We need historian heroes now more than ever.
When Indiana Jones emerged on the cultural landscape in 1981, he was both a very new and a very old kind of hero. The models George Lucas and Steven Spielberg took for Jones came from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, from movies like Stagecoach (1939), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The Secret of the Incas (1954). As he searched for the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, Jones also showed himself to be a latter-day Knight of the Round Table, exotic locales in North Africa, Asia, and South America standing in for the court of King Arthur. Clad in sweat-soiled khaki and battered fedora, Indy broke into the neon 1980s as a relic as mythical as the artifacts he sought. A historian-warrior, he defeated the Nazis, among other villains, championing truth, justice, and the American way. A figure from the past, he protected his own time against anti-democratic forces and used ancient magics to prevail, ensuring a glorious future at a time when the future really did seem glorious. By the end of the 1980s, the Berlin Wall would fall and Francis Fukuyama would claim that history had come to an end. Ronald Reagan had declared “morning in America,” and capitalism and democracy were ascendant.
In a certain sense, the history of the modern world has been a history of the end of history. Before Fukuyama, Hegel declared that history had realized its final purpose in the enlightened Prussian state, a notion that conveniently supported his own philosophy. From Hegel followed Feuerbach and Marx and a host of other theorists, politicians, generals, and economists who claimed to descry the final stage of human development. But what happens to the past, the Indiana Jones films seem to ask, if history has ended? Where does that leave characters such as Indy? The answer is clear: Once obsolete, history becomes a site of fantasy, a space of mythological possibility far removed from the rational, progressive present. Heroic figures generally embody much of what a society values and reveal much of what it fears. But when historians become heroes, this signification is intensified. Such historians don’t merely represent a society’s fears and values; they also reflect how those values are formed.
This new version of the historian as hero, I wish to argue, arises at a different end of history, in a methodological sense first suggested by Lytton Strachey. The Bloomsbury author and critic famously claimed that as the production of documents proliferated, it would become impossible to imagine that any historian could ever know the Victorian period the way one might know the Renaissance, for example. There was simply too much to read. Knowledge of history, from the Victorian era forward, must be partial, fragmented, and beset with anxiety. The contemporary pop-culture historian looks forward as well as back, and seeks more to protect history from the present than to protect us from incursions of history.
The trend seems to have begun with the television series Falling Skies (2011). Tom Mason (Noah Wylie) is a former professor of history who takes a leading role in repelling an alien invasion. Mason’s life as a professor is far behind him by the time the series begins, and his historical knowledge is introduced only in the form of affirmation. History provides hope, and Mason, always resisting insurmountable odds, relies on examples of successful guerrilla warfare to justify his intervention in history itself. But as Carl Abbott, a professor of urban history at Portland State University, has pointed out, this reliance on the historical anecdote, as opposed to historical research, cheapens the show’s relationship to history: “History professors onscreen function as purveyors of information. Despite their years of study honing sharp interpretive interventions, their contributions are usually textbook-level facts.” Abbot is correct that Mason rarely reveals any actual scholarly insight or academic rigor. Still, these characters are very much engaged in the process of making history: As our complacent narratives of the inevitable spread of neoliberalism have been shattered, we find ourselves, collectively, grasping for stability and for structure, looking for some hero or heuristic capable of telling us how we got here, and where we are going.
Indiana Jones protected the present from ancient darkness. Tom Mason uses history to reestablish a world nearly destroyed by a futuristic threat. Other recent shows have also built on the premise of protagonists seeking to protect the past from attacks perpetrated in the present. In both Timeless (NBC, 2016–) and DC’S Legends of Tomorrow (The CW, 2016–), time-traveling villains are set on remaking the present to their own liking by changing a relatively unstable past. The heroes of each show travel to a different historical period each week in order to interrupt the bad guys from wreaking havoc with history.
