Ken Burns’ American “Apologia”

I’ve watched some of the first two episodes of Ken Burns’ most recent attempt to capture the “authentic” American historical, cultural, and political experience for viewers of public television.  (Those bourgeois consumers who pony up with contributions to view something more civilized like British sitcoms or Masterpiece Theatre since the federal government gave up any notion of a general public good except as it serves and is defined by the pursuit of commercial, private profit.)

I’ve never been much of a fan, frankly, of Mr. Burns.  (Here I go without even summarizing what I’ve seen because I assume, perhaps incorrectly, anyone who reads this might be familiar with his corpus of documentary beguilement.)

I was reminded why I become intellectually queasy with him and his work with my brief, unplanned, and impatient viewings of parts of the first two episodes (of six): 1) “The Scripture of Nature” and 2) “The Last Refuge.”

My unease arises from his apparent overwhelming need to produce a remarkably “faithful” history.  (I mean “faithful” in the religious sense of a positively committed, almost dogmatic representation of a pure, even apologetic justification of American history as many like to imagine it, not faithful in the sense of being committed to a complete, positively, challenging representation of American historical accuracy, to the best of his ability, with all its beauty and ugliness that the national parks can arguably be used as focus for critical inquiry.)

The faithful history as an act of purity and simplicity is reinforced by Burn’s elegiac, spare style, combined with contemporary  and archival film/photographic snapshots of various geographic locales central to the “parks” narrative, a musical score made up of solitary instruments sounding folk melodies, singular (mostly male) readers of central characters’ diary entries, interviews with mostly non-academic historians (and of these, all white and mostly male), and Peter Coyote’s reliably solid narration.

Whether or not it is a conscious effort by Burns to let the images, sounds, and words “speak for themselves” within the contemporary bourgeois nationalist ideological imagination, the explicit effort is to create a vivid portrait of American exceptionalism and uniqueness that organically develops and reinforces virtuous populist cultural values and institutions in contrast to the archaic corruption and decline of the “old” civilized world of Europe.

It is this ironic rendering of American history that troubles me; the one that recreates in a modern simplified (imagined) template of what has recently been studied and commented on regarding “manifest destiny,” which is the underlying context of Burns’ exceptionalist narrative, or the objective conditions and experiences of cultural, economic, and political colonization.

(Burns briefly, barely acknowledges White American extermination and containment efforts of indigenous peoples in his narrative, even including to unintended comic effect, perhaps, one American Indian park ranger—ironically in his official park service uniform—who commented, regarding one white man who got lost in the area that would eventually be known as “Yellowstone” National Park, that all white discoverers would have had to do was talk to them (the native peoples) if they wanted to know the geography (and its names, by implication).  In other words, these lands were well known by its inhabitants before white settlers/intruders arrived.  There was nothing “new” or virgin about them!)

It is this Burns’ simple, pure, exceptionalist narrative, the one that ignores indigenous knowledge and visions of these landscapes in favor of an ideological one that names and renames them as if the (wildness of the) landscape was there for the most recent arrivals to reimagine, to “see” as if for the first time.

It is this simple, pure, breathtaking, unimaginable, and aesthetically incomprehensible and unique transforming narrative that attempts to justify and revivify the nationalist, nation-building narrative with its limited vision of the landscape and its inhabitants.  Indeed, it serves the same purpose of conquest—of taking–as the limited aesthetic vision of earlier apologists (discoverers) of a seemingly empty and limitless landscape that needed to have men domesticate and cultivate it (creating “civic -culture” literally) as a progressive means to justifying and rationalizing human superiority (culture) over nature (wildness).

Of course, Burns’ narrative is problematic for more reasons than just his narrative methods and how it reenacts a kind of ongoing cultural imperialism because the idealistic notions it foregrounds—that only in America could the idea of protecting sacred spaces be possible, that the protection of unique landscapes is a democratic/populist impulse, etc.—have always been based on the historical exploitation of people and resources that end up being erased and denied while still serving privileged social and economic classes.

I suppose that’s why I find Mr. Burns and his “stories” preciously tedious.  Because they are about “faith” in things for which there is insufficient evidence to substantiate the claims being made or there is enough evidence to the contrary to put into doubt the evidence supporting the claim.

In this case, the claim asserted is for an ongoing “special” status of the American landscape and the care given to it in contrast to any other place on earth and that this is enough evidence to support the claim that “America” continues to be unique, exceptional in time and space.

For purposes of this post I will not go on to make a case challenging the special status/exceptional claim asserted for the United States in the Burns “documentary” except to say that the documentary evidence within the narrative itself belies the claim of a virtuous history.  Indeed, I would argue that recent conservative-led deregulation efforts favoring private exploitation of “public” lands, for example, continue to highlight that in the United States land is only sacred in so far as it can be exploited for financial and political profit.

At some point I may comment further about the process of aesthetic “taking” to clarify what Burns is actually doing in his filmic narratives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *