Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past by Eviatar Zerubavel
Chapter 1 The Social shape of the Past
Plotlines and Narratives
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 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.
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 contests 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…
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.
Whereas progress implies an idealized future, nostalgia [decline, deterioration] presupposes a highly romanticized past.
Often articulated in nostalgic visions of some mythical golden age after which things have essentially been going “downhill,” such as pronouncedly regressive mnemonic tradition is also quite apparent in the general tendency to remember our ancestors as larger-than-life, almost superhuman figures.
A Zigzag in Time
As one might expect, such “zigzag” narratives assumes one (or some combination) of two basic forms. One is the rise-and-fall narrative…
The other, essentially obverse form is the Cinderella-like fall-and-rise narrative… A perfect example is the conversion narrative… or the recovery narrative…
Turning points are the mental road signs making such perceived transitions.
Ladders and Trees
…the essence of unilinearity is the vision of a serial progression, a one-dimensional sequence of unmistakably successive episodes such as Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age; the 1950s,t he 1960s, and the 1970s; or childhood, adulthood, and old age.
– unilinear narratives
– evolutionary narratives
Circles and Rhymes
As odd as it may seem to us now, until relatively recently that was the way humans had probably always experienced time. Only in the last couple of millennia, in fact, did our uncompromisingly linear view of the past… actually come into being.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
Mountains and Valleys
Another extremely useful social site of memory in this regard is the calendar. As a cycle of “holy days” specifically designated to commemorate particular historical events, the calendar year usually embodies major narratives collectively woven by mnemonic communities from their past. Examining which particular events are commemorated on holidays can thus help us identify sacred periods in their history.
As far as national memory is concerned…the social shape of the past is essentially bimodal, with most of the events commemorated on national holidays having occurred either in the very distant past or within the last two hundred years. Events that are calendrically commemorated by nations thus typically form two chronologically dense clusters representing their respective spiritual and political origins and separated from each other by long stretches of commemoratively “empty” time.
Yet societies often encompass more than just a single mnemonic community, and some countries consequently observe holidays of two (Syria), three (Suriname), four (Bangladesh), and even six (India) different religions, thereby officially commemorating side by side multiple pasts that are quite independent of one another. As one might expect, when nations trace their spiritual roots to more than one religion, their calendars often embody commemograms reflecting the structural complexity of their identities.
…as far as calendrical commemoration is concerned, the eighth, tenth, twelfth, and fourteenth centuries are considered virtually “empty” worldwide!
Legato and Stoccato
Regardless of the specific form of historical narrative we use to help us impose some retrospective structure on the past, there are two basic modes of envisioning the actual progression of time within it. … gradual, abrupt.
Chapter 2 Historical Continuity
…many [historical narratives], in fact, regard the present as a continuation of the past. Thus, instead of one replacing the other, the two are viewed as part of an integrated whole.
…the present is largely a cumulative, multilayered collage of past residues continually deposited through the cultural equivalent of the geological process of sedimentation.
Continuous identities are thus products of the mental integration of otherwise disconnected points in time into a seemingly single historical whole. More specifically, it is our memory that makes such mental integration possible, thereby allowing us to establish the distinctly mnemonic illusion of continuity.
Despite the fact that mnemonic bridging is basically a mental act, we often try to ground it in some tangible reality. Indeed, one of the most effective ways of bridging the gap between noncontiguous points in history is by establishing a connection that allows them to almost literally touch one another.
Constancy of place is a formidable basis for establishing a strong sense of sameness.
…pilgrimage is specifically designed to bring mnemonic communities into closer “contact” with their collective past.
Relics and Memorabilia
…relics basically allow us to live in the present while at the same time literally “cling” to the past.
Solidifying such periodic fusion with the past through the establishment of an annual cycle of commemorative holidays is one of the main functions of the calendar. (In helping ensure that we periodically “revisit” our collective past, the calendar also plays a major role in our mnemonic socialization).
Like any other symbol, historical analogies clearly transcend their historical specificity.
