James Sanders, Ric Burns and the life of the lie

Can we agree that the true history of New York City would contain every event that took place for every individual and institution from the founding of the city in 1624 to the present day?  Oh, I see.  Good point.  I'm being too narrow. 

Strictly speaking we should start 100 years before the founding of the city and include every event that shaped every individual and institution that contributed to the founding of the city in 1624.  And then move, as someone said of the Scottish historians, ever so slowly to the present.  Right? 

Even if we could agree what we mean by "events," "individuals" and "institutions," even if we could capture them as discrete episodes, even if we could understand how they interact with one another, even if we could understand the endlessly concatenating dynamic they then become, our history would be impossible.  It would be larger than all the histories ever written and it would take an infinity of lifetimes to construct…and many more to consume. 

So every history is a lie.  It may claim to be "exhaustive," "comprehensive," "encompassing," but it is in fact ferociously partial, an act of violence against the real facts and the full scope of the problem.  History ignores, it forgets, it selects.  From a statistical point of view, it depends upon excluding almost everything.  And then it excludes, forgets, and diminishes some more.  There is no scholar more scrupulous than a good historian.  For all this, they are the most promiscuous creatures in the academic world. 

Thursday of last week, at the first meeting of the AIGA Metronorth meeting in Stamford Connecticut, I had the chance to listen to James Sanders described the way he and Ric Burns wrote New York: A documentary film.  It was a joyful thing to listen to.  They solved the problem of history with ideas so beautiful, acrobatic, swift and daring that we the audience forgave them their act of violence against the data and thought, some of us sighing audibly, if the history of New York City can be told this well, perhaps there's hope for the rest of us working on smaller problems and tinier lies. 

If you ever get the chance to hear Sanders tell this story, run, don't walk, to hear him.  And take the family.  It was wonderful evening. 

But here's the really annoying thing.  Sanders told us about a classical Greek concept that Burns uses to describe his (their) objective in documentary film making.  It's about crafting an idea until it is irresistibly obvious and so well formed that it goes straight into consciousness, carrying all that grace and subtlety as it goes. 

As Sanders pointed out, people watching a documentary film get it the first time or they reach for the remote.  And I sat there thinking, yes, in the contemporary world all of us succeed because we worship at the temple of the "apodictic." or we court the obscurity we so richly deserve.  [Thank you, Scott Lerman for helping me with this term.]

Both these things, compressing fantastic data of impossible breadth and diversity into a few elegant generalizations, and then finding a way to communicate these generalizations with the utmost clarity, these are two of the most compelling tasks for most of us who loiter at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  Perhaps the temple we should be worshiping in is not the apodictic but documentary film making of the kind practiced by Sanders and Burns. 


Find a video, courtesy of Scott Lerman, at Vimeo here

2 thoughts on “James Sanders, Ric Burns and the life of the lie

  1. peter

    New journalists on “The Economist” magazine are supposedly still given advice from a long-ago editor:

    First simplify.
    Then exaggerate.

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