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“This is a major contribution to the study of the social shape of memory.”
— Andrew J. Perrin
“This is a major contribution to the study of the social shape of memory.”
— Eric Hobsbawm
— Joseph M. Bryant
— Barry Schwartz
— Alan Warde
— Mark Aultman
Plotlines and Narratives
In June 1919, as a triumphant France was preparing to sign the Treaty of Versailles, it made the portentous decision to stage the final act of the historical drama commonly known as revanche (revenge) in the very same Hall of Mirrors where the mighty German Empire it had just brought to its knees was formally proclaimed almost fifty years earlier, following Prussia's great victory in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. Not coincidentally, an equally pronounced sense of historical drama led a victorious German army twenty-one years later, in June 1940, to hack down the wall of the French museum housing the railway coach in which the armistice formalizing Germany's defeat in World War I had been signed in November 1918, and tow it back to the forest clearing near the town of Compiègne where that nationally traumatic event had taken place and where Germany was now ready to stage France's humiliating surrender in World War II:
The cycle of revenge could not be more complete. France had chosen as the setting for the final humbling of Germany in 1919 the Versailles Hall of Mirrors where, in the arrogant exaltation of 1871, King Wilhelm of Prussia had proclaimed himself Kaiser; so now Hitler's choice for the scene of his moment of supreme triumph was to be that of France's in 1918.
Soon after Hitler finished reading the inscription documenting the historic humiliation of Germany by France in 1918, everyone entered the famous railcar and General Wilhelm Keitel began reading the terms of surrender after explicitly confirming the choice of that particular site as "an act of reparatory justice."
Only within the context of some larger historical scenario, of course, could either of these events be viewed in terms of "reparation." And only within the context of such seemingly never-ending Franco-German revenge scenarios can one appreciate a 1990 joke in which the tongue-in-cheek answer to the question "Which would be the new capital of the soon-to-be-reunified Germany: Bonn or Berlin?" was actually "Paris"!
Essentially accepting the structuralist view of meaning as a product of the manner in which semiotic objects are positioned relative to one another, I believe that the historical meaning of events basically lies in the way they are situated in our minds vis-à-vis other events. Indeed, it is their structural position within such historical scenarios (as "watersheds," "catalysts," "final straws") that leads us to remember past events as we do. That is how we come to regard the foundation of the State of Israel, for example, as a "response" to the Holocaust, and the Gulf War as a belated "reaction" to the U.S. debacle in Vietnam. It was the official portrayal of the 2001 military strikes in Afghanistan as "retaliation" for the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that likewise led U.S. television networks to report on them under the on-screen headline "America Strikes Back," and the collective memory of a pre-Muslim, essentially Christian early-medieval Spain that leads Spaniards to regard the late-medieval Christian victories over the Moors as a "re-conquest" (reconquista).
Consider also the case of historical irony. Only from such a historical perspective, after all, does the recent standardization of the Portuguese language in accordance with the way it is currently spoken by 175 million Brazilians rather than only 10 million Portuguese come to be seen as ironic. A somewhat similar sense of historical irony underlies the decision made by the New York Times the day after the 2001 U.S. presidential inauguration to print side by side two strikingly similar yet contrasting photographs featuring the outgoing president Bill Clinton outside the White House: one with his immediate predecessor, George Bush, back in January 1993, and the other with his immediate successor, George W. Bush, exactly eight years later.
One of the most remarkable features of human memory is our ability to mentally transform essentially unstructured series of events into seemingly coherent historical narratives. We normally view past events as episodes in a story (as is evident from the fact that the French and Spanish languages have a single word for both story and history, the apparent difference between the two is highly overstated), and it is basically such "stories" that make these events historically meaningful. Thus, when writing our résumés, for example, we often try to present our earlier experiences and accomplishments as somehow prefiguring what we are currently doing. Similar tactics help attorneys to strategically manipulate the biographies of the people they prosecute or defend.
