Baker Academic

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Perceiving the Past in the Present - Le Donne

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.



  1. Anthony, you are saying two things. It is hard to respond, because the response turns radically on which of these two things I respond to.

    You balked when I suggested that “there is no actual past”. You suggested instead that the problem is access to the actual past, that we cannot access the actual past because it only “existed” in its moment of being present and that moment is gone when its presence is past. So, you might have accepted it if I’d said instead that “the actual past is no more”. If the only problem with the actual past is the lack of direct access to it, then arguably we’re dealing with a limited problem, and a problem I think that every decent historian would acknowledge. The actual past is “out there”, and we strive to achieve the closest convergence we can imagine between the history we construct and that actual past.

    But you also said that “what actually happened” was a memory event from the start. That’s VERY much like saying that “there is no actual past” and never was. That’s a more radical statement, and FWIW, this statement is closer to the way I see it. The goal of the historian is then to understand the stories we tell about the past … or to find ways to tell the story better (what you called “a more compelling story”).

    A problem with this second construction is that it becomes difficult to imagine history as separate from memory – and here, I don’t mean that history begins as a memory event, but instead that there’s no seeming conceptual difference between history as practiced and history as it should be practiced, or between “good” or “accurate” history and history as most commonly accepted. This follows from what you said about what is forgotten not being history. Following this logic, what is remembered by very few is shaky history, and what is remembered en masse is solid history. Following this logic, there is no history (or “good” or “accurate” history) that is separable from the time or cultural context in which it is created. There are implications to this, not all of which I’m willing to accept, one of which is the radical relative subjectivity of historical truth.

    But back to basics. I cannot follow this conversation if both “the past existed” and “what actually happened” was a memory event from the start.

  2. Larry, this topic obviously deserves a better venue than a blog post. Perhaps a full-length book would be a better place to provide a more detailed answer... As luck would have it, I have written such a book:

    The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David

    All kidding aside, I think you might enjoy it. Either than or it'll drive you crazy.


  3. Your correction is incorrect. Instead of "either that or", you can safely substitute "and"!