Thursday, January 20, 2011

Me: Some Wonderings About Wood and Lepore and the Relation Between History and Memory


I just read Wood's essay. I'm pretty sure I'm missing something but I don't know how we can remember something we never experienced. And I don't know, given that, what collective memory means.

For a quick example:


1. The mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experience.

2. The act or an instance of remembering; recollection: spent the afternoon lost in memory.

3. All that a person can remember: It hasn't happened in my memory.

4. Something remembered: pleasant childhood memories.

5. The fact of being remembered; remembrance: dedicated to their parents' memory.

6. The period of time covered by the remembrance or recollection of a person or group of persons: within the memory of humankind....

If we can't remember what we can't have experienced then memory seems to refer to something more than literally remembering, something like "consciousness of..."

We may say Sir Charles Tupper lives in our memory. But what does it mean to say that? If memory requires experience then Sir Charles Tupper can't live in our memory, can he? We can only have a constructed awareness and understanding of him. And the awareness and understanding may be shared by many people. And by many shared understandings, we bind ourselves together as a group, a sub culture, a culture and a nation.

So when Wood says for example:

....Popular memory is not history, and that important distinction seems to be the source of the problem with Lepore’s book. Although she has spent much of her career mulling over the difference between critical history and popular memory, she doesn’t have any sympathy for the way in which some advocates of the Tea Party movement have remembered the Revolution.

As Lepore knows very well, there has always been a tension between critical history and popular memory, between what historians write and what society chooses to remember...

he glosses over the point I'm trying to make; and, again, unless I'm missing something, his use of "popular history" seems erroneous. The distinction to which Wood draws attention is between critical history, which argues the past based on evidence, however gathered, and the stories and myths comprising our common understanding of the past, right or wrong though they be. Here Wood all too briefly touches on two different meanings of popular history: the one I just mentioned; and the overarching interpretations of the past last written in America, according to Lepore, by Richard Hofstadter.

My sense is that for critical historians and their enthusiasts there isn't the (to me) mistaken use of memory. There is an awareness amongst them that they are not doing memory, or popular history, but are, rather, as I said, arguing the past based on evidence. They understand theirs is an exercise in construction and reconstruction, even reclamation possibly.

Lepore, according to Wood, as I'm reading his essay, wants to understand popular history in the Hofstadterian sense and, I infer, wants to argue for the social utility of that kind of popular history as doing some of the social gluing that the more vulgar notion of popular history does in embedding our common understandings in our stories and myths and embedding our common sense of our roots.

Part of his argument is, I think, that there is a contradiction in her plea for accessible popular history that the academy might produce as against her great impatience for, and her contemptuous dismissal of, Tea Party popular history. She dismisses Tea party history as a mode of fundamentalism that effectively tends to elide the difference between present and past:

...Lepore could have used some such advice as this. Her academic contempt for the attempts of ordinary citizens to find some immediate and emotional meaning in the Revolution might have been softened by such insights as Bailyn’s. She might have been able to display some of her scientific credentials as a historian and written a less partisan and more dispassionate account of the Tea Party movement to help us understand what it means...

So I'll finish where I began and then ask you one more question. Am I missing something in my problem with the use of the word memory as I've described it including, as Wood himself says, (and I repeat), "As Lepore knows very well, there has always been a tension between critical history and popular memory, between what historians write and what society chooses to remember"?

And if I have a point, does anything turn on it: would it contribute to clearer thinking about these issues or am I--as I fear I am--pounding on a distinction without a difference?

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