Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past

You are here: Projects » Re-enactment » Interviews » Jonathan Lamb

Interview with Jonathan Lamb

Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University
Interview conducted by IPUP Director Helen Weinstein 09/09/08

Photo of Jonathan Lamb

Jonathan Lamb

Listen to or download this interview

Helen Weinstein (HW): How did you first get interested in re-enactment?

Re-enactment and the BBC's The Ship

Well that’s a painful story because we got interested in re-enactment on The Ship in 2001, when we were the historical consultants four of us were the four who clung together on the issue of re-enactment on The Ship, which was performing a re-enactment of Cook's first voyage, the last third of it, up the Australian coast and into the Arafura sea, and which was supposed to end at Batavia, now Jakarta, but didn't, because of 9/11. And whether it was 9/11, or just the strains of the voyage, which actually was not arduous - it didn't rain, it didn't blow - but everyday on a ship with lots of young people, because we were relatively old, meant that when we got to the end of it, the four of us, Alex Cook, Ian McCalman and Vanessa Agnew and I, felt that something had happened to us that we couldn't really explain, and we thought, well, it's re-enactment, that's what we've been involved in, and so what we wanted to find out was what had happened to us, and why it had been such a painful and unsettling experience. Couple of years later we put a conference together at Vanderbilt, and it was enormously successful. We suddenly found that everybody wanted to know about re-enactment. Re-enactment obviously is something that interests people a lot, and they're get ting more and more interested in it.

Re-enactment, Affect and The Emotions

Photo of Re-enactor

But re-enactment is a question of affect. Affect is a special term of Kant's, but let's just call it briefly 'emotion' or 'passion'. When you feel that something's happening to you, like in the re-enactment that we had, you feel very labile; you feel very, very prone to different moods, sometimes elation, sometimes despair. There wasn't a day on that ship I didn't think about death, very seriously, and I think that what interests me about re-enactment is this element of affect, or passion, and that has fed very productively into my speculations about sympathy, about how people share feelings, and what sharing feelings means. I mean, there are those who talk about sympathy, who talk about it as a kind of usurpation, where one person enters into another person intrusively; that it is not necessarily an aggressive act but it's one that differentiates between an active subject and a passive subject. So, I'd like to know more about this, I'd like to know more about the relationship of passion to passivity and to sympathy, and I think this is a very productive area to explore.

Re-enactment as The New Historiography - What Is It?

So I've been reading Susan James, Bill Reddy, Tom Dixon, a whole lot of people who have been finding out about how, in the eighteenth century, people discovered the importance of emotion. Under the old Carthusian dispensation, emotions were something that the will calmed down. You weren't supposed to have too many emotions, or the will would be interfered with. In the eighteenth century, with the rise of sentimentalism, that wasn't the case; people were very interested in what the emotions could do, but one of the things that emotions tend to do is put somebody in a passive position where they're no longer in control of, let's say, a narrative in a sentimental novel, I mean, very strange narratives in sentimental novels, because people are subject to emotion so emotion that’s what I’m interested in mainly

One of the classic texts of re-enactment is Tony Horwitz's book, Confederates in the Attic, and there, for the re-enactment addict, the whole point is an emotional or an affective experience, and there are lots of different terms for this. The people he's interested in are civil war re-enactors, so he calls it 'wargasm', 'nirvana'. He's got a whole lot of names for this kind of excitement you get at the height of a re-enactment. And I think that this alters people's relationship to history. I think history, instead of being an object of study, suddenly shifts the valence and becomes something that operates on you, and so history begins to acquire a capital 'H", so it's more like a personification than a discipline, let's say. And, I think that helps us understand one of the great icons of history in the twentieth century, which is Walter Benjamin's Sublime Angel, the angel of history, that's flying into the future backwards and I think that almost all historians these days are interested in the passions and the emotions one way or another. They realise that if History is to mean anything, it can't mean it simply as an academic object of enquiry, it's got to mean it as something that is part of everyone's experience.

Photo of Re-enactor

Re-enactment has provided a whole set of hints that have been picked up by documentary makers who now have a mode of presentation which is much more involving of the viewer than it was before. And you've got technological developments like CGI, which are making re-enactment a perfect opportunity for documentary makers, so that we can see Stalin trying to grope his cleaner, and we can see Winston Churchill having a stiff gin first thing in the morning and so on. You're not going to feel emotion if you go into the past and you recognise what’s there, if it’s all familiar or if it's all cast in familiar mode a familiar narrative mode let’s say, so, yes, re-enactment is going to be filled with tripwires of various sorts, it's going to cause you to be surprised, and that's what's going to cause the emotion.

HW: What do you think the kind of dangers might be of this kind of practice?

