February 9, 2009

The Visual, French History, and Virtual Memory

Daniel Maxwell Sussner has published "Projections: The visual structure of French history," a dissertation in partial completion of the requirements for the PhD at Harvard University. Here is the abstract.
How do visual media structure historical thinking? In the context of collective memory, this essay argues that engraving, the daguerreotype and film organize how historians make sense of the past. Specifically, analogizing from the digital technique of "virtual memory," the simulation of contiguous accessible digital memory available to efficiently manage computer programs, this essay shifts direction away from studies employing visual material to illustrate arguments or demonstrate historical meaning. Instead, virtual memory explains how visual media (re)organize memory, staging a collective dreaming of the past. "History," Tocqueville reminds us, "indeed, is like a picture gallery in which there are few originals and many copies."

Three hypotheses underscore this applied mechanics of thinking visually: (1) visual media displace aspects of human memory; (2) copyright law politically empowers visual media; and (3) visual media virtualize collective memory. Each chapter advances a case study elaborating a visual medium's organization of collective memory in techniques specific to its mode of reproduction Chapter One, in detailing the decline of the ancíen regime, explains the emergence of a public visual space for engraving as the collective mediation of political representation. Chapters Two, Three and Four consider Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French Revolution together, not simply in terms of direct or retrospective impact, but as the fruition of commemorative practices indelibly linked to Rousseau's obsession with the communication of visual memory. Rousseau's "memory project" engaging the engraving medium to organize key moments of his complete works, provided readers with the mnemonic tools to virtualize Rousseau's collective memory. Chapter Five frames the emergence of the daguerreotype, emphasizing the transition from engraving to new historical modes of virtual memory. The focus here will be a now-forgotten trial involving French plagiarisms of Edgar Allen Poe. Finally. Chapter Six explores the medium of film. From the internal struggle between content and medium to the ineluctable complicity between moviegoers and historians in ascribing objectivity to fictional films about the past, cinema has much to teach us. In particular. Alain Resnais changes the rules of the game: if earlier visual media structure collective memory, the point of film is to smash it.

His advisor is Patrice Higonnet.

Update: For those interested in obtaining dissertations, they are generally available from University Microfilms International.

1 comment:

Blank said...


Thanks for posting about this dissertation. Can you also post the publication info.?