March 12th, 2013
Matt Novak from Paleofuture took Matthew Inman and his comic about Telsa to task in his “Edison vs. Tesla & the Myth of the Lone Inventor” at SxSW. Novak adopted a two-pronged approach: he attacked the comfortable idea that there was a lone inventor and, along the way, refuted many of the specific claims for Tesla having invented something (at least according to one report). Unfortunately, this approach is doomed to fail.
Inman dismissed Novak’s concerns with a nonchalant “The goal with my comic wasn’t to write nonfiction, it was more to paint a portrait of Tesla’s character and why I admire that and why I admire geeks in general.” Inman can ignore the facts because they get in the way of the story he wants to tell—or, in this case, the character he wants to celebrate.
Inman’s cavalier attitude to the historical record recalls Ben Affleck’s in “Argo.” In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Affleck rejected the “Bookkeeper’s reality” for the “poet’s:”
It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and what happened.
Neither Terry Gross on NPR nor Matt Novak had a good response. Both lost themselves in the details of this or that distortion. Such an approach is as ineffective as historians’ efforts to rebut distortions about Galileo.
Both Affleck and Inman want to invest their stories with the authority of historical reality but don’t want to be constrained by that reality. In this way they disguise their opinions and values as fact.
Historians need to articulate why fidelity to the historical record and standards of evidence and argument matter (see, for example, Carlo Ginzburg’s recent effort in “Just One Witness: The Extermination of the Jews and the Principle of Reality” in his Threads and Traces).