Institute of Para-Enactment Research
Softcore Historicism and Embodied Heritage


History Repeats Itself...
Otherwise, It Wouldn’t Be History

Cuauhtémoc Medina 

in: Deller, Jeremy. Jeremy Deller: El Ideal Infinitamente Variable De Lo Popular = the Infinitely Variable Ideal of the Popular. Madrid: CA2M Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo, 2015.

The Battle of Orgreave (2001), Jeremy Deller. An Artangel commission. Production photograph by Martin Jenkinson

The early draft of this text was presented on April 30th, 2005 in the symposium titled Once Upon a Time: Modernity and Its Nostalgias organized by Teratoma A. C. and Cabinet magazine, directed by Pip Day and Sina Najafi, in the Museo Tamayo.

1. Killing Time... the Historical Kind

History is no longer inoculated to us as a mere ideological device of the state, but has rather come to be understood, over the last few decades, as a recreational tool for consumers, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world—the US and the UK—though the concept is spreading insistently throughout the world. In a classically postmodern mingling of functions such as education, leisure, tourism, sports, entertainment and political identification, citizens of various classes gather during their off hours to relive the childhood pleasures of disguising themselves as soldiers, pirates, Indians, cowboys and scouts, to stage determined historical events. Organized in hundreds of historical reenactment societies and often working in association with museums, hotels, orchestras or governments, these groups reconstruct “period” costumes, weapons, tools and languages with almost fetishistic devotion, in order to socialize under the pretext of traveling to another historical period. We are dealing with a central transition, where spare time is interpreted as an escape from self-time. In an age when culture has radical misgivings about abstraction and representation, when the aesthetics of participation have shifted from the realm of avant-garde art to defining the space of reproduction of capital, we should not be surprised that various types of historiographical karaoke are proliferating.

Answering ads and notices on the Internet or in local newspapers, thousands of “re-enactors” all over the West gather several times a year to put all sorts of fantasies into practice. More refined, sensitive types can go to Pasadena, California in January to enjoy “an afternoon of tea, discourse, music and dance in the spirit of the estimable Miss [Jane] Austen,”1 with the advantage that, though Regency or American Revolution-style attire is preferred, the Austen society will tolerate any kind of antique costume, including Victorian. More adventurous outdoor pleasure- seeking types will surely choose to join a group like Kompanie I, which travels through the United Kingdom and   various theaters of war in Europe to recreate the famous battles of World War II. There is something really quite comforting in seeing these progress in social and cultural relativism in every one of this ventures. Kompanie I initially specialized in resurrecting the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, but now recreates a wide range of WWII units along with their respective uniforms and weapons, though it claims to always focus on the life of the “front-line soldier.” Quite obviously, one of the attractions of this kind of hobby is the opportunity it gives participants to consume: being a “re-enactor” finally gives you a reason for buying that second-hand Panzer you always dreamed of, and to wear the fifteen Purple Hearts you patiently collected at flea markets. However, not all of these organizations necessarily call upon ultranationalist dogma, nor are they all “light” versions of neo-Nazi groups. Were we in April or May 2005, we could have gone to the Yorkshire Museum of Farming in Murton, York, to recreate (as the Republican Spanish song would say: “Ay, Carmela!”) one of Madrid’s lines of defense during the Spanish Civil War, around May 1, 1937, joining British compatriots in the International Brigades involved in the arduous task of protecting the train tracks from possible attacks by Fascist spies. If you had any lingering suspicions about our English comrades’ leftist credentials, you should know that La Columna grants any actual veteran of the international anti-Fascist militia the automatic right to lifetime membership, and offers activities specially designed for children—like participating in the “Basque children refugee event” commemorating the evacuation of 5,000 Basque children to England during the Spanish Civil War. The La Columna reenactment group should inspire us to redefine what we understand as “revolutionary tourism”: this is not only one of the rare opportunities for leftist entertainment around the world, but also one of the few that still involves the use of books. Indeed, if we are to believe the pictures on its website, printed matter circulates through La Columna’s recreated trenches at a truly alarming pace. These pictures suffice to explain why the Republican forces were defeated: if not by Falangist guns, then because of the technical disadvantage of carrying a backpack around the battlefield stuffed with the works of Bakunin, Luxembourg, Unamuno and Lorca—intellectual warheads that are no match for the Panzers of Kompanie I and the like. In any case, La Columna has lent a new meaning to passages from the Spanish Republican Hymn that we students at Republican schools in exile had to learn in our youth: “Spain rises once again...” indeed, though only on weekends and statutory holidays.

