Presentism rules in screening world history.

September 17, 2012, 1:10 pm

Andrew Marr is telling the history of the world in eight hour-long episodes of television. He puts this work in line with a series of “big histories,” including Kenneth Clark’s Civilization and E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, among others. In this post for the BBC, he tries to explain who and what he left out and why, and shows that presentism is alive and well.

We’re no longer living in the Europe-first culture where Kenneth Clark so confidently stood. This had to properly reflect a world in which China, South America and India are the rising powers.

Also, I was determined that although the vast majority of history-making figures – the names we know, the rulers, the scientists – are men, this would also pay tribute to women’s contribution to history.

So, no Eurocentrism, no phallocentrism. Avoiding the DWM theory. Creditable, and bringing television history right up into the 1990s.

But there are other constraining factors. He leaves out Mesopotamia because

there were the practical problems. I’d wanted to show the early Mesopotamian empires but Iran and the relevant parts of Iraq were either forbidden or too difficult to film in. The same soon went for Syria, which had been an “essential” setting.

So we found ways round. The heart of the Mesopotamian story is about how the need to control rivers – for irrigation and against flooding – forced the people living around them to come together, eventually under some political authority.

That’s why so many civilisations began on the banks of rivers. In Mesopotamia it produced empires, terrifying gods, the first writing and excellent maths. But something very similar happened to the Chinese clans living along the banks of the Yellow River. So we filmed there instead.

And there was also an assumption about audience:

I decided people knew more British history than any other, so there is no Nelson or Wellington, no Queen Victoria, no Battle of Britain.

So not just the principle that the world’s history is more than Europe’s or men’s history, but the practical fact certain parts of the world’s history are easier to tell owing to the geopolitics of this particular moment, with China being more cooperative than the Middle East, for example. And an assumption that certain subjects – Britain at its peak – while highly relevant to world history – are well known to an assumed audience. Presentism still rules in the selection process of what goes into history.

Of course, so do other ideas about how to sell a story. Note that while

Cleopatra appears as a brilliant manipulator and gutsy politician, not just a beautiful woman

… she appears twice in this post as Elizabeth Taylor. You’ve come a long way, baby.

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