In a thread following this post, Larry writes:
This is a crazy idea I have sometimes: even if we want to be thoroughly postmodern and imagine that there is no actual past, the project of history may depend either on our belief (or on someone else's belief) in the myth of an actual past. So even if we think of history as commemoration, I'm not sure that the commemoration can function unless the commemorators think that they're commemorating SOMETHING outside of the commemoration ... even if we theorists believe that the commemoration IS the thing worthy of focus. Same thing for memory: I don't know how memory works if we don't think that we've remembered SOMETHING that exists or existed outside of memory. If we reduce the "actual past" to stimuli that produces memory and provokes us to commemorate, where are we, exactly? Have we taken history and turned it into something like a behavior?
A quick reply: Nobody that I know of doubts that the past existed (although Bertrand Russell once wondered if an evil deity might have created the universe two seconds ago complete with false memories – that’s a fun one). The key question here is access to the “actual past”.
I have argued that we have access only through present cognition. In memory we perceive the impact of the past upon the present. Like I've said elsewhere, it is the perceived continuity with previous states of cognition that provides the feel of reliable memory. So if we must be forced into theories of correspondence (i.e. you remember A, but I would argue that B really happened. Therefore your memory does not correspond to the reality of the past), we are attempting to measure the inherited memory against the other variables of historical data available. This is an attempt to reframe the memory/commemoration by drawing other networks of data into the sphere of memory. Thus, in this sense, that which is not remembered cannot be history. Ironically, it is in the push to find out "what actually happened" that we most refract the past. Finally, "what actually happened" (assuming that we think we have access to this) was a memory event from the start. It was a collision of mnemonic categories, intentions, perceptions, social forces, etc that organized the raw "stuff" into something that might be perceived as "an event".
So I say again: historians ought to be elbow deep in the study of memory (how it works, how it refracts, how it obscures, etc), not trying to sweep away the mnemonic obstacles in an attempt to get at something that is unfiltered. This does not mean that we naively accept what the traditional commemorations teach us. It does mean that our alternative versions of the past must provide a more compelling story of how the various elements of the commemoration came to be.