U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Time Changes Everything

Over the past few weeks, I have watched The Jinx, Andrew Jarecki’s HBO profile of accused killer Robert Durst (distributed over 6 episodes), and over a long drive from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, listened (late to the game) to Serial, Sarah Koenig’s multipart podcast about a murder case in Baltimore from 1999, produced by the This American Life people.

Much of the fascination of The Jinx and Serial lies in the way they expose the work of historiographical reconstruction, rendering the usually hidden labor of research public

The blogospheric discussion of The Jinx and Serial has largely focused upon the trustworthiness of the narrators. Both stories are told by affluent white media professionals. Neither show is free of bad faith: Jarecki and Koenig question every last detail of evidence, but never address the dubious enabling conceit that sufficient pluck and determination will lead the properly motivated gumshoe to “the truth.” Both Koenig and Jarekci seem comfortable generalizing from a very narrow set of experiences.

Fans and critics appear to be fascinated by the manners in which The Jinx and Serial handle problems of sequence and structure. In discussions of these shows, narrative decision-making seems to carry profound ideological weight. Viewers and listeners are wary, I think, of getting caught up in the storyteller’s perverse desires. Here, I think, the worry is not so much aversion to manipulation as it is about resistance to serving as an audience for charismatic narcissists.

On message boards and comment sections, the act of consumption is figured as a set of principled responses to choices that have been made about which details should be presented in what order. Viewers evaluate these choices as good or bad. Approval and condemnation are calibrated in much the same way as nineteenth century Americans thought about “character” and “virtue.” To a large degree, the creators seem to be playing the same game. Jarecki, for legal reasons, has not been talking to the press about The Jinx. But consider this snippet from an interview with Koenig from Vulture in October:

It’s so funny, that is what everyone keeps saying, and to be honest, it’s driving me crazy. I do not know how this is all going to turn out. I just read a piece on Slate that insisted I have some tricks up my sleeve and am manipulating the audience in some way, and that really couldn’t [be] farther from the truth. I am not playing all of you. If you guys only knew how this is put together. I’m not far ahead of you. Episode Five just aired, and I just did a first draft of Episode Six this afternoon, so I am pretty much creating this thing in real time now. Yes, I could say, there was a point where I thought I knew the truth. And then I found out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and I did more reporting, and now I don’t know what I don’t know again! Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad at me!


I am interested in what these responses tell us about current anxieties about history and historical time. I have a few ideas. But I wonder if others might want to weigh in, in the meantime?

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. NB: “The future is necessarily monstrous: the figure of the future, that is, that which can only be surprising, that for
    which we are not prepared . . . is heralded by species of
    monsters. A future that would not be monstrous would not
    be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable,
    and programmable tomorrow. All experience open to the
    future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous
    arrivant.” Jacques Derrida, “Passages—from Truamatism to Promise,” trans. Peggy Kamuf, in Jacques Derrida, Points…: Interviews, 1976-1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber (Stanford : Stanford University Press, 1995), 386–387 [372–395].

  2. I haven’t followed either of these programs, Kurt, but you have me intrigued! Too many people I like have/had been involved in Serial. And I like your nota bene from Derrida. – TL

    • Thanks Tim! Serial is immensely listenable radio–great for drives. I would love to know your thoughts on it. (The Jinx is addictive, but I am less convinced of its long-run significance…)

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