The Insistent Fringe: Moving Images and Historical Consciousness

Using the form of cinematic montage, this essay explores the nature of historical consciousness in a mass-mediated culture where historical discourse takes the form of both showing and saying, moving images and written words. The title draws upon and argues with Roland Barthes's critique of the duplicity of the "insistent fringes" that supposedly reduce and naturalize "Roman-ness" to fringed hair in popular historical film. Barthes presumes a "certainty" in such a cinematic image, and hence deems it mythological-that is, "it goes without saying." Countering Barthes with Walter Benjamin, one might argue that the "insistent fringe" is insistently historical and constitutes, in its insistence, a "dialectical image": a site and sight full of contradictions and open to excavation. That is, it concretizes historiographic saying by showing. Neither historiographic saying nor showing are privileged in medias res-in a culture saturated in images and textuality, in competing modes of expression each of which has its limits. Historical consciousness is sparked and constituted from both showing and saying. Indeed, the "insistent fringe" is precisely not clear-cut-and, if it insists on anything, it is its serrated nature, its articulation as a limit that differs from, but is constituted by, the elements of the two distinct domains which it both separates and connects. Similarly, there is a dynamic, functional, and hardly clear-cut relation that exists between the mythological histories wrought by Hollywood cinema (and other visual arts) and the academic histories written by scholars. They co-exist, compete, and cooperate in a contingent, heteroglossic, and always shifting ratio-thus constituting the "rationality" of contemporary historical consciousness.