Post-Historical Art: Outlanders Virtual Memory of Transportable Selves
By Myron Jackson
Outlander is a proto-dramatic hybrid of history, culture, medicine, and love told and performed in literary and cinematic form through the experiential memory of Claire Beauchamp. Akin to Marcel Proust’s six-volume work In Search of Lost Time, the novel and TV series spans many centuries and micro-dramas from the wide-range introspection of non-synchronous historical story telling.
Translocated from her honeymoon stay with Frank Randall at Inverness in the ancient stone circle of Craigh na Dun, Claire awakens to the 1743 affairs of Clan Mackenzie and the conflict between Britain and Highlanders. The smells, sights, and sounds produce a complex of emotional qualities and kinaesthetic experiences that guide the viewer through her adventures.
Susanne Langer describes a sense of virtual memory as a semblance of “reality lived and remembered” that is produced as a “history in the mode of an experienced Past” (279). This provides rare and interesting access to one’s historical route that is normally closed off to such a wide span of personal consciousness. A play between freedom and fate is at the heart of the overarching narrative that threads together the whole as displayed in the story.
There are points at which Claire asks whether what is happening now will make major difference in the events and outcomes of World War II. Juicy historical tidbits create a crisscrossing of imagination and memory that merges into a literary proto-drama, which acts as a kind of Janus Head—looking forward and backward at the same time. As Langer writes, literary works “project a history in retrospect, whereas drama is history coming” (321). This melting together of time slices generates a rich complexity for the story.
From a philosophy of history perspective perhaps Outlander means to narrate history from a post-historical persuasion. Claire embodies not only a woman “ahead of her own time in 1945” but is “an outright anomaly of the 18th century” (wiki).
Of its many intrigues, perhaps none are more important than the power of memory that furnishes the narrative intelligibility of the story. Torn between the tension of her past and future selves, Claire projects a power of retrospective memory—a kind of deja vu into the future. The story stands as a tour de force of imaginative speculation on time travel and the means by which the past and future can be in active dialogue.
In a telling scene from the first volume, Claire consistently finds gruesome those medical operations that must be preformed without anesthetics. She blurts out to Jamie, “what are you trying to be, a John Wayne?” Not until the end of the chapter does he call attention to this oddity “who in God’s name is John Wayne?” “You are,” Claire said, “Go to sleep.” In her admiration of Jamie’s strength but perpetual need of bodily healings, Claire says “the heart of a lion and the head of an ox. Too bad you haven’t also got the hide of a rhinoceros.” Startled by this, “He opened one eye. “What’s a rhinoceros? I thought you were unconscious,” Claire says. He replies, “I was. I am. My head’s spinning like a top” (812).
If we are to consider the sixth and seventh senses of the western tradition of neuropsychology, we have to acknowledge the fact that neither the kinaesthetic nor proprioception presuppose the existence of a self. The latter relies upon an orientation of our experience without any fully intact ego consciousness. One does not need to be “awake” or subscribe to a logic of awareness in order to experience this sense of sensation and orientation within the occasion that is being felt and surveyed.
Both Langer and her teacher Whitehead taught that western intellectual history relied too much on the fallacy of the “presupposition that the sole way of examining experience is by acts of conscious introspective analysis” (225). Claire embodies both the kinaesthetic and proprioceptic sensibilities to make the story of the future-past of virtual memory come alive.
In her “Note on the Film” in Feeling and Form, Langer argues that under the necessity of the camera lens and portable stage the power of the transportable image can be ultimately brought about. Gabaldon introduces the presentational symbol of a transportable self in a new correspondence between relation and difference rather than identity and difference in the classical sense. We presuppose a proto-scenic self that functions on the purpose, emotion, and reflection of virtual memory. The fluidity of the self allows for these tributaries of experience to rise and fall at different cognitive levels of felt awareness. Under this transhistorical relatedness there is a strong connection of multiple relational identities, localities, and competing values all within the same figure.
Claire’s struggle and perseverance also speaks to the Scottish character that is a thorn in the side of the English to this day. Gabaldon’s work acts as a kind of seventh volume or addendum of philosopher David Hume’s History of England. It does not demonize or make a heroine out of any of the figures, but seeks to report the story as it maneuvers through felt semblances. Like Hume, Gabaldon not only dazzles us with this ever-expanding story and word play but she produces books like most of us send out tweets.
In a Heraclitean flow, we do not see where the story is actually going. Rather, its telos and purpose is truly open-ended and rooted in a pragmatic method of process-oriented thinking.
Gabaldon, Diana. Outlander: A Novel (New York: Random House, 1992).
Langer, Susanne. Feeling and Form (New York: Scribner’s Press, 1953).
Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press, 1933).
Myron Jackson is visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Grand Valley State University. His work centers on the problems of philosophical anthropology and public philosophy broadly construed. His two main projects seek to address current issues in epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics and to bridge them with process-oriented theories of experiential reality and value. His first forthcoming study is tentatively titled Ironic American Exceptionalism: Visions of Open Selves and seeks to confront triumphalist propaganda of US exceptionalism rooted in extremist patriotism and ideological conceptions of superiority. The other work is a close study of Alfred N. Whitehead’s philosophy of civilized societies through a critique of violent measurement, hypercognition, and metaphysical entertainment. The projected title of this work is Civilizational Aims of Entertainment: Whitehead and a Philosophy of the Present. Jackson enjoys teaching, interdisplinary studies, and collaborative research pedagogies.