How can “historical memory” be made a more palatable dish?

Posted on November 12, 2013 by


Pardon me for being so quiet lately, but things have been a bit… busy. It doesn’t mean I stop thinking about the history… or the practice of the same.

Take… “historical memory”. I’ve wondered if the practice among historians is as great as what it was a few years back. More important, I wonder if we’ve learned anything about making the method of study more… as the title states… palatable.

I saw, for example, a post from blogger and friend, Richard Williams. I was going to comment, but realized I actually created a small blog post in the comment, and that it might be best, therefore, to put it here.

I’m not so sure that “historical memory” is all the rage, these days (as Richard suggests), but then… historians work within different circles. Some flourish in that brand of practice, while others frown at the same (perhaps I should post a pole for whatever value it might be). Actually, I wondered a few weeks back if “Civil War memory”, as a practice within history, is on the decline, and that there might be a resurgence (for lack of a better word) of “conventional history” (and not “conventional history” as a matter or regurgitating what has already been said in other works of conventional history, but, perhaps looking at the story from other angles not yet considered… or topics… yes, it’s possible… that have yet to receive adequate attention in writings). But, I digress from the “memory” discussion…

I think that there is actually merit to studying “historical memory”, but… within the context of seeking an understanding of where our reflections are today and how they became the way they are… not to mention how distant our “memory” has become… over the course of so many years, compared to “real memory” of the people who lived those events (whether you pick the American Civil War, or… the American Revolution… I think there are multiple examples of how people, in general, have come to accept more developed forms of historical myth, accepted as fact). I don’t think it necessarily “has to be” the practice of historians who could be considered biased. That said, however, if the conclusions stand in contrast to people who are of a particular mindset (and that is very likely), then the historian walks a fine line, and will likely be called a “radical progressive”, just because he/she challenges existing belief (whether it is right or wrong). Perhaps this is key to the negative opinions that exist regarding “historical memory”.

I also believe there is another flaw with “historical memory”… in the delivery…

It might be difficult to swallow a particular theory, but gets even more so dealing with it because of the manner in which it was delivered.

When challenging a “greater/broader audience”, I think the approach can come across as rather abrasive (and, yes… that can often be intentional). Depending on what you seek as an end-result… good or bad (popularity in a society that enjoys that whole “reality show” type of feel, perhaps… vs. a more unbiased approach to the delivery of conclusions as theory…???)… what’s the best way to advance thoughts on the evolution of “historical memory”?

You see, this “historical memory” stuff is no longer a matter of academics (or historians) talking among themselves, but fronting theories to the general public. Theory is more typically fronted, these days, in larger social spheres… especially in the era of social media. At that point in time, I wonder if historians who engage in these practices have stepped too far outside the field, and more into the practice of sociology combined with… something else. If so, what qualifies such practitioners? Certainly, I know of no programs out there that provide “training” for such combinations (“your mission… take your findings on historical memory and put them forward to challenge certain social groups, outside the field of historians”). At the very least, I wonder if presentation of theory might better be served with better employment of prudence and deportment… maybe. Others, I feel certain, would argue that it is not in the best interest if we wish to make (or maintain) the practice “popular”.

In some ways, “historical memory” historians created a new venue through which we could study history… and there are benefits, I think… yet some of the same compromise the practice by the demonstrated means which they (some) employ to “spread the truth”… whether real or as they have come to accept it. Others simply don’t or won’t see it that way.

So, how does one advance a theory of historical memory without being seen as a threat to existing beliefs? Is it even possible?

Are these clashes simply inevitable… perhaps even more so (?) in a world in which so many have learned they have been empowered (real or perceived)… a voice… courtesy of the affordances made possible by the Web?