… ‘The historian not only re-enacts past thoughts, he re-enacts it in the context of his own knowledge and therefore, in re-enacting it, criticizes it … ‘
This is from the essay ‘Re-Enactment, the History of Violence, and Documentary Film’ by Joram ten Brink, found in Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence edited by Joram Ten Brink & Joshua Oppenheimer (2012):
… [R.G.] Collingwood proposes that the historian re-enact the past in his own mind. In his study, the historian must go beyond the examination of relics, he must endeavor to discover the thoughts and motivations of historical actors at the time of the event’s unfolding. That is, to think it again for himself: to re-enact the experience.
This ‘historical knowledge becomes more like a condition of human understanding than an explanation of the past.’ Collingwood refers to the old school of ‘scissors-and-paste’ history in which the past is inert and knowledge of it corresponds to a compilation of past authorities. The understanding of historical events must be from within the present, as the past is not dead.
[line break added] Collingwood developed this idea already in 1920 as his first principle of the philosophy of history: ‘At the time I expressed this by saying that history is concerned not with “events” but with “processes”; that “processes” are things which do not begin and end but turn into one another.’
… ‘Historical claims are truth claims and, as such are subject to challenge by appeal to evidence. Imagination in history, therefore, is substantially different from imagination in art.’ Leon Pomps seeks to clarify Collingwood’s method by adding his observation that it is valid if we also accept the fact that the historian operates within a context of known historical facts which cultures acquire in the course of their historical development and which, as members of these cultures, historians must accept as true in advance of their more specialized research which they carry out as historians.
… ‘The historian not only re-enacts past thoughts, he re-enacts it in the context of his own knowledge and therefore, in re-enacting it, criticizes it, forms his own judgement of its value.’ According to William H. Dray, Collingwood’s notion of re-enactment is based on a thought process which involves continuous testing. Collingwood himself brings the example of writing a history of a battlefield or a war. The historian must ‘see the ground of the battlefield as the opposing commanders saw it, and draw from the topography the conclusions that they drew.’
… What all the above forms of re-enactment add to Collingwood’s notion of the method is ‘a body-based discourse in which the past is reanimated through physical and psychological experience.’
… In fiction film, for example, films can create illusions but not easily criticize or destroy them. In asking viewers to repress critical reserve, indeed to become part of the illusion, David Herlihy argues that ‘films make history seem too easy and our knowledge of the past appear too certain.’ Herlihy continues by asking: ‘Can [a film] through the same sights and sound, install both belief in the narrative and critical disbelief in its total accuracy?’
My most recent previous post from this book is here.