'The filmmaker Barbara Hammer classifies "History Lessons" as experimental essay documentary. The film is experimental in the form and salvaging of archival material; it is essayistic in that it tries to explain, to explore the history of lesbian history.
In this short essay, I try to be true to this experimental essay form in exploring the potentialities of learning from these lessons.' NAH
Learning Barbara Hammer's  "History Lessons"
Heteronormative strictures and moral constraints have filled the space that would have allowed for a cohesive queer history. Gilles Delueze offers a viable template for salvaging a queer past in Difference and Repetition: "The present can be the most contracted degree of the past which coexists with it only if the past first coexists with itself in an infinity of diverse degrees of relaxation and contraction at an infinity of levels…"[1] In examining the detritus and artifacts that suggest a queer past, the contracted present can be unpacked to reveal the multiple partial levels, to abstract what can be read as a near narrative. If gays, lesbian and transgendered people (as a fairly unified, identity-driven population) possess a history before the early and mid-twentieth century, it is a history that is rooted in the remnants of rumor, insinuation and pornography. It lacks the complete integrity that would allow it to be clearly seen in full light. It, in its fragmentary nature, resembles a prehistoric Mesopotamian or Mesoamerican empire shattered and scattered throughout the rise of the West. Rumors of Sappho's pupils, the ganymedes of the middle ages, the boy brothels of the Victorian era, each suggest the history of a people who did not leave enduring narratives since before forty years ago the world has had so few coelacanths like Quentin Crisp to testify openly.

But the history of the hidden, the scraps of marginalia and samizdat preserve something potent - the potential historical validation of queers. This potential makes Hammer's project in "History Lessons" a difficult one. Hammer says in "The Politics of Abstraction", "The satisfaction that comes from study and understanding of a complex work of multiple references and perceptual insights is a very rich fullness that can't be compared to linear journalism or narrative film allows me to express perceptual, intellectual, and emotional configurations that provoke pain and give pleasure."
[2] In this film, the bringing together of scraps of celluloid forces the "pain" and "pleasure" of parataxis into overdrive since the pieces not only suggest an emotional meaning but signal a cultural and political narrative.

The power and force of the fragment, the atomic urge of the pieces, are coalesced into something that approaches but cannot actually be a cohesive narrative. Graphic vintage porn juxtaposed to an educational film suggests an arc of a narrative, the structure that allows for the comfortable processing of history. It testifies to the power, the terror of the consuming presence of historical urge. In addressing queer art and readings, Judith Halberstam explains that "…difficult narratives sometimes require difficult forms - forms that unsettle, disturb, and render turbulent the forms of knowing on which we usually rely."
[3] Hammer's "History Lessons" absolutely "renders turbulent" and problematizes the educational film and the stag reel. The turbulence consumes the individual; one girl becomes any girl. Authorial intention is rendered void (lessons about gossip, depictions of cunnilingus now only serve to fill in the silence of the story.)

The main impetus of "History Lessons" is one of defiance of the strictures and constraints of mainstream linear chronology in Hammer's attempt to construct a coherent history from one that innately lacks coherence. She argues "…there [can] be multiple, coexisting, and different theories and understandings of 'Lesbianisms' through a variety of readings."
[4] In "History Lessons", she likewise complicates the normal understanding not only of "Lesbianisms" but also of history and lessons. Since the viewer is not meant to learn facts or dates of past events, she or he is meant instead to learn how to construct (or perhaps just re-construct) history.

This history is pitched to a powerful point, a point of dissolution of the fractured artifact, for the more important potential of supposition and inference. The hope of these fragmentary passages is one of historical manifestation or invocation. The only power that matters here is one of resistance to expected historical structure. Resistance is crucial as diffuse misguidance lends the viewer false and misleading cues since the appropriation of some fragments (such as Eleanor Roosevelt's speech at the beginning of the piece) is at best skewed. Ultimately, the resistance of history includes the resistance to the history Hammer is creating since the role of the film and filmmaker, archive and archivist, are put into question.

This celluloid patchwork becomes the opening place not only for a pseudo-historical recreation but for filmic manipulations. More important than all is the recurring image of the archivist, the documentarian, looking through the pieces. A central focus in the film is concerned with her movement through the stacks of reels and negative boxes. In acknowledging her potency to bring these fragments together, the archivist, towards the end of the film, reaches a moment of apotheosis as her image distorts and the colors reverse. Her body becomes an elongated silhouette in a field of light, becomes more than just the assembler of the piece. Through these manipulations her identity merges with the piece.  Even the gesture of bringing together fragments can no longer be the provenance of the narrative. The fragments of the past must make way for the solid mental mechanizations and re-creations of the present (here displayed by the staging of Weegee's photographs by Drag Kings.) Judith Halberstam explores the nature of this body throughout her book, In a Queer Time and Place, "Representations of the transgender body by both advanced and subcultural artists provide one arena for the examination of new dynamics of resistance."
[5] It is at this point that the film enters into its greatest resistance since even the ephemeral evidence of history is denied for the seeming concreteness of repetition and replication. Ultimately, "History Lessons" provides a method of enabling those in the present to openly coexist with the near infinite fragments of the buried past.


[1] Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 83.
[2] Barbara Hammer, "The Politics of Abstraction" Queer Looks, ed. Gever, Greyson and Parmar (New York: Routledge, 1993), 73.
[3] Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 109.
[4] Barbara Hammer, "The Politics of Abstraction" Queer Looks, ed. Gever, Greyson and Parmar (New York: Routledge, 1993), 72.
[5] Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 109.