As is quite evident from figure 1, in order for historical events to form storylike narratives, we need to be able to envision some connection between them. Establishing such unmistakably contrived connectedness is the very essence of the inevitably retrospective mental process of emplotment. Indeed, it is through such emplotment (as well as reemplotment, as is quite spectacularly apparent in psychotherapy) that we usually manage to provide both past and present events with historical meaning.
Approaching the phenomenon of memory from a strictly formal narratological perspective, we can actually examine the structure of our collective narration of the past just as we examine the structure of any fictional story. And indeed, adopting such a pronouncedly morphological stance helps reveal the highly schematic formats along which historical narratives usually proceed. And although actual reality may never "unfold" in such a neat formulaic manner, those scriptlike plotlines are nevertheless the form in which we often remember it, as we habitually reduce highly complex event sequences to inevitably simplistic, one-dimensional visions of the past.
Following in the highly inspiring footsteps of Hayden White, I examine here some of the major plotlines that help us "string" past events in our minds, thereby providing them with historical meaning. Rejecting, however, the notion that these plotlines are objective representations of actual event sequences, as well as the assumption that such visions of the past are somehow universal, I believe that we are actually dealing here with essentially conventional sociomnemonic structures. As is quite evident from the fact that certain schematic formats of narrating the past are far more prevalent in some cultural and historical contexts than others, they are by and large manifestations of unmistakably social traditions of remembering.
A perfect example of such a plotline is the general type of historical narrative associated with the idea of progress. Such a "later is better" scenario is quite commonly manifested in highly schematic "rags-to-riches" biographical narratives as well as in unmistakably formulaic recollections of families' "humble origins." It can likewise be seen in companies' "progress reports" to their shareholders as well as in history of science narratives, which almost invariably play up the theme of development.
Yet the most common manifestation of this progressionist historical scenario is the highly schematic backward-to-advanced evolutionist narrative. It is quite evident, for example, in conventional narrations of human origins, which typically emphasize the theme of progressive improvement with regard to the "development" of our brain, level of social organization, and degree of technological control over our environment. Similarly, it is evident whenever modern, "civilized" societies are compared to so-called underdeveloped, "primitive" ones.
As we can see in figure 2, such an unmistakably schematic vision of progressive improvement over time often evokes the image of an upward-leaning ladder. This common association of time's arrow with an upward direction (and its rather pronounced positive cultural connotations) is quite crisply encapsulated in the title of Jacob Bronowski's popular book and television series, The Ascent of Man, as well as in the conventional vision of the "lower" forms of life occupying the lower rungs of the "evolutionary ladder."
Such a highly formulaic vision of the past clearly reflects more than just the way some particularly optimistic individuals happen to recall certain specific events. Indeed, it is part of the general historical outlook of entire mnemonic communities. Though we normally regard optimism as a personal trait, it is actually also part of an unmistakably schematic "style" of remembering shared by entire communities.
Thus, as is quite evident from Horatio Alger's and numerous other "rags-to-riches" versions of the so-called American Dream, many Americans, for instance, are much greater believers in the idea of progress than Afghans or Australian Aborigines. And as one can clearly tell from the general aversion of the working class to this idea, different historical outlooks are also associated with different social classes.
Furthermore, as a brainchild of the Enlightenment, progressionism is a hallmark of modernity and has certainly been a much more common historical outlook over the past two hundred years than during any earlier period. Viewing history in terms of progress is an integral part of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century philosophies of Marie Jean Condorcet, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Auguste Comte. It is likewise encapsulated in major late nineteenth-century offshoots of those philosophies such as the social and cultural evolutionism of Herbert Spencer, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Edward B. Tylor, who basically envisioned human history as a progressive ascent from savagery to civilization.