It could be stated that the growing popularity of historical reenactment is a fundamental symptom of contemporary culture. As a practice generally limited to the pre-modern terrain of ritual and to peripheral hybrid societies—the ritual reenactment of the Passion of Christ in Mexico and the Philippines, for instance—it is the most extreme symptom (and traditionally validated symptom: “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me”) of a total transformation of the experience of history: to be exact, the history that we have gradually stopped seeing as history, demanding that it be made available as experience. The culture of “living history” (as its practitioners call it)— the employing of clumsy entertainers that you run into at museums, disguised as cavemen or as characters from
Les misérables—is no longer enough, given that these institutions are desperately trying not to project onto their visitors the image of a collection of corpse-like, sterile, incomprehensible and untouchable objects documenting all the periods when “there still weren’t such things” as televisions, computers or cars. As wax museums or “period rooms” lose their power to convince, and as movies revive the past in an increasingly improbable manner—for instance, the comedy of a happy-go-lucky Italian who escapes the genocide at Auschwitz with songs and good humor (Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella/Life is Beautiful, 1997), or the drama of a paraplegic Communist painter turned into an iconic Latina swinger (Julie Taymor’s Frida, 2002)—the past has to be made just as accessible as the beaches of the most remote Pacific islands. Nowadays, you have to see history for yourself, you have to smell it, eat it, fuck it, shoot and kill it in a democratized version of Tony Newman’s and Douglas Phillips’s trips through The Time Tunnel (1966). Theme parks are an obsolete phase of media realism, now that participation, the aesthetic of the “real” and willfully constructed postmodern identities have become universalized forms of subjectivity. Surely, historical reenactments are completely dependent upon a post-romantic view of history—considering it governed by stylistic unity, and understanding historical research and rewriting as a courageous attempt at bringing it back to life. In other words, reenactment is a historicist practice, characterized by inserting the spectator in a terrain remote enough to neutralize the action that takes place in it, and turning things like the SS uniform or the Spanish Republican’s archetypal beret into mere touches of local color; indeed, it does not present “re-enactors” with the notion that these “pasts” could be alternatives in the present or for the present. It is no accident that the age of reality shows is also the age of the most complete phantasmagoria of time: under the appearance of offering life itself, unedited and uncensored (think for a moment about the central role that the bathroom plays in a show like Big Brother), they are both entertainment—one based on making privacy totally public, and the other on making the past totally contemporary—and they both sell a total illusion. They are modalities of a pernicious aesthetic of the “return of the real”: the insertion of life itself as raw matter for the representation machine. We are facing a situation that, in general terms, characterizes the contemporary subjective condition: the absolute primacy of the notion of “experience.” It indeed seems like imagination has been declared obsolete: history has stopped being about historical memory, and has been occupied instead by short- term memory. Things are only historical if we can experience them, only ancient if we can wear them on the weekend.

These kinds of reenactments are thus a central articulation of what we could call contemporary nostalgia: the establishing of a historical relationship whereby the subject wants to take shelter (even to the point where he or she can smell it) in a particularly prestigious, epic or exciting enclave of the past, in a time that he or she considers “his or her historical abode.” We are of course dealing with an experience of the past without the intermediation of death: that is, the experience of a non-past. Even so, historical reenactment shows us a context that is necessary to evaluate a series of art interventions that deal with the “experience of the historical.”


2. Class Struggle—Reloaded

One of “living history’s” greatest problems or advantages— depending on your point of view—is that it is, to a great extent, immune to criticism. By appearing as immediate experiences, they necessarily undermine the distinction between the signifier and its reference: they are before they can represent. Unlike academic history, reenactment is immune to debate of interpretation since it focuses on the “authenticity” of details, objectivity, reiterating evidence, occupying itself exclusively with what is indisputable. How can we attack this epistemological fortress? What kinds of critical operations does reenactment—this superlative mechanism of nostalgia—offer us?

