The idea that the past is a plaything of the present, or a ‘metafiction’, is only now beginning to disturb the tranquillity of professional historians, but for some twenty years it has been a commonplace of epistemological criticism, and a mainspring of experimental work in literature and the arts. Thus in ‘magic realism’ or ‘modern Gothic’ the fairy tale can appear as the latest thing; while in the visual arts, futurist installations offer themselves as parodies of Old Masters. ‘Back to the Future’ is also a leitmotiv in commodity and marketing design—something discussed here under the heading of ‘Retrochic’—while in Britain, as in other advanced capitalist societies, conservation has been the cutting edge of the business recolonization of the inner city.
According to critics of the heritage industry the current obsession with the past signals not a return to tradition but the exhaustion of history’s grand narratives. The postmodern condition, so the argument runs, is one where the future has spectacularly parted company from the past. Nostalgia is the sigh of the historically orphaned, heritage a symptom of national decay.
In this book—the first of a trilogy—Raphael Samuel takes issue with the heritage baiters. He offers an alternative genealogy of resurrectionism, relating it to the environmentalist movements of our time. He argues that we live in an expanding historical culture, one which is newly alert to the evidence of the visual, and which is reconnecting the study of landscape and townscape to that of the natural world. It is also, he argues, more democratic than earlier versions of the national past, and much more hospitable to hitherto stigmatized minorities. The volume is prefaced with a long essay on unofficial knowledge and has an Afterword on ‘allegories of the real’.