Thursday, March 10, 2005

"It Never Existed"

According to the Telegraph, French authorities have airbrushed the cigarette out of John Paul Sarte's photograph.

France's National Library has airbrushed Jean-Paul Sartre's trademark cigarette out of a poster of the chain-smoking philosopher to avoid prosecution under an anti-tobacco law. ...

The library's president, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, confirmed that the cigarette had been discreetly smudged to comply with the 1991 loi Evin - a law banning tobacco advertising - but also so as not to frighten away potential sponsors from the exhibition, which opened yesterday.

The practice of historical revisionism, which was a central theme to George Orwell's 1984, was extensively practiced by Joseph Stalin. The NewsMuseum documents the "before and after" photographs of Lenin with Leon Trotsky, among others, redacted from the image. But what if -- hypothetically now -- the NewsMuseum were in fact the forgery; what if Trotsky was digitally inserted into the picture. How would I know? 

Asymmetrical Information has a fascinating link to a book called the Motel of the Mysteries, a book constructed in the best archaeological literary style, describing a hypothetically complete misunderstanding of an entire civilization.

It is the year 4022; all of the ancient country of Usa has been buried under many feet of detritus from a catastrophe that occurred back in 1985. Imagine, then, the excitement that Howard Carson, an amateur archeologist at best, experienced when in crossing the perimeter of an abandoned excavation site he felt the ground give way beneath him and found himself at the bottom of a shaft, which, judging from the DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging from an archaic doorknob, was clearly the entrance to a still-sealed burial chamber. Carson's incredible discoveries, including the remains of two bodies, one of then on a ceremonial bed facing an altar that appeared to be a means of communicating with the Gods and the other lying in a porcelain sarcophagus in the Inner Chamber, permitted him to piece together the whole fabric of that extraordinary civilization.

The elevation of a motel toilet to the central cult object of a vanished civilization is one possible consequence of unintended historical misunderstanding. But so powerful a technique as historical revisionism would tempt others to purposeful use, not only for the relatively harmless purpose of eliminating cigarettes from the likeness of Jean Paul Sarte, but for political gain. Certainly the machinery was in place to do this. An Oxblog link to Wikipedia reminds us that the BBC's annual budget of $10 billion "rivals that of NASA. It is greater than the gross domestic product of more than half the world's nations and ranks behind the budgets of only the twelve governments of the wealthiest nations on the planet."

Who controls the past
Controls the future.
Who controls the present
Controls the past.

Has the Internet changed things all that much? Perhaps for most people born after today it will be a truism that Jean Paul Sarte didn't smoke; that Jean Paul Sarte never smoked.