Looking at one of the historical reenactment subculture’s dissemination mechanisms (the Internet), i is moreover interesting that the twentieth-century section of the United Kingdom-based Histrenact2 website displays an unclassified link (indeed, an exceptional object) to a report entitled “The Battle of Orgreave Refought, Jun 17, 2001.” As paradoxical as it may seem, the battle of Orgreave is a singular reenactment: “one of the most unusual reenactments ever held in the UK,” and according to many participants, “undoubtedly one of the most realistic and enjoyable ever staged.”3 The website’s description is interesting enough to be quoted extensively, as it allows us to perceive the value that re-enactors’ communities place on their productions in terms of the latter’s irrefutable realism and intense emotional effect, the beauty in the precise crafting of suits of armor and equipment, and the statement, totally contradictory in this case, that the historical recreation did not have a determined political character.

Described as “eerily convincing” by The Independent newspaper, this non-political recreation of the worst clash of the 1984 Miners’ strike—a violent pitched battle between thousands of miners and police—took place in two parts, adjacent to and then actually on the original ground around
and through the village of Orgreave, South Yorkshire.
[...] 520 re-enactors and 280 local extras—including ex- miners and police who were present in 1984—took part. Uniforms, clothing and tactics were painstakingly recreated, with 1984-style riot helmets and shields [...] especially produced along with over 1000 fake “stones” to be hurled at the police lines.
[...] It seemed exceptionally real, not just to the re-enactors, but also to the 3000-strong pre-ticketed audience of predominantly local people, many of whom said the hairs stood up at the back of their necks.4

The curious thing about this report is that it never suggests that the reenactment was a work of art. Even the name of the artist involved is rendered unimportant, eclipsed by the lead role of re-enactor Howard Giles, director of the EventPlan company and former events director of English Heritage, who produced the event for Artangel Media—an event that was also filmed by Channel 4 for a documentary directed by Mike Figgs, the director of Leaving Las Vegas.

The authorship’s discreetness is indicative of a project where, in many ways, the artist is merely the catalyst for a social operation. However, the narrow scope of responsibility implied by the intervention has broad ramifications in this case. Though Jeremy Deller’s action limits itself to displacing a preexisting mechanism—historical reenactment—to the domain of the history of contemporary industrial relations in England, this shift in itself suffices to spark a variety of political and aesthetic consequences.

On the one hand, the action was not posited as a recreational activity and did not operate in a field already neutralized by official history. The events surrounding the 1984 miners’ strike still define the lives of people living in Yorkshire and many other parts of England—they define the internal division of its communities, the advent of social uncertainty deriving from post-industrialism, and above all, the bankruptcy of the means of political action that defined the modern proletariat: strikes, blockades and picket lines, and the attempt to put the market economy’s operation in a state of crisis. The so-called Battle of Orgreave is nothing but the decisive moment in the labor movement’s defeat by Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberal government, and as such, it is the linchpin of England’s recent social history.

It is the traumatic point at which—in the words of one of the strike’s and reenactment’s participants—the miners painfully discovered that the slogan “Miners, united, will never be defeated” was proven to be historically false. But by being defeated prematurely, they also contributed to making it impossible for the English population to effectively resist neo-liberal capitalist reforms. In that sense, The Battle of Orgreave seems like an enormous exercise in social memory, with the reenactment itself serving as a mere pretext for a community, the former social militants and a whole country to review the historical record after spending decades avoiding the issue. Instead of fetishizing the reenactment of a particularly infamous moment of the struggle (the mounted police charging against the strikers, the last time this was done in British history), Deller’s emphasis in his documentary and book was on recording the participants’ plural voices. The artist very consciously tried to situate Orgreave in the catalogue of historic British battles, indeed, he tried to elevate it to the status of a kind of “British Civil War”... in other words, he reinserted class struggle (including the classic British proletariat’s final defeat) as the substance of history.

The analogy cannot be avoided: just like the tragic wreck of the French frigate La Méduse in 1816 left its mark in world history thanks to Théodore Géricault’s painting hanging in the Louvre, or like the bombing of Guernica would not have become the exemplary episode of all-out war that it is without Picasso’s painting, the Battle of Orgreave’s reenactment must play the artistic role of transforming memory into event, establishing it as history. This in itsel is proof of a re-politicization where the reenactment, instead of serving the cause of nostalgia, actually modifies the historical record, i.e. it makes it possible. But what is more, this recreation constantly posited a risk: that it might elude its real-fiction status and become true in an outdated manner.

