History’s Quantum Dimension

It’s the 48th anniversary of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The New York Times has published a short film by noted documentarian Errol Morris called The Umbrella Man, in which he interviews Josiah Thompson, writer of Six Seconds in Dallas. Here’s an excerpt of Thompson’s speculation about what the assassination means for historians:

“In December 1967, John Updike was writing [the] ‘Talk of the Town’ [column] for the the New Yorker and he spent most of that ‘Talk of the Town’ column talking about the Umbrella Man. He said that his learning of the existence of the Umbrella Man made him speculate that in historical research there may be a dimension similar to the quantum dimension in physical reality. If you put any event under a microscope, you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on. It’s as if there’s the macro level of historical research, where things sort of obey natural laws and usual things happen and unusual things don’t happen, and then there’s this other level where everything is really weird.” Watch the film here.

The Morris documentary is based on what’s known as the Zapruder film - footage of the assassination captured on a hobbyist camera by Abraham Zapruder. While it’s not the only footage of the assassination, it’s considered the most complete and the only one that clearly shows the president’s head wound. The film has thus been extensively surveyed by amateur sleuths and professional investigators ever since, despite the fact that the vision is extremely unstable. Now, the Zapruder film has finally been stabilised - although we must warn you that the content is extremely violent.

We’ve come a long way since then. Last week, a pepper spraying of Occupy protesters by police at the Davis campus of the University of California was captured on a variety of handheld video capture devices - let’s call them phones. The image of a policeman casually releasing pepper spray from a shake-up can is now a meme. Four of these videos have been synchronised and can now be viewed simultaneously. It’s led some to write about the birth of the citizen reporter - but, as Zapruder’s film shows, citizen reporting isn’t exactly new. What’s new is the platform, which is why the emerging debate about internet censorship looms as a critical one. (Read our recent story on the debate between the champions of DIY journalism and the defenders of traditional, institutional reporting.)

Far more disturbing though is footage of the public unrest in Egypt. This Guardian footage is bad enough - this Al-Masry Al-Youm TV footage may give you nightmares. “The age of authoritarianism is over, no one can tell the Egyptians what to do anymore,” says a young Egyptian revolutionary quoted in the Guardian, one of thousands of Egyptians protesting against the ruling military junta that has triggered the resignation en masse of the interim government and threatens to derail elections scheduled to be held in a week. So far, the protests have claimed the lives of 33 protesters. Here’s video of the Wheeler Centre’s recent event on the Arab Spring, where former diplomat Paul Bowker warns that the Arab Spring could take five to ten years and see many twists and turns.

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