The danger always is going to be where does history stop and fiction begin, but history is a very funny exercise. As a non-historian I'm always amazed at how seriously academic historians treat their conclusions, as if they've come up with something that is iron-cast and true, and I think well, hell, it's got to be more fluid than that, and so the exposure of history to re-enactment and other techniques that make it more immediate I think all contribute to a sense of basically what a risky business history is.

HW: Collingwood, tell me about Collingwood?

Collingwood

Photo of R.G. Collingwood

Collingwood is the man who invented the term historical re-enactment, it’s to him we have to return if we're looking for an origin of this kind of exercise. But he's also very useful straw man, because what Collingwood did was describe re-enactment as an effort of intellection, not an effort of sympathy. What you're going to do, by effort, you're going to find your way into the same line of thoughts that an historical figure was experiencing. But Collingwood was very careful to mark out the limits of this kind of ‘intellectual’ sympathy, if you like, it never strayed into the sphere of emotions, or passions, or affect. He says we'll never know what it was like to be Marcus Aurelius in the gardens of Apollo Belvedere, or whatever. You're not going to know that. What you can know is what kinds of thoughts led Thomas a Becket, ultimately, to the altar in Canterbury Cathedral and to his death; he says you can track that, it's available, but don't mess with feeling, that's very imprecise! So, Collingwood's an interesting figure, he kind of puts the case for the historian who wants to make history an object of study, but he opens up that other possibility for a sympathetic engagement with history that is going to cause surprises, if you follow it through.

HW: And somebody else you’ve become interested in, a philosopher from the past is Croce what can you say about what he brings to the table for re-enactment?

Croce

Photo of Benedetto Croce

Well I think what he brings is the possibility of closing distance, and this idea of historical distance is something that our colleague in re-enactment studies, Mark Salber Phillips, has concentrated on closely and delivered some very interesting conclusions with regard to. But what Croce says, famously, is that if you want to know what it's like to be a blade of grass, you have to become a blade of grass. There is a kind of effort of the imagination that Keats called negative capability, where you can get into something else; if you can put your own self, your own preoccupations, your own prejudices aside, you can make that transition, and I think it’s that forgetting of the self, the setting aside of the ego that probably is very important for re-enactment. I think the real addicted re-enactors, if they want to feel wargasm, are out of themselves; if they want to fell nirvana, they're going to have to shed themselves and enter into another experience.

HW: So next I’d like to talk a bit about this conference – “Once more with feeling” why the title?

Conference Location

Photo of Shandy Hall

Any re-enactment, as I've said, is going to engage the passions, so the conference is going to be a feeling exercise, but 'Once more with feeling' in this case it's going to be a kind of double-whammy, because we're going back to Shandy Hall. It was in the house at Coxwold that Sterne imagined his fictional character, Uncle Toby, re-enacting the wars of the Duke of Marlborough, the wars of the Spanish Succession wars that were taking place in Flanders. It was on a bowling green that still exists that Sterne imagined this re-enactment taking place, so it's a place where re-enactment was conceived and where it was narrated in Tristram Shandy. The one consistent narrative in Tristram Shandy is Uncle Toby's sieges, his war games on the bowling green, and why he wanted to fight them, and how they come to an end.

Conference Issues

I think some people are going to be interested in siege warfare and how you re-enact that, what's at stake in re-enacting siege warfare. I think some people are going to be interested in pain, I mean, to the extent that we already have a re-enactment of the re-enactment in the form of Michael Winterbottom's film, A Cock and Bull Story, you have in that film a very coherent development of an idea that pleasure intersects with pain. Either you get a sequence that leads from pain to pleasure, like Uncle Toby wounded at Namur, but then he gets the pleasures of the sieges, or sexual pleasure, which very often leads to pain, like Mrs Shandy giving birth. And very often it's genital pain and genital pleasure that Stern seems to be interested in, and which Winterbottom himself became fascinated by. So, I think that pain and the emotions generally are going to be an issue that people are going to want to talk about here.

