Making history

In Che’s Afterlife, Casey does a good job of showing the process through which history is made. First, I liked his analysis of how Che’s writings are his attempts to control what others think of him: “Indeed, in stripping out facts, sanitizing, embellishing, or otherwise altering details for the official record, Che played a hands-on role in the construction of an apocryphal Cuban history. The book shows Che as both censor and poet, the Homer of Cuban mythology” (53). It’s interesting that one of the first people to manipulate Che’s image is Che himself. Not only did this writing influence what others thought of him, but it actually influenced how Che himself acted. As Casey points out, his actions almost seem determined by what he has already written, by his expressed beliefs: “In writing down his ideas he pushed himself to do as he preached, lest he be found guilty of the same apathy and fear of which he accused Communist Party leaders, whom he blamed for neglecting the rights of the poor to a liberation struggle” (55). As Casey would have it, Che influences Che’s actions through his writing.

This same historical “creation” plays out later in Casey’s analysis of a famous photo Alberto Korda cropped (but did not actually take) that, through the cropping, does not show Huber Matos, who Castro killed later because of his questioning of Castro’s regime. Here, Casey quotes Korda explaining why he kept certain images from being published: “Why? Because in fifty or a hundred years, there will be people writing about the Cuban revolution and this [archive] is a historical fact” (82). Korda recognizes that each image, as it is interpreted, becomes a historical fact—the reproduction of the print can give voice either to the unity or the disrepair of a regime. Interestingly, Korda expresses the same thing Casey reads into Che—that history is a process of negotiating meaning through reproductions of things that can be read (images, texts, etc). It brings to mind Raymond Williams’s discussion of the “selective tradition”, whereby certain meanings are selected out of the vast array that are possible in order to maintain control over a population.

3 responses to “Making history

  1. You bring up a couple of really interesting points, the first being that Che was actually the first to manipulate his image. I wonder if that may partly explain why Casey doesn’t seem to critique capitalism’s exploitation/appropriation of the image as much as other critics might have: Che himself manipulated his image to sell something. He may not have received money in this process, but he certainly received popularity.

    Also, Korda’s explicit way of photographing and cropping to archive history is intriguing, since it clearly shows the bias (or at least lack of total truth) inherent in photographs, even as he’s right: we believe historical photographs to be basically true. Certainly, if we have nothing else to go on, we have to believe they’re true, or true enough. Korda knowingly manipulated photographs to create a specific documentation of history as it happened. It just makes me wonder if we can ever really trust any informational medium…

  2. I like your comment about the “selective tradition.” It reminded me of the controversy over whether pictures could be published of the dead soldiers coming back from Iraq. The government did not want these photos published (like the one that eventually was, with the American flag over the bodies). The mass media is completely in control over the “selective tradition” that they can enact over which images they want to circulate and be associated with certain stories.

    It is interesting to think about how this is changing with the introduction of cell phone cameras. More individuals are taking control over images and using social networking sites to post images. (eg- photos of the huge earthquake in China.)

  3. I learned in a lecture on perception that the brain must selectively perceive sights/sounds/sensations because without this process of selection, there are simply too many stimuli to process and comprehend. If, for example, the brain registered and stored in memory every single possible sound that the ear could pick up in any given moment, no sound would make sense. Or something along those lines (ahh, the mystery that is SCIENCE). Whenever someone mentions selectivity – in framing of a photograph, in making an academic argument, in choosing readings to discuss in a particular class, in recording history – I think of this potential for sensory-overload and the necessity of a limited representation of reality. But as you point out, Will, this limiting – though necessary – is political. Particularly because we rarely think about it. We forget that certain things are being included in the photo and certain things are being left out – and that someone is behind the camera, selecting it all in the first place. I’m sounding extremely vague, and a little paranoid now…also, I never applied my ear science to thinking about individuals and self-representation. In representing ourselves, are we as selective as the photographer taking a photograph (or is this more natural, just us being “who we are”?)? And is this act – for someone who is not in the limelight – as political? Bah, now in addition to being paranoid, I’m rambling…