This essentially forward-looking view of history sharply contrasts with yet another conventional historical outlook, which basically features decline as the major theme in accordance with which we come to organize our memory. Inherently pessimistic, this unmistakably backward-clinging historical stance typically includes an inevitably tragic vision of some glorious past that, unfortunately, is lost forever. In marked contrast with the progress narrative, in the decline narrative things usually get worse with time. Instead of improvement, this essentially regressive mnemonic tradition emphasizes deterioration, thereby promoting a general view of the past most effectively represented by a downward-pointing arrow, as in figure 3. No wonder it is often coupled with a deep sentimental attachment to "the good old days." Whereas progress implies an idealized future, nostalgia presupposes a highly romanticized past.
Note, however, that we are not dealing here with actual historical trends but with purely mental historical outlooks. The very same historical period, after all, is remembered quite differently, depending on whether we use a progress or a decline narrative to recount it. During the 1992 U.S. presidential election, for example, while George Bush was portraying his presidency as a period of substantial progress marked by the downfall of communism and the emergence of a new U.S.-dominated world order, a very different picture was being presented by his challenger, Bill Clinton, who quite effectively downplayed those historic international developments by relentlessly focusing on the alarming rise in domestic poverty and unemployment.
As exemplified by parole hearings and tenure reviews, historical plotlines are often extrapolated to imply anticipated trajectories. To appreciate such inherently strategic manipulation of decline narratives, consider a provocative display of the devastating effects of deforestation at Costa Rica's Lankester botanical gardens in Cartago. A series of maps depicting the progressively decreasing amount of Costa Rican land still covered by rain forest are sequentially arranged to form a disturbing narrative that begins in 1940 with an almost entirely green country and ends in the year 2025, quite evocatively represented by a virtually empty map with a big question mark. As one might expect, projecting such historical regression onto the future is a major feature of "doomsday" scenarios.
Often articulated in nostalgic visions of some mythical golden age after which things have essentially been going "downhill," such a pronouncedly regressive mnemonic tradition is also quite apparent in the general tendency to remember our ancestors as larger-than-life, almost superhuman figures. Such an inherently conservative historical outlook, succinctly encapsulated in the traditional Jewish belief that every generation is of a somewhat lesser quality than its predecessors (holekh u-fochet ha-dor), is explicitly manifested in the divine pedigree ascribed to humankind in various cosmogonies. It is also implicit in the unmistakably downward direction in which we conventionally depict the flow of time in family trees and other maps of so-called descent as well as in the highly reverential manner in which we normally think about Shakespeare or Mozart, or the way we tend to remember our national "Founding Fathers" as well as past sports "legends."
Like its progressionist counterpart, this highly formulaic vision of the past represents a particular social tradition of remembering. Though we normally regard pessimism, like optimism, as a personal trait, actually it is also part of an unmistakably schematic style of remembering shared by entire mnemonic communities. Indeed, though "virtually every culture past or present has believed that men and women are not up to the standards of their parents and forebears," this particular view of the past (just like nostalgia) is much more common in some historical periods than in others. And although the vision of our tragically irretrievable Edenic origins dates to ancient Judaism and our progressive degeneration from some idealized golden age was already recounted by Hesiod 2,700 years ago, many decline narratives are in fact a reaction to the overly optimistic modern belief in progress. This is quite evident in the highly pessimistic philosophies of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche as well as in the unmistakably modern social and biological degeneration narratives produced by Cesare Lombroso, Edwin Ray Lankester, Max Nordau, and Oswald Spengler.
A Zigzag in Time
Despite the obvious difference between them, however, both progress and decline narratives share one important formal feature. Whether their basic underlying plotline points upward or downward, the overall story it entails has a single, unmistakably uniform direction. The situation is quite different in narratives that specifically combine upward- and downward-pointing plotlines in an effort to highlight significant changes in historical trajectories. Instead of featuring just progress or decline, these narratives feature both.
Excerpted from Time Maps by Eviatar Zerubavel Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago . Excerpted by permission.
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|List of Figures|
|Introduction: The Social Structure of Memory||1|
|1||The Social Shape of the Past||11|
|3||Ancestry and Descent||55|
|5||In the Beginnings||101|