Monday, November 01, 2010

A model for war memory intervention

Wherein in 1999 one still used the long form World Wide Web and could write of running out of disk space for email


At Powerline, a letter from Professor Penelope Blake addressing the workshop "History and Commemoration: The Legacies of the Pacific War." Quote:
10. Veterans' memories of their own experiences in the war are suspect and influenced by media and their own self-delusion (Rosenberg, 18, 24). Therefore, it is the role of academics to "correct" their history. As one organizer commented, this will be more easily accomplished once the WWII generation has passed away. Another wrote, "America's nostalgic war memories are beginning to fray around the edges" (White, 267).

The workshop used the book Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s). From the Amazon description:
Firmly based on the insight that memory is always mediated and that the past is not a stable object, the volume demonstrates that we can intervene positively yet critically in the recovery and reinterpretation of events and experiences that have been pushed to the peripheries of the past.

Obligatory quote from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.
Avi's telephone call, some eighty hours ago, arrived in the middle of a major interdisciplinary conference called "The Intermediate Phase (1939-45) of the Global Hegemony Struggle of the Twentieth Century (Common Era)." This is a bit of a mouthful and so it has been given a pithy nickname: "War as Text."

People are coming from places like Amsterdam and Milan. The conference's organizing committee--which includes Randy's girlfriend, Charlene, who actually gives every indication of being his ex-girlfriend now--hired an artist in San Francisco to come up with a poster. He started with a black-and-white halftone photo of a haggard World War II infantryman with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip. He worked this image over using a photocopier, blowing the halftone dots up into rough lumps, like rubber balls chewed by a dog, and wreaking any number of other distortions on it until it had an amazingly stark, striking, jagged appearance; the soldier's pale eyes turned an eerie white. Then he added a few elements in color: red lipstick, blue eyeshadow, and a trace of a red brassiere strap peeking out from the soldier's unbuttoned uniform shirt.

The poster won some kind of an award almost the moment it came out. This led to a press release, which in turn led to the poster's being enshrined by the news media as an Official Object of Controversy. An enterprising journalist managed to track down the soldier depicted in the original photograph--a decorated combat veteran and retired tool-and-die maker who, as it happened, was not merely alive but in excellent health, and, since the death of his wife from breast cancer, had spent his retirement roaming around the Deep South in his pickup truck, helping to rebuild black churches that had been torched by drunken yahoos.

The artist who had designed the poster then confessed that he had simply copied it from a book and had made no effort whatsoever to obtain permission--the entire concept of getting permission to use other people's work was faulty, since all art was derivative of other art. High-powered trial lawyers converged, like dive bombers, on the small town in Kentucky where the aggrieved veteran was up on the roof of a black church with a mouthful of nails, hammering down slabs of A/D exterior plywood and mumbling "no comment" to a horde of reporters down on the lawn. After a series of conferences in a room at the town's Holiday Inn, the veteran emerged, accompanied by one of the five most famous lawyers on the face of the planet, and announced that he was filing a civil suit against the Three Siblings that would, if it succeeded, turn them and their entire community into a flat, smoking abrasion in the earth's crust. He promised to split the proceeds between the black churches and various disabled veterans' and breast cancer research groups.

The organizing committee pulled the poster from circulation, which caused thousands of bootleg copies to go up on the World Wide Web and, in general, brought it to the attention of millions who never would have seen it otherwise. They also filed suit against the artist, whose net worth could be tallied up on the back of a ticket stub: he had assets of about a thousand dollars and debts (mostly student loans) amounting to sixty-five thousand.

All of this happened before the conference even began. Randy was aware of it only because Charlene had roped him into providing computer support for the conference, which meant setting up a Web site and e-mail access for the attendees. When all of this hit the news, e-mail began to flood in, and quickly jammed up all of the lines and filled up all of the disk capacity that Randy had spent the last month setting up.

Conferees began to arrive. A lot of them seemed to be sleeping in the house where Randy and Charlene had been living together for seven years. It was a big old Victorian house and there was plenty of room. They stumbled in from Heidelberg and Paris and Berkeley and Boston, then sat around Randy and Charlene's kitchen table drinking coffee and talking at great length about the Spectacle. Randy inferred that the Spectacle meant the poster furor, but as they went on and on about it, he sensed that they were using the word not in a conventional sense but as part of some academic jargon; that it carried a heavy load of shadings and connotations to them, none of which Randy would ever understand unless he became one of them.

To Charlene, and to all of the people attending War as Text, it was self-evident that the veteran who filed the lawsuit was the very worst kind of human being--just the sort they had gathered together to debunk, burn in effigy, and sweep into the ash-bin of posthistorical discourse. Randy had spent a lot of time around these people, and thought he'd gotten used to them, but during those days he had a headache all the time, from clenching his teeth, and he kept jumping to his feet in the middle of meals or conversations and going out for solitary walks. This was partly to keep himself from saying something undiplomatic, and partly as a childish but fruitless tactic to get the attention he craved from Charlene.

He knew the whole poster saga was going to be a disaster from early on. He kept warning Charlene and the others. They listened coolly, clinically, as if Randy were a test subject on the wrong side of a one-way mirror.

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