Chapter 3 Ancestry and Descent
Chapter 4 Historical Discontinuity
History and Prehistory
Consider also the ritual haircut that marks the transition from civilian to military life, or the formal renaming of religious converts, slaves, and nuns. Such rites of separation are specifically designed to dramatize the symbolic transformations of identity involved in establishing new beginnings, essentially implying that it is indeed quite possible to “turn over a new leaf” and be somehow “reborn.”
Chapter 5 In the Beginnings
As we very well know, each of the different parties waging such heated mnemonic battles tend to regard its own historical narrative, which is normally based on its own typically one-sided “time maps,” as the only correct one, which is quite understandable given the unmistakably partisan political agenda it is specifically designed to promote.
…there are not only many different patterns of organizing the past in our heads but also various different methods for arranging each of those specific patterns. Only a pronouncedly multiperspective look at several such “maps” together can provide us with a complete picture of the inevitably multifaceted social topography of the past.
Hidden Rhyths – Schedules and Calendars in Social Life
by Eviatar Zerubavel
The discussion of the symbolic function of calendrical systems indicates that people clearly view time not only as a physico-mathematical entity, but also as an entity which is imbued with meaning. .. One of the fundamental essences of many religious systems is the necessity of achieving a total separation of the sacred and profane domains so as to maintain a conceptual distinction – and, thus, prevent any moral confusion – between them.
Time plays a central role in facilitating the dichotomization of the universe into sacred and profane domains which are mutually exclusive, since it allows man to establish in a clear-cut manner and with minimum ambiguity whether something “belongs” within one sphere of life or another.
Chapter One – Temporal Regularity
let me first delineate the major dimensions of the temporal profile of a situation or event. One fundamental parameter of situations and events is their sequential structure, which tells us in what order they take place. A second major parameter, their duration, tells us how long they last. A third parameter, their temporal location, tells us when they take place, whereas the fourth parameter, their rate of recurrence, tells us how often they do.
There are many forms of temporal patterns. Basically, however, they all fall into one of the following categories: physiotemporal patterns, biotemporal patterns, and sociotemporal patterns.
…this phenomenon [of temporal rigidity] is probably one of the fundamental parameters of any social order. It is definitely among the main characteristics of modern social life, one of the key phenomena that provide it with an unmistakable structure. As Lewis Mumford put it, “The first characteristic of modern machine civilization is its temporal regularity.”
see Mumford, Lewis Technics and Civilization
…in many non-Western civilizations, it is human activity that regulates the calendar, in the modern West it is the calendar (along with the schedule) that regulates human activity!
see Evans-Pritchard, EE Africa
It should be pointed out, … that we probably would have never felt the need to invent daylight saving time were it not for the fact that our standard wake-up time is dictated by the clock rather than by the sun!
…we ought to remember that the calendar day, month, and year are slightly modified versions – and, therefore, only approximations – of their original astronomical models.
As Kevin Lynch has pointed out, “As men free themselves from submission to the external cycles of nature, relying more often on self created and variable social cycles, they increasingly risk internal disruption.”
see Lynch, Kevin What Time is this Place?
It is a well-known fact that regular physiotemporal and biotemporal patterns provide us with such a high degree of predictability that we can use our natural environment in itself as a fairly reliable clock or calendar. It is quite easy, for example, to tell the time of day by reference to the position of the sun in the sky. In a similar fashion, many of us can easily tell the season – if not the actual month – by referring to the temperature, the color of the leaves, the birds and animals around, the flowers that blossom, or even our allergy symptoms. Societies that lunar or lunisolar calendars can also tell the approximate date by the phase of the moon.
Given this [sociotemporal] map, it is quite often relatively easy to tell the time by simply referring to our social environment. !
We very often use our natural environment in order to tell what season or time of day it is. However, only our social environment can be of any help to us when we try to figure out what day it is.
