Who Do You Think You Are?

I am convinced that in the developed, industrial world we are on the verge of a new era in heritage communication:  the creation of a creative personal, individual connection to history.               


No not the old aristocratic Burke’s Peerage kind; no not the “came on the Mayflower” kind; and not even “Kunta Kinte is the ancestor of all of us,” Alex Haley kind.  I’m talking about a personal narrative, with specific names, brushes with greatness, misfortune, sadness, and maybe a few moments of triumph– packaged in the slick envelope of video pans and lap dissolves, with background music and reaction shots.               

The quest for identity in a globalized homogenized world went through its virulent, corporatist nationalist stage (and still does in some places as we have seen in the last couple of weeks).  It was transmuted into personal expression through hobbies and eventually shopping, creating personalities that were somehow at least superficially different from the co-worker in adjoining cubicle 3c.               

But now with the miraculous capacities of low-cost hand-held video, massive internet genealogical records and digitized historical photos, and hundreds (thousands?) of unemployed history graduates looking for work, commissioning a personal narrative can be as easy as making a wedding video.           

And with a bit of training and experience, that personal video history can be infinitely expanded and elaborated as more facts and insights are uncovered.  Just imagine the possibility of being the family Ken Burns.     

Sarah Jessica Parker: Episode #1: Luckless Gold Miner and Accused Witch


The first episode of NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” premiered last night and it has the advantage over Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS “Faces of America” in focusing on the celebrity subject of the search instead of the presenter.  Yet both shows resort in the end to a dutiful, if politically correct patriotism that revolves around what it means to be an American.  

The BBC original was much less focussed on what it means to be British and much more on how far and surprisingly other meaningful, moving experiences underlie the superficialities of “official” Britishness.   

What I see in the American adoption of this genre is at least the potential 21st century fulfillment of the revolutionary, radical innovation of the decidedly unradical Sir Walter Scott.  In “inventing” the modern historical novel, Scott tried to show that despite the way that history had always been understood– Great Men, Great Wars, Great Events– even marginal characters (read: you and me) were connected to those events.  They were affected by and affected the great sweep of history.             

So if the Great Men and Events were the main trunk of the massive tree of history, it also had spreading branches, sub-branches, twigs, and buds that reached every person on earth.  And Scott, by beginning his stories at the very end of a branch– with a particularly vivid character in a personal situation, was able to show that this personal situation, and by extension all individual situations were meaningfully linked to the great events of the time.   In a word, everyone was part of history.            

Even such an unlikely ally as the Hungarian Marxist literary theorist Georg Lukács saw the radical possibilities of Scott’s brand of Personal History in changing the individual’s relationship to history from a passive to an active one.               

And today, when we have been atomized into job descriptions or CVs and when our shared public idea of history is either passive edu-tainment or ideological caricature, enabling people to see their own roots in a surprising unexpected history wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  It might restore some sense of collective energy to regain control over how our history is today unfolding and it might allow people to have some sense of historical identity not determined solely by their choice of clothing, cars, or current livelihoods.      

P.S. From an online discussion with Cornelius Holtorf:      

…here is what I think is key: we have mindless heritage groups now (nations, ethnicities, religions) that cause more trouble than they are worth. On the other hand we have atomized individuals who live in the present but don’t really see how collective action is possible outside established institutions.       

I think the personal link to haphazard collectivities (adventurers, con men, criminals, and dreamers) in the past can be powerful!      


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