The Possibility of Multiple Histories
I had recently attended a seminar hosted by Ethos Books, debunking Singapore's 'mythic history' since it's founding. It got me thinking about how history should be a critical discourse instead of an imposed narrative (like it was taught in school). In one of my recent lecture on graphic design history, I couldn't help noticing the parallels between both my country and this creative discipline. Both are relatively young and trying so desperately to write an authoritative history for itself. Both getting (somewhat) nowhere. Is this the time to start thinking about a more pluralistic narrative, and the possibility of multiple histories?
Whilst attempting to cement our graphic design history, there were debates on what to include and what to leave out, or even where to begin. It was not easy to decide what was 'significant enough' to qualify for the graphic design canon. Some advocate the shortsighted view and believe that graphic design is a new activity, born of the industrial revolution. Others advocate a far-sighted view, believing the essence of graphic design is giving visual form to human communications, an activity that has a distinguished ancestry dating to the medieval manuscript and early printers of the Renaissance. (Meggs, 1985)
Martha Scottford (1991) even attempted to produce an experimental canon with various criteria like size and reproductions. However as graphic design continually expands and become more multidisciplinary, it will only get even trickier to define and assign value. However, this is also the beauty of graphic design — how it is a moving target, continuously changing in self-definition to reflect meaning in different cultures and context. Thus, a single narrative will only lead to oversimplification, ignorance of causes and their effects, and the lack of barrage point. A single narrative will never be an accurate representation of what graphic design history really is.
I guess this is where the notion of multiple histories has the potential to play out. Absolute truth surely exists ideologically somewhere out there, but once written it evolves into relative narratives due to the cultural context and unavoidable bias of the writer. When we attempt to record the accomplishments of the past, we do so from the vantage point of our own time. As much as one might strive for objectivity, the limitations of individual knowledge and insights will ultimately intrude. Therefore, a single narrative is in large measure a myth, because the historian looks back over the great sprawling network of human struggle and attempts to construct a web of meaning. (Meggs, 1994) The facts were never an issue, but we are.
Over time as graphic design matures, I envision its narrative unfolding into a more pluralistic, inclusive and co-written script. At this proto-disciplinary stage, we should let go of our urge for a unified viewpoint and maybe, just maybe, agree to disagree from here on. We could have two different starting points for graphic design, we could have ten. Why not? Let's create an anarchic and incohesive narrative, allowing people to decide for themselves what is true, leaving history as a space for critical discourse.