One of the major contentions of cognitive psychology is that man essentially perceives objects as some sort o f “figures” against some “ground.” … A “groundless” figure or situation cannot be defined in any way which would make sense and is, therefore, totally meaningless.
Very often, when we perceive a certain figure against its “normal” temporal ground, we may not even notice it, because the entire gestalt passes as “normal.” However we would most likely become somewhat surprised if not actually alarmed, were we to perceive the very same figure against a “wrong” temporal ground.
Chapter Two – the Schedule
The first major institution that man invented in order to establish and maintain temporal regularity was the calendar. The calendar is primarily responsible for he creation of most of the temporally regular patterns through which nearly all societies, social institutions, and social groups manage to introduce some orderliness to their lives. They do that mainly by regulating the temporal location and the rate of recurrence of socially significant collective events..
… That level of temporal regularity, which is so uniquely characteristic of modern life, has become possible only with the invention of another institution – the schedule.
The earliest instance, in the West, of a rigid schedule that imposed temporal regularity … is none other than the Benedictine “table of hours” – the horarium.
Schedules – the Conventional Dimension
quoting Berger and Luckmann from the Social Construction of Reality
Reification is the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things, that is, in on-human or possibly supra-human terms.. Another way of saying this is that reification is the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something else than human products – such as facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will. Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world. … The reified world is, by definition, a dehumanized world. It is experienced by man as a strange facticity. … The objectivity of the social world means that it confronts man as something outside of himself.
Routine and Spontaneity
…gaining control over the calendar has always been essential for attaining social control in general.
…the establishment of routine is accomplished only at the expense of spontaneity.
the Utilitarian Philosophy of Time
…from the very start, the evolution of the schedule in the West has always been embedded within a pronouncedly economic philosophy of time.
Schedules and Social Solidarity
The temporal coordination of complementary differences among [group members] enhances their interdependence and, thus, functions as a most powerful basis for a strong organic solidarity within the group. The organization of rotations, shifts, night duties, calls, and vacations among hospital staff is a perfect case in point.
Chapter Three – the Calendar
Calendars and Group Identity
The fact that Jews have persistently maintained their practice of resting on Saturday even though, for many countries, they have lived among Gentiles who rest on Sunday (in the Christian world) or who regard Friday as their holy day (the Moslems) obviously helped to actually segregate them from their surrounding social environment. …
This explains why it was particularly during the period of Exile…that the Sabbath grew to be such an important institution of Jewish life. …
Ironically, the Christian ecclesiastical week originally derived from the Jewish week, and the Christian practice of resting on Sunday … was originally a reaction against the Jewish practice of resting on Saturday.
quoting Joshua Manoach from “The People of Israel – the People of Time” in Calendar for 6000 Years.
– The soul of Israel, its religion and its customs, is anchored in its time. Replacing its national-religious time by the time of others… is suicidal for a distinct and independent people.
– Every people has its own time, which ties it to its land and place, and in which its history and holidays are embedded. … Every people that has tried to separate itself from its time has disappeared and is no longer remembered among the living.
from the Book of Jubilees (6:30-32) and the Book of Enoch (74.12, see also 82.6)
– And all the days of the commandment will be two and fifty weeks of days, and these will make the entire year complete. …And command thou the children of Israel that they observe the years according to this reckoning – three hundred and sixty-four days, and thee will constitute a complete year.
– And the sun and the stars bring in all the years exactly, so that they do not advance or delay their position by a single day unto eternity; but complete the years with perfect justice in 364 days
this calendar was quite distinct from the one adhered to by the Jewish community at large around that time. It was based on a 364-day annual cycle that was divided into fifty-two weeks, as well as into four 91-day seasons, each of which was thirteen weeks long and consisted of three 30-day months plus an additional memorial day.
from Jacob Licht
The [Dead Sea Sect]’s adoption of the 364-day calendar was the single most decisive factor of its separation, for practical symbiosis of two groups using different calendars is impossible.