The setup is also familiar from movies such as The Terminator (1984) and Timecop (1994). In both of those films, however, it is soldiers, rather than historians, who travel through time. Indeed, in the long history of pop-cultural fascination with time travel, everyone from teenage girls to astrophysicists has been sent into some distant past. Everyone, that is, except historians. Timeless, in contrast, takes a historian as its protagonist: When we first meet Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer), she is lecturing on pivotal role of LBJ’s penis, nicknamed “Jumbo,” in the Vietnam War. But she is quickly recruited to serve the Department of Homeland Security. The time travelers here serve as ambassadors of progressive neoliberalism: The diverse crew faces its own temptations to rewrite history in order to remove past injustices, but they always come back to maintaining the integrity of the past—even if it means allowing events such as the assassination of Lincoln to take place.
Timeless depicts the historian as both protector and explorer. The characters in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, on the other hand, both discover and create an increasingly complex universe as they move through time and space. Death is almost meaningless, as characters can be resurrected, travel to and from alternate universes, or even be brought from the past into the present. Every defeat that the Legends suffer, like all of their victories, is tentative.
These malleable realities are common in shows adapted from comic books where the idea of multiple realities was first introduced in the 1980s. As comic book fans have aged, sales have declined and comics publishers found themselves with a stable of characters in sore need of modernization. Loath to alienate loyal readers and viewers, DC came up with the idea of multiple universes as a way to attract new readers while keeping the interest of older fans. This narrative innovation provided, well, the best of both worlds. For example, The Flash, a product of the 1950s atomic age, could also be easily at home in the glitz and glam of the 1980s. At the same time, the decision to introduce multiple universes led to the emergence of a kind of radical postmodernity in comic books. Artists and writers could essentially reimagine characters and surroundings without regard to traditional laws of storytelling or even physics. DC’s world eventually became so complex that its characters experienced their own version of the Big Bang, a comic book cataclysm that resulted in two universes, one with positive matter and one with antimatter.
DC’s decision to protect its intellectual property by changing the rules of physics gives the lie to Fukuyama’s theory of history: Capitalism may seem, for a moment, to be triumphant. The enthusiasm that greets the arrival of the latest smartphone allows us to believe, for a minute at least, that this new device is the apex, the best technology has to offer. But an economic system that remains vital through constant growth also generates the risk of constant crises. Capitalism often relegates these crises to the realm of fashion, which, as Georg Simmel once remarked, is distinguished from history in that it is driven by changes that are fundamentally meaningless. Whether we prefer our denim raw or acid-washed now has no impact on what we will prefer next, except that it be something different. The preconditions for a capitalist end of history are different from those of the Marxist or Hegelian variations. Both of the latter imagine humankind at rest, satisfied with what it has and content to remain where it is. A capitalist end to history, in contrast, can only be sustained by emptying history of meaning.
It is this process of emptying history of meaning that has produced pop-cultural historians who aim to protect history from the present, rather than the present from history. As fantastic as these historians and their fictional realms are, there is something familiar about the problems they address. Our own personal histories are now documented and distributed with a thoroughness and rapidity that we would never have thought possible. Facts (alternative and not) reach us with startling speed and regularity. But whether all of this data ever amounts to anything more than fashion, meaningless shifts in affect and style, seems still to be an open question. If we define information, with Gregory Bateson, as a “difference that makes a difference,” it would seem that the information age is anything but—we live in the age of democratized fashion reporting, not information.
Like in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, we claim victories or suffer defeats, only to learn that attention has shifted elsewhere, and that the multiple universe narratives purveyed by social media are too complex and too profit-driven ever to be stable. It’s hard to celebrate progressive victories when we are beset by the sinking feeling that the sphere of our meaningful activity is limited to the realm of commerce with its ever-present atmosphere of risk and crisis. Once, we dreamed, as with shows like Timeless and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, of a future of advanced technology and global peace. Now our hope is in the past, which, under the strange logics of late capitalism, suddenly seems more malleable than the future. No wonder the historian has become a hero.
Peter Kuras lives in Berlin.