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.