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November 11, 2003

Revisionism, revised

Before I can (and I will) wholeheartedly endorse the meat of David's post below, I have to take a bit of issue with the misuse of the term "revisionism" in David's post (and elsewhere). Revisionist historical studies are not about erasing history, but rather about "subverting the dominant paradigm" and (in the true sense of this word) deconstructing the ways that the authors/authorities of history-as-written have used various totalizing narrative strucutres to bend the facts to the convenience of the writers of that history. This is hard work. A great example is the painstaking debunking of the oh-so-comforting "historical fact" that America's double-bombing of Japan actually saved Japanese (as well as American) lives. It is also thankless work--thus, the endless carping of cultural conservatives about "revisionist history." Historiography is always revisionist in its thrust-- how else do we increase our understanding of the past but to question old assumptions?-- but capital-R Revisionism uses post-structuralist ideas about discourse, authority, and epistemology to cut through the legitimizing narratives that too often crowd out factuality in the numbing service of political expediency and orthodoxy.

Whew. All that said, there is a better term than "revisionism" for this, predictably coined by Orwell--"the memory hole." In 1984, protagonist Winston Smith is employed in the wholesale rewriting of history. Inconvenient items in the archives are dropped down "the memory hole" into a giant furnace, lost forever. The Time article and (to a lesser extent, and with less import) the McJobs entry, are victims of this same kind of reckless burning. With these stories, there is an invariable narrative that absolves any one person of the responsibility of the decision to obliterate history. People who revise leave marks, a paper trail. The memory hole, by contrast, is always seen to open of its own mysterious accord and then disappear--hopefully unnoticed.

Luckily for us, the memory hole is also the name of a great website that, though tending understandably to the paranoid, does a tremendous job of hiding in that furnace-bound pipe to snatch those inconvenient facts back into view. It's motto is apt: "rescuing knowledge, freeing information."

Today's best example: the Pentagon's expurgation of web content suggesting (duh) that someone might be looking at the raggedy-ass state of our over-deployed military and thinking about reinstating the draft. You can really get lost on the site, perusing the mountains of data that almost did get lost. It's a disorienting feeling, but somehow a comforting one.

Posted by jay at November 11, 2003 05:46 PM | TrackBack
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Here's another example of documents disappearing down the memory hole: a transcript where the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development asserts that the US taxpayer burden for the Iraq war will be limited to $1.7 billion (rather than the $80+ billion recently approved by Congress) has disappeared from the agency website.

I just got my copy of 1984 from Amazon and I'll read it over the Christmas break. Last time read it was at age 14, and I think I've forgotten most of it. Nonetheless, I suspect the dystopia will seem all too familiar.

Posted by: david on December 22, 2003 04:24 PM
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