One of the main effects of Deller’s reenactment is to breathe life back into a history neutralized by nostalgia, and there might not a better antidote for nostalgia than terror. He provided a condition that was decisive in making the experiences of professionalized re-enactors worthwhile: the fear that former strikers involved in the reenactment actually were the criminals and murderers that tabloids and television had portrayed them to be in 1984. The fear, then, of a “de-sublimation.” Instead of staging a simulation of enemy factions in an already resolved battle, Deller had pushed them to face none other than “the enemy within” in Margaret Thatcher’s defamatory words. The outcome was not entirely predetermined: the reenactment could have turned into the real thing, as at times it seemed like the ritual was about to steer off course and become an actual riot; in an interview with Claire Doherty, Deller stated:

At Orgreave, a disaster could have happened. Many reenactment society members were terrified of the miners. In the 1980s they had obviously believed what they had read in newspapers and thought that the men with whom they would accomplish the reenactment were hooligans or revolutionaries. They thought the act would turn into a huge genuine battle.5

Deller’s words trace an extremely fine line between repetition and singularity. With the momentum, the
cycle can develop a centripetal leak—the point at which the copy becomes a sign, at which repetition generates
(or degenerates into) the unpredictable. One notable
thing about The Battle of Orgreave—about this practical evocation of the climactic moment of the British civil war— is that the reenactment could easily have acquired a life

of its own, no longer functioning as a memory aid or as a reconstruction of the events, but instead losing its footing and tumbling down the slope to a violent destiny. Deller of course prides himself on not having inspired such a degree of authenticity: the work of art remained an object of aesthetic meditation, in spite of the “stones” hurled through the air and the horses prancing through picket lines—it did not end up bringing any ghosts back to life. The actors, who were paid eighty pounds (a not entirely negligible sum) by Artangel Media, complied with their assigned ritual role. The reenactment thus conformed to the definition of a certain writing of history.

© Jeremy Deller. Commissioned and produced by Artangel.

3. The Last Ghost

Historical reenactments are only the most salient example
of the way in which history is consumed as entertainment. The Battle of Orgreave politicizes these forms of consumer entertainment brilliantly by taking the concept to its limit. But besides misdirecting such a widespread social genre, Deller’s work necessarily brought into play the complex discussion about what historical reenactment and recreation could signify to the contemporary left wing.

“The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future.”6 This phrase from Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon contains all the ambition (practically irrecoverable today) of the revolutionary project as a hyper-Enlightenment, i.e. as the advent of a radically new time emancipated from any and all mimicry and myth—a finally temporal time (if readers will excuse my redundancy). Insofar as he defined the twentieth century’s Left as the “philosophy of the twentieth century” (Sartre), Marx demanded and heralded the advent of a new relationship with history in which nostalgia did not have any role whatsoever. Indeed, evoking even the biblical moment when Christ orders one of his disciples to follow him instead of burying his own father (Matthew 8, 22), Marx posits a clean break with the past as the first requisite of future revolution:

[The revolution] cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content.7

However, to argue for this “revolutionary forgetting, Marx had to formulate a complex and very subtle theory about historical repetition, which was anything but an innocent invitation to clean the slate. A theory that actually conceives of history as a stage and that also defines the role of political agents in dramatic categories. But this theater is not a merely “ideological” issue: as Deleuze argues, for Marx, “historical repetition is neither a matter of analogy nor a concept produced by the reflection of historians, but above all a condition of historical action itself.”8 Marx was perfectly aware that French revolutionaries, and especially the Jacobins, had had to imagine Roman tunics—and that they were defending the Republic’s virile values, like Brutus and Cassius—in order to muster up the courage to cut off the king’s head. In Marx’s mind, revolutionary history until that time (1852) had been an incredible masquerade, a machinery consisting of identifications and imitations, where the illusion of undertaking a reenactment had been the only way for the unthinkable—i.e., change—to happen. Unable to think from a future perspective, French revolutionaries avoided disappointment by ignoring the fact that they were only clearing the way to the victory of merchants and bankers, acting under the influence of a destiny coded in ancient images and “maintaining their passion on the level of great historic tragedy.”9

Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again.10

Jacques Derrida shuddered at this vision of revolutionary time as a “fantastic and anachronistic” time where “synchrony does not have a chance,” since “no time
is contemporary with itself, neither the time of the Revolution...”11 as Marx had implied in what he called “conjuring up of the dead of world history.”12 It is in this context, where Marx transforms Aristotelian poetics into
a theorization of historical time, that we must resituate
and fully restore the meaning of a saying that haunts us ever since it, like so many others, was misunderstood and became a commonplace. This phrase is usually brought up as if it unmistakably and explicitly criticized any mirroring relation between past and present, as if it were equivalent
to Heraclitus’s warning that it is impossible to bathe twice in the same river, or as if it complemented Santayana’s maxim, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”13 But as we have seen, Marx’s argument is of a different order and could even be considered an aesthetic

of repetition. In fact, he posits a criterion that outlines, not the repetition of time without analogical condition, but rather two forms of repetition that, properly considered, are two forms of differentiation. The first seems rather like a failed reenactment that appears to tragically follow a pre-established destiny in order to actually provoke difference, the historical jump or break. In turn, the second presents itself as nothing but a carbon copy of the past, and as such, it ends up being a comical imitation, pastiche, identification turned into parody: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”14

As Deleuze argues (though we will not follow his analysis any further than this), there are three times implicit in this text: that of comical repetition that posits something
like an involution, incapable of creating a new situation; that of tragic repetition that, as Oedipus well knows, comes into play when the action is irreversible and part of an operation that is bigger than and incomprehensible to the person or agent involved: a historic action; finally, however, there is the time that observes repetition: the present time that is only the present insofar as it is the product of the tragic and comic histories that constitute it. As in Oedipus’s enquiry, there “the before, the caesura and the after,” Deleuze points out, where past and present are dimensions of the future: “the past as condition and the present as agent.”15

We have thus established that the link between the various times of history can only exist in a game of repetitions. Only reenactment, in its very wide ranging forms, can activate the future, and as such, only reenactment can avert nostalgia. As perplexing as it may seem, historical change can only be noted by its return. Besides specifying the meaning of the notion of “revolution” (the political term taken from the cyclical course of planets), this was the Hegelian starting point that Marx alluded to in his introductory sentence to the Eighteenth Brumaire. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Hegel discusses the role of the Cesar and the establishment of the Empire, and adduces that it is only with the advent of a second Cesar, i.e. Augustus, that it becomes clear that a new political time has dawned, and that there is no longer any possibility of returning to the Roman Republic. Only repetition creates institutions. Only repetition allows the event to escape its contingent circumstances:

Such a great change had to take place twice, the fact that one person came to be the ruler. We say that “one does not count”; in the sense that what takes place once can happen by chance. Thus Augustus had to follow, just as Napoleon had to be dethroned twice. Augustus first of all, and then Tiberius, brought about the continuance of the form of the state.16

The Battle of Orgreave (2001), coordinated by Howard Giles and recorded for a TV documentary by Mike Figgs is widely recognized as one of the most important artistic interventions of the early 21st century. Its paradigmatic value lies in great part in having demonstrated the possibility of turning the open platform of contemporary art production into a means of living experience, which almost singlehandedly infused a new meaning to the ailing concept of public art, by activating the promise of social memory from the dead tradition of the monument. Symbolicall the piece could also be a turning point, marking the endof the insipid hegemony of the so-called Young British Art movement and signaling the generalization of an aesthetic of social interventions of truly diverse kinds in contemporary art. Above all, the task of The Battle of Orgreave was to firmly establish the historical horizon of our era. By providing a ceremonial reenactment of the defeat of the contemporary working class, Deller created a means to recall the specters of resistance of the neoliberal era.

1— www.lahacal.org/austen/
2— http://www.montacute.net/histrenact/
3— http://www.montacute.net/histrenact/societies/wwii/articles/orgreave.htm
4— Idem.
5— “In Conversation: Jeremy Deller and Claire Doherty,” in Contemporary Art from Studio to Situation, Claire Doherty (ed.), London: Black Dog Publishing, 2005, p. 94.
6— Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, cf. www.marxists. org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/
7— Ibid.
8— Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition, tr. Paul Patton, London & New York: Continuum, 2001, p. 91.
9— Marx, op. cit. 10— Ibid.
10— Ibid.
11— Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, Peggy Kamuf (trans.), New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 111.
12— Marx, op. cit.
13— George Santayana, Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense, New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1905, p. 284.
14— Marx, op. cit.
15— Deleuze, op. cit., pp. 92-93.
16— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, ed. and translated by Robert F. Brown and Peter C. Hodgson, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2011, vol. I, pp. 445-446.


︎︎︎ Berlin, 2022

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