Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ken Burns versus the Academics: Thoughts on Ken Burn's National Parks: America's Best Idea?

October 2009

It's a tale that academics (especially historians) and intellectuals love to recite, how dominant and mainstream American acquisitiveness and countercultural romantic environmentalism clashed and fought over the American landscape in the nineteenth century and ever since. Ken Burns's National Park: America's Best Idea is retelling the tale in Burns's tried and true style and in gorgeous visuals. For some critics it is one of the best things Burns has ever done.

Sadly, of course, the story Burns tells or perhaps better retells (Al Runte of the history of national parks fame goes documentary?) is all true. The US remains obsessed with money. National Parks were created because the land they were created out of were considered worthless for farming and ranching and mining and, well you fill in the blank. If the first episode is any indication Burns tells this tale well.

But it is not the only story Burns tells. National Parks: America's Best Idea is also about people, people like John Muir, Stephen Mather, Horace Albright, Theodore Roosevelt, Claire Marie Hodges, Margaret Gerkey, George Masa, and other men and women who fell in love with the American landscape and America's national parks. It is about romanticism, science, ecology, nature mysticism, obsession, compromise, salesmanship, tourism, automobiles, road building, government territorialism, the American military, the National Park Service, and the Wilderness Society. And it is about places, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Tetons, Glacier, the Smokey Mountains, Zion's, Bryce, Arches, the Grand Canyon.

I expect the same reactions to The National Parks: The Best Idea that we have had to Burns's documentaries in the past (see history is cyclical). Some will bury it for its photographic manipulations (using photographs that are not of the events described narratively to add to the visual side of the tale) and its popularity which they see as an inevitable dumbing down of the story. Some (like myself) will point out that prominent environmental and national park figures like Edward Abbey are missing from the tale and ask why. Others will praise it for bringing history to the masses (and it certainly it will be seen by more people than who read the average or above average in sales history book) and for using academics, in this case noted environmental historians William Cronon (who has his own website) and Alfred Runte, as advisors and expert commentators. Still others will praise it for its craft (including its sound track) and visual beauty.

For those of us interested in the history and culture of academia and the social and cultural contexts of knowledge these reactions will inevitably raise the same old questions about academic culture and society they have in the past. Why are some academics so paranoid about popularity and popular culture? Why do some academics respond in knee jerk fashion with fear and loathing to popular culture? Are there institutional factors at play here that lead some academics to dismiss popular culture and attempts to bring intellectual stories to the masses ? Are struggles over power and expertise going on here? Are there cultural or ideological factors at play in the discourse over the work of Ken Burns?

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