Tristram Shandy & The Central Re-enactment

detail of cartoon: boots

The central re-enactment in Tristram Shandy is mainly volume six, and a bit in volume eight, and volume nine, and it's going to be the reasons why Toby had to start re-enacting the Duke of Marlborough’s wars. It begins not with the Duke of Marlborough, it begins with himself: the first battle he wants to re-enact is the one where he got wounded. So he wants to explain to himself why and how he got wounded, and he can't do it. Even with the best help available he can't do it. So it's very hard for people to understand the distinctions of siege warfare, I mean what is the difference between a ravelin and a curtain? What is the difference between a double tenaille and a fosse, for example? And so he has to build it, he has to show what he can't say; once he starts building his siege works, then everything is going to make sense, and what you've got there is a marvellous conflation of two apparently antithetic themes, which is the theme of war, and the theme of pastoral pleasure. And this, of course, goes on for years and years, and goes on for as long a the wars of Spanish Succession. And then it comes to an end with the Treaty of Utrecht, and this makes Uncle Toby very miserable, and this is the moment where the war analogy slips into a different and much more dangerous mode, because it's when the Widow Wadman penetrates his defences, holds him up in his sentry box and basically seduces him, or at least makes him fall in love. And then you really have a replay: Uncle Toby got his modesty, says Tristram, by a blow. It was a blow from a stone, struck from a parapet at the Siege of Namur, by a canon shot, shot from a gun, which presumably was fired by a person who was ordered to fire the gun. But Toby's never going to get back to that, so he's just happy with this siege warfare. But then the blow ends up with a shock, and the shock is when he finds out that the Widow Wadman wants to know where he was wounded and how he was wounded because she wants to know if he's fit for the marriage bed, not because she's just generally sympathetic to a poor old wounded war hero. That's the moment at which Uncle Toby, when he's apprised of the fact by Trim, puts down his tobacco pipe ‘as if it were spun from the fine unravellings of a spider's web’. That is the moment of the shock, that's when he resolves to have nothing more to do with women ever again, that's when he acquires his modesty, which was the whole story that Tristram wanted to tell. He wanted to say that Uncle Toby's leading characteristic was his modesty; he got his modesty by a blow, which ended with a shock.

Cock & Bull Film

I think that Winterbottom was very interested in re-enactment. I mean, the re-enactment of the battle of Namur was going to be a centrepiece in the movie, which is why you get that huge collection of re-enactors camped in the park, but it doesn't come off, it's left at that, they never try and re-fight the battle of Namur. They have some rushes with 'whole tens of people', as Brydon says, and that's where it just gets left. I think that, while he was making the film, perhaps Winterbottom came to the conclusion that the re-enactment of war is not a particularly good idea, and the voice piece of Jenny, the assistant to the producer, I think she's very powerful on that issue, and is always looking for sort of filmic equivalents or filmic illustrations of her point. Certainly in that Bresson movie, Lancelot du Lac, she says there are people just batting away at one another, same thing again and again and again and getting nowhere. So, there has to be some alternative, and I think the alternative is, alright, general pain, general pleasure, but then also reproduction, so the arrival of a baby is a big thing and Tristram in the birth sac in the garden is a kind of icon of this. I think that one thing he is prepared to deliver up out of the book into the film, into filmic form is is is love, he spends a lot of time on love and on sexual passion, which he thinks is worth re-enacting, that it is a kind of repetition that is always going to be productive. Yeah it's a very humane film. I thought it was a terrific movie, I think to do a movie or Tristram Shandy is a challenge for anybody, but the way they brought that off and used the kind of reflexivity literary reflexivity and transferred that to a filmic idiom, I thought was very good, very clever.

Winterbottom's Road To Guantanamo

He came to it didn’t he through The Road to Guantanamo? Which I think is an astounding effort at re-enacting stories that we can't hear because the victims are in Guantanamo. Their stories are being elicited by all sorts of terrible means, and we're never going to get to hear their proper full stories for along time, so for him to do a film like The Road to Guantanamo I think was an extraordinary experiment with re-enactment.

HW: And what would you like to see happening with re-enactment next if you had a blank canvas?

Re-enactment and Garden Architecture

Cartoon of Toby and Trim

It’s Uncle Toby's blending of the pastoral and the military and that’s an idea that Paul Fussell picked up and worked very, very powerfully into his book about the First World War, 'The Great War and Modern Memory'. And what he does is pay attention, like Pat Barker did in her trilogy on the First World War, to the way that the appalling violence of those battles was blent with, very often, a kind of homosexual love, but that was expressed in pastoral terms, so that pastoral and violence went together. And I think that that's one of the secrets behind English gardens actually, that all the siege architecture that so fascinates Toby a lot of it was deployed for gardens, it was used and was adapted for pastoral purposes, and I think that that's intriguing. I think that some of the great poems of English Literature, Andrew Marvell's Upon Appleton House, is a kind of hymn to this connection between war and gardens, and I think that, at the heart of Uncle Toby's campaigns, that's what lies there, is some kind of metamorphosis of war into a scene that is utterly pleasant.

HW: So what you’re saying too is that re-enactment is another way in particularly for cultural historians to play with history and memory?

Re-enactment and Memory

Yes it is I mean memory , memory is a tricky term in these contexts, but a memory that refashions the past, maybe, that's what we're talking about… that's what re-enactment is, I think.

Interviews | Back to the top