May 2001

From University of Toronto

History in a box: Leaping from TV to our collective memory

Did Sam Beckett, fictional hero on the 1990s NBC-TV show Quantum Leap, help shape our memories of the U.S. past? Did programs like these help define our historical consciousness?

Robert Hanke, senior research and teaching associate with the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology at the University of Toronto, thinks so. In his essay Quantum Leap: The Postmodern Challenge of Television as History, he argues that TV culture is a site of struggle over the meanings of historical experiences in the shape of popular memory. Social histories of race relations, Vietnam and the women's movement activate the plot-lines in some episodes, while others recycle TV's own past conventions.

This science-fiction series about a time-travelling scientist constructs its own multi-layered sense of history. Therefore, he argues, popular memory that is shaped by TV has less to do with factual accuracy than with creating a personalized, compelling account of the past that is infused with contemporary concerns. In Quantum Leap's version of the Kennedy assassination, for example, elements of Oswald's biography are used to refute Oliver Stone's version in the 1991 movie JFK.

Hanke, who also teaches media studies at York University and McMaster University, rejects the notion that TV's popular images of the past should be dismissed because they are not "real" history. Rather, he agrees with the late historian Warren Susman that popular history and professional history can enrich each other because the strengths of one can serve to check the excesses of the other. He adds that TV viewers are often characterized as victims of cultural amnesia; however, many people's understanding of the past and their interpretation of it will come from popular forms like television.

"We wouldn't look to television for the last word on the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement," he says, "but TV helps - and hinders - the social activity of remembering and forgetting our sense of the past." Hanke's essay appears in Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001), edited by G. Edgerton and P. Rollins.

Robert Hanke, U of T McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology

Janet Wong, U of T Public Affairs

This article comes from Science Blog. Copyright 2004

Archives 2001 E