Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ignorant of More than History

My reading of the latest issue of The New York Review has now progressed to Max Hastings' review of Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan. I anticipated that this would simply revive my pursuit of the proposition that the very concept of history is alien to our current culture, perhaps to such a degree that we have become willfully ignorant of historical thinking. What I had not anticipated was the possibility that my scope had been too narrow; and I am now revising my proposition to the effect that, if we are, indeed, alienated from any sense of history, it is because our very sense of the nature of memory has been corrupted. That corruption has impacted the roles that memory now plays in our lives, one of which it how it defines our relationship to our past, including the past documented in the historical record.

I was provoked to rethink my position through Hastings' quotation of a rather curious and disquieting piece of government language, which, like much language usage, says a lot about the culture in which we are embedded. The text is that of the "Preserve America" Executive Order, decreed by President George W. Bush in 2003:

The Federal Government shall recognize and manage the historic properties in its ownership as assets that can support department and agency missions while contributing to the vitality and economic well-being of the Nation's communities and fostering a broader appreciation for the development of the United States and its underlying values.

In terms of historical context (I almost wanted to put scare quotes around that phrase), this Executive Order can be read as a statement of how the Bush Administration read the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and how that Administration intended to turn that law into actions. The reading captured by this sentence is even more disquieting than the abundance of government-speak in which it is couched (which says quite a lot for a President who purported to connect with "jes' plain folks" through direct speaking).

Within the first twenty words of this sentence, we have been overwhelmed by three nouns that have absolutely nothing to do with history: properties, ownership, and assets. Those nouns turn out to lie at the heart of the real motive behind the Executive Order, the goal to "support department and agency missions." This Executive Order is not about the value of a historical record or the role that such a record plays in our societal memory. It is about properties that serve as agencies to further the Administration's political missions, using Kenneth Burke's sense of the word agency (that of facilitating instruments), which basically reflects (for example) the ways in which pharmaceutical and technology industries have become the key agencies in providing health care.

However, this is only a surface-level misunderstanding. Things get bleaker when we try to delve into the "deep structure" below that surface, because that deeper structure promotes the premise that memory itself is nothing more than a vast repository of objects that simply needs to be managed by the right combination of database and search technologies. It is the corollary of the proposition that, eventually (and, hopefully, sooner, rather than later), the Internet will have captured "all the world's knowledge" (along with its corollary that Google will then allow us to find whatever instances of that knowledge we may wish). We are now in the world of the "articles of faith" of the enterprise software industry; and those articles of faith overlook the fundamental way in which humans have dealt with memory throughout the history of any (not just Western) civilization. At the human level memory does not reside in any repositories but in our capacity to relate to others ways in which what has happened in the past has had an impact on what is happening in the present. As Aristotle put it (in his "Poetics" rather than his study of memory), it is a mimetic act of reproducing the past in the context of the present. In my favorite use of language, memory is verb-based, rather than noun-based.

I would thus propose that our culture has alienated itself from its fundamental capacity for memory through its commitment to technologies that have alienated it from the expressive capabilities of verbs. Having lost its grip on memory, its is only natural that the culture has also lost its comprehension of the nature of history and can only think about history (when it does so at all) in terms of properties and assets. As a result we shall become a society in which what we do in the present is no longer informed by what has happened in the past; and only time will tell what the survival value (in Darwinian language) of this "mutation" of our thinking will be!

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