…[the prophet Mohammed] managed to utterly dissociate the Islamic religious holidays he introduced from the pagan Arab festivals from which many of them actually derived, by establishing an entirely new annual cycle. He abolished the intercalary month of Nasi … and, thus, replaced the lunisolar calendar that had prevailed in Arabia with an entirely lunar calendar.
Calendars as Symbols
The tremendous symbolic significance of the calendar is quite evident from the fact that substantial calendrical reforms have always been associated with great social – political as well as cultural – reforms.
As becomes quite clear from the strong resistance toward the introduction of the Gregorian calendar to Britain in 1752 and to Greece and the Greek Orthodox church in 1924, man has a general tendency to cling to traditional practices of time reckoning and dating.
Toward a Universal Calendar
In 1873 and 1875 Japan and Egypt became the first non-Christian countries to adopt the Gregorian calendar. .. That set a most significant precedent; from then on, adopting the “European” calendar has been regarded as an actual facilitator of international communication as well as a symbol of modernization and Westernization.
In order to gain its universal stature and validity, the Gregorian calendar clearly had to be stripped of any particularistic associations it might have originally had. and, indeed, at this stage, it cannot be regarded any longer as a Christian institutions rather, it has become one of the major symbols of Western civilization at large.
The history of the Gregorian calendar, however, seems to indicate quite clearly what the prevalent trend of the last few centuries has been – a shift from particularism toward universalism, to the point of standardizing time reckoning and dating even at the global level and establishing no less than an international temporal reference framework.
Chapter Four – Sacred Time and Profane Time
quoting Clifford Geerts from ” Person, time, and Conduct in Bali” in the Interpretation of Cultures (1973)
[The calendar] cuts time up into bounded units not in order to count and total them but to describe and characterize them, to formulate their differential social, intellectual, and religious significance.
…people clearly do not relate to time only as a psysico-mathematical entity. They also view it from a qualitative perspective, as an entity which is imbued with meaning.
…the meaning of social acts and situations is, to a large extent, temporally situated. In other words, time seems to constitute one of the major parameters of the context on which the meaning of social acts and situations depends.
In order to accomplish such a total separation between the sacred domain and the profane domain, man has learned how to employ various dimensions of the world for the purpose of encoding the fundamental mutually exclusive conceptual distinction between the categories of the sacred and the profane. Time is definitely one such dimension…
Through the dimension of time, the mutual exclusiveness of the sacred and the profane spheres of life is both manifested and sustained.
quoting Durkheim from Elementary Forms of Religious Life
It is necessary to assign determined days or periods to the [religious life], from which all profane occupations are excluded. … There is no religion, and, consequently, no society which has not known and practiced this division of time into two distinct parts, alternating with one another.
Sabbath and Weekdays
It is essentially through interrupting the continuity of nature, by transforming an undifferentiated continuum into discrete classes and categories, that we manage to transform nature into culture. This is quite evident with regard to temporality: as cultural beings, we have cultivated a special cognitive ability to carve out of the continuum of the time segments that are handled discretely, as if they were quantum units.
…according to Edmund Leach, “Social time is made to appear discontinuous by inserting intervals of liminal, sacred non-time into the discontinuous flow of normal secular time.” Leach has proposed a “pendulum view of time,” claiming that temporality is essentially discontinuity of repeated contrasts, a “succession of alternations” between the sacred and the profane, with festivals marking the temporary transition from one opposite to another.
Basically, whereas profane time is historical and is being represented in a linear fashion, sacred time is essentially ahistorical and is represented in a cyclical manner.
In those days at this time
Chapter Five – Private Time and Public Time
the Bureaucratization of Professional Commitment
If I had to point out the single most significant temporal feature of the modern work situation which symbolically represents the official recognition of the modern individual’s right to e professionally inaccessible at times, I would definitely point out the temporal rigidity of modern work schedules. I believe it to be one of the key structural characteristics of modern social organization.
That so many wage earners today are being paid by units of time such as he hour or the day also reflects, as well as reinforces, the temporal rigidity of their work schedules and the partiality of their professional commitments.