooses to adhere to these technical concerns and motivations. This is part of paradigm conflict. Most reenators have an impetus toward “doing the right thing”, seeking documentation, applying research, and so on. But this impetus seems to run in to impediments of time and money, and access to information, according to some of the arguments.

Further, there seems to be what Roth terms an “Interpretive Impetus”, a level of consciousness that draws the interpreter from a merely personal relationship with the Past to an interpersonal one that seeks to make the Past meaningful to others. This impetus has implications not only for engaging others with the Past, but for a personal dedication to a level of authenticity of one’s material goods in that presentation.

The so-called “stitch counters” and “hobbyists”, to set an arbitrary sliding scale, really are talking past each other, not understanding that they are operating out of differing understandings and commitments. Often times those with an Interpretive Impetus can seem over-bearing or demanding, by the hobbyist, in their desire for authenticity.

On the other hand, the hobbyist needs to recognize why they are involved with the hobby of simulating the Past—out of a personal motivation or a thirst for “knowing” the Past. Reenacting history at events which seek to honestly depict the Past requires a level of commitment to authenticity. Too often, hobbyists and some more “dedicated” reenactors wanting to “jump in with both feet” offer excuses for lack of authenticity in order to have equipment or portrayal they desire, rather than scaling back their portrayal to what can be authenticated.

For those that cry that such requirements are unfair or restricting to one’s expression, I would reply that the historical interpreters I know are more than willing to share knowledge and resources, and even material goods in order to give others “a hand up”, so that the level of interpretation for all rises.

Next week: Does our manipulation of the Past to create history simulation affect or “change” the past?

The Clerk

1 comment:

  1. Here, Here. Or is that Hear, Hear? Anyway, good post.
